23 February 2006

Labour are the means not the end.

I am sometimes accused, mostly by right-wing commenters on here, of being 'unthinkingly' Labour. But this accusation is simply untrue. I am not a tribal Labour supporter. I have no historical affinity to the Labour party. My parents, brothers and most of my friends don't vote Labour. I have no rooting in the trade union movement. I have never been a member of a trade union. I respect the enormous amount the trade unions did (and still do) to help the poorest in our society, but I also accept their shortcomings as narrow interest groups, typified by the strikes and turmoil of the Seventies.

I am also not one of these people who would blindly vote Labour no matter what the electoral geography of this abhorrent electoral system suggested. This might get me into trouble for saying, but if the Labour candidate could not win in my constituency and the Lib Dem could beat the Tory, I would vote Lib Dem. This is the sensible thing to do. Of course the number of seats where this is true is very few, it is mostly people blindly voting Lib Dem in constituencies where Labour could beat the Tories that leaves us with an authoritarian Cornerstone right-wing Tory as MP.

As Polly Toynbee pointed out at last years' Labour Conference (to much booing), the Lib Dems and Labour are almost ideologically identical, especially in the voters minds, if not in actual policy. It is this splitting of the 'progressive' vote that repeatedly gives the Tories absolute victory in our stupid electoral system. For example, in the marginal seat of Hove (won by Labour's Celia Barlow by 400 votes), the whole seat could turn Labour or Tory depending on whether the Green candidate does well (thereby diverting mostly potential Labour voters) or whether a UKIP candidate stands and does well (diverting potential Tories). So the number of people voting for leftwing parties could increase dramatically yet the chance of the Tories being elected would increase, and vice versa. It is a ridiculous situation and even for a tactical voter, it is like playing russian roulette trying to judge how the voters will decide.

In policy areas I would suggest the Lib Dems are to the left of Labour on abstract civil liberties but to the right in terms of redistribution (and equality is one of the biggest civil liberties in my mind, (what is a choice of essential goods and services if it is dependent on wealth and the system distorts wages so low that significant numbers of people can't afford them?)). The Lib Dems have some good policies (or had), like 50% tax on those earning over 100,000, but generally they are more middle class in outlook, as their opposition to the mimimun wage suggests.

The reasons why the Lib Dems support electoral reform might be carved in obvious self interest but their best policy undoubtably is the Single Transferable Vote and although the Lib Dems unwittingly elect Tories under our present system - by taking votes from Labour. We can't blame the Lib Dems for the crap electoral system, that is Labour's fault. We have had long enough to change the system. As Robin Cook repeatedly pointed out, this electoral system lets the votes of the poor be ignored, stacked up in moribund safe seats. If the Labour party means anything it should be to re-enfranchise these people, which is obviously in our self-interest as well, since most of these voters will vote for left wing parties including ourselves. Yes, we would have to share power with socialists and greens and maybe even a small centrist party like the Lib Dems, but would that be a bad thing? The worst of new Labour's authoritarian excesses would be curtailed in such a coalition and the left of the party would be freed up as electoral competition came from both left and right, not just from the right-wing threat of a Tory govt ot Tory/Lib Dem govt that the present system allows as the only possibilities.

The number of people not even registering to vote is nearly 10% of those eligible to vote. This means that Labour 'won' the last election (with a significant majority) with just 19% of the electorate voting for them (21% of registered voters). This is no mandate to run the country, no wonder people feel disenchanted and disenfranchised, they are disenfranchised! In some seats nearly 90% of those eligible to vote didn't vote for their elected MP (Bethnal Green and Bow is one example).

We in the Labour party should remember that what this electoral system can deliver to us on 19%, it will also deliver to the Tories on such a pitiful figure. This is inevitable, as this system eventually encourages 'time for a change' regardless of the performance of the government, especially a Labour government that has the 'rich controlled' press constantly sniping at it for spending money on public services and redistributing wealth.

The Tories once elected, will not have the same consensual concerns and constraints that Labour have generally shown in power. The Tories whole philosophy is rooted in anti-democracy, and just like the Republicans in the US, they will think nothing of blatently rigging the electoral system back in their favour. They will even argue that this is justice in compensation for the accidental bias the Labour party currently enjoy. The Tories already had manifesto plans to enlarge boundaries significantly and disregard criteria of the boundary commission on geographical and administrative boundaries. The Spectator has even advocated drawing boundaries on voter turnout rather than electorate, thereby disenfranchising Labour voters before they even get to the polls. Don't believe they won't do this, under this electoral system this is inevitable, it is too tempting. The Tories are ruthless when it comes to winning and staying in power, and this system allows them to 'win' without the support of the vast majority.

