Swan, With Two Nicks

by Quinn

One of the criticisms levelled during “bigotgate” was that, in calling Gillian Duffy a “bigoted woman”, Gordon Brown was attacking his core support and displaying an ignorance of the concerns of your ordinary Labour voter. I thought at the time that that was pretty patronising and insulting, based on a tired assumption that the average Labour supporter is inherently opposed to immigration; and now that the election has been run and Labour’s vote failed to collapse any further following the discovery of Brown’s claimed contempt for a supposed Labour voters’ shibboleth, I think I’m justified in my position.

I’ve long been vexed by this strained factoid so beloved of some that most BNP voters are disenchanted former Labour supporters. It may be true, and in part it’s bandied as a way to portray the Labour party as out-of-touch and not listening to the public; but more than that it seems like a lazy smear, an implicit tying of Labour voters to racism while taking a swipe at the Labour party at the same time, because didn’t you know that the Nazis were the “National SOCIALISTS” after all, and that far from being on the far-right surely Nick Griffin and the BNP are a left-wing party, just like Labour?

But what’s in a name? You can argue about whether the BNP are far-right or far-left, but right-wing and left-wing are just simplistic, ill-fitting labels; best avoid using them if at all possible, that’s my opinion. But if you must insist, then to apply them correctly you’ll have to accept that their meanings have already been defined, the far-right label has been assigned to the BNP and their ilk, and that’s that. Meanwhile, by all means claim that, because of their name, the Nazis were “socialists”; just as long as you’re consistent, and similarly insist that North Korea must be democratic, and that a Bombay Duck is an aquatic bird.

But even ignoring all this, from my perspective, just what is this criticism of Labour? That racists feel dissatisfied with their immigration policy and have fled into the arms of Nick Griffin? If true, I’d say that’s a good thing. Put another way; why aren’t racists similarly leaving the Conservative party and supporting the BNP as far as we’re told? Is it because the Tories have an immigration policy that satisfies their bigotry? Well done them! That certainly seems to be the view of The Economist when they stated that the Conservative candidate in Romford had “managed to contain the BNP vote…by occupying much the same ground, with hardline views on immigration”. And in that light, is the failure of the BNP to breakthrough at the general election – and the collapse of their vote in the council elections in Barking – an unqualified good sign? I sincerely hope it is; I hope it is because people have turned their backs on their poison. I hope it isn’t simply because the main parties have just pandered to the prejudices the BNP have stoked, occupied “much of the same ground” that they do, and been rewarded for holding the bigot line. I hope.

This post is looking suspiciously as if it is a sort of re-run of my previous one; a moan about the parties’ immigration policies and a look to what the future holds, my current observations on the political scene splurged out and then reconstituted into some vague sort of order. If that’s what you suspect, then you’d be right. So, a-week-and-a-bit on, how are we fixed? David Cameron’s party won the largest number of votes and seats at the general election, but not an absolute majority. He’s made an offer to the Lib Dems to join in a coalition, and we’re waiting for Nick Clegg’s response. Cameron has, however, staked out a few red lines that cannot be crossed and where change in policy cannot be countenanced. Proportional representation isn’t one of them, but immigration – the subject that no one can talk about, and which the main parties all ignore – is. Go figure.

For a few days it was looking like the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats were going to strike some sort of deal; then yesterday Gordon Brown resigned while announcing that Labour and the Lib Dems have entered into formal negotiations, and this has shaken things up a bit. The Tories responded to Brown’s resignation by offering a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system. I stand by my previous post, where I stated that I hoped that a hung parliament could provide us with proportional representation (PR), and that a Liberal / Labour coalition is the most likely way to get it. AV is a step in the right direction but it is not proportional representation, and I would still like to hold out for PR at this time, fearing that a move to the imperfect less-than-half-measure of AV could park PR for an age. My heart, then, goes with Nosemonkey in this post, who broadly agrees with my pre-election hope for a short-term Lib-Lab coalition government that could run a referendum on full proportional representation and then hold a fresh election; by my head looks at the post-election arithmetic and tells me that Donald S is more on the money and that a Lib-Con agreement is the best bet. Last week I thought that the policy gap between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives was too large for them to ever do a deal, but the electoral mathematics does concentrate the mind, and despite complaints from some, that simple maths does mean that even if you assume the Lib Dems have a moral duty to join with Labour – and they most certainly don’t – even rabid anti-Tories like me can’t accuse them of a betrayal if they side with the largest party to form the most stable coalition on offer; instead I’ll keep my powder dry so I can charge them with betrayal based on what they do in government, if required. I’m torn then between common sense and wishful thinking, hoping for a “progressive alliance” (as the the current jargon has it) that would allow the voting reforms I want, would allow Labour to honourably drop ID cards and other albatrosses during the negotiations, and would hold a stable government together for the time being. But I think it likely that something somewhere has got to give.

