Joe Hendren

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Coalition of losers govern in United Kingdom

This is the headline the Conservatives and their apologists in the media would have screamed had the Liberal Democrats chosen to form a government with the Labour party, and left the Conservatives as the largest party and the opposition.

So on the grounds that no party actually won the election, the new Conservative Liberal Democrat government should also be called a coalition of losers. Of course its asking too much of the fans of the Tories to expect consistency. While I loath the Blairite Press Secretary Alistair Campbell, he succeeded in uncovering the clear pro Tory bias of the Murdoch controled Sky News and their political commentator Adam Boulton. Stunning.

I don't actually believe the headline in this post. Constitutionally speaking it is simply irrelevant that the Conservatives happened to win the largest share of the vote (36%). All that it is required is for a government to demonstrate it holds a majority in Parliament. Over 70% of Britain did not vote for the Conservatives. A rainbow coalition/support arrangement that comprised of Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties would have been just as legitimate as the Lib Con government that has just been formed, and in fact would have been more representative of a greater number of UK voters.

So why didn't the UK get a more progressive government?

The alternative so called 'rainbow' government was undermined by a number of factors. A significant faction of the Labour party, just like the born to rule Tories they really are, demonstrated an unwillingness to share power when they foolishly publicly dismissed an offer by the Scottish National Party to support an alternative government. Labour chastised the SNP for wishing to appear relevant, precisely because that is exactly what the SNP were - as vital to an alternative government as Labour. It is likely members of this faction, such as the loathsome David Blunkett, wished to drown an alternative government because there was too much danger of real electoral reform being the result. Some may have feared greater devolution of powers to the Scots and Welsh assemblies, even independence, but the result of this election is likely to increase pressure for this anyway - politically speaking the Kingdom is anything but United.

Another fear was that the SNP, the Welsh Nationalist party would demand some protection from the savage cuts to public spending as a price for their support. Actually this would have been a very democratic result. The Tories have no mandate outside Avalon - in Scotland they won a single seat and 16.7% of the vote, while in Wales the Conservatives won 8 seats out of 40 and 26% of the vote. In Northern Ireland they and their new partners won absolutely nothing. A coalition of losers indeed. It was England that voted for the Tories. So while the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish may have felt for the greater cuts imposed on the English, they would have had a simple reply - you got the policies you voted for.

I believe Nick Clegg chose to form a government with the Tories in the final week of the election campaign, perhaps even before. I discussed some of the rationale for this in my previous post. Nothing else seems to explain his pronouncement in the final week that he would first try and form a government with the largest party. He would have known then this was likely to be the Tories. Just as I predicted, this move cost the Lib Dems significant numbers of seats as voters ran back to the major parties. I believe in doing this Clegg had another purpose - he was preparing his party to back the Conservatives over Labour.

It is also apparent that the Lib Dems are closer to the Tories in terms of their approach to dealing with the deficit. Yet a programme of savage cuts to public spending threatens to deepen the recession - Herbet Hoover made a similar mistake in the United States in the 1930s, and despite this neoliberals across the world are demanding the same mistakes be made all over again.

In a touch of irony, apparently Cameron made his first speech as Prime Minister as a rainbow could be seen across the sky of London. Now how powerful would that have been if Britain had been welcoming a rainbow coalition instead?

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Thursday, May 06, 2010

Here is hoping Britain votes for electoral reform

Like many political geeks I have been following the run up to the British election. While it appears the tide is going out on the present Labour government, when the polls are converted into seats things are still close. To my mind progressively minded folks should have a clear aim - vote to obtain electoral reform.

Following the performance of Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg in the first leaders debate, the LibDems surged in the polls and leapfrogged Labour into second place, with the Conservatives with the most popular party by a small margin. Yet due to the deeply undemocratic First Past the Post (FPP) electoral system Labour could still gain the most seats and remain in Government despite receiving less support in the popular vote than the LibDems or the Conservatives.

