28 March 2005

Scare Tactics, Anyone?

I was a bit dismayed this morning on glancing at the Guardian to see an article by Peter Hain under the headline 'Vote for the Lib Dems and you will risk a Tory victory'.

Hain has a point when he argues that most of those who would swing away from Labour towards the Lib Dems should be, in the main, happy with all Labour has achieved since gaining power in 1997. Further, he argues that a third Labour victory could cement 'progressive consensus ... [almost]... impossible for the extreme right to destroy.'

He's wrong, though, to claim that those who would turn away from Labour towards the Lib Dems would do purely because of their feelings about the war in Iraq, and the supposed weapons of mass destruction. Their feelings seem to run deeper than that; the new antipathy towards Labour seems to come down, primarily, to distrust. People have long doubted Blair, and their suspicions were - to their minds at least - confirmed by how he took Britain into that war.

One thing Hain doesn't do - doesn't even try to do - in his article, is to show why the Labour voters of the last two elections should trust the party, or its leader. That'll be a challenge.

But if they turn from Labour, the bulk of them could only really turn to the Lib Dems, the Tories having been even more keen on attacking Iraq than Blair had been; it's disingenuous of Howard and his henchmen to claim that they were misled by the government; if this is true, it merely confirms them as fools. Honest fools, perhaps, but fools nonetheless. 'Vote for Us! We're Gullible!' probably wouldn't catch them too many votes.

But, according to Hain, the nature of British politics means that the Tories could win the election by default, gaining '71 seats from Labour without winning a higher share of the vote than in 2001, simply by a swing to the Lib Dems splitting the progressive vote in our marginals,'

That, of course, would require the Lib Dems gaining votes from Labour in 71 constituencies, but never gaining enough to win, which might well happen, because in this de facto two-party system, lots of people perceive votes for any party other than Labour and the Tories to be squandered.

It always strikes me as funny that in the supposed interests of 'electoral reform', Labour have tinkered with the House of Lords. Surely a more honest interest in reform would involve changing the electoral system so that the composition of the Commons more accurately reflected the will of the people.

I mean seriously, think about it. In 2001, Labour got 40.7% of the popular vote, the Tories managed 31.7%, the Lid Dems earned 18.3%, and the rest garnered 9.3%. You might expect then that the Commons should break down, more or less, along the general lines of: Labour 268 seats, the Tories 209, the Lib Dems 120, and the others 61.

But no, despite only having 40.7% of the popular vote, thanks to the 'First Past the Post' system, Labour took 412 out 659 seats. That's 62.5%, a huge majority. In other words, the country is run according to the wishes of two-fifths of the country's voters. And 2001 was no fluke, in that regard. As a rule, all you need is around 40% of the vote and the right geographic spread to be guaranteed to rule the country despite three-fifths of the population having voted against you. Take a look at the previous few elections -

1997 - Labour get 63.6% majority, with just 43.2% of the vote
1992 - Tories get 51.6% mahority, with just 41.9% of the vote
1987 - Tories get 57.9% majority, with just 42.2% of the vote
1983 - Tories get 61.1% majority, with just 42.4% of the vote
1979 - Tories get 53.4% majority, with just 43.9% of the vote
1974 - Labour get 50.2% majority, with just 39.2% of the vote

Um, and earlier in 1974 Labour managed a minority government with 47.4% of seats, slightly more than the Tories, despite having only wangled, at 37.1% of the vote, a smaller vote than the Tories.

I'm not going to get into issues of turn-out, since with only 59.4% of eligible votes having cast their votes last time, you could argue that Labour are in government with the support of only 24% of the population. That argument has no ending, and if people don't show up when decisions are being made then they have to live with the consequences.
On the other hand, maybe if the U.K. adopted some kind of a Proportional Representation system, people might be more willing to vote. After all, there might be more of an incentive to vote if they thought their votes actually meant something.

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