Sunday, May 09, 2010

In The Shadow Of Two Gunmen

In a strange way, I rather feel like this is the end of my first season on The West Wing; 2005 was my first General Election as an activist and this blog started (much as The West Wing itself) eighteen months later. I suppose I feel that way because I've very much watched this election from afar; indeed, I spent polling day in a property law exam! And as the alternative is revising for a public law exam with questions on reform of the electoral system and the powers of the Prime Minister, I figure I should add my twopenn'orth on what happened and where we're go from here.

I should start, I guess, by saying that in Cardiff we did reasonably well. Jenny Willott was of course re-elected in Cardiff Central with Labour making no real progress against us. In Cardiff North, John Dixon's vote held up despite the two-party squeeze in what a shockingly close contest (a three-figure majority that should have been five!) Dominic Hannigan continued to make progress in Cardiff South and Penarth, adding 2.4% to the Lib Dem vote despite adverse boundary changes and a hand-picked Cameron candidate.

As for my neck of the woods, despite their optimism about what from my letterbox was a fairly ropey and derivative campaign, the Tories only achieved slightly more than the national swing. And again, despite the pressure of the squeeze and similarly adverse boundary changes, Rachael Hitchinson matched our 2005 vote share (a 0.5% rise on the notional figures) and secured a thousand more votes than the Lib Dems had ever polled in Cardiff West.

Still, there's no denying the local and national disappointment and I won't rehash the numbers, they've been on our screens in Technicolor for days. What happened? Clearly the Labour terror campaign in the last week had an effect, both on the policy front (I've certainly heard anecdotally that Labour pounded the marginals on immigration) and on the "Vote Clegg, Get Cameron" front. I jokingly posted on Facebook that Peter Hain's idea of tactical voting was people voting Labour in Lab-Lib marginals and that looks like what happened; I'm stunned that there's been no media mention of the fact that, despite the comparable 2006 elections not having General Election turnout, Labour gained over 400 council seats...

I also wonder what effect our sudden acquisition of an air war had on our normal strength on the ground. Again, the anecdotal evidence is of high levels on candidatitis which won't have helped, but equally I wonder if Cleggmania changed people's attitudes to the flood of leaflets from "I'm surprised by how much the Lib Dems have done for such a small party" to "Oh, the Lib Dems, they're a big party, no shock there". As a local party chair for a non-target seat, I was certainly surprised by the number of "I'm surprised I haven't seen anything from the Lib Dems" inquiries I was fielding.

But as Paddy said, the people have spoken, but we do not yet know what they have said. Mind you, given the number of factors they had to consider under the disgrace of an electoral system we continue to use, it wasn't so much speaking they had to do, more sending smoke signals in a cyclone. The pundits, meanwhile, haven't shut up, which is a shame because most of what they've spewed has been, to quote that other great sage Stephen Fry, arse-gravy of the highest order.

For starters, the 36.1% of voters who voted for a Conservative candidate did not by any means endorse the whole Conservative Party and everything it stands for. Strictly speaking, they only decided that the Conservative Party candidate in their constituency was preferable to all the other candidates standing there. Add in the fact that the Tory manifesto does not reflect the thoughts of the whole Conservative Party (as the number of them coming out of the woodwork to say that the reason they didn't win an overall majority was that the manifesto wasn't fascist enough tends to indicate) and you have a very muddled picture on the policy front. What's more, as this applies to all the parties equally, any statement beyond "these are the people who were elected and they should talk" appears highly speculative at best.

On the more general electoral reform question, the punditry has increasingly shown the credibility gap for a status quo for which there is simply no intellectual justification. No matter which direction you look from, the numbers are simply awful. For example, Tories may protest that they won a majority of seats in England, but look at how the regionalisation works the other way; in the South East, on 49.9% of the vote the Tories won 89.2% of the seats, and in the East, on 47.1% of the vote they won 89.6% of the seats! So in at least one respect, the Home Counties are positively Communist...

All we have left for FPTP, then, is the constituency link, which is itself thoroughly discredited. If it really let you boot out bad MPs, how do we explain the fact that the only place in the East of England with Labour MPs is Luton? And if the link between one MP and one constituency is so important, please show me an example of a vote in the House of Commons where any MP should have voted a particular way because it was manifestly and unambiguously in the interest of their constituents to do so...

It's fine for the Tory MPs themselves to ignorantly bang on about the status quo out of naked, corrupt self-interest (and by the way, not only is the Tory idea of electoral reform blatant gerrymandering, but what on Earth do they think it'll do to the MP-constituency link if I end up living, not in Cardiff West, but in the South Glamorgan 3rd District?) But for the pundits to be so ignorant of the intellectual case that any GCSE Politics student can understand is unconscionable.

Still, righteous or not, its the Tory MPs we have to work with. In that respect, Nick's handling of the situation has been exemplary and I've been hugely disappointed by the level of the outcry at the mere thought of working with the Tories. Right now, the constitution is what the constitution is and the maths is what the maths is. My sense is that our negotiating team is first class (Laws, Huhne, Alexander and Stunell IIRC) and that we should trust them to get on with it and judge their efforts on the document that emerges.

As for PR, yes, I want it; it's the reason I first became a Lib Dem. And as Paddy pointed out this morning, Cameron's initial offer of basically what Heath offered Thorpe is almost offensively low-balled. Still, the argument that coalitions must be shown to work before PR is introduced is not unreasonable and the possibility of a fully-proportional, strengthened second chamber is not inconsiderable either. On the one hand, I'd like to reiterate the point I made on Lib Dem Voice; even if the voters punish us for pushing too hard for PR (something which doesn't feel especially credible anyway) if we get it, that punishment can hardly be any worse than 9% of the seats on 23% of the vote!

Either way, there are things short of STV I think we should be able to accept, and the consequences of not accepting whatever ends up on the table are so complex as to be almost impossible to strategise. We should above all see what appears on that table before denouncing it.

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