Saturday 2 March 2024

Sunak channeling Nelson?


The Prime Minister seems to be more than a little exercised about the result of the Rochdale by-election, but equally short on solutions, unless you count a bit of performative and ritual condemnation and yet more action against protests. Whilst it’s true that the by-election was hardly the finest hour for any of the traditional parties, and that most people would probably agree that ‘extremist’ is a reasonable description of Galloway, the simple fact is that, under the rules of the game, Galloway won the election. It’s called democracy and, since democracy is about debate between different viewpoints, it doesn’t always produce the results that some of us might want. Of course, in one sense Sunak is displaying traditional ‘British’ values; in this case those of Nelson as he ignores the extremist takeover of his own party. He seems blissfully unaware of the parable about motes and beams.

Would Galloway still have won under a system of proportional representation? It’s hard to be certain, but with 40% of the vote going to Galloway, the second and subsequent choices of eliminated candidates would have had to break very decisively against him for the result to change. That isn’t the end of it, though – had there been a system to allocate the votes of eliminated candidates between those remaining at each stage of the count, that might have attracted a higher turnout. ‘What if?’ is an interesting but largely academic pursuit. What we do know is that Tory and Labour alike prefer to retain the system because it enables them to win an absolute majority on a percentage of the vote lower than that achieved by Galloway (meaning, incidentally, that his constituency victory has rather more democratic legitimacy than the parliamentary majority won by either Labour or the Tories in five of the general elections in the last half century).

Most of the time, the UK’s electoral system works in a way which favours a two-party contest, with other parties being seen as ‘also-rans’. However, sometimes circumstances are such that the system can end up favouring an alternative, for example if the support for that alternative is heavily concentrated geographically. The rise of the SNP to dominance (a dominance which would have been far less sweeping under a properly proportional system) is one example. Galloway’s victory, in what are probably utterly unique circumstances in Rochdale, is another. In railing against the outcome, either Sunak is too dim to realise that he is really railing against the UK’s electoral system, or else he is trying to lay the groundwork for a further assault on that system to rig it even further in favour of his own party. His words were so empty of content that it’s really hard to tell.

One thing on which I can agree with Sunak is that we face a serious danger from extremism. It’s just that the extremism emanating from his own party worries me more than any other sort, because that extremism is actually in power and eating away, from the inside, at the traditional values which its proponents claim to espouse.

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