New Directions In British Politics

ALTHOUGH it was more or less universally assumed in the run-up to last month’s British general election that it would yield a hung parliament, there was no consensus on the likely consequences of such an outcome. The possibility of a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats was mooted, but received little serious consideration among analysts and voters alike.


Partnership between the Lib Dems and Labour was broadly deemed to be decidedly more probable. The election results did not rule out that possibility, but the logic of post-electoral arithmetic propelled events in a different direction, despite Gordon Brown’s somewhat desperate attempt to woo the Lib Dems by offering to make way for a new Labour leader within months.


While Labour’s worst fears about an electoral wipeout were not realized, the Lib Dems did not do as well as they expected to, and a coalition between the two would have required the support of smaller parties. It would have been a tenuous affair, with little prospect of being sustained for a five-year term. In contrast, the Tories and the Lib Dems together make up a sizeable majority. There is nonetheless plenty of speculation about how long this arrangement will last, given that it is not perceived as a marriage of true minds.


For instance, the two parties are at loggerheads over electoral reform. The Lib Dems have long been devoted to the idea of proportional representation (PR), which would produce parliaments more in line with voter sentiment. The Tories abhor the idea, as it would inevitable slash their share of seats.


The pre-nuptial arrangement envisages a referendum on an alternative vote (AV) system along the lines of the practice in Australia, whereby voters don’t just put a mark against their favoured candidate but also number the remaining candidates in order of preference. Thus, if your first choice does not poll well enough to be among the leading contenders for a seat, your preferences flow to your second choice, and so on. The upshot is that every victor can credibly lay claim to the imprimatur of more than half the voters in their constituency.


It’s decidedly an improvement on the first-past-the-post tradition in Britain, whereby a considerably lower proportion of the vote can yield victory to a candidate, provided their rivals do worse. It’s theoretically possible, for instance, in a 10-candidate contest to win a seat with 11 percent of the vote. AV works reasonably well in Australia, where it’s illegal not to vote. Compulsory voting is not on the agenda in Britain, but AV would nonetheless be a step forward for Britain, and it’s not easy to oppose, given that it sidesteps one of the most potent critiques of PR, namely that a system of party lists would deprive constituents of an approachable local MP.


There has thus far been no indication, however, that the Tories are willing to support a democratic reform that would reduce their parliamentary representation. Nor has any date been set for a referendum on the issue, but whenever that happens, it is all but certain that the coalition partners will be campaigning against each other. That won’t be an unexpected rupture but, given that there are already powerful forces on each side that are less than thrilled by the present arrangement, there can be no guarantee that the Con-Lib Dem marriage will emerge unscathed.


The Labour Party, too, has historically opposed PR – for much the same reasons as the Tories – and has yet to adopt a stance on AV. It would be remarkably shortsighted of it to oppose the latter. And on the related question of upper chamber reform, it is more likely than the Conservatives to fall behind the concept of an entirely elected House of Lords, preferably on the basis of PR.


A nominated House of Lords is an undemocratic anomaly by any standard – and British nervousness about hung parliaments, too, sets the nation apart from Europe, where coalitions based on compromise are the norm rather than the exception. And, notwithstanding a range of problems, nowhere have they led to a demand for a return to first-past-the-post.


Were the Lib Dems to find themselves in closer agreement with Labour on these crucial matters, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s cosy partnership with the Conservatives would probably grow at least a few degrees colder. It would be incredibly silly of Labour to align itself with the status quo in this respect (and so many others) by forgoing the opportunity to drive a wedge between Clegg and Prime Minister David Cameron.


The race to succeed Brown, meanwhile, affords Labour a priceless opportunity to recover at least some of the ground it has lost during the Blair-Brown years. Back in the early 1990s, Tony Blair deemed it opportune to posit his party as, well, not all that different from the Tories – to the extent that Margaret Thatcher was happy to designate him as a worthy heir (at least until Jack Straw took Augusto Pinochet into custody). Now even the Tories are reluctant to lay claim to the Thatcher legacy, even though the portended public service cuts echo the take-no-prisoners ruthlessness of Maggie’s unlamented heyday.


What’s curious about the Labour leadership race is that two of the leading contenders are the sons of a highly respected Marxist theoretician who devoted much of his life to cogently arguing the case for a socialist alternative. Ralph Miliband was briefly a member of the Labour Party during the 1950s, but his subsequent contributions to The Socialist Register – a worthy annual publication he edited from 1964 until his demise in 1994 – tended to highlight the need for a new radical organization that looked beyond tinkering with economics within the capitalist context, and could think in terms of extracting Britain from its postwar role as a handmaiden to American imperialism.


His sons David and Ed are tainted by their association with the Blair-Brown machine, David – who as foreign secretary was instrumental in covering up British complicity in possible war crimes – more so than Ed, who has been endorsed by Neil Kinnock as well as Tony Benn, and has mildly criticized the Blair regime’s most egregious excess: its enthusiastic participation in the Bush war against Iraq.


Should either brother become Labour leader, it would do him no harm to peruse his father’s cogent and clear-headed critiques of the party’s dismal trajectory. That wouldn’t necessarily provoke a socialist renewal, but it would at least remind one of the sons that subscribing to the supposed free-market consensus is not the be-all and end-all of political participation.


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