To the Loser Belongs the Spoils

BY JONATHAN FOREMAN 

Nick Clegg, whose Liberal Democrat party came third in the UK general election is at this moment the most powerful man in Britain.

You might expect large numbers of Britons to be uncomfortable with this peculiar, rather undemocratic state of affairs, and to dislike the idea of the two major parties competing to win Clegg’s hand in a potential coalition. And it may well be that most ordinary people do indeed find this strange interregnum confusing and disturbing.

However, the Liberal Democrats have such strong support in sections of the metropolitan media class (understandable given that the party is considerably to the left of both Labour and the Tories on most issues,  as well fiercely anti-American and Europhile)  that there is still plenty of authoritative-sounding comment on television and radio insisting that the current impasse is somehow the result of “people power” and a popular rejection of mainstream politics.

 You will also hear the BBC and its newspaper echo chamber refer to the Liberal Democrats’ core platform of a radical reshaping of Britain’s electoral system as “political reform.”

It is a phrase that implicitly assumes that there is something fundamentally wrong with the current electoral system — and that the LibDem ‘proportional representation’ alternative inherently represents benign change.

And whether or not you believe PR might be a good idea for Britain, “political reform” in this context is a deliberately misleading phrase, one almost Orwellian in its dishonesty. It is designed to make a constitutional revolution, whether justified or not, sound like mere technocratic tinkering. The truth as that the scrapping of the current “first past the post” elections in favour of proportional representation would amount to the radical overturning of a system that has functioned reasonably well for many centuries and has certainly inspired believers in representative democracy all over the world.

 Unfortunately that historical record doesn’t count for much here. And neither does the sometimes unfortunate record of proportional representation systems in countries like Germany, Italy, Japan, Israel etc.

This is partly because the culture of Britain’s political class is increasingly steeped in the contemporary witchdoctory of branding and marketing – and in the ignorant cult of being “modern – rather than in history.

As a result you hear surprisingly few voices raised in defence of a sturdy, well-liked electoral system that has enjoyed a record that is not demonstrably worse than competing systems elsewhere, when it comes to either reflecting the popular will or enabling effective government.

Perhaps even more surprising is the way there is so little sense that the current confusion — the roiled financial markets, the sudden rise to power of a crank-filled minority party, the shabby horsetrading that so often characterizes the forming of coalitions between natural enemies – will become the norm here if Britain were to adopt the party list system proposed by the Lib Dems.

Those who see the latter as a vehicle for “change” at the expense of “the politicians” apparently don’t realize how much cause for cynicism they will have when all our future coalition governments are built on politicians’ dealmaking across party lines.

In the meantime some very real flaws in the British electoral system have emerged but have gone all but unmentioned by the politicians.

Some rightly complained about the long queues at polling stations resulting in hundreds or even thousands being denied a vote. (With typical quangocrat shamelessness, Jenny Watts the head of the newly established electoral commission, tried to excuse the incompetence of the organization she leads by blaming the shortage of staff and ballot papers on a “Victorian” system even though that system worked well with even higher turnouts in the 1970s and 80s).

But it took foreign observers like Sierra Leonean MP Marie Marilyn Jalloh of the Commonwealth election monitoring team to point out the absurd vulnerability of the system to fraud.

I myself was shocked not to be asked to show any ID. I could easily have given my poll card to someone else and had them vote in my place. You also don’t need to show any form of ID when you register for the vote in the first place.

Then there is the postal voting system introduced by New Labour. There is no delicate way of putting it but the result – intended or not – has been the emergence of South Asian style electoral fraud on a significant scale in areas like Tower Hamlets, Blackburn and Oldham with large numbers of immigrants and visitors from Pakistan and Bangladesh. One small flat above a shop in London’s Southall was reported to have 27 voters registered to its address; 15 of them had been added to the roll in the month before the election.

Given that, by one reckoning, only 16000 votes came between David Cameron and a solid majority, it is possible that there would be no hung parliament if not for electoral fraud. 

It will be interesting to see if Cameron or Clegg or any other major mainstream political figure is willing to make an issue of this either before or after the initial round of horse trading is over and a new government is in place.

But then the whole coalition-forming process represents an integrity test for the leaders of all three parties, and in particular for Brown and Cameron.

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