Assuming the LibDems gained enough support to deny Labour or the Conservatives an outright majority, and Clegg keeps his backbone, this could be the last British election under FPP. Hopefully the result will make clear a real proportional voting system is needed, not just Alternative Vote which is FPP in drag. A fairer electoral system would also be of great benefit to parties to the left of both Labour and the LibDems, and would make it harder for the Conservatives or the right wing of Labour adopting Thatcherite policies again. A hung parliament is a means in order to obtain a better democracy. A website has started to help voters achieve this result.

It is most unfortunate Labour did not progress electoral reform while they were in government as this would have set the stage for a long term Labour - Liberal alliance with the potential to shut the Tories out of Government for a long time. Yet as Will Hutton notes the key problem is that senior Labour party figures hate electoral reform and wish to maintain the two party system. In the current situation Hutton suggests Labour should offer Nick Clegg the role of Prime Minister in a coalition deal. Under this scenario Clegg would have to front up to any issues faced by a coalition government, while Labour could develop an alternative PM in waiting.

Yet after the Guardian/Observer endorsed the LibDems, Nick Clegg sprung to the right and said he would not back Labour in a hung parliament if they came third in the popular vote - this essentially opened the door to the Lib Dems supporting the Conservatives, despite the Tories being even more strongly opposed to real electoral reform than Labour. Following this development, in an interesting piece of timing, the Guardian carried a high profile article by Gordon Brown calling on LibDems to back Labour in Labour/Tory marginals.

Yet on another level Nick Clegg's moves should not be such a surprise. Nick Clegg is known to be on the right of LibDems, and the record of the party in local government elections is to campaign to the left, but govern to the right. The Lib Dems are already in coalition with the Conservatives in a number of city councils, including Birmingham, Leeds, Warrington, Camden, Southwalk and Newport, Gwent. A coalition of cuts. Clegg's claims to lead a progressive force have a hollow ring when compared to their council record.

The UK media are deciding only to report on the fortunes of the three 'major parties', those being the Conservaties, Labour and the LibDems. Yet as John Oyston points out the fortunes of minor parties in the regions could determine the result of the election in a close contest. Conservative leader David Cameron knows this - he visited Northern Ireland this week in a bid to support the Ulster Unionist candidates who will back the Conservatives in Westminster. If the difference to forming a government comes down to 10 to 20 seats, the media could look like stunned mullets as they realise the influence small parties have on the formation of the next British government.

If small parties do well this will strengthen the case for electoral reform. There are quite a few seats where minor parties have a strong candidate with a good chance of winning. Neither Labour or the Lib Dems really deserve the votes of the left - at least in some electorates the left have better options. The Scottish National Party may gain more seats in Westminster than its current seven. The Welsh Nationalist party Plaid Cymru is also on the left of Labour. Respect have a good chance in Bethnal Green and Bow, Birmingham Hall Green and Poplar and Limehouse. Caroline Lucus has a very good chance of winning Brighton for the Greens, who are also putting in a strong showing in Norwich South. These will be the seats I will be watching.

The last few days of the campaign has seen Labour increase its support, and the Lib Dems fall away, most likely as a result of Clegg's monumental error in cuddling up to the Conservatives. Not only has Clegg suggested he will support the Tories if they are the largest party (which encourages LibDem voters to switch back to the two old parties) but he is also appears to be going soft on electoral reform by stating this is not a precondition of talks with the Conservatives. In response to Clegg's comments Green party leader Caroline Lucus summed up the situation nicely, highlighting how Clegg had previously said electoral reform was an "absoulute precondition"

"The Liberal Democrats have made a huge noise about being the party of change but when it comes down to it all they really are is the party of changing their minds. It's common knowledge that the Tories don't want electoral reform. Any coalition negotiations that don't set out electoral reform as a deal breaker will lead to five more years of the same old system and it's the voters who will suffer."

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