2010-05-12

PM Cameron and the future of UK politics

David Cameron is the new UK Prime Minister. Good on him. He led the Conservative party to gain a plurality in seats and votes in the recent general election. Since I share the same surname as the new PM, I am also ever so slightly chuffed that the secret plan for world domination hatched centuries ago by the clan leaders is currently running well.

What makes the 2010 general election so unusual from Britain's history is that it has resulted in a hung parliament. The last time the UK elected a hung parliament was in February 1974 and it was so distasteful for everyone involved that they had to have another election in October 1974 to get rid of it. This time around, however, it appears as though a real workable coalition has been settled between Britain's largest political party, the Conservatives, and the third largest party, the Liberal Democrats. As a result, Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg's star has risen further and he has become deputy Prime Minister under Cameron.

This is all good news. As I have pointed out in previous posts (here and here) the electoral system used in the U.K. stinks to high heaven and should be replaced by a proportional system, my preferences being either STV or MMP. A reform of Britain's electoral system has been a central plank of Liberal Democrat policy since the 1983 election, which saw the Lib-Dems receive 25% of the votes but only 3.5% of the seats. I am hoping that Clegg was able to convince the Conservatives of the need to change the electoral system as a part of their coalition agreement, though I am not putting it past him to ditch it for the sake of his own personal ambitions (which would naturally include becoming Prime Minister at some later date).

I have read recently that the Conservative party faithful are dead against any reform of the political system of the sort promoted by the Liberal Democrats, mainly because it would result in a permanent "locking-out" of absolute power for their party. Their fears are not unfounded - a proportional system would rip away a quarter of the current conservatives seats in parliament and award them to Liberal Democrats or smaller parties. Yet it must be pointed out that, historically, the Conservatives are Britain's most popular political party. My own research into UK general elections since 1918 has shown that the Conservatives have, on average, won 40.9% of the vote. Labour comes second with 37.8%, the Liberals (in their various guises) are a distant third with an average of 14.8% with remaining parties and independents making up an average of 6.5%. Thus if any proportional system of government were introduced the Conservative Party would still control a sizeable portion of it, assuming the nation doesn't permanently abandon them.

The advantage of Proportional Representation (PR) is that it forces individuals and parties to compromise in order to pass legislation, assuming that one party does not control a majority of seats. This means that any political decisions that are made not only have to take into account the various political factions within the parties themselves, but upon the positions of other political parties. Without a clear majority, politicians in all parties need to work with each other - as opposed to against each other - in order to produce legislation that more represents the desires of the people.

And while the UK has yet to introduce a proportional system, this election has nevertheless brought about a hung parliament and an eventual coalition between two major parties who have chosen to rule together. In other words, what will be experienced under a proportional system is already being experienced by the current hung parliament.

As a recent visitor to a number of Lib-Dem forums (Liberal Democrat Voice and Social Liberal Forum) I have been struck by a sense of betrayal that many people are feeling that Clegg chose to align himself with Cameron and the Conservatives. The feeling is that the Lib-Dems have essentially become a de-facto arm of the Conservative party. Such a feeling is understandable but not very realistic, since it misunderstands the very nature of a coalition government (something that the UK has not experienced since 1929). In many ways I think that people simply hoped that Clegg would align himself with Labour since the two parties were closer together in political and economic ideology. Yet a Labour/Lib-Dem coalition would have its own problems, not least being the fact that the people of Britain rejected a Labour government after 13 years in power as a result of the recent election. Clegg had to form a coalition in order to promote stability and he obviously chose the party that was less likely to cause problems - not to mention that a Lib-Lab coalition would've required the inclusion of the various minor parties to gain a majority of seats to govern effectively (Labour seats + Lib-Dem seats = minority). Besides, the Liberal Democrats are a centrist party and their history includes the defection of Labour party members in 1983 whose politics were more moderate and less left wing than the party they defected from. In other words, the Lib-Dems, while promoting social liberalism, are not social democrats of the sort which dominates in the Labour Party. In practical terms this means - gasp - that some policies promoted by the Conservatives might seem quite sensible to their Lib-Dem coalition partners. Moreover, the Lib-Dems are big on civil liberties, and many would feel very uncomfortable in aligning themselves with the Labour party, who has spent the last 8-9 years eroding civil liberties.

What the Lib-Dems offer, though, is the ability to moderate Conservative legislation. There is no doubt that within the ranks of conservative politicians there are some who want to destroy the welfare state, eliminate the NHS, sell off government schools, kick out Muslims, cut taxes for top income earners and possibly even invade France. With the Lib-Dems controlling the balance of power, any legislation presented by the Conservatives that appears too radical would be nixed. In order for any sort of meaningful legislation to be passed, the Conservatives need to take into account the position of their coalition allies, which means that any legislation that will pass will more likely be centrist in nature.

Checks and Balances are important in moderating government power, and a coalition of parties in a Parliament is a natural check and balance. If the Conservatives try to force bad legislation down the Lib-Dem throats then there is always the threat that the Lib-Dems might dissolve the coalition and force either a minority government (Cameron remains as PM but he and the conservatives have little real power) or join together with Labour and the minor parties to form a centre-left coalition (which would result in a new Prime Minister, probably from the Labour party). Such moves would be a serious setback to Conservative power, so it is in the interests of the Tories to tread softly, negotiate intelligently and aim for consensus - political behaviour that has been sadly lacking in UK politics since, well, ever.

