Clegg misses chance to change face of British politics

By Calvin Palmer

After days of uncertainty following the inconclusive general election result in the United Kingdom, and a meeting between the three major parties, the country now has a new government and Prime Minister.

As leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons, the Conservative Party’s David Cameron takes up the highest office in the land in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. Leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg will serve as deputy Prime Minister.

For the vast majority of the electorate in the United Kingdom, a coalition government will be a completely new experience. It is 70 years since the country was last governed in this manner with Churchill’s wartime coalition government. The nearest thing to a coalition government in recent times was the Labour-Liberal pact of March 1977, but the Liberal Party held no Cabinet positions.

The political climate of the UK in recent months suggested that former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the Labour Party were living on borrowed time. Voters in any country become tired of the same party being in power for more than ten years and Labour had held the reins of power for 13 years.

The mood was for change but in David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, people had doubts about his lack of experience and the legacy of previous Conservative administrations still leaves a nasty taste in many people’s mouths.

In this General Election, the Liberal Democrats did what they usually do – hold a few dozen seats but never posed a real threat of forming the next government. However, the Conservatives with 306 seats in the House of Commons were 20 seats short of forming a government in their own right and suddenly the 57 seats held by the Liberal Democrats held greater import.  The party was cast in the role of king maker.

Labour, with 258 seats, could still retain hopes of governing the country with Liberal Democrat support, but the support of nationalist MPs would also have been needed to secure an overall majority. It was a faint if somewhat unrealistic hope.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats entered into negotiations and agreement was reached yesterday. One of the bargaining positions of the Liberal Democrats was an agreement by the Conservatives to hold a referendum on electoral reform.

One of the faults of the British system is that the number of seats held by the parties does not reflect the popular vote. The Convervatives won 306 seats and gained 36.1 percent of the popular vote in this General Election; Labour 258 seats and 29 percent; and the Liberal Democrats 57 seats and 23 percent. Labour’s 6 percent larger share of the vote brings the party five times the number of seats than the Liberal Democrats gained.

At the constituency level, the geographic areas represented by a Member of Parliament, the first-past-the-post system works fine when there are only two parties contesting a seat but throws the concept of democracy into disarray with more than two parties.

For instance, the Stoke-on-Trent Central constituency in my hometown returned the following result:

Tristram Hunt Labour 12,605 38.8 -13.6
John Redfern Liberal Democrat 7,039 21.7 +3.1
Norsheen Bhatti Conservative 6,833 21.0 +3.7
Simon Darby British National Party 2,502 7.7 +0.1
Carol Lovatt UK Independence Party 1,402 4.3 +1.1
Paul Breeze Independent 959 3.0 +3.0
Gary Elsby Independent 399 1.2 +1.2
Brian Ward City Independents 303 0.9 +0.9
Alby Walker Independent 295 0.9 +0.9
Matthew Wright Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition 133 0.4 +0.4

 

It is instantly apparent that more people voted against the winning candidate than for him, so can he truly say that he represents the electorate?

In the Hazel Grove constituency where I lived for more than 20 years the result was as follows:

Andrew Stunell Liberal Democrat 20,485 48.8 -1.5
Annesley Abercorn Conservative 14,114 33.6 +3.3
Richard Scorer Labour 5,234 12.5 -3.6
John Whittaker UK Independence Party 2,148 5.1 +1.9

 

Once again, more people voted against the winning candidate.

A system of preferential voting should be introduced where voters rank their choice of candidate. If the first choice votes give one candidate 50.5 percent of the votes cast, they are duly elected. If not then second and third choices are taken into consideration until a candidate emerges with 50.5 percent of the vote and represents the majority of voters.

Such a system may well be time consuming but it would make every voters vote count and would adhere to the underlying principle of democracy whereby the majority holds sway.

The Liberal Democrat Party has the most to gain from electoral reform and yet it has committed to a coalition that only seeks to call a referendum on voting reform. Nick Clegg should have driven a harder bargain. What if the electorate ultimately rejects voting reform? Clegg and the Liberal Democrats will be back where they have always been – mere onlookers when it comes to national government.

Clegg should have insisted that, within the lifetime of this coalition government, legislation be introduced to put in place a new and fairer voting system. And if he wanted to drive a really hard bargain, Clegg should have insisted within the first session of this new Parliament.

By accepting the Conservative leader’s pledge to a referendum, on voting reform, Clegg has missed out on an opportunity to forever change the face of British politics, and a change for the better. Now, the hope for electoral reform has to be entrusted to the British people and one wonders whether they will deliver.

[Election results courtesy of BBC News.]

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