Sunday, 25 April 2010

Why progressives should vote LibDem even if they hate the LibDems

Amid the great swirl of endless speculation currently going on about the general election, it's clear that nobody really has a clue what is going to happen. Has there ever been an election when everything is so much up in the air so near to polling day?

Naturally, the extraordinary LibDem surge and the possibility of a major constitutional upset is very exciting. But as Steve Richards notes yesterday in Talk of revolution is still premature, we should try not to get too carried away because "it is still quite possible that the mould will not be broken".

Mind you, both Steve Richards and I have already been proved completely wrong on one point: last July he wrote The last thing we need is a televised election debate and at the time I found his arguments persuasive. He now says "Originally, I was worried they would be dull, too constrained by rules, and would put viewers off politics. I am thrilled that I was wrong. They have energised the election."

Polly Toynbee yesterday issued her customary instruction to hold our noses and vote tactically to try to keep the Tories out, in Your heart might say Clegg. But vote with your head.

This stance -- opposing the Tories, more than positively embracing any one of their opponents -- has also been my pretty constant political position for the last 50 years. She says, "I have never much minded what the best anti-Tory party is called, I just want the left of centre to win. I will always back whichever group combines being furthest left with winnability."

But her view that Labour, while not ideal, is left-wing enough to be going on with, is no longer one I fully share. It seems to me to rely far too much on a simplistic single-dimensional left-right spectrum as a way of viewing politics. It leaves out of account the fact that, on quite a lot of issues (Heathrow third runway, habeas corpus, the database society, individual freedom in various contexts), Labour is actually WORSE than the Tories, or anyway worse than what the Tory leadership currently claims to believe. The Labour government has been for some years been alarmingly illiberal and authoritarian, as well as alarmingly un-green. Ms Toynbee is probably still at heart a top-down nanny-state Fabian social democrat, and although she does happen to take the correct view on most of these individual issues (she has been excellent on Heathrow and on secularism, for instance), when push comes to shove, these things clearly matter less to her than they do to me.

Anyway, I now live in one of those odd inner-city Lib/Lab marginals in which the Tories are nowhere, so all this no longer applies to me. For what it's worth, I am voting for the sitting LibDem MP (Simon Hughes), not that there is anything especially wrong with his Labour opponent here, as far as I know.

Now, I actually don't especially care who is the next Prime Minister or what are the manifesto commitments of the parties. Whoever becomes the government will probably break their promises anyway; they usually do. It is all hugely irrelevant compared with my overarching desire, which is to get a change in the utterly bonkers voting system. To this end, I think people should vote for the LibDems in any constituency where they have any reasonable chance of winning, however little enthusiasm they might feel for LibDem policies or however much they do not warm to Nick Clegg, or wish Vince Cable was their leader, or would really prefer to vote Green, etc. etc.

I for example wish the LibDems were being a lot more radical on Trident and Afghanistan, but, as I say, none of this is to the point. Achieving proportional representation is the ONLY thing that matters this time. Once we've got it, we can argue all we like about parties and policies.

Ms Toynbee also wants electoral reform, but for her it is only one of two equally important aims, the other of which is to keep the Tories out. Her assumption is that if the Tories get into government, even if it is a minority government, there is no chance of PR. This may be true, but I'm not sure.

Michael Portillo made an interesting little outburst on Andrew Neil's This Week on Thursday: Diane Abbott was saying "The Tories will never offer the LibDems PR", and Portillo jumped in to say "Oh yes they will!", adding that Tory high command will be so desperate for power that they could well outbid Labour on conceding a referendum if it is the price they have to pay. (This whole 10-minute section of the programme, a most interesting discussion also involving Andrew Rawnsley and Charles Kennedy, is well worth watching and you have a few days left in which to view it here.)

"Other senior colleagues of Mr Cameron privately concede that offering a referendum on electoral reform to the Lib Dems could be a price worth paying to ensure he becomes prime minister", adds George Parker in yesterday's FT.

I am perfectly happy to see a Cameron government for a while if it is a way of getting voting reform. A Tory government will do damage, but it will be temporary; whereas changing the voting system permanently alters everything.

Meanwhile, Matthew Parris yesterday claimed that Nick Clegg cannot stand Gordon Brown and will do nothing to prop up Labour (something Clegg himself more or less confirmed this morning in his very impressive interview on the Andrew Marr show). Parris concedes that Cameron would be "intensely reluctant" to concede electoral reform, but sets out a scenario in which Clegg might be able to insist on it, especially since "first-past-the-post might be looking pretty discredited by May 7".

Of course, this is all terribly speculative, and in reality, almost anything could yet happen. My main hope is that the LibDems (and, if necessary, smaller parties which also want PR) are fully rehearsed for getting the most out of any eventuality and will not allow themselves to be bought off with, I dunno, a cabinet post for Vince Cable, or a mere Speaker's Conference on PR (we have been there before), or some other titbit which does not embrace voting reform or at least a referendum thereon.


Lee Griffin said...

Fantastic piece. The economy might be the biggest issue right now, but with a few differences at the edges the three parties all want to approach it in the same manner. Who we vote for to deal with our deficit won't matter over the next few years (though as you say I believe it will be significantly more damaging under the Tories).

Voting reform is the only thing that is worth making a voting decision over right now, given the strength being shown around the country in support for the Lib Dems.

Alan Bell said...

I did a bit of investigation into the possible outcomes, including the nightmare scenario of a party winning on seats with another winning on national vote. turns out it is very possible and the bias against the libdems is quite clear. Whoever wins they should reform it at least so that the hung parliament zone overlaps the lines of no clear winner on the national vote.

Neil Harding said...

Progressives can happily vote Lib Dem in about 562 constituencies out of the 632 seats in England, Scotland and Wales (about 90% of seats).

63 of these constituencies already have Lib Dem MPs, Lib Dems can realistically beat Labour in another 20-30 seats and the Tories in another 10-20 seats.

Apart from 72 Labour held seats (listed in Sunday's independent) which the Tories need for their majority, the other seats are safe Labour or safe Tory, so voting Lib Dem will not affect who governs us. This accepts that about 50 Labour held marginals are already lost to the Tories and therefore safe, the 72 Labour still have a chance of holding. In these 72 seats progressives should vote Labour if they want to keep the Tories out and have a hung parliament.