Thinking a few steps ahead

posted by Kaihsu Tai on April 27th, 2010

(To appear in Issue 2 of the Oxford Left Review.)

‘One of the most encouraging developments in the emergent intellectual space […] has been a new willingness to advocate the Necessary rather than the merely Practical.’ – Mike Davis, Who will build the ark? New Left Review 61 (January/February 2010)

Political events since mid-2009, especially the parliamentary expenses scandal, accentuated long-standing symptoms in the British body politic, eliciting predictions of doom (in the form of further voter disengagement, among others) and calls for reform. Among these, many an opinion poll suggested the possibility of a hung Parliament, and many a campaign group called for a referendum on reforming the electoral system of first-past-the-post (FPTP). Peter Tatchell outlined the case for electoral reform in the inaugural issue of this Review. Beyond this, the wide Left ought also to think a few more steps ahead.

Politics may be the art of the possible, full of contingencies and often driven by chronological events. In contrast, statesmanship requires identifying turning points, grasping the kairos moment, and making the seemingly-impossible happen. ‘You never want a serious crisis to go to waste’, as Rahm Emanuel said. Rather than simply being pushed by the waves of political events, it is advisable for those of us on the progressive side of the political spectrum – who still believe in the power of politics, both to hold our society together and for positive change – to plan and prepare for the consequences of a possible hung Parliament and a referendum on electoral reform.

Hung Parliament

To start, we need to recognize that, as Vernon Bogdanor pointed out in a recent talk in Oxford, that the House of Lords is now permanently ‘hung’. A new constitutional convention for Britain is emerging where no party enjoys majority in that chamber of Parliament. Electoral arithmetic – in a variety of systems – has so far produced similar results in the devolved assemblies and the Scottish Parliament. A ‘hung’ Parliament – in truth, a newly-‘hung’ House of Commons in addition to the other place – may present itself after the next general election. In this section, I will deal with the immediate consequences of this. (This will accentuate the issues with FPTP and electoral system reform; that I will treat in the next section.)

A possible scenario is a Tory (plus Liberal Democrat?) plurality a few seats short of a majority. The Liberal Democrats, or (an)other smaller party(ies), may be in a position to be the kingmaker. For simplicity of argument, I will take an unlikely scenario where the Conservatives are one seat short of majority and – in the hope of forming a coalition Government – offering a Cabinet post to a Green; more complicated exercises are left for the reader – especially Liberal Democrats, who need to think through this carefully – but the point to be made is the same.

The Tories – in this unlikely scenario – then offer a Cabinet post to Caroline Lucas (winning Brighton Pavilion) with portfolio for the environment (or energy and climate change). Hedging against this, the Tories say the alternative is a post for Nick Griffin (also winning in his Barking constituency) with a portfolio for home affairs. What is this new Green MP to do? Relinquishing this offer means the British National Party will have control over the policing, the state databases, and migration – not an attractive prospect. But if the Cabinet post is worth taking, what would be the red line be in the negotiation? That is to say, under what undesirable circumstances are you willing threaten to leave Government and/or withdraw supply and confidence?

The Irish Greens recently learnt this lesson the hard way. Their holding (and holding on to) the environment portfolio meant having to endorse new motorways over ecologically-sensitive sites, a decision made under another portfolio but held by Cabinet collective resposibility rules, unless the Greens are open to the prospect of leaving Government and returning the Opposition benches. Reluctant to do this, Greens there are at risk of becoming the ‘Mudguard of the Republic’, an unenviable office of State last held by the Irish Labour Party, whose electoral fortunes took a full decade to recover.

There is a feasible workaround to the problem of Westminster-style Cabinet collective responsibility in a coalition Government context. In New Zealand, after the upheaval of electoral reform (see below), the politicians arrived at an arrangement of ‘confidence and supply’, including the possibility of Cabinet posts for minor parties without share in collective responsibility, but rather with direct reporting to the Prime Minister.

A similar arrangement has been common practice in Germany, with the portfolio of foreign affairs given to the junior partner in Government, held variously by the Greens, the Socialists, and now the Liberals. Still, such an arrangement is not necessarily easy for the junior partner in Government: recall one of the turning point in post-Second World War German history was Joschka Fischer having to defend his military deployment in Yugoslavia in front of a rowdy conference of his own party.

These German, Irish, and Kiwi experiences should be object lessons for us in Britain: What is the Liberal Democrat foreign policy? It may become the British foreign policy, perhaps even as soon as this summer. And if one is in the position of the junior partner: What would the red line be in the negotiations? Are the electorate and party members at large entitled to know beforehand? How well-prepared do we want to be when this happens?

Electoral reform and party realignment

In April 2009, many were worried that the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa would get 67 % of parliamentary seats, thus wielding unchallenged constitution-amending powers. But in Britain, one-party state is not a far-fetched threat but the status quo. Since there is no entrenched, codified constitution, the governing party – even one elected by a minority of the popular vote – can ram through any legislation, even those of constitutional importance, through Parliament without consensus from any other party.

Had the ANC won its constitution-amending powers, it would have garnered two-thirds of the popular vote. Not so in Britain: the pathological FPTP electoral system, rather than encouraging consensus, facilitates a minority imposing its unchecked will over the majority with the impunity of a steamroller. (For example, in May 2009, we saw the retention of innocent people’s DNA data, pushed through the Commons, would have been judicially ruled unconstitutional had a written constitution so provided.)

