Monday, May 29, 2017

Third way

Corbyn is not quite the poisoned brand that he was. Over the last week or two, increasing numbers of people have given him a long hard look, particularly in the light of May's performance, and have come to the conclusion that he might be prime ministerial material. Also, the Labour manifesto was popular - people in general seem to regard it, as intended, as a manifesto of hope. But Corbyn's personal rating is still substantially lower than May's, and there are doubts that the commitments made in the manifesto can be funded. The right-wing press have grilled opposition politicians (Farron over homosexuality, Corbyn over the IRA) in a way that they simply haven't the tories. Hitherto, Corbyn has not suffered too much, but in the aftermath of the Manchester bombing, it's hard to know what impact public perception of attitudes to security issues will have.

Meanwhile, from having all but an absolute majority of the electorate in their hands (having hoovered up the UKIP votes following their pretty much wholescale adoption of their policies and attitudes), the Conservatives have seen their lead in the polls gradually slipping away. Their manifesto seems to have been one of the major causes - but it was symptomatic of a general sense that they conveyed that they could say pretty much whatever they liked, and they would still sweep to victory. Foxhunting, massive personal liability for the cost of social care, grammar schools, ID required to vote - get it all out there. But drip by drip, the united opposition to this platform from schools, the health service, and really anybody who was prepared to think about the implications of the proposed policies seems to have got through to increasing numbers of people, and the lines in the sand of more and more of the electorate were being crossed.

What we are left with, seemingly, is one group of people saying "vote Conservative, they may be bad, but we can't have Corbyn" whilst the other group, to a much greater extent than I have noticed in any previous election, are saying "anything but the tories!" The shame about this is that, after the last two elections (LibDem in 2010, UKIP in 2015) we really don't have the sense of there being a coherent alternative to Labour and Conservative, at least publicly. There has been small-scale co-operation in some constituencies, with tactical voting being encouraged in some marginal seats. It would be nice to think that this would make a substantial difference - and if the polls get closer, maybe it will make enough of one.

But imagine a parliament shaped by proper proportional representation - even with the polls as they are today. Something like 290 Conservative, 250 Labour, 60 Liberal, 25 UKIP, 25 others. There need not be a coalition, though that's one way of dealing with the situation. There could just as easily be a minority government. What would happen is that the party manifestos would be all but irrelevant - the government would have to work with other parties to make things happen. Can they do that? Of course they can! That's what happened with the calling of the early election, and the agreement of parliament to approve the invocation of Article 50. The leading party (which forms the government) makes the case for something, and persuades parliament of the rightness of the proposed actions. They win the argument, rather than assuming that the electoral mandate that they received (for all sorts of reasons) justifies whatever they want to do.

The 2010 government came closest to this, although the effect of the coalition is that this "winning of the argument" took place within the coalition government, rather than by parliament. The consensus is still that those five years represented a period of effective government, and certainly preferable to what we have had since. A significant number of Liberal policies were introduced, and many illiberal Conservative policies - ID cards, for example - were dumped.

The Labour party have muttered about electoral reform in the run up to the publication of their manifesto, and this report suggests three quarters of their voters might support reform. The trouble is that if you have gained power under the current system, you have a strong reason to preserve it. Theresa May in particular seems intent on using this election as a power-grab - her intention in going to the polls was apparently to silence opposition in parliament (incidentally this statement, made at the time she called the election, made my hair stand on end - that is democracy, no?!). Her manifesto is talking about disenfranchising those without passports and driving licences (that's mostly the poor), and if Scotland left the union, the Conservatives would be virtually unassailable in England. Of course, the tories would say that an end to the Union is not what they want ... but if they happened to be left with political control of the rich south, that would make it sweeter. If the pendulum swings back far enough, and Labour return to parliament with a bigger share, it's not hard to imagine that PR would drop off their radar again. They will continue to be an ineffective opposition, as they have been for the last two years, but happy that they ARE still the opposition.

The best outcome would be for the FPTP system to deliver the distribution of votes that would result in this happening in parliament naturally. With Labour weakened, there was some hope for a while that there might be serious opposition to the Conservatives from several parties - that would have been another goodish outcome - imagine 330 Conservative, 200 Labour, 80 Liberal (as people swing away from Labour in indifference to Corbyn and their ability to mount an opposition), 60 other. But as Labour have got stronger, this has looked less likely, unfortunately.

I suspect that local results will have more of an impact on this election than on many recent ones. I hope so. The assumption has to be that the Conservatives have soaked up pretty much all of the UKIP vote, and so everything that can be done to constrain the mixture of right-wing (which shapes the tory government) and complacent apathy (which shapes most of the tory vote) should be done. My fears for this election are that it could prove a one-way street for some very unpleasant changes to British society. My hopes are that people will, to quote Sheenagh Pugh:
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.
But I'm not holding my breath

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