As the campaign to modernise British voting staggers toward ignominious defeat, there’s much messy background to take into account. The Royal Marriage is about the only element of national life that anyone feels good about — and even that isn’t the majority position that the drooling tabloids suggest.
Essentially, there’s a regime in power in Britain which most people didn’t want. And at the 2010 hustings, the leaders didn’t even tell those who did like them what their real plans might be. Such rule by unloved minority is just what Alternative Vote systems make less likely — which it’s why it’s suggested as replacement for the first-past-the-post. (If we stick with the FPTP metaphor, a pie-eating prize could be won by he who actually eats least pies.) Britain currently has a FPTP system and the proposal is to replace it with a preferential system not dissimilar to Australia’s.
But as practical misfortune the suggestion for an AV referendum came from the Liberal Democrats, now massively loathed by non-conservative voters for treating the hung parliament of 2010 as an opportunity to grab office by kissing the feet of David Cameron and his feral financial henchpersons.
True it would have been hard, maybe impossible, for the Lib Dems to join with Labour. But the Lib Dems should have refused — as a condition of support — to join and allow Cameron’s untruthful, unpatriotic claim that Britain’s public finances had been ruined by Labour’s social spending. What caused the ruin was a berserk financial sector. Using the consequences of this and the global financial crisis to justify an assault on welfare is a cynical move. It has yielded the bitter verdict that current policy is calculated to impose a repair bill on those least responsible for the damage.
That is the judgment of the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, no less.
And it’s why Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, can’t find any modestly-left-of-centre Brits willing to tell him the time by his own watch. The new Labour leader, Ed Miliband, strongly favours AV, but refused to join any platform which he might have to share with Clegg.
Those Labour figures joining the Tories in support of the status quo included John Reid, Jack Straw and Margaret Beckett, companions in all Tony Blair’s most shaming hours and rarely any of his finer ones.
In this reign of cordial dislike between all major players it should be no surprise that the debate was uniformly cretinous. The "No" compaign relied heavily on wild assertions that AV would inject life into neo-fascists like the British National Party. They could not find any serious pollsters or political scientists to support their maths. Most people know that anyone who could revive BNP could revive vaudeville.
To this they added claims based on the ancient British idea of Australia as a land of fable: viz., asserting that a campaign exists in Australia to do away with preferential voting. Well, maybe some things are only visible from the other side of the world. Their tabloid supporters worked on the known fact that Australians are occupied 90 per cent of the time in drunken barbies, which in elections-time are suppressed by coppers carting insensate boozers to the polls.
But this was easily outdone by the "Yes" campaign, which ran ads on TV seeking to prove that any group trying to enter a pub would never make it by first-past-the-post voting. Rarely has the ability of the British citizen been so disparaged. A rare sane intervention came from the US when Rob Richie of the Fair Vote think-tank pointed out that in Australia’s past two elections voters faced an average of six candidates in each constituency but every winner won with a majority. A far cry, he added, "from the UK, where in 2010 more than half of seats were won with less than 50 per cent of the vote."
In this sourly mendacious atmosphere the pseudo-coalition (actually Tory) government stumbles from blunder to blunder — "cock-ups", as the Financial Times regularly calls them, usage never so familiar to its readers as now.
Cameron and Co have regularly said that their aim is to reshape British society — but they demonstrate very un-Tory ignorance of its essential nature. It was a bizarre to fancy that citizens of Middle England would welcome the notion of Britain’s modest reserves of forest and wilderness being flogged off to speculators. It’s doubtful Margaret Thatcher would have proposed such a rip-off, and it has been arrested by a "pause for thought" which — given the Cabinet’s speed of ratiocination may prove permanent.
Far more serious is the reform of the National Health Service — not a subject which was discussed by the Tories in the election, or remotely imagined by the Liberals now supporting them. There are furious denials that it’s a privatisation scheme, but no sensible person believes them: saliva from US corporate health-managers is running to deep in the streets.
Writing last year in New Matilda, I argued that Tories were gripped by desire to re-install the ideological fancies of Hayek, Reagan and Thatcher, and to secure them against the consequences of another credit debacle. (They perhaps suspect that another instance could be fatal indeed.)
This could only be achieved by maintaining their ability to manipulate Britain’s grossly unrepresentative electoral practices. It looks like that aim has been successful.
But I also said that most British Tories — and more so the middling majority — will resist the idea of wrecking a society in order to save it (or at least to save its bankers). In spite of his referendum success, it looks as though David Cameron — whose pre-political experience was limited to public-relations work for a second-rate TV company — looks like a man whose nerves are playing up.
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