Monday, 10 May 2010

Democracy: It’s More Than Just Numbers

Right now the central question in British politics is what the next government will look like.  Will Nick Clegg choose to align his Liberal Democrat party with David Cameron’s Conservative Party (who got 36.1% of the overall UK vote), or with Gordon Brown’s Labour Party (who only got 29%).  Despite the substantial ideological differences between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, there are those who believe that forming a government with the defeated Labour Party would be a betrayal of democracy: a “coalition of the losers”, unfairly placed to rule above the clearly victorious Tories.  There are others, however, and I am one of them, who believe that, far from being a “coalition of the losers”, a coalition Labour/Liberal Democrat government is exactly what democracy requires.

Looking at the election results, although it benefits the Conservatives immensely to view their numerical majority of 306 MPs and their net gain of ninety-eight seats as a decisive victory and rejection of the incumbent Labour government, in reality it is hardly that.  Though Labour did indeed lose ninety-two seats on May 6th, and only returned 258 MPs compared with the Tories’ 306, their loss was hardly a resounding rejection.  Indeed, considering the appalling low polling numbers in support of Labour over the past eighteen months, one could even argue that support for the party had increased across the country throughout the election campaign.  On election day, Labour remained strong in many parts of the country where the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats hoped to make a gain, and though they undoubtedly suffered a loss and part-rejection of their last thirteen years in power (sometimes where it was justified, such as anger over the illegal and unjustified wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; sometimes merely as a scapegoat, such as over the cross-party expenses scandal, or the current global economic crisis that is more a failure of unregulated globalised capitalism than it is of any specifically Labour policy) that loss and part-rejection did not translate into a massive swing rightwards towards the Conservatives.  The Tories got some gains, but not enough, and though there may indeed be disillusionment with Labour after thirteen disappointing years, what was made clear at this election was that the alternative to Labour which the voting public sought was not a Conservative one. 

While 36% of the public did vote Conservative; 52% of the public did not.  29% chose to continue with the present Labour government rather than pursue the Conservative agenda on offer, and a further 23% voted for the Liberal Democrats who, on all central areas of key policy and ideology, were in direct opposition to the Conservative Party and had much more in common, ideologically, with Labour.

I think it is fair to say that the central concern of this entire election, underlying all other questions of policy, was this: how are we going to deal with the economic crisis?  How will we secure recovery and get the country’s finances in order?  Are we going to raise taxes or cut taxes?  Invest or make cuts?  Are we going to protect frontline services or put them at risk?  Basically: how can we propose to do anything about crime, education, health, immigration, defence, etc, if we don’t know first where the money’s coming from and how we are going to tackle the deficit?  And on this central issue, the split between the Conservative Party and both Labour and the Liberal Democrats was clear: the Conservatives were alone in advocating making massive cuts in public spending immediately, whereas both Labour and Liberal Democrats believed that such measures could be risky for a fragile economy right now and, instead, proposed not making cuts until 2011.

From the three party manifestos:

CONSERVATIVE:  “Labour will not take action to cut waste in government. They have identified £11 billion pounds of waste, but they do not plan to start dealing with it until April 2011. So Labour will continue wasting money while putting up taxes on working people. We will act immediately to cut government waste…we will take immediate action to cut a net £6 billion of wasteful departmental spending in the financial year 2010/11, with further savings in future years.

LABOUR: “We will continue to support the economy while growth is still fragile, sticking with our targeted increase in public spending over the next year to sustain the recovery…Once the recovery is secure, we will rapidly reduce the budget deficit.  We have set out a clear, balanced and fair plan to more than halve the deficit over the next four years and we will stick to it.  We will achieve this through a combination of: fair tax increases; a firm grip on public spending including cuts in lower-priority areas; and strategies for growth that increase tax revenues and reduce spending on benefits.”

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS: “We have already identified over £15 billion of savings in government spending per year, vastly in excess of the £5 billion per year that we have set aside for additional spending commitments…If spending is cut too soon, it would undermine the much-needed recovery and cost jobs.  We will base the timing of cuts on an objective assessment of economic conditions, not political dogma.  Our working assumption is that the economy will be in a stable enough condition to bear cuts from the beginning of 2011-12.”

On this vital and immediate question, therefore, the British public have spoken: 52% of them do not want the fragile recovery jeopardized by making cuts in public spending too soon.  Despite this, David Cameron made it clear in his “big, open and comprehensive offer” to Nick Clegg: “We remain completely convinced that starting to deal with the deficit this year is essential.

The second important issue at the forefront of the election now is the question of electoral reform.  As soon as it became likely that this election might result in a hung Parliament, a major discussion throughout the country began around the prospects, likelihood and desirability of changing the voting system to some form of proportional representation.  The importance of this issue became amplified by the election results themselves: the Liberal Democrats received 23% of the votes, yet returned only fifty-seven Parliamentary seats, whereas Labour, who only had 6% more votes than the Lib Dems, received 31% more seats.  Meanwhile, back in first-past-the-post-land, we were left confused and unimpressed with a Conservative majority that was not majority enough to govern.

There came a complex and subtle message from the electorate on May 6th that our clumsy and outdated electoral system is structurally incapable of deciphering: we are unhappy with Labour, but we are equally unhappy with the Conservative and Liberal Democrat alternative.  Who, therefore, should govern our country?

