Badmouthing PR, Part II

I was going to let the Guardian off on this, on the basis of yesterday’s effort from the incorrigible Ms. Toynbee (although, in carefully avoiding my irritation on one point she goes and steps in a whole other mess, but there you are), but then they had to go and publish quite possibly one of the worst opinion pieces I have seen them print. I refer, of course, to Simon Jenkins, who today embarrassed himself with one of the most rabid and partisan attacks on the Lib Dems to be seen in some time, at least in the theoretically liberal press.

Sadly, this is the kind of thing that has got some of the servile Labour crowd on CiF in a bit of a lather, it being exactly the kind of cheap thought-porn that appeals to their decision to suppress their better judgement in favour of tribal support of a party they would never have started to support were it to come into existence fully formed today.

Simon Jenkins (or his subeditor) asks: “What are the Lib Dems for?”

The temptation, at this point, to just write “Simon Jenkins (or his subeditor) can fuck off” is pretty strong, but assuming I resist it for now, lets take a look at what he actually says.

What are Liberal Democrats for? They are the flotsam of 20th-century politics drifting on into the 21st, coagulated from ancient clubs, cabals, splits and defections from other parties. Not since the 19th century have they cohered round any great interest. They represent no mass movement, no breaking of the political mould. Ask a Liberal Democrat what he or she is for and you get only a susurration of platitudes. Yet thanks to proportional representation this party gets to choose the governments of Scotland and Wales. It is Nero for a day.

Well, that’s an interesting start. The assumption that a political party has to coagulate around some particular interest is an interesting one. It begs the question of what the relevant interests are for the Tories and New Labour. The answers, I suspect, would be “mean spirited whingers, xenophobes and the rich” and “those who just rather like the idea of being in power”, respectively, but there you are.

In my experience, when you ask a Lib Dem what he or she stands for, you are likely to be quoted the federal constitution, an extract from which is helpfully printed on my membership card: “The Lib Dems exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.” If this counts as “a sussuration of platitudes”, well, fine, but it’s about as coherent a mission statement as you’ll get out of any political party, and I also happen to think that these values are by no means obvious given the direction today’s governing parties are taking us.

Westminster commentators have always given the Lib Dems a free pass, as over cash for honours, because they are both hopeless and nice.

A free pass? Really?! It certainly didn’t look that way from this end (I will gloss over the lazy smear that we are “hopeless and nice”).

Most parties that have won no power for almost a century and are a political subsidiary of another party, New Labour, would disband. But Britain’s patronage state keeps the Lib Dems going, that and the hope that their one distinctive, self-interested policy, proportional representation, might give them blocking power at Westminster.

I really don’t know what he is trying to say here, the idea that the party who have been the most consistent in expressing the public’s genuine opposition to many issues (when the official opposition have been found rubberstamping the government’s authoritarian and ill-conceived measures) are being labelled a “political subsidiary” of the governing party? How, exactly? Or is he actually making the point that New Labour stole a lot of our more popular clothing in making themselves over? Funny way to go about it, if he is…

When Charles Kennedy resisted the temptation – some might say golden opportunity – to take his party left of New Labour early in this decade, he ensured his would never be a ruling party but, at best, king-makers of coalition. Yet what sort of coalition? Local leaders gave no indication before the election which other parties they might prefer. A Lib Dem vote was a blind vote, a diluted other-party vote to be realised only after the election.

Simon seems to have lost sight completely here of the fact that the Lib Dems are a democratic party, and as such it was not up to Charles Kennedy to take the party to the left of Labour; rather, our direction is indicated by our policy, which is made at conference and voted in by the membership.

As for the idea that we ought to have expressed a preference for which other parties we would support in coalitions: A paragraph ago, he was flinging the accusation of *being* a political subsidiary of another party, and now he’s flogging us for *not* lining up under another party’s banner? Need I even explain that we are a party in our own right, we campaign on our own policy and philosophy, and any voter can look at our manifesto and make a shrewd guess what our positions toward other parties might be in any hypothetical parliamentary makeup.

