25 January 2006

It's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

I suppose that if last week's Independent headline story written by James Lovelock is correct (and I don't understand it because surely if his gaia theory is right, the Earth's eco-system wil correct our manmade pollution, not go into a destructive loop), then talking about opinion polls and tax rates is gonna seem pretty trivial, but what the hell eh!

The Tories must be worried, their great white hope, David Cameron bounds onto the stage with as much media adulation as you can imagine and yet they are still only neck and neck with the most unpopular (post-war) Labour party ever (in terms of absolute number of votes). It's hardly the 20 point lead that Blair gave Labour in the mid nineties is it? The Lib Dems are disintegrating and the Tories are supposedly reinvigorated, yet Labour is still holding its vote at its election winning level (scandalously 21% of registered voters are all you need in this undemocratic electoral system we have). The longer the polls refuse to budge the harder it will be for Cameron to keep the right-wing wolves in his party at bay.

With 4 years to go, things can only get worse for the Tories, if their new caring sharing image fails, it's hard to see where they can go. They certainly flogged their nasty immigration and tax cutting policies to death at the last election. Nobody could say they didn't get their message across, the problem for them was that people didn't like the message.

The truth is, the one trump card that the Tories always had over Labour governments was the economy and now the opinion polls suggest Labour is much more trusted on this, not surprising when people compare the Tories' calamitous recessions and unemployment with the low unemployment and record growth under Labour. People have always known social justice is better looked after under Labour compared to the Tories, but now they know the economy is in safer hands as well. Labour should be miles ahead in the opinion polls.

In fact if it wasn't for the Daily Meldrew and others pumping out Tory propaganda day after day, the Labour party would be well ahead. They surely deserve to be. The only chink in Labour's armour is the Iraq war (which Cameron and the Tories were even more enthusiatic about)and a wrongly perceived poor record on civil rights (which when you examine the evidence doesn't add up).

Saying all this, Labour do need to reinvigorate themselves if they are going to win again under first past the post. The current polls are indicating a hung parliament (just like has just happened in Canada, which has elected a minority government under the Tory Stephen Harper, a George Bush clone. Remember that Cameron and Osborne share the nationalist, tax cutting and anti-abortion sentiments of these guys). Just like in Canada, the FPTP electoral system eventually ensures right wing Tory governments that the majority doesn't want.

The huge landslides that the Liberals got in Canada and Labour have achieved in the UK (that FPTP delivers) are bad for democracy because those in power can become too complacent or even corrupt when they have such unlimited power. PR can lessen this by constantly adjusting where the power lies at each election, no one party can win a landslide without a landslide of support in the country.

The problem for Labour is the window of opportunity is closing on changing to a PR system. When Labour were winning landslides under FPTP, nobody could accuse Labour of opportunism or defeatism in changing to PR. Now the situation is more difficult, but if Labour doesn't change to at least the Alternative Vote (AV) (which at least ensures an MP has to have 50% of the vote in their seat), then they will have failed us.

The way to avoid the accusation of opportunism is to hold a binding PR referendum at the same time as the next general election. With the Lib Dems, Labour, Greens and other parties all arguing for PR, the referendum would be easily won. For the first time millions of non-voters and voters caught in safe seats where they know their party can't win, will be re-enfranchised. The biggest rise in turnout will be amongst poor urban voters - the sort of voters who vote for progressive taxation, this is where Labour could really benefit (just like the Labour party in New Zealand has). The present system stifles debate and offers the electorate vague promises and parties difficult to distinguish on ideology and policy because the parties are all chasing the same middle class voters in marginal seats (2% of voters).

But if Gordon Brown wants to continue with FPTP, he has a significant problem, he has to overcome the disadvantage of being around at the helm of this government for so long. He needs to make himself look different to Blair yet at the same time make himself look the same ideologically.

