Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Avoiding the need for divine intervention

It used to be said that the Anglican Church was the Tory Party at prayer.  There is an old joke about an Anglican priest preparing the service for the Sunday after a General Election before he knew the result, and he was struggling to choose an appropriate hymn.  In the end, he decided to choose three alternative options.  If the Tories won, it would be Now thank we all our God, whilst a Labour victory would be followed by Oh Lord our help in ages past.  In the event of a Liberal victory, the congregation would sing The Lord moves in a mysterious way.
Divine intervention of the mysterious kind is probably the minimum requirement for a Lib Dem victory in the upcoming election, so the chances of them being called upon to actually implement their latest Brexit policy – revoke the Article 50 letter without a public vote – are, to put it mildly, on the low side.  In fairness, though, Cameron’s assumption that he would never be called on to honour his promise of a referendum on the EU is what put us in this mess in the first place, so perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to discount it.
In simple mathematical terms, if the electorate is evenly divided 4 ways, it is possible to win an overall majority of seats with a little over 12.5% of the votes (25% in half the constituencies); but what is realistically possible (in the absence of divine intervention) is rather different, because votes aren’t spread evenly either geographically or between the parties.  It is, though, entirely possible on the basis of current opinion polls for a party to win a thumping majority of seats with between 30 and 35% of the vote, underlining the utter inadequacy of the UK’s outdated electoral system.  Whilst the Lib Dems are surely right in legal and constitutional terms to argue that the most recent vote always trumps any previous vote (that is the way that the UK’s sticking-plaster-covered constitution works), there must surely be a question about the legitimacy, in more general terms, of a parliamentary majority in an election over-ruling the results of a direct plebiscite on a single issue.  After all, I suspect that they (like myself) would not consider that a Johnson parliamentary majority for no deal on the basis of 30–35% of the vote can overturn a referendum majority which was won on the basis of a very different proposition, which was about maintaining close ties.  Goose, gander, and sauce.  The Lib Dems’ position might have the virtue of clarity but it is seriously lacking in democratic legitimacy.
Labour’s latest position – holding a referendum between a ‘credible leave option’ and remain – has greater moral legitimacy than simply revoke.  It might even be more politically credible too, if they weren’t still peddling the utterly discredited notion that they can negotiate a deal which is not only better than that negotiated by Theresa May, but also potentially better than continued membership.  Perhaps they, too, are seeking divine intervention, but their insistence on clinging to the possibility that a better deal is available leads them to the incredible situation where the main opposition party is unable to say what its position, in principle, is on the biggest issue of the day.  As a canvasser with decades of experience, I can only say that I wouldn’t like to be knocking doors and asking for votes on that basis.
It would be better not to be in the hole which Cameron dug for us; there is no way forward which can possibly bring the hard-line leavers and hard-line remainers together around a single agreed way forward.  The least-worst option is for a second referendum between the option of remaining and the deal (perhaps with a few minor tweaks) negotiated by Theresa May.  The result would provide a degree of short-term certainty – we would either leave in a reasonably orderly fashion or stay in the EU – but it wouldn’t really settle anything.  If the leave side win, we will spend decades negotiating the details of future relationships and new trade deals with other countries, to say nothing of recovering from the immediate economic hit.  But remaining is not an easy or simple option either – if we stay, we will find ourselves with a group of 27 frustrated and angry partners whose time and money have been wasted on a futile process, and there would still be a strong undercurrent of opposition to membership amongst the electorate which will manifest itself in elections and rhetoric for decades to come.  A pro-Brexit party, or alliance of parties, could easily win another election and the whole process would start all over again.
The manoeuvring of the political parties is so tied up with seeking their own electoral advantage that they’re failing to address the longer-term issues at all.  The single biggest change which could help us avoid such holes in future would be the introduction of proportional representation.  Taking away the winner-takes-all outcome which gives complete power to a party or coalition with only around 30-35% support would do a lot to change the nature of political debate – and not just in relation to Brexit.  It has to be better than simply hoping for some sort of deus ex machina, which is where we seem to be now.


Spirit of BME said...

Can I say that this is a very good Position Paper and outlines the dysfunctionality of the current events.
Your last paragraph puts forward the remedy of PR, which I do not share the conviction that will solve the issues as that system can get some “rather strange” parties into the political arena, while the first past the post blocs.

John Dixon said...


I take your point that the use of PR can allow some "rather strange" parties into the political arena, but even saying that causes problems. Who decides what is "rather strange", for instance? I suspect that you and I might categorise parties differently on their degree of "strangeness". Besides, I'm not sure that excluding some parties of which one or both of us might disapprove is a valid design criterion for an electoral system, especially if those parties enjoy a degree of popular support. It's always better to defeat "strangeness" through debate and winning people over than through rigging the system to exclude it.

But the 'cost' of a system designed to exclude strange minority views is that a minority view can seize total power on the basis of 30-35% of the vote. Even if we look at the issue in purely pragmatic terms, that still seems to me a worse outcome than a system where more extreme minorities are granted a platform proportional to their support.