electoral reform

I used to love politics. What went wrong?

I used to love politics. I mean really love it. The cut and thrust of debate, the incredulity I felt when someone didn’t agree with my particular point of view, the battle of ideas. Oh the ideas! That was at the heart of it. Even when I was a teenager and, to be completely frank, some of the ideas my friends and I debated were both awful and probably quite offensive, it didn’t matter. We relished the conversation, we learnt from it and it inspired us all to a greater or lesser extent towards our future lives and achievements.

We were lucky. We grew up at a time of big ideas in politics. I was born 14 months before Margaret Thatcher was appointed Prime Minister. I remember the miners strike being called-off on my 7th birthday in 1985. In my first general election as a voter Tony Blair won in a landslide. It was a time when politics mattered – big issues being debated by towering figures – Heseltine, Williams, Benn, Healey, Owen, Major. Well OK, maybe not Major, but you get my drift.

What do today’s young people think of politics I wonder? If the 56% of 18-24 year olds who chose not to vote in 2010 are anything to go by – not much. And who can blame them?

We live in extraordinary times.

We are consuming resources faster than our planet can replenish them, whether it be energy or food, at the same time our choices mean we are slowly (but certainly) heating up our planet with potentially ruinous consequences.

Our National Health Service is creaking at the seams, unable to cope with the numbers of patients or the complexity of their conditions, whilst at the same time consuming ever more of GDP.

We have an education system that was designed for a different era, an era where conformity and facts ruled and competition for jobs came from amongst your classmates, not from a globally mobile labour force.

People are living longer, but still retiring broadly at the same age. What is more, they are having fewer children to support them.

The world is experiencing the highest levels of wealth inequality in human history. The richest 80 people on the planet have the same combined wealth as the bottom 3.5billion; by 2016 it is estimated the richest 1% will hold more wealth than the other 99%.

Oh, and we are still working our way through the most significant financial crisis of modern times.

Historically these kind of challenges would have thrown up leaders who could inspire and engage the public, working with them to generate the big ideas required to meet the challenges we face. But what do we have instead?

The environment and food security almost non-existent on the political agenda, as if only something to be discussed during the economic good-times.

A fight over the Health Service on who will cut the least, battles over a few thousand nurses and doctors, but no attempt to even begin the much more challenging and needed debate of what our future health service might look like and, crucially, how we will pay for it.

Squabbling over what books our children should or shouldn’t read, micro-managing teachers and ladening with debt those young people who want to better themselves (and society) through higher education whilst making no attempt to imagine the education system of the future – one that understands that children are individualss and puts creativity and the ability to find, process and apply knowledge above that of rote-learning and the repetition of facts.

Meanwhile, whilst working families struggle and the poor are increasingly demonised by politicians from all sides, doing anything that might impact on older people has become a political bete-noire. Pensions are triple-locked, the winter fuel-allowance and free-travel are given to all (tax-free) regardless of need.

Despite all the evidence that says inequality is bad, not just for the poorest in society but for everyone (if you haven’t already, the Spirit Level is a must read book), any attempt to redistribute that wealth, whether a mansion tax or any other form of wealth tax is derided as both communist and just too difficult. At the same time, any call for businesses to pay a living wage is immediately rejected as anti-business – as if somehow it should no-longer be a business’s responsibility to pay their workers enough to do simple things like heat their home or put food on their table. Instead the responsibility falls on other tax-payers who are, in effect, handing a multi-billion pound subsidy to businesses every year.

Despite all this, I will trudge to my local church come election day, put a cross next to the name of my local labour candidate, and post it in the ballot box. But I’ll do it because I have always voted and my parents have always voted – it is a sense of duty that I can’t quite shake rather than any enthusiasm for the agenda of any of the major parties. For those that say I could vote for another party, why would I? I live in a straight two-way marginal and, all things being equal, I’d rather Labour than Tory.

Our political system is fundamentally broken (as are many of our individual representatives) and currently there is little hope of it being fixed.

In most industries there are disrupters, start-ups and fringe businesses that challenge the business models of their larger competitors and ultimately shift the way business is done. Think of what Aldi and Lidl have done to the big-4 supermarkets, what the iPod did for the way we listen to music (and, in turn, how services like Spotify are reinventing it again), or what services like Twitter and Facebook have done for the way we consume news and other media.

Disrupters exist in politics too, The Green Party, The People’s Assembly, even UKIP (if that is the kind of thing you like) are all trying to disrupt the way we approach and do politics. The problem is the price of entry is just too high, even those who do make progress in the short-term tend to fall-back over time. Look at the SDP in the 1980’s and I am sure the same will happen with UKIP post 2015. This leaves us with a straight choice between the Tories and Labour and an inevitable focus on a few thousand voters in a few dozen swing-seats and with it a drive to the centre, small c conservatism and the status quo.

