Who is to blame?
The election that never should have happened is over, and the result, almost every pundit is saying, will gift the Tories the country (or what subsequently remains of it) for the whole of the Twenties, for no Opposition has ever come back from such a bad defeat in a single election.
That instant wisdom may, or may not be true. It’s not even the immediate question. We need to apportion blame before we can work out what to do. Which is where it all gets very tricky. Because who, or what is to blame rather depends on who or what you want to blame. The left, the right, centrists, dads or otherwise, the media, old people, feminists, fascists, immigration, bigotry, fake news, globalisation, take your pick. If you don’t fancy any of those I’ve got plenty more excuses for the fact that the least suitable Prime Minister of my lifetime, and I’ve seen some shockers, is now safely tucked up in Downing Street for five years or more.
So I’m not going to apportion blame to any of the actors in this tragedy. The quicker the losers shuffle off stage, the better. Instead let’s look at the causes of the Tory-Brexit ascendency.
All across the world we see unhappy populations causing political upsets. The Middle East and North Africa is in tumult, from Turkey through Eastern and Central Europe we see people turning to ‘strong men’ promising national pride and traditional values. The Superpowers, (and the ex-superpower with nukes), currently favour leaders with little appetite for democratic norms. Then there’s India, Brazil, the Philippines – the list seems endless. Why should Britain be immune from the contagion?
We aren’t, we can’t. However, what we do have, in common with the USA, is a mature democracy which not even the experience of war has shaken. That’s supposed to be what gets us through difficult times.
And I think that our current crisis speaks to the failure of our democracy.
The British Constitution is a ‘bodge job’, a bit like the Palace of Westminster itself. It looks fantastic. Great location, (fake) Gothic drama, a swoon of flying buttresses, thrones, Woolsacks, Black Rod, Sergeants at Arms. But it’s falling down, not fit for purpose, riddled with vermin, dry rot, flooded basements, crumbling ceilings, and too small for the job.
Walter Bagehot, a Spin Doctor of the Victorian Era, told a comforting tale of the British Constitution evolving to meet the needs of changing times, whilst preserving the essence of government through Parliament. No need for a founding document, no need for revolutions, stable government in perpetuity guaranteed by the Crown in Parliament.
And we’ve all sort of bought into this nonsense. We lobby, we petition, we hold demonstrations and marches, and write to our MPs. If we are in parties we contest elections, thinking, somehow, that we need one more heave, one more twist left, or right, better organisation, more members, more money.
But look honestly at our system. It’s not working.
The referendums of 2014 and 2016 showed us exactly what was wrong.
The binary nature of the votes combined with the nebulous nature of the questions meant that each campaign could be about anything the voters wanted. To be fair to supporters of Scottish nationalism, they have a clear nationalist agenda, and well developed plans for a new Scottish Constitution, and for the challenges and consequences of independence. The Brexiters had nothing. But in 2014 the thrill of the referendum campaign for many voters lay in the fact that they could project anything they wanted onto it. The campaign was frequently a rejection of ‘Austerity’ and a song of praise to the NHS. Neither of which has anything much to do with a major constitutional change.
A similar scenario played out in 2016 in England and Wales, albeit with more savage rancour, and actually, at least in England, with much more vicious nationalism. But what both referendums had in common was that, unlike elections, they seemed to promise fast and major change that would deliver voters from their problems at a single bound.
Because British democracy isn’t working. It is a rigged system designed to concentrate power in the capital, and to ensure almost perpetual Tory rule. This is what has frustrated voters. That meaningful change, and government responsiveness to voters’ problems is so slow and inadequate.
I first reached that conclusion as a canvasser in the 1983 general election, the last election in which the left were in the ascendency in the Labour Party, and in which the party was lucky to survive in second place, narrowly defeating the SDP-Liberal Alliance (the Tories had a majority then of 144 seats). My memories of that election are mainly of arguing with my fellow canvassers about the electoral system. Wasn’t it time for a PR system?
Had Blair won narrowly in 1997 he would probably have introduced some form of PR. It was a part of a constitutional reform programme which included devolution. But a landslide victory swept away the immediate pressure for change, which, for me at least, was one of the reasons for becoming a Blair-sceptic well before the Iraq war.
That was the last opportunity to have a fair voting system. And it has made me sceptical about relying on a political party that wins office under FPTP ever delivering voting reform.
Which is the point of this reflection on yesterday’s nightmare election result.
The Tories and Brexiters, and Labour and the other second referendumers, got a roughly equal share of the votes. The Tories will disappoint their voters, inevitably, and the other parties have also disappointed their voters. The cycle continues, with voting producing earthquakes that usually change little, and power remains centralised, and remote.
However, the last 4 years have seen the emergence of a mass movement resisting Brexit. For all that there were campaigns like the People’s Vote Campaign, and others, mostly the movement was highly localised and grass roots, crossing party lines. Tellingly, nothing comparable emerged on the Brexit side.
So I’d like to make a suggestion to people who want to renew our democracy, and to make it responsive and fit for purpose. Change the anti-Brexit movement into a movement for constitutional change, starting with (but not ending with) voting reform.
12th December was a bad day for Britain. But it could be the point at which things finally begin to change.