This is the root of the toxic climate of political alienation and apathy now prevailing in Britain. Despite this sort of hurdles, political breakthrough has come from surprising quarters. The United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) emerged as the second-largest British party in the European Parliament election last June, garnering 16.5 % of the popular vote, second only to the Tories at 27.7 % and ahead of Labour’s 15.7 %.

Regardless of whether we agree with Ukip, it is a political innovator. To start, it revived and sharpened the traditional Tory–imperial rhetoric, offering an ersatz alliance of the interests of the parochial, jingoistic petty bourgeoisie and lumpenproletariat on one part, with those of the globalized, Anglospheric élite on the other. More important, Ukip broke away from its Conservative ideological cousin, despite the constraints of the FPTP system for the Westminster elections which has dominated national politics. It took advantage of the more-proportional electoral system offered by the elections at the European level, though paradoxically it aimed to dismantle this.

Again, the experience in New Zealand offers an object lesson of what may come in British politics after electoral reform. In 1996, the electoral system for the House of Representatives (the only chamber in the Kiwi parliament) changed from FPTP to an additional-member system (there named ‘Mixed Member Proportional’). After some initial partisan discomfort, new alignments emerged with smaller parties which have more ideological clarity.

This process of party realignment, though transiently painful, is ultimately healthy for the body politic. There are two or three ‘parties of conviction’ within each of the larger existent parties in Britain, waiting for the right time to break out. A realignment similar to that experienced by New Zealand may happen here with small parties of conviction breaking out of existing ones, favouring consensus (internal and external to each party) rather than electoral expediency. Ideological clarity, in a system with fewer ‘wasted votes’, offers the best prospect of re-engaging the voters and boosting turnout.

In preparation for this process after the upcoming electoral system reform, generous statesmen and stateswomen would do well to start identifying friends across party lines. People we can do business with in other parties – either in a hung Parliament scenario, in the upheaval of partisan realignment; or in the subsequent consensual, coalition Government (or Opposition). Party-internal groups such as Compass, Green Left, the Beveridge Group, Green Liberal Democrats, and the Co-operative Party will play important roles in this scheme. It would be good to seize the opportunity and sketch out some plans for it … behold: on the other side of the political spectrum, they seem to be doing this already (e.g. Ukip).

Consensus Parliament with power-sharing

Partisan realignment does not occur without labour pains. Loyalty to one’s own party, in the right measure, ensures strategic coherence and is often admirable. But, as I hope I have sketched out, a time may come when the greater goal of national and societal Common Good calls for – and warrants – the sacrifice of such loyalty for a time.

The current partisan configuration in Britain is not divinely ordained, but an ecology that developed within the existent electoral systems. Likewise, the actual fissures within each existent parties during the realignment process, while not random but with deep ideological roots, are still to be determined. These are to be called by the most astute stateswomen and statesmen with foresight in each party, if they are not barely to be driven by haphazard events. Take my own political tradition – the Greens – as an example: the ideological differences between Realo and Fundi, or (vulgo) ‘spikes’ and ‘fluffs’, has more than one time rend Green parties apart: in Germany, in the Netherlands, in Mexico, and now (lo!) in Ireland.

Such ideological undercurrents are not absent in other parties; taking the other two from the wide Left: The oft-heard accusations of Liberal Democrat ‘fence-sitting’ may come from the ideological dialectic between internal factions: one with neoliberal/libertarian instincts, the other social-democrat. Within the Labour Party, various configuration are possible: New and Old, Third Way versus Civil Republican, Mainstream against Militant; this dynamically-changing landscape awaits able and adroit hands to mould and then to hold.

The realignment may be a scary prospect for partisans, but the outcome for the whole of Britain can be better than the status quo. The adversarial nature of the Westminster Parliament, stemming from the incidental architectural heritage of Saint Stephen’s Chapel and reinforced by the FPTP electoral system, has sometimes become a gratuitous two-sided shouting match, caricatured as a Punch and Judy show. This contrasts (as Norman Davies explained in an appendix of his work of haute vulgarisation, Europe: A History) with the European continental political culture of the Hemicycle, expressed (again) architecturally in the layout of the debating chamber of the European Parliament – and in these isles, the Dáil and the Scottish Parliament.

As the Peace Process in Northern Ireland rolled on, the new U-shaped chamber in Stormont prophesied a move away from sectarian two-sidedness. An otherwise-unlikely but constitutionally-mandated permanent coalition Government, holding two parties from the extrema of the political spectrum, projects the peculiar effect of holding the society together. Britain can borrow from this culture of consensus and power-sharing in the neighbouring island. The new-format Westminster Hall debates in Parliament herald such a move, both architectually and politically, to a more hemicyclical arrangement.

This is what a constitution ought to do: to hold the society together, no matter who is in Government. A hung Parliament would give us an opening to consider – with due care – not only the designs of our electoral system, but also the wider scheme for this constitutional telos. Imagine a more generous, more vibrant politics in Britain. More diversity of opinions with smaller, coherent parties; accompanied with ideological conviction on the one hand, and consensus-building on the other. In all, much less partisan bickering and decisions driven by triangulation and crude expediency. A Britain where a ‘Government of All Talents’ is no longer a contrived piece of rhetoric, but naturally unfolds from the healthy constitution of the body politic. For the good of our country, let’s prepare for it. Let’s work towards it.

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One Comment

  1. On May 17, 2010 at 18:46 Kaihsu Tai said:

    Professor Vernon Bogdanor asked in the Times (March 2009): ‘Why not talk to the Lib Dems before the election, Mr Brown?’