Until there is a fundamental overhaul of the political system, an end to first-past-the-post, an embracing of more direct and local democracy and a change in how politics is delivered (more equality, less pantomime performances for example), this is how it will continue. Year after year, election after election fewer and fewer will bother to trudge those few steps to the polling-station, preferring to stay away and make a silent protest of non-engagement.

And until politicians understand this who can blame those who choose to stay away?

Angry with Labour; Depressed about the Tories; Hoping for a Clegg masterplan

So there we have it, a full-blown Tory-Lib-Dem Coalition. David Cameron in office and his boy George already installed next door. Having read through several papers and been glued to the BBC website my first emotion has been anger at the Labour Party.

Anger that Labour Party MPs and Peers did not have the discipline to stay silent until at least the negotiating team had an opportunity to do their work; anger at the Labour negotiating team for being so arrogant as to not offer any real concessions to the Lib-Dems (particular venom here to whoever decided to send Ed Balls into the mix) and, most of all, anger that the Labour party just did not want it enough – after a strong grass-roots campaign, activists were let down by a parliamentary party that had got arrogant and lacked the desire for power the Tories clearly have, figuring some time for renewal in opposition was preferable to taking the hard choices that any future government would need to make.

Depressed at seeing David Cameron on the steps of Number 10 and feeling sick at the thought of George Osborne in Number 11. The Lib-Dems might have softened the blow, but still we are going to see drastic cuts to public-sector spending in this financial year – costing tens of thousands of jobs and untold misery to so many families in need; an unneeded and unenforceable annual cap on immigration; not to mention a patronising and regressive tax break for married couples. In short, regardless of the positives brought about through coalition, we should not forget that this is a Tory government and we should expect it to act as such.

And so to Clegg – Huge credit should go to him and his team for squeezing every last drop out of the Tories desire for power. 5 seats in the cabinet, the title of deputy PM and significant concessions on tax, education, civil liberties and, of course, electoral reform. But PR still seems a distant goal for the House of Commons and foreign policy, particularly Europe looks likely to be dominated by the Tory side of this arrangement.

So what is the long-game for Clegg? He is currently committed to a 5-year fixed-term parliament, but it seems unlikely that the coalition will last that long. Although his MPs are happy with the new arrangement, many voters and activists are far less comfortable, some have already jumped to Labour – expect more to follow. This alone could be enough to undermine confidence in the current arrangement. Clegg is a smart guy and would have calculated all this during the negotiations – he clearly believes that the opportunity to deliver some key planks of Lib-Dem policy will be enough to give him lasting change at the ballot box. Only time will tell on this.

In the meantime, people like me are rather left in limbo – willing the Lib-Dems to show they have not sold-out cheaply for a shot of power, but not yet convinced. A detailed policy document comes out later today, perhaps this will reassure us all.

The Scores on the Doors – Election Day+4

Well it certainly hasn’t got any less tense. The negotiating teams from what we now are all 3 main parties must really be starting to feel the pressure. The stake are high – for the Tories this is their best chance to govern in over a decade and they are not going to give it up lightly; for Labour, and Gordon Brown in particular, this is about short-term survival. For the Lib-Dems however the stakes are even higher… the opportunity to usher in electoral reform and with it the birth of a 3-party system in the UK or the return to 2-party politics and the end of the Lib-Dems as any kind of significant force.

So here we are, 4 days after the election and what are likely outcomes? Although it feels that not much has changed since Friday, it does feel that some of the alternatives are working themselves either in or out of the equation.

Let’s look at the possibility of a Lib-Dem/Tory pact first – It is highly unlikely that Cameron will (or indeed can) offer an explicit promise of a referendum on voting reform. In turn, this means that Clegg will not (or be able to) agree to a formal coalition between the two parties – if he did the Lib-Dems membership would go into meltdown. So at best the Tories get to run a minority government with a supply and confidence arrangement with the Lib-Dems.

Where would this leave electoral reform I hear you ask? Good point… Well it seems fair to assume that Nick Clegg could not enter into any agreement without the Tories giving at least something away on this issue. My bet would be the all-party inquiry on electoral reform that was promised by Cameron, but with a formalised and relatively short time-line attached to it. This would be followed by a free-vote in the Commons and, if the Lib-Dems could get the votes,  a possible referendum after that.

Now for Lib-Dem/Labour – From a negotiating position this feels more simple. Most Lib-Dems have more in common with Labour and they have already been promised both a referendum and a number of seats in cabinet, they agree broadly on economic reform and I imagine Labour could be forced into burying the ID card scheme and giving way on asylum. The issue here is purely political and revolved around one major issue… Leadership. No-one, not even Labour people want Gordon Brown to stay… that much is clear. But when should he leave and, once that is sorted, who should replace him and how do you respond to the inevitable claims that the new leader will have no mandate from the public. That said, if (and I appreciate it is a big ‘if’) this could be sufficiently dealt with I think both Plaid and the SNP would jump aboard this train and a stable, fixed-term, government would emerge.

