Monday, 12 April 2010

A Hung Parliament

The Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru (their Welsh counterparts) have agreed a joint strategy in the event that the UK General Election on May the 6th fails to give a major UK party a working majority in the House of Commons. That is, they will support the legislative programme of whichever UK party agrees to increase central government funding to the Scottish and Welsh administrations by a minimum of hundreds of millions of pounds, even though whoever wins, they will need to reduce overall UK government spending by tens of billions of pounds. They have not said that this is conditional on the legislative programme being good, bad or indifferent: if they are paid, they will support it and thereby make the paying party the UK government.

Medawar's question to these two parties is simple: if you propose to start from a position of complete moral indifference, where on Earth do you expect to end up?

The Liberal Democrats, amid a shower of trite counsels of perfection, cheap shots and solutions that threaten to cost a great deal more than any problem, are effectively promising to support a minority Labour government, on the sole condition that the Labour leader, Gordon Brown, steps down and is replaced by someone else.
So, they propose that instead of a Prime Minister that only a minority (but just short of a majority) voted in the expectation of getting, they will work to ensure that we get a Prime Minister whom none of the electorate even knew to be a possibility at the time they voted. The Liberal Democrats like to say that the British electoral system is flawed, and it may be that it is, but no electoral system on Earth is as flawed as the moral logic here.

The Conservatives are staking everything on winning an outright majority and do not have a credible, or any, plan for a hung Parliament. This is probably why the SNP and Plaid Cymru have put themselves up for unconditional sale to the highest bidder, because they calculate that the Conservatives will have no option but to buy.

The trouble with either the Conservatives buying enough Nationalist votes to govern, or Labour making a blood sacrifice of its leader to gain Liberal Democrat support for a government led by, well, it could be almost anyone, is that in both cases the resulting coalition will legislate as if it had a genuine working majority, ie: very badly indeed.
Over the past thirty years, fully half of the UK's avoidable problems have stemmed from slack draughting of proposed legislation going uncorrected as bills are forced through by a big majority, followed by cries of woe and denial from the party supposedly in charge when the courts proceed to interpret those bills, now law, in almost any manner except that advertised and expected. Our problem hasn't been with Labour or Conservative ideology, but from the almost illiterate manner in which both have put pen to paper when making laws.

The best possible outcome, for the country, would be a hung parliament with the balance of power held, not by self-prostituting nationalists or opportunistic Liberal Democrats, but by a good tranche of independent members of Parliament.

If, say, there's a twelve seat difference between Labour and Conservatives after the election, and twenty to thirty independents, all with differing ideological positions which will tend to cancel each other out, then those independents will have to be convinced by each piece of legislation on its merits. It is most unlikely that any of them will support legislation written, as by both John Major and Tony Blair, with the express intent of concealing its true purpose, nor will they support legislation written on the assumption that Prime Ministerial intent will communicate itself into law by sheer willpower rather than by careful and articulate phrasing. (See Margaret Thatcher, Gordon Brown and quite probably David Cameron.)

In other words, a balance held by independents will indeed be a balance, and it can swing on any bill that doesn't do something that's actually clearly necessary, sets out unambiguous measures for doing so and contains no hidden loopholes or flaws. This is the very definition of good government and it's what we have not seen, regardless of ideological positions, for a generation.

And Medawar's other thought on the forthcoming election is this, debate on whether or not the Labour Party is fit for government begs a more interesting question: is the Labour Party even less fit for opposition than for government?

The Party has considerable internal tension between different factions ideologically (and also between personalities who simply hate each other) and the Party's huge financial problems have been kept at bay only by massive and cynical donations from vested interests, who have nothing to gain by throwing money at a party not in power. It is clear that in many ways, the Labour Party is held together by being in government, and as soon as it is not in government, it will splinter in all directions.

A Conservative government, whether with a working majority or some sort of coalition for hire, will probably not be a wholly good thing (it never has been before) and the national interest will require it to be constantly checked from folly and held to account for mistakes. This duty, and the British Constitutional system relies on political opposition rather than tolerating it, as in Russia or the USA, cannot be performed by a party in the throes of its own private civil war.

Labour voters should vote Labour if, as polling day approaches, it still looks as if their party has a chance. But if it doesn't look as if Labour can come anywhere near governing in its own right, and bearing in mind that its only likely coalition partner wants a destabilizing change of leadership as the opening payment for its support, then Labour voters have a duty to consider how much worse a Conservative government can be if it is not held in check by an effective opposition. That might be UKIP's moment, because although it's a huge stretch for a brand new party to become a government, a new-born party might make an effective opposition, whilst a dying one cannot.

British politics depends on the opposition to work, and it's the failure of opposition that has enabled the failure of government over the past two to three decades. For example, our current economic woes are largely the result of John Major, as Chancellor, effectively biasing the housing market towards "buy to let" speculators instead of first time home owners, who might have stabilised things. But the Labour opposition didn't oppose this measure with any energy, and when they came to power themselves, in 1997, they did nothing to correct his mistake, and it took them until 2004 to admit even to themselves that something bad was happening, by which time the bubble had grown so big they were terrified to prick it. In 2008, it burst of its own accord. But the cause, tax breaks for speculators, still hasn't been addressed and the process could yet be repeated in every bloody detail.

Whether Labour voters think they like UKIP or not isn't really the issue. If their own party still looks in with a chance, they wouldn't and shouldn't dream of voting for UKIP instead. But if their party has clearly blown it by about May the fourth, their best option, logically but not emotionally, is to vote for a party that will constructively oppose the Conservatives from the word go, rather than spend the next ten years fighting itself to the death. After eighty years on the sidelines after giving us the most corrupt government in our history, it's a bit unlikely that the Liberals are going to suddenly move centre stage and act constructively.

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