In Scotland the Lib Dem leader, Nicol Stephen, has decided it would be inappropriate to maintain Labour in power yet has told Alex Salmond’s nationalists he will not coalesce with him. He cannot tolerate a referendum on independence. That the party of Irish home rule should reject so liberal a proposal as territorial self-determination is odd. Nor was Salmond demanding support for independence, merely for a vote on it. Under PR there is a majoritarian argument against almost any controversial decision. So what do the Lib Dems fear?

We fear exactly what most impartial observers of the goings on at Holyrood do; since we oppose independence, and so do a large majority of the population of Scotland, such a referendum would be largely undesirable. Of course, in an ideal democracy (as opposed to a representative one) we might consult the public by some sort of referendum on almost every issue we face. But the point of electing representatives under broad umbrellas which denominate their political philosophy is that we needn’t do this. A referendum would be a huge gamble for the SNP, and you could bet a fair amount that the years leading up to 2010 would see them taking a number of ever more bizarre actions to persuade the Scottish people that independence was the answer. This would be no recipe for sound government, so the only reason for the Lib Dems to support it would be if they saw some great intrinsic value in a referendum. They don’t.

Instead they have exchanged responsibility without power for power without responsibility, and are retiring to carp from the backbenches. They will smoke potency but not inhale.

Hands up who can tell me what exactly he means in the above?

In Wales the party is in equal confusion. Confronted with the predicted scenario of backing a Labour-led coalition or going into a “rainbow coalition”, it is undecided. The party leader, Mike German, declared at the weekend: “I am not going to engage in megaphone negotiations”. He wants to keep his options open. But to whom do his options belong? Surely a democrat shares his options with his voters.

Sadly, one of the aspects of the form of PR we see in Wales and Scotland at the moment (and we’ll get onto a discussion of that later, when it serves Jenkins’s argument to do so, rather than at this stage, where it simply makes his points look irrelevant) that the press does not seem to have caught onto yet is the tremendous power that public image and perception suddenly has over parties during coalition negotiations. It is a perverse artifact of this fact that, actually, a party does not serve the interests of implementing its own policy, or of getting elected again, very well by making every step of the process public.

The party has duly split. German has been told to resign by one of his senior colleagues, form a coalition with Labour by another and not to do so by a third. There is no great policy at stake. There is certainly no prospect of stability. As the established church of old Labour crumbles across Wales, its nonconformist rivals are apeing their forebears. They are setting up feuding chapels in every corner of the Welsh political village.

This is a conflation of a couple of issues. The question of Mike German’s leadership of the Welsh party is pretty separate from who, if anyone, we form a coalition with, and it is not one I intend to touch with a barge pole, since I wouldn’t presume to know nearly enough about it. As for the idea that we are a splintering party, however, I find that pretty unlikely. PR coalition formation is a very complex field of operation, and the political judgements on the party’s AMs on how the Lib Dems are best served in a coalition are never likely to coincide easily. A debate within the party is a healthy part of taking a decision.

Coalition, the natural consequence of PR, removes the outcome of an election from the hustings to the private deal of corridors, cabals and careerism. In the case of the Lib Dems, students of really bad government should read an account of the shortlived 1977 Lib-Lab pact. Again before the 1997 election, Paddy Ashdown and Roy Jenkins held secret meetings with Tony Blair on the shape of a coalition should parliament be hung. This included an offer by Blair of cabinet posts to Lib Dems. None of this selling the party down the river for top jobs was revealed to the electorate.

In Jenkins’s world, it seems, the world of “the private deal of corridors, cabals and careerism” is one wholly alien to our current political landscape.

Lib Dems claim a bizarre interpretation of democracy, that the share of votes should be reflected in a share in power. This confuses quite different concepts: executive government and assembly representation. The first requires a coherent team, a declared programme and some mechanism to account for its delivery to the electorate. To this end, France and the US directly elect presidents, governors and mayors. They are checked by a second concept, that of a separately elected assembly, in which PR is both fair and just.

Here he starts to stray into the more bizarre territory of the piece. He ascribed the current way things are to Lib Dem policy. It was, of course, Labour who implemented the devolution of power in both Wales and Scotland. I might even agree with him that these are not ideal arrangements, and that a separate, STV elected executive might be a better idea than what we have now. But to lay the blame for this undesirable situation is absolutely bonkers, unless I’m missing something.

