16 November 2007

My Heart Says Huhne, My Head Says Clegg.

A strong Lib Dem voice will help Labour. The 'progressive consensus' has so far helped keep Labour in power. If the public...
hear two out of the three main parties making essentially the same point, they will be inclined to support that position. Generally, members and voters of Labour and the Lib Dems are in a similar centre-left ideological position. The Lib Dems are slightly to the right on redistribution (regressive indirect taxation like green taxes, abolishing tuition fees and care fees for the well off) and to the left on liberty issues (pro-EU, reduce detention without trial period, more liberal on drugs, less prisoners, an amnesty for illegal immigrants). There are exceptions to this liberal attitude though, as Shirley Williams demonstrates (she is against abortion in all circumstances - proving there is no such thing as a socially liberal Roman Catholic), then there are the Lib Dems strangely illiberal policies on 24 hour drinking.

Whomever the Lib Dems choose as their leader has to be better than the disastrous Ming Campbell (and this is not an age thing - the equally old looking Vince Cable is demonstrating how ineffective, uninspiring and weak Ming was). Personally it seemed pretty obvious Ming was going to prove a disaster even before he was selected.

Of the two candidates now on offer - Huhne and Clegg, my instinct (like Polly Toynbee) is to go for Huhne, but I do however have nagging worries that the media will give him less coverage than Clegg. Coverage is essential for the Lib Dems to claw back support. Clegg (the Cameron clone - just close your eyes and see if you can tell the difference) will theoretically play better in the Tory South, where the Lib Dems hold most of their seats - but I don't think the Lib Dems can beat the Tories on tax cuts - they do best when they highlight how illiberal the Tories are. This will not only play well with the southern middle classes but also the more leftwing Labour seats in the North, that the Lib Dems want to chase. For this reason, I believe a radical, policy led approach, pushed by Huhne, may win them more votes than a safe, conservative, image led approach, pushed by Clegg. Huhne is also clearer on his positions on Iraq/Iran, Trident, PR and redistribution.

Polly Toynbee is convinced that the Lib Dems position in a hung parliament will be crucial in bringing about PR. I am not so sure. I still think PR will only come from a Labour government in a position of strength. The moral and strategic case has to be won amongst Labour MPs and members - we are getting there (slowly) as PR is introduced in every other domestic and European election. There is not a single Conservative MP in favour of PR (for very good strategic party political reasons) and there will be less Labour MPs and more anti-PR Tory MPs in a hung parliament so PR would seem less likely to happen.

My impression, is that even the Lib Dems, have cooled on their advocacy of PR as they have got more astute at targeting and making safe their seats. Huhne will insist upon a referendum to win his party's support, whereas Clegg quite clearly will take much less for a share of power with either party. The next election could highlight, more than ever before, the bankruptcy of our electoral system for Westminster. In 2005, around 35% of the vote and 22% of the electorate, was enough for 100% of the power in the Commons. How much lower could this figure go before people start thinking it ridiculous for a party to claim any sort of mandate? However, the Tories are finding that, to achieve even this low level of support is difficult (and they have the backing of 75% of the press to help them). In the US, the same electoral system (and an even more right wing media) has led to a situation where the Republicans and Democrats can safely ignore the poorest half of the population. Is this the sort of dysfunctional democracy we want here? Because that is where we are heading.

If the Tories are allowed back into power again with such dismal minority support, they will enter a new phase of gerrymandering to ensure their future victories for perhaps a generation. The current Labour electoral bias is largely accidental, the future Tory bias will not be - (even at the last election they talked of bigger boundaries to include their rural vote in urban/surburban marginals to give them more seats). Another generation having to suffer from a Thatcherite right wing led agenda, will take us another leap towards US levels of inequality, crime and social breakdown (and don't believe Cameron's cuddly image - both Bush and Thatcher talked of helping the poor).

As well as making full partizan use of our bankrupt electoral systemby redrawing the boundaries to suit, the Tories may use other tricks to keep in power - the 'english grand parade' for example. For this reason it is essential that Labour finally honours its 1997 pledge for a referendum on this issue.

Ironically for the Lib Dems, Polly is right to point out that PR will not be good for them in the long term. More choice under PR will mean less of those alienated with the big two parties will be forced to choose the Lib Dems and Labour will be freed to attract its more left-wing vote.

Overall, the Lib Dems are essential in offering a more radical alternative in our two and a half party system and under Clegg they would (like under Ming) be trying to play the safe central position. This would be a mistake. Huhne will provide the more radical voice and be better for all of us on the left.


  1. For once a half intelligent posting on the Lib Dems from you.

  2. My heart says Teather and my head says Cable.