Returning to this question of whether or not the General Election was a massive rejection of thirteen years of Labour government, the answer was clearly: no.  It was a rebuke, certainly, but a rejection?  Hardly.  A truly responsive democracy must allow for more than black or white options: in a complex and diverse world there will always be shades of grey.  Labour have let a lot of people down and have made a lot of mistakes over their thirteen years in power, but in certain areas, and on certain questions, they have done great and popular things.  Why must it be that, for the handful of mistakes, an entire programme is rejected, or that, for a few bad apples, we must expel the entire bunch?

Similarly – the surge in Liberal Democrat numbers before the election did not translate into votes on polling day.  Why?  Well, likely because voters were all-too aware of the stacked deck against their vote in a flawed, first-past-the-post system.  No one wants to waste their vote, so they voted cautiously instead: for Labour, if they didn’t want the Tories to get in, or for the Conservatives if they were sick of Gordon Brown. 

Certainly in this election we can read a disappointment in what Labour have done – but that disappointment was clearly not enough for people to reject them from government entirely, nor were the alternative agendas proposed by the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats popular enough to gain mass support.  True democracy, therefore, must be more than YES or NO – in a representative democracy there must be a mechanism in place for nuanced representation: not simply YES or NO, but a qualified YES or NO – something that tells the party you support that you are not going to abandon them entirely and switch your allegiances across the political spectrum, but that you are dissatisfied with certain aspects of their record and that they must change or it will cost them votes.  

It is clear that, to do this, electoral reform is needed.  For Liberal Democrats, such reform has been at the forefront of their agenda since their inception, and if they are to remain a party of their principles, then a demand for electoral reform must be the price they ask of any potential partner in coalition.

In their 2010 manifesto, they make it clear: “Liberal Democrats will change politics and abolish safe seats by introducing a fair, more proportional voting system for MPs.  Our preferred Single Transferable Vote system gives people the choice between candidates as well as parties.” 

Similarly, Labour – though late to the party – were not afraid to acknowledge this need for electoral reform in their own 2010 manifesto, weeks before a hung Parliament became a reality and it became politically useful to hold such a view: “People want a greater say in how the country is governed and for politicians to be more accountable to those they serve.  So while we are proud of our record of devolving power and reforming the constitution, we believe that further and more radical reform is imperative if we are to renew our democratic public life.  Britain needs a new constitutional and political settlement for a new era.  To begin the task of building a new politics, we will let the British people decide on whether to make Parliament more democratic and accountable in referenda on reform of the House of Commons and House of Lords, to be held on the same day, by October 2011.  To ensure that every MP is supported by the majority of their constituents voting at each election, we will hold a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote for elections to the House of Commons.”

The Conservatives, meanwhile, on this vital matter of national interest, yet again do not share the opinion of the 52% majority.  As they put it in their manifesto: “We support the first-past-the-post system for Westminster elections because it gives voters the chance to kick out a government they are fed up with.”

And that is precisely the problem.

As the results of May 6th show – the country did not necessarily want to kick the government out.  Or at least: they did not want to kick the government out and replace them with a distinctly Conservative one.  Only 7.1% more voters specifically chose the right-wing Conservative agenda on offer than chose the existing Labour government, and, taken as an ideological whole – those opposing a shift to the right and sharing a progressive vision of the future – 52% of the voters rejected the Conservative programme.      

Now, numerically it could be argued that, similarly, 59.1% of voters rejected the Labour programme, or that 65.1% of voters rejected the Liberal Democrats’, but when we look beyond the numerical results and to what the three individual parties were actually offering, I think there can be no argument at all that ideologically the Conservative party stood alone and were rejected by the majority.  They were the only explicitly right-wing party on the ballot out of the three, and stood at significant odds from Labour and Liberal Democrats on the two main issues of the day – making immediate cuts to public spending instead of waiting until 2011, and opposing proportional representation – and so the 52% who voted against this lone platform is therefore a much more significant figure than any other combination of Lib/Con or  Lab/Con.  It represents a 52% shared progressive mandate against the Conservatives’ meagre 36% of support.

We have been taught by first-past-the-post politics to think of winners and losers, but real democracy is more than just a number of arbitrarily distributed seats.  Although with 306 seats to Labour’s 258, it seems like the Conservatives are the “winners” of this election, when we actually consider what our votes mean, and what it was that 52% of the electorate actually voted for on May 6th, then it is clear the direction that this country needs to go.  Whilst certainly sense and decency suggest that Nick Clegg, as apparent kingmaker in this scenario, ought to hear out what the Conservatives have to offer in the face of their numerical victory, he should feel no shame in joining the majority of the population in rejecting a Conservative proposal if it does not concede important ground.  To form a coalition with Labour instead would not only make much more sense ideologically, but democratically too.  An expression not of the “coalition of the losers” but of the combined progressive majority in this country who opposed the Conservative programme.

Democracy is more than just numbers.  It is about translating mechanical votes into meaningful representation.  The first step, therefore, is in forming a government reflective of the nation’s true feelings; the second is in introducing proportional representation so that in future those votes can speak clearer.  Neither of these things can be done with a Tory government, and I hope that Nick Clegg looks beyond the misleading numbers and makes the right decision for democracy.


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