In Dutch there is an expression which loosely translates as: “when two dogs fight for a bone, the third will run off with it”. When the Conservative Party under their ‘modernist’ leader David Cameron challenged their major opponents to the first ever televised leader’s debate in Britain, they would have done well to remember this. They counted on the slick appeal of Cameron easily putting the jaw-munching tactlessness of Prime Minister Brown in the shade. But they forgot that the Liberal Democrats, doomed to be the perpetual third party in the UK since the Armistice, had a charismatic figure and an excellent debater in their leader Nick Clegg. The effect has been remarkable: for the first time anyone living can remember, the Liberal Democrats are now leading the other parties in the popular vote in some polls, and are equal contenders in others. The Labour share has dropped to levels lower than those of Michael Foot in the disastrous election of 1979, but the Tories too have not managed to beat their equally bad poll results of the days of New Labour ascendancy in the 1990s. All the remainder of the vote seems increasingly to be moving collectively into the Liberal Democrats’ camp. Now one can debate to what extent this is entirely the result of the impact of modern mass media like television on political campaigns; there are good, if anecdotal, reasons to assume that much of it is also driven by an electorate tired of Labour but equally repulsed by the Tories, looking for a way out. Be that as it may, British elections have not been as exciting and not had as uncertain an outcome in many decades, with everyone now expecting a hung parliament to result for the first time since 1974.
This is possible in part because politically, the differences between the three parties are really fairly minor. All three support liberal economic policies as well as maintaining the framework of Britain’s post-Attlee social-democratic welfare system. All three of them are generally in favor of the European Union but skeptical about its powers; all three have uncontroversial opinions about the United States, Israel, Iran, and other players in international politics of the moment. All three believe in vast cuts to stymy the enormous public debt of the British crown, and all three support the occupation of Afghanistan in one way or another. Indeed, it is telling that so far the debates have been strongly about which leader or party has the greatest confidence of the public as well as of capital, with Cameron proudly boasting of having the support of over a thousand ‘business leaders’ for his Tory programme, and Brown retorting with the existing government having the necessary connections abroad to maintain British capital’s profitable ties to the international financial system. Under such circumstances, any difference in ideological content between three essentially liberal parties will be one of minor issues and of emphasis. The Lib Dems agitate against renewing the Trident nuclear missile system, but hasten to add they do not support disarmament; the Conservatives support the NHS but want more cuts in other government institutions, whereas Labour asks for a small tax increase in addition to cuts. All of the candidates hasted to argue that they supported pro-environmental policies, but there was some quibbling over the relative priority of nuclear energy. And so on.
Seeing this, one could almost believe the result to be indifferent, despite the competitiveness of the race between the parties. But nothing could be further from the truth, because there is an elephant in the room. This elephant is called electoral reform, and such reform has been an essential part of the otherwise highly divided Liberal Democrat platform since Thorpe demanded it in 1974 in exchange for supporting a minority government. The Liberal Democrats quite rightly are fed up with their perpetual underrepresentation compared to their popular support, and demand proportional representation. With anything up to 100 seats for them being in the range of realistic results, they are now in a better position than they will ever be to actually get it. Voting reform is deeply needed and extremely overdue in Britain, which is after all one of the few nations stubbornly clinging to an archaic and undemocratic system of representation initially devised to favor local landowners and barons against the supporters of the monarch. The consistently warped nature of the electoral results makes as much as 70% of votes in Westminster elections wasted every general election, and it ensures that the fate of the country is up to a small number of ‘swing voters’ in the Home Counties. These people for example managed to give the Lady Thatcher the impression of having a massive popular mandate for her neoliberal anti-union politics, when that impression was merely a distortion caused by the voting system. Many voting systems exist, but very few perform across the list of criteria as poorly as ‘first-past-the-post’ does, and it is absolutely time for the British people to come out from under its yoke.
This is easier said than done however. Political practice will tell any intelligent observer that since both Labour and the Tories benefit from the system, neither are very likely to wish to reform it, and yet nothing can be done without at least one of those liaising with the Liberals for this purpose. The distorting effect this time too will likely ensure that even if Clegg wins the largest popular vote, he will be third in the number of seats; and perhaps Labour may end up third in votes and first in seats. In such a situation, it should be obvious to the entire population that the Liberal Democrats are justified in demanding of any government serious electoral reform in exchange for their support. The Labour Party has recently resuscitated their effectively buried platform support for the ‘Alternative Vote’ system, but this system is so similar in practice to FPTP that unless it is supplemented by a proportional element (the so-called AV+ system), it will not be sufficient. Clegg himself has said as much. Interestingly, the AV+ system has received the support of New Labour prominent Alan Johnson, although Brown will go no further than a referendum on AV.(1) At the same time, the Conservatives are unsurprisingly adamantly opposed to the voting reform plans, as they can expect over the long term of many decades to benefit from it the most. Moreover, many MPs in both parties are now comfortably ensconced in ‘safe seats’ and would have much to lose by a more democratic system of representation. This means the terms of negotiation for the Liberal Democrats will be very difficult, and much will depend on how much backbone Clegg will show in demanding serious, swift and far-reaching electoral reform before either Brown or Cameron have the chance of calling new elections to ask for an outright majority.
It seems on the basis of these facts that a Lib-Lab coalition would have a better chance of succeeding on this point; not just Johnson’s support is important, but Labour has also toyed in the past with compulsory voting and other changes in order to improve electoral legitimacy.(2) Combine this with their fairly effortless introduction of actual proportional representation for European Parliament elections and they seem far more likely to be a partner in reform than the Conservatives. But Clegg himself seems to favor a coalition with the Tories based on other points, in particular their somewhat more similar economic policies. Moreover, he has made statements which seem to imply that if Labour comes third in the popular vote, he would not accept a coalition with them.(3) Now this may be read as just wishing to be rid of Gordon Brown himself in that case, a sacrifice Labour might be willing to make, but if Clegg is indeed angling for an alliance with the Tories the Liberal Democrats run the real risk of their leader throwing away the best chance at meaningful influence they have had since the First World War. With a new Great Reform Bill so overdue and so important, this is a risk neither the Liberal Democrats nor the people of Britain can afford to take. In those cases in England where the electoral race is between only Labour, the Tories, and the Liberals (disregarding the nationalist and right-wing parties), a strategic vote for the Liberal Democrats is a vote for having your vote count. Therefore, the Liberal Democrats deserve our support vis-á-vis the other two parties. However, if Clegg continues on a course of rapprochement with the Conservative Party, a great opportunity may well be wasted. Be certain to vote for the Trade Union & Socialist Coalition, a real worker’s party with the greatest potential that the UK has seen in many years, wherever you can; vote the Liberal Democrats wherever you must. Beyond that point, everything will depend on how well Nick Clegg and his team are able to understand the historical position they find themselves in.
1) See: George Eaton, “Electoral Reform: a bluffer’s guide”. New Statesman (Nov. 11, 2009).
2) Patrick Wintour, “Ministers back radical plan for voting reform”. The Guardian (March 24, 2008).
3) “UK Clegg: Brown Can’t Be PM If Labour Loses Popular Vote”. Wall Street Journal (April 25, 2010).