As things stand there are three potential governments on offer; a Lib-Con coalition, a Lib-Lab coalition, and a minority Conservative government, and which I have placed in descending order of legitimacy and stability. Certainly, the first, Lib-Con option with an absolute majority of seats would be the most stable and would have more legitimacy than a Lib-Lab coalition of 315 out of 650 seats and 51% of the votes; but if the Liberal Democrats simply feel they cannot do a deal with the Conservatives, I’d personally still give a Lib-Lab coalition more legitimacy than a Conservative minority government based on just 306 seats and 36% of the votes, and in resigning Brown’s swansong is merely to make the Lib-Lab option a vague possibility; I don’t see it as a way to unfairly usurp the Tories, who, after all, simply did not win this election. I also don’t feel that the Tories can both defend the current electoral system and complain if Labour do stay in power with a supposedly “unelected prime minister”, since that is a feature of the parliamentary system they support; any new Labour prime minister would, if I’ve counted correctly, be the umpteenth “unelected” PM by such a definition, so unless the Conservatives propose a further change to the electoral system they’ll just have to lump it. It has, though, been argued that the Lib Dems’ support could suffer if they are seen to be propping up a failed Labour government, which may be true; but a slump in their support alongside a new proportional electoral system would probably still reward them with more seats at the next election than if they were to do the alleged noble thing and support the Tories while full PR is kicked into touch.

I do understand that it could seem indulgent to be worrying about proportional representation now, when there is an economic crisis to deal with, but quite apart from the fact that I don’t trust the Tories on the economy anyway I don’t think that organising a referendum on the electoral system need distract anyone from the matter of dealing with the deficit. Has no one heard of multi-tasking? Of course, now is the time for those hoary old criticisms of proportional representation to get wheeled out, such as the way it fails to produce stable governments. Oh, er, kinda like we have now under first-past-the-post. The “smoke-filled rooms” line has been allowed a run out too, and the warning that the current horse-trading could be a permanent fixture under PR; what must the public think of politicians at the moment, worry the politicians? But, as far as I can observe, the public aren’t nearly as interested in politicians as they think we are, and we’re getting on with our lives just fine, happy for those apparently baleful negotiations go on for as long as is necessary, and content for the media to fret and frown on our behalf, and to successfully misread the public mood again. And which is worse; for minority parties to have to trade policies based on a wider support, or for a minority party to have total power to impose its will with no regard to what a majority think? After all, in 2005 Labour was elected with the votes of just 36% of the electorate; they didn’t need to enter into any dreaded deals, but are we honestly suggesting that even those 36% got what they wanted? Since a mere 28% voted Labour this time, that seems unlikely.

Are there many people unconnected to Labour or the Conservative who swallows the guff trotted out in favour of first-past-the-post? The strong, personal constituency link between an MP and their constituents is one argument, but this ignores the fact that under the favoured single transferable vote (STV) system there are multi-member constituencies that not only maintain that link, but to my mind improve on it. One argument is that in first-past-the-post you can “vote the bugger out” if you don’t like your MP, but a Labour voter who hates their sitting Labour MP is on the horns of a dilemma on whether to vote for their party or against the sitting MP; with STV, as each party puts forward more than one candidate, you can do both. Of course, multi-member constituencies are likely to be larger than those single member constituencies we currently have, but I don’t see how the Tories can use that as an argument as they want to reduce the number of MPs as it is, and so, presumably, want to increase the size of each constituency and the number of constituents per MP. At least with STV, while you increase the size of the constituencies you also increase the number of MPs answerable to you, allowing you to shop around for the one more sympathetic to your position if you want them to raise an issue for you.

In all it’s hard not to see that at its heart the reason that most Tories don’t want full PR is because they feel it will mean that they will be shut out of power for generations by centre-left coalition governments. It seems an implicit acceptance that you think that your policies, even with coalition partners, will struggle to ever gain a majority support, and so you prefer to stick with a system that includes distortions that periodically work in your favour. Labour is no better; when I hear the likes of that shitbag John Reid apparently nobly admitting that Labour have lost the election, should listen to the public and allow the Tories to form a government, I hear a tribal Labourite trying to scupper the possibility of proportional representation in the short term so that Labour can benefit in the long term. When Reid says he fears Labour will be damaged by being seen to be clinging to power with the Lib Dems, my immediate response is to say I don’t care about the future of the Labour party; my more considered response is that no one knows how our electoral landscape will look under PR, and I’m perfectly happy with that. Proportional representation may let minority parties like the BNP gain seats, but only if they earn their support; it could also provide room for pro-immigration parties to flourish, and hopefully change the whole nature of that particular debate. I can imagine that the coalitions that are the Labour and Conservative parties have only been held together because of first-past-the-post, and that under proportional representation they could well splinter into more clearly defined groupings that provide the electorate with a far greater choice. It is way too simplistic to say that there is an anti-Conservative majority in Britain, there are many Tory policies that gain widespread, majority support, it’s just that the full package doesn’t; but it appears I have more faith than many in the Conservative party that a centre-right coalition could take power in the UK, just as they do all over the world. The fact is, though, that I don’t know how proportional representation will work out if adopted; I don’t think that it is a panacea and that all in the garden will be rosy, I don’t assume that it will mean I will always get a government that I see eye-to-eye with, and I don’t think that as an electoral system it is perfect (albeit I do think that its imperfections are less egregious than those of other systems). I don’t even know if a referendum on proportional representation would result in a vote for a change to our electoral system; but I think we should try our best to find out.