Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Reflections on the Election, 2010

I appreciate there are some who think this election is, like most others, rather boring - finding as they do changes in government that don't involve bloodshed so very tiresome. The rest of us find them fairly engaging - and this one is shaping up to be a little more interesting than most. Here's a few preliminary thoughts.

On presidentialism

One of the few arguments for the monarchy that I've ever found appealing was the notion that the whole soap opera of having a 'First Family' was, in the British Constitution, absorbed by the House of Windsor - leaving the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to get on with the more mundane business of politics. But even this is looking redundant. The leadership debate was just the latest in a number of developments, including the parading of leaders' wives in the tabloid media, that show how presidential our system has become. Presidentialism is inevitably more about personality than Parliamentary democracy has traditionally been.

This is had more serious consequences than anyone could have foreseen. Now while there is obviously something fairly superficial about this sort of event, you would be making a mistake to dismiss the 'Yellow surge' as pure X-Factor politics because behind it lies something more significant, which brings me to the second point...

The winner of the election is already the Liberal Democrats

You won't see Nick Clegg waving, walking into Downing Street on the 7th May. But they are the only party that has the prospect of emerging from the election with a result that was better than anyone could have imagined before this election was called. They might not. Nick Clegg might wet himself live on television - or be caught in a compromising position with a goat. But assuming he doesn't, this is surely the most likely outcome? Their best result since 1983 in terms of share of the vote seems likely, at the very least.

The other two, on the other hand, are in a very different position. This election is interesting, not only because the outcome is now less certain; it is the range of consequences that face both Labour and Conservative that has become compelling. It is not a question of just winning and losing. Both have a third possibility - that they will confront electoral catastrophe on the 6th of May.

I can't share the optimism of some fellow Labour supporters - unless their optimism is restricted to denying Cameron an overall majority. I do not believe Labour can win this; what they have to avoid doing is being pushed into third place. Because if they don't, this would be a result that would take a generation to recover from.

The prospects for Tory disaster are more interesting - and from an opponent's point of view, infinitely more enjoyable. So far, gratifyingly, the Tory campaign has been fairly appalling. Consider how dismal their position was before 'Cleggmania'. Opposing an incumbent government of thirteen years - lead by someone with the charm and finesse of a Sherman tank - who just so happen to have presided over the fastest and deepest fiscal deterioration in postwar history: all this and the Cameroons can't seem to break through the crucial 40% barrier? We shouldn't just say he hasn't 'sealed the deal' - we should be asking: if you can't do it under these circumstances, what would it take for you to do so?

It is for this reason we can say that anything less than an overall majority for the Tories on the 6th of May would be a disaster for them. And in the unlikely event that they should fail to emerge as the biggest party? This would surely raise questions as to their viability as a political force in British politics? Yet you still get self-described leftists announcing they're going to stay at home because of some wanky principle they feel deeply about. Grow up, for fuck sake...

I digress... Anyway, my suspicion is that the Clegg phenomenon isn't merely X-Factor politics and that is has enhanced something that was already latent within the electorate. I don't know exactly what this consists of but can I make a suggestion? Presidential politics is about personalities - and we have with Labour and the Tories two of the most unappealing ones in living memory. Personally there's one thing in particular about both Brown and Cameron I find particularly nauseating: both exude a sense of their assumption of a right to rule which simultaneously communicates an arrogance that makes one think they are rather unsuited to it.

Cameron with his to the Manor born air, which he is genetically incapable of concealing, has obviously put many voters off.

But Brown is the same - Scottish version. He comes from the ruling class, almost as much as Cameron - it's just that the Scottish ruling class are grumpier and more crumpled than their sassenach counterparts. It was the failure to recognise this cultural difference that led the Polly Toynbees and the Jackie Ashleys to mistake Brown for a socialist.

I don't want to extrapolate from my own experience - but on the other hand I can't imagine it's only me who's getting a little fed up with this. The fact that Clegg went to public school isn't the point; he does not carry the assumption of kingship the way the other two do because he does not belong to one of the two political machines that have dominated electoral politics in this country for nearly a hundred years. All of which brings me to the final point, which has to do with the voting system.

FPTP may not survive

I'm agnostic on voting reform. The idea that one type of system is suitable for all polities everywhere is childish. A majoritarian 'winner-takes all' system would obviously be unsuitable in the case of Northern Ireland, for example. But PR doesn't do what some of its more zealous proponents claim for it. STV in Scotland hasn't, for example, broken the network of corruption and patronage that is local politics in Glasgow and North Lanarkshire. Suffice to say anyone who argues that the case for PR is somehow unanswerable yet can't be bothered to acquaint themselves with how it has actually worked within the borders of the United Kingdom makes no serious claim on our attention. But the British electoral map is increasingly looking like one where the defence of majoritarianism will look ever more difficult. Last time Labour won with 36% of the vote - a postwar low. It could have been an aberration but what if this kind of thing keeps happening?

Here I'll go for a prediction: after the election, David Cameron, as leader of the biggest party in the Commons, will be invited by Her Majesty to form the next government. This might be on his own or with the support he needs from other parties to make a majority. But regardless of which, he will do so with less than 40% of the British electorate supporting him. If he requires support, the push for voting reform will be irresistible for obvious reasons - but even without it, one wonders how long the British constitution can stand the strain of choosing governments that win by such a narrow margin.

This will be the lasting legacy of the 'Yellow surge'. Like a lot of people I snorted in derision when the leaders' debate was described as 'historic' and like a lot of people I was wrong. The Liberals have already made a historic breakthrough because even at the high watermark of the 1983 election they never registered as the front-runners in any opinion poll. This isn't the uniform result now - and isn't going to translate into vote polled on the 6th of May. But I doubt after this British elections will ever look the same again.

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