Regardless of my views, with the Lib-Dems meeting now and the Tories meeting at 2pm it looks like we are going to see at least some movement today. My heart still suggests a Lib-Lab pact is possible but my head thinks that Clegg will find it hard to reconcile the issues around leadership and will ultimately plump to prop-up a Tory government.

What that will do for electoral reform in this country and the future of the Lib-Dem is something for us all to think about.

Clegg’s biggest challenge – the future of his party and the country is down to him.

It is fair to say that Nick Clegg is not quite where he intended to be, the dream of 100+ seats is, for now, just that. There is no doubt that the failure to realise the potential of the early polls will impact on his negotiating position. However, whatever he might of said on the steps of Lib-Dem HQ the fact remains that neither Labour or the Tories can govern without him; he is still the kingmaker and he knows it. The next 48hours will be the toughest of his leadership and could well make or break the party for a generation. Get it right and proportional representation and the hard wiring of a genuine three-party system in Westminster follows. Get it wrong and the Lib-Dems risk being split right down the middle and ceasing to be any kind of force in British politics for a generation.

I am a recent convert to the Lib-Dem cause. Their manifesto really resonated with me – particularly their focus on fairness. But right at the heart of my support is their passionate campaigning for meaningful electoral reform. As I have written in previous posts – it seems to me that unless you get this right you haven’t a hope on any of the other major challenges facing the country. And it is this that has to be Nick Clegg’s price for co-operation.

I have never been shy about suggesting my ideal in this election was a hung parliament, delivering a workable Lib-Lab coalition that could make real progress on electoral reform and finally lock out the damaging forces of conservatism. It is still possible that this might happen and, until it can’t be done it will always be my preferred option. That said, I respect Nick Clegg’s decision to stick to what he said in the campaign and publicly state that the party with the biggest share of the votes and the largest number of seats should have the right to try and form a government first. Him talking to the Tories first is not a betrayal of his party, it is a reinforcement of his values and a reminder of his strength as a leader.

Talking to the Tories is one thing, agreeing to support, or even join them in government is quite another. Whatever David Cameron suggested earlier today about common-ground between the parties, there is just too much of a gap in both policies and values for any meaningful coalition to take place. I know I would not be the only one to find it very difficult to support a party working alongside the Tories. There is one exception to this however:  If Nick Clegg could negotiate commitment to a referendum on proportional representation followed by a 2nd general election all within an 18month time period then I could support the Lib-Dems working as part of a national stability government with the Tories. But it has to be this, any compromise from the central goal of electoral reform cannot be countenanced.

If, as I suspect is the case, Cameron is not willing to offer this then the only thing for Clegg to do is to work with the Labour Party (minus a certain Gordon Brown) and the nationalists to deliver exactly the same, probably within a shorter timescale. Doing nothing is not an option – letting a new government collapse and forcing a snap 2nd election will only weaken their hand with the country taking the decision in their own hands and almost definitely delivering a working Tory majority. Once this has happened so has his chance for any meaningful reform.

This is a huge 48 hours for Nick Clegg and for the future of politics in the UK – I am supporting him all the way in his negotiations, I just hope that he can deliver.

Reflections on Election Day and a call to protest

First may I apologise in advance for any typos, spelling mistakes or poor grammer… I, like a lot of you, have not really slept since Wednesday. I just wanted to get a few thoughts down whilst they were still fresh in my mind.

Over the last 24 hours there have been literally hundreds of stories playing themselves out up and down the country – some of success, some of despair and a number of utter shock and surprise. There have for me however been a few things that have stuck out.

1) Despite the millions of pounds spent, the thousands of leaflets, billboards and mailings, the hundreds of hours of TV and Radio and even the 3  leaders debates no single party has managed to win the trust of the majority of the public. No party, on its own, has a mandate to govern. The public has punished all parties in the poetic way that only democracy can bring. Whether it is the financial crisis, MPs expenses or a damning indictment on the current electoral system, politicians of all political persuasion need to work hard over the coming weeks and years to win back trust and authority.
2) Brown has to go – both as leader and PM. Not straight away perhaps, indeed he is right to stay on until the whole political situation becomes clearer, but in the coming days he is going to have to tender his resignation. Labour’s poor campaign and inability to command a fourth term was as much about the country’s dislike of Brown as any wholesale rejection of the party’s policies. Any potential collaboration with the Lib-Dems will depend entirely on him going and, even if this doesn’t come about, it is time
2nd – brown has to go
3rd – clegg, along with all other progressives need to force a referendum on the electoral system. Reviews are not enough, need commitment