At the moment he is seen far too much to the left in the public's mind. Blair is seen bang in the centre of the political spectrum, which is where you want to be to win elections (Notice also how Labour and the Lib Dems are almost identical in the public's mind. This splitting the left vote under FPTP is very damaging to the chance of progressive governments). Cameron has moved towards the centre from the right but Brown is seen far too much to the left. He is trying to overcome this by the process of 'wrapping himself in the flag'. This is the succesful strategy used by Bush and co in their election victories. If you can be seen as the patriotic candidate, you will win, hence Brown's talk of a UK celebration day. Cameron has to tread more carefully on this because of the Tories racist image. Saying this, the dilemma Brown has, is to decide whether he paints himself as a Blairite and risk the Tory slogan 'time for a change' or does he differentiate himself and risk being seen as too left wing. It is going to be difficult for him to do both. It would be a lot easier for the Labour party to have a brand new young leader to cancel out Cameron's image and this would also reinvigorate the party's image. The leading candidate here is David Miliband. But of course any leader other than Brown would have unknown risks. The one certainty is that the next election is going to be much closer on present evidence.


  1. It's abit early to talk about the next election don't you think? Politics is a marathon not a sprint, All us Labour supporters should be braced for a kicking in the council elections and i don't even want to imagine the bloodbath there will be with all those Labour MPs down south at the next general election, The likes of Celia Barlow, Martin Salter and Jim Knight are toast probably.

  2. The Remittance Man25/1/06 4:31 pm


    Pros :-

    1. MP's elected for a recognisable electoral district. It even permits single issue independents to get a say without causing too much damage. Gorgeous George is a right pillock but he does add to the entertainment value of politics.
    2. Governments usually have a reasonable majority and hence the ability to acheive something.

    Cons :-
    1. Possibility of gerrymandering electoral districts (if one looks at 20th century electoral history though, both parties seem to have managed to get decent majorities at one time or another so I guess they are managing to balance things out ok)


    Pros :-
    1. More representative sample of MPs

    Cons :-
    1. MP's not elected for a specific place and hence politicians are further distanced from the electorate than they already are.
    2. Hung parliaments with extremist minority parties holding the balance of power.

    Neither system is perfect.

    Oh and your comment elsewhere about politics in FPTP countries being boring. I was chatting to an Italian once about Italy's notorious PR system and he made a telling comment. He said that although the colour of the parliament had officially chaanged quite frequently the same people sat in cabinet for year after year. The reason being that the centrist parties had to form alliances to keep out the loonies. So this week the socialist minister of defence sat next to a CD minister of finance. The next week the ex-minister of finance became the PM and his money man was... you guessed it... the socialist former minsiter of defence. Basically it was a glorified game of musical chairs conducted to keep the boys in jobs. Now that sounds boring.


  3. marra: It might be a bit early to think about the GE, but we certainly need to get a move on if we are going to change the electoral system. I want to see democracy in the UK in my lifetime if possible.

    RM: The proof is in the pudding. Are you telling me that all the PR countries that have had better growth than us since the war, less inequality, better healthcare, public transport etc etc (Germany, Scandanavia, Netherlands, Italy etc.) have not had governments able to achieve something?

    It seems to me that the stop-go roundabout that is FPTP is the real enemy of long-term progress.

    How can PR be more unaccountable than FPTP when I can tell you now the result of the next election in around 550 of the 649 seats! You know it aint accountable when bookmakers won't even accept bets on the vast majority of the seats.

    Around 68% of registered voters didn't vote for their MP at the last election, how is this accountable?

    Looking at the worst seat, George Galloway had 82% of his registered constituents not vote for him, when you consider 1 in 6 eligible voters are not registered in London, he probably had over 90% of his constituents not vote for him in his socially deprived region.

    At the end of the day, countries with PR have higher turnouts, higher social mobility, better infrastructure and better economies, this is why we should change.

  4. Marra: Out of interest, Jim Knight increased his majority at the last election.

  5. Yes Neil Jim Knight did increase his Majority at the last election but his opponent was Ed Matts, The slimy creep who doctored the photo of himself with Ann Widdecombe, Do you remember that? It was all over the papers! Knight was handed a solid gold bat to beat the Tories with, He won't be handed an open goal like that again.

  6. Well you never know, Ed Matts seems a pretty average Tory candidate. Education and intelligence don't necessarily go together, Boris Johnson is an example of that.

    Jim Knight is building up a solid base of support in his constituency that might just save him.