Monday, July 30, 2007

Peter Preston tries to sell us Brown's Trapdoor

OK. Peter Preston has written about us in the Guardian today. Reactions so far have appeared over on the rather snappily named Barcharters Anonymous, and, of course, on Lib Dem Voice, courtesy of Mr. Tall. Apologies if I've missed someone, post me a comment. Now, plenty of attention has been given to the usual tired cut-and-paste attacks on Ming, and the unevidenced assertion that we have "No new faces, no new ideas", and that this is Ming's fault. We get that old classic about "how difficult it is for Lib Dems to define consistent national policies". So far, so much lifted straight out of the Ladybird book of Lazy Attacks on the Lib Dems.

But Preston, having bookended his article with this intellectual ordure, does manage to also convey a cogent, if wholly wrong, argument. That is the bit I really want to address here, so that is the bit I will quote. If you really want to read the rest, click on the link to CiF above.

Preston writes:

If there's one song all Lib Dems sing, it's the anthem of electoral reform. Give us PR and we're here to help. But they have it already in the Edinburgh and Cardiff parliaments and, this year, in voting for Scottish local councils. And what does proportional representation mean in practice? It involves no overall majority for anything and an imperative for the compromises that coalition requires. It compels an emollient honesty that first-past-the-post never needs. It's a non-English way of doing business.

Well, the Scottish Lib Dems did it for two terms under Kennedy and Campbell, keeping Labour in power at Holyrood and winning further traction over voting reform in the process. But did the voters thank them this spring for their efforts? They did not. You can, it seems, have too much compromise and coalition. There was no will for give-and-take as the victorious Nats were left to govern alone.

As for Wales, where Labour again needed help to survive, the deal that sustains them was done with Plaid Cymru - and the Lib Dems behaved just like any other old political gang, sticking points stuck in each others' backs. The system they espouse for all Britain made a new politics necessary, but the party that should have led the way fell back and let the nats do the job.

I think we are more than entitled to know where the hallowed theory of caring, sharing Liberalism leads? To Paddy Ashdown in Gordon's cabinet? To a role in England, Scotland and Wales where electoral reform makes Ming a natural partner in governments large and small? It would appear not, if Cardiff and Edinburgh show the way. To a PR system for Westminster that gives Ming a spot of power - say foreign secretary in the second Brown government - but still leaves him out of the Celtic power loop? To a coalition with Cameron in parliament and with Labour in Edinburgh if Alex Salmond falls?

The list of possible permutations is long, but information on possibilities is perilously short. Ming says he will only make a pact with Labour (except in Wales, where he hasn't). He won't hit the hustings laying out terms, because he still recites the mantra of a vote for a Lib Dem administration first and backstairs dealing later. Lib Dem attacks on the Tories are fiercer than ever: because Cameron's rather battered tanks are close to their lawn. But the Tories have become a much easier fix as Dave has edged towards central English territory. There's no reason in policy why an agreement to put Cameron into Downing Street and Ming into some adjacent ministry shouldn't work if that's what the electoral arithmetic indicates. But nobody says that out loud because the Lib Dem rank and file would grow vehement in outrage.

It's not that the Lib Dems are an irrelevance Britain can manage without: just the contrary. The middling, muddling politics we have needs men of principle and some probity who can take the voters into their confidence and do the deals that become necessary. A fresh way demands a fresh approach. If PR is the flag at the top of your pole, then you have to personify the winds of change by the positions you take and the courses you set. And you have to have that clear long before a conventional election when voters need such clarity.

OK. So at first glance, some of that seems to make some sense. Enough to make the eminently sensible Stephen Tall ask the readers of Lib Dem Voice "Do we think our answers are good enough?" Quite simply, I want to put the case that the answer to that question is "yes".

Preston's argument, as I understand it, seems to be that if we are to be the party of PR, and take the public with us on that point, we must take Gandhi's advice that "you must be the change you wish to see in the world". As such, he believes we should behave, now, in a more consensual and cooperative manner, much as we would expect parties to do under PR.

Which is a pretty strange idea. He is arguing that the best course for us, as a party, would be to conduct ourselves in ways which quite simply put a political party at a distinct disadvantage under first past the post. It is not in the nature of the current political landscape that we, or any party, should focus on making ourselves what Simon Jenkins called "a political subsidiary of another party" if we want to see ourselves moved closer to taking real political power and influence.

This is exactly the same argument as persuaded Ming, rightly, that accepting cabinet positions in a Brown government, or a joint candidate with the Tories for London mayor, would be a mistake.

Now, in addition, we have to think about the wider picture of political parties' behaviour, in our current situation (whereby in devolved bodies we have arms of our national parties fighting under at least approximate PR). The points to make are:

1. These are not perfect case studies for how parties would behave under genuine PR. The parties in Wales and Scotland take many decisions under significant influence from the national leadership of their party, and with a political worldview still half grounded in the FPTP system, because it is still the dominant order in the political psyche of the people of the UK, and in our national media's narrative. That isn't to say that these things shouldn't change, simply to say that it's not as simple as looking at our behaviour in Scotland and Wales, or anyone else's, and saying that's how we would behave in a straightforwardly PR world.

2. Apart from anything else, under a real PR regime, I personally believe it is highly debatable whether any of the parties that exist today would stay in their current forms. I would expect both Labour and the Tories to split into at least 2 parties each, and possibly the Lib Dems would even devolve themselves back into Liberal and SDP like parties, depending on how the other two parties' splinter groups fell. That's not to say we aren't a relatively unified party, by the way. Simply that FPTP politics is about building parties under one umbrella with a broad enough support base to win, whereas PR gives little incentive to do so, since it is more or less a given that coalition building happens after an election, not before it.

Which brings me back to the "political subsidiary" point. In FPTP terms, suggesting what we might do to in a given situation doesn't help the public identify us as a party in our own right, it weakens our identity and our ability to defend ourselves from the political shoving of the bigger parties, who resent our very existence, let alone our success. Under PR, we might like to be able to discuss our policy commonalities and differences freely. But it doesn't really work under FPTP.

And make no mistake about it; as a country, and therefore as a national party, we are still thoroughly FPTP in our thinking. It would be foolish of the Lib Dems to try to pretend otherwise, in a hope we could fool not only ourselves but also the British public. We face a predominantly hostile media with a vested interest in keeping alive the bipolar world they felt at home with, and therefore we would fail. Spectacularly. Which is exactly what Preston probably wants.


Stephen Tall said...

I agree with a lot of this, Andy. (Which is why I titled the post 'Preston's Dead End?'.)

I'm still unsure, though, why the party doesn't make the simple statement that, in the unlikely event of a hung P'ment, we would first open discussions with the party which polled the most votes across the UK.

It would avoid us being dragged into the tedious 'are you closer to the Tories or Labour?' debate. It would underscore our rationale for PR (that the democratic will should be respected). And it would be an easily understandable stance.

I'm not sure how credible the leadership's preferred answer 'maximum votes, maximum seats' is in a general election campaign when you're a third party. It sounds a tad too evasive to me.

Andy said...

I take your point. But to be honest (and perhaps I am just overly paranoid, it's certainly possible), I suspect that unless we say "we would definitely support the party with the larger vote", we would just be opening ourselves to the same tired old attempt to corner us.

A better answer, and probably a more honest one, would be that we would talk to both parties in such a situation, and support the one which we felt offered overall the package of government closest to a Lib Dem vision for government. Even so, I don't know that that would be much more succesful.

I know the current line sounds overly cautious and evasive, because it is. I still think it's the safest, though.

So please do convince me that another answer is bomb-proof!