We must remember how well this electoral system has served right wing interests. Only 17 years of the last century were Labour years, not only did it inflict right-wing Tory governments of the Thatcher ilk that was much to the right of what the majority consistently voted for, it also made sure that when we did get a Labour government, it was always having to be far to the right of what its supporters wanted. International comparisons bear this out, the countries with the most distribution, the best civil liberties, the most devolved governments and the most left-wing governments over history are those under proportional representation and those consistently to the right are those under 'first past the post' i.e. the US, UK etc.

When a new democratic country decides on an electoral system it is always a PR system that is chosen, only those countries under the influence of corruption choose plurality systems like FPTP. This is because it is far easier to cheat under FPTP by gerrymandering the boundaries.

If those campaigning for civil liberties are really interested in true civil liberties, they will be campaigning for proportional representation, local democracy devolved to the lowest practical level and a written constitution to embed these things. And of course there are excellent organisations that are already campaigning for this. It would be better for these people just to join these organisations. This is why I believe this new project will just be an anti-Labour platform and that has nothing to do with improving civil liberties at all.


  1. The Blue Foxxx24/2/06 12:49 am

    I'm impressed - a clear and concise statement of where you stand Neil (I'm not being sarcastic).

    On PR I fully agree with you.

    I'm afraid this - 'equality is one of the biggest civil liberties in my mind' - is still oxymoronic.

    Never mind, you've identified your position, I'll admit it's legitimate and both take back any personal abuse I've flung your way and will try to be more 'considered' in future. (I've not yet read any, if any, responses to my other comments yet tho'...)

    The rest of the post I disagree with entirely - you say Labour and Lib Dems are ideologically similar, yet point out their (fundamental) differences in terms of redistribution (and all that goes with it). As for your opinions on unions...

    ...New Labour, kind of like new flavour Coke - unpopular and shit. Still, it takes all kinds.

  2. Thankyou for taking back the abuse, if I personally abused you back, I am sorry and take that back as well. Well, yes, you haven't read my other comments yet..but hopefully you will realise I am trying to be reasonable (even if I don't always succeed). I really don't want to offend anyone, but I want to speak my mind as well. The two seem incompatible.

    Good to hear another Labour supporter who supports PR. I think the membership is split down the middle on this. Me and a friend proposed a resolution in the constituency to call for a more proportional system for Westminster and on a knife edge vote, we just managed to get it adopted at the GC meeting.

    What I mean by the equality thing is; (well, there is a Jamaican proverb - 'they took the chains from my ankles and put them on my pockets'), by which is meant; how can we be free when we can't earn a decent living wage.

    Poverty is not inevitable, it is manmade. It is used as a means of coercion to make people accept the status quo. Any definition of civil liberties that ignores poverty, is only a partial definition of civil liberties. Parties of the right like the Tories, believe in the usefulness of poverty as a lever of power, so any claim they make that they will try to reduce poverty is necessarily hollow.

    Labour and the Lib Dems are ideologically similar 'in the voters minds' if not in actual policies, which is demonstrated by the poll link I provided, Labour -22, Lib Dems -23 according to voters who ranked them.

    As for unions, we on the left, have to accept that for all the good intentions of unions (and the many good things they do), they are by neccesity limited to looking after their members interests (even to the detriment of the rest of society). In that respect they are no different from any other self-interested lobby group. So their scope for egalitarian change is obviously limited.

  3. carry bag man24/2/06 10:32 am

    Not often that I criticise neil's posts but the suggestion that Trade Unions are or were " narrow interest groups" is wrong.

    At their peak they represented something like 12million workers the single largest representation of the working class.
    policy was decided at the TUC conference based on delegation votes.

    additionally trade unions have provided education at ruskin for people who couldnt afford it.Legal services to protect members jobs Social provision and hardship funds.they were at the forefront of the anti-racist anti apartheid campaigns...need I go on

    some of the most left wing ideas have come out of the trade union movement
    what was it Billy Bragg said Neil,
    "There is power in a Union "

  4. carry bag man: I may not sound like it, but I do agree with you. Trade unions do a tremendous amount (they will be at the forefront of justice in the developing world, just like they have been in this country) but at the same time, they cannot do the work of government. They have severe limitations, and one of the major ones are (paradoxically) its concern for its members.

    A union (quite rightly) will push for the best wages and conditions for its members. But this may not be in the interests of the population at large. For example, can the fireworkers demand for wages in excess of 30,000 pounds a year be justified when the minimum wage is so low for retail workers and there is such a huge number of people who already want fireworkers jobs? Can the current tube strikes be justified, when according to Ken Livingstone, no worker is being laid off, and basically it is just in opposition to new technology (oyster card) that is going to help cut costs and prices for consumers?

  5. the is a huge cultural difference between the labour and lib dem parties. you don't understand that because you have experienced both.

  6. haven't experienced both, I mean!!