Of course there is the danger of Lib-Dem corruption. The financial backers of the Conservative party can quite easily begin throwing money and influence at the Lib-Dems. This would ensure the Lib-Dems becoming de-facto members of the Conservative party as time goes by, so it it important for the individuals who back the Lib-Dems to keep their politicians honest and accountable.

The real test of Lib-Dem influence will be in their ability to force electoral reform. Even if the Conservatives reject it outright, it is more than likely that reform would be backed by the minor parties (with the exception of the DUP who would lose out because of PR, and Sinn Fein who never turn up to Parliament). Together the Lib-Dems and the minor parties control about 71 seats - enough to form a voting bloc to force PR by refusing to sign any other legislation until their demands are met. A very aggressive strategy, of course, but it will force Labour and the Conservatives to either join the PR voting bloc (and thus have enough votes to pass any PR legislation) or, more amusingly, to create a loose Labour-Conservative coalition to pass legislation.

Apparently the agreement between the Conservatives and the Lib-Dems involves having a five year term, which means that the next UK general election should be held in 2015. These next five years will be a crucial test of whether the UK's political parties can actually work together to create meaningful and effective legislation, and especially whether the Lib-Dems can co-govern effectively. Considering what happened in 1974 and 1929, an eventual breakdown of the coalition and the calling of a new election is a real possibility.

The most pressing problem is the current economic downturn. The Conservative and Lib-Dem coalition need to fix up public finances and this will no doubt result mainly from spending cuts with a few tax rises added here and there. Will the Lib-Dems succeed in scrapping Trident and saving billions of pounds? You'll probably find that the Tories will seek help from Labour to prevent that from occurring. My own personal feeling is that UK public finances will still be a mess in five years since the Conservatives didn't exactly promote healthy fiscal policy even during the Thatcher and Major years (Thatcher's conservative credentials suffer at that point), meaning that the UK government was already deep in debt when Blair took over in 1997 (who, in turn, put the government into even more debt). In short I don't trust either the Conservatives or Labour in fixing up Britain's government debt, since neither party has any recent history of fiscal intelligence.

A second important issue is the introduction of Proportional Representation. Hopefully the 2015 election will be held under a MMP or STV electoral system. A national referendum on PR was one of the "non-negotiables" that Clegg presented to both Labour and Conservative parties as part of any coalition deal, but it remains to be seen whether the Lib-Dems will force the issue or end up becoming too in love with the new power granted to them. Will their deal with the Conservatives be the beginning of a new era in UK politics? Or will it turn out to be a deal with the devil? Only time will tell.

5 comments:

Ron Lankshear said...

Good to see they have formed a government. If Brown had fully resigned immediately then perhaps a Lab-Lib deal was possible but even then the numbers did not add up only a Con-Lib deal could lead to a feasible coalition. And I wish them well - two very talented young man - I am very happy for GB.

PR looks the most likely to be - is that what Hague meant by AV. I don't see the Lib scheme as likely to happen. PR is a danger to Tory - with old system a Lab and Lib standing in a closely split seat against a Tory could mean the Tory won - with a preference system a Lab or Lib would win.

What I see as likely from this is that supposing this coalition is a success then in 5 years Labour is likely to become the 3rd party.

Coalitions may be the way of the future

Eclipse Now said...

I checked out your link on the Cameron clan, and I don't care what tradition says, don't you ever turn up to my house wearing one of these, OK!?

http://tinyurl.com/2bkqpf5

So Neil,
I noticed your stickers for Social Liberalism... which I think pretty much sums us old boys up quite well. However, where on earth would we place this alliance?

One Salient Oversight said...

The sticker (actually a version of the Wikipedia "userbox") is more an expression of where I am politically, not which actual party I support.

The "alliance" between the Lib Dems and Conservatives will go where? I have no idea. There's no doubt that many policies will favour the right hand side and be pro-business and pro-market, but I don't think the Lib Dems will allow a descent into neo-Thatcherism.

All I want from this alliance is zero corruption, intelligent fiscal policy (a fiscal surplus MUST be a priority) and the maintenance of the NHS, government schools and a basic welfare system. Policies informed by Peak Oil and Global Warming are important too, but I don't expect too much in that direction.

Eclipse Now said...

They could do worse than Gen4 nuclear power: GE has the S-Prism planned out and it can be built on a factory line in smaller, 300MEW modular units much cheaper than the custom built approach we use today.

It's baseload power, it's much, much cheaper than attempting renewables with backup, it's almost ready to mass-produce cheaply, and it is a silver bullet that could run the world for the next 500 years on today's nuclear waste.

(By which time we may have cracked fusion, spray-on super cheap solar-nano-paint with super-batteries, or even space-based solar manufactured on the moon and maglev-rail-gunned into orbit... who knows?)

Add Fast-Rail to move trucks onto trains, and EV's everywhere, and it is a silver bullet for energy security, global warming, and peak oil.

Integral Fast Reactors would eventually burn up the world's nuclear waste (in about 500 years) and the reprocessed REAL waste left over this burns itself back to safe levels in 300 years.

Cool hey?

One Salient Oversight said...

I'm still not sold on nuclear, though I obviously am closer than I was, say, 2 years ago.

The UK has a better integrated transport system than Australia has. Public transport is essential for anyone who lives and works in London.

It would be great if the Tube system was expanded out further, thus increasing the spread of public transport and the demand for medium density housing. But I doubt that the conservatives would support that. UK Labour spent the last 13 years not doing anything about it so I can't see anyone doing that soon.

But you never know - they might surprise us.