Forcing executive power to be shared with political rivals in a coalition makes it diluted, unstable and unaccountable. Indeed, the purer the proportionality the more unstable it tends to be, as in Israel. Power sharing rarely engenders harmony. The invocation of “history” to hallow yesterday’s fourth attempt at power sharing in Northern Ireland was naive. It cannot last. It suppresses opposition and pretends consensus. The new Stormont regime, its mouth stuffed with money, will never withstand a real delegation of political and fiscal power. Such coalitions seem to work only when, as with English local councils, there is no power to be shared.

Much has been made of the ill advisedness of using Israel as an example here, so I will leave it alone. Similarly, Northern Ireland is surely a special case, involving as it does not a broadly politically aligned coalition of people pushing in the same direction, but rather two parties diametrically opposed over an issue central to the political scene in Northern Ireland. This is not a normal or a natural consequence of PR.

It is a tragedy that in Scotland and Wales the executive is chosen from the parliament, as at Westminster, but from one composed by PR, thus virtually ensuring rolling coalitions. This was instead of the London option of a separate executive and assembly, which is the constitutional basis of devolved government almost everywhere. Scotland and Wales should have had directly elected first ministers, with proportionately elected assemblies to check them. This would have met the requirement for a strong government in Edinburgh and Cardiff and for proportional representation in the balancing parliament/assembly.

This is perhaps the only paragraph in the whole piece that is more sense than nonsense, and Jenkins may have a point. A shame, then, that he didn’t go with this as his main theme, instead of throwing a childish tizzy at the Lib Dems for no immediately obvious reason.

Instead we have Lib Dem members flying about like £10 notes thrown into the wind. They carry no content, no programme, no sense of direction. They merely confer on the holder a golden share to hire or fire the electoral blocks of Labour and nationalism.

A simple lie, or a really pretty stupid generalisation, since the first sentence denies the explanation for the selection of the options listed in the second. We do have “content”, a “programme”, whatever you wish to call it. It’s in the manifesto, and in the various bits of political documentation that people like Jenkins clearly don’t read, favouring as they do the approach of guaging the real political relevance of a party from its leader’s ability to shout down Tony Blair at PMQs and to force their way into the news agenda regularly.

There is no perfect form of democracy. But since cowardice and indecision are its besetting sins, a constitution that empowers a stable cabinet subject to an external check – a separately elected assembly – is preferable to one that internalises that check within a rolling coalition, where it is vulnerable to the whim of minority parties.

Again, no arguments here, only over what makes this any more the fault of the Lib Dems than of anyone else, exactly?

The Lib Dems are proving that they cannot work a system to which they have hitched their wagon for half a century. There is much talk that the next general election may yield a quirk rare under the first-past-the-post system of a hung parliament, with the Lib Dems again as king-makers. On the basis of 1977, 1997 and now 2007, it will mean not democracy but chaos. It is surely time for the Lib Dems to fold their tent and go.

And so, having spent the latter half of his article advocating a system of a proportionally elected legislative and a directly elected executive, Jenkins now advocates …(drumroll please)…. THE DISBANDING OF THE ONLY MAIN PARTY TO SHOW INTEREST IN ANY FORM OF CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM AT ALL. Give that man some sort of medal, the mental agility and doublethink required to keep a straight face through that lot is quite something.

Overall then, an article with a serious point, which is buried in the second half under half a ton of mindless and incoherent jabber about the Lib Dems, a party for which Jenkins has never had a great fondness, I think it’s fair to say. But to take issue with them on a specific on the constitutional reform that only they are arguing for on a national level anyway, and then to suggest this is a reason to simply get rid of them in favour (presumably, since he mentions no alternative suggestions) of a return to two party politics is, to put it mildly, perverse.

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One Response to “Badmouthing PR, Part II”

  1. Tristan Says:

    I do always wonder about people who say there’s no purpose or direction to the LibDems.Generally the LibDems are united around the idea of liberalism and individual liberty.There are differences of approach within the party, but at least we have a common thread.I look a Labour and the Tories and I wonder what the thread is, apart from gaining power that is…


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