While Britain harvests a veritable galleon of gold in the Olympics, the Coalition running the joint is going for the wooden spoon.
Nick Clegg, the “Eddie the Eagle” of UK politics, this week announced that the Lib-Dems would not support the Conservative push to reform constituency boundaries in the House of Commons. The move is in response to David Cameron’s abandonment of attempts to reform the House of Lords, in line with Lib-Dem preferences. The Lib-Dem proposal would have seen all remaining hereditary peers removed, and life peers replaced with a mix of elected “senators” — chosen by proportional representation, with 15-year terms — and 90 appointed members, as well as the existing religious members, several bishops and the chief rabbi.
The idea was ludicrous from the start, since it never really answered the question of what an upper house is for, in a country where neither specific regions nor specific groups require collective representation. Until the early 20th century, the legitimacy of the Lords was based on the idea that aristocracy was to some degree a representation of inherited virtue and wisdom. But that has long gone. The life peerage system was used to make the place a de facto house of review.
The disadvantages are obvious — for every worthwhile person put in there, there are a brace of party hacks to make up the numbers (Lord Feeney anyone? Lord Shorten? — actually that last one is a mere matter of time). But the senate-style system, with its enormous 15-year terms, its list election system, and the retention of appointed grandees was, improbably, worse than the status quo.
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The Lib-Dems’ principal reason for supporting this farrago was that it would introduce PR to the UK system, and get people accustomed to the idea that it might be more democratic than FPTP — and the Lib-Dems would take a quarter of the seats with their 25% votes, rather than the 6% of the seats they currently get. But Lords reform was never put explicitly into the Coalition agreement.
Instead, the Lib-Dems chose to make a referendum on AV (i.e. preferential) voting in the Commons, as part of a deal — the other side of which was supporting the Tories push for redistribution. The AV referendum was duly passed, and duly lost (the deal never specified that anyone would support the “yes” case, simply that the referendum would be held).
When the Lords reform bill came around, resistance to it had been building in the Tory right for months, and the determination of the rebels — in the end, nearly 100 of them — to wreck the bill created a crisis for Cameron. Though the bill itself met with advance support — with Labour joining Lib-Dems and the government (i.e. Tories in the cabinet or outer ministry) — the bill to put the bill on the timetable for a full reading was defeated, with Labour pulling its support, purely to land Cameron in it. At that point the Tory rebels’ refusal became crucial.
Last week, Cameron bowed to the inevitable, and took the process off the table. Had he persevered, a challenge to his leadership would have been on. But the decision has pretty much finished off the Lib-Dems leader — Clegg, having led a left-liberal party into a coalition with what has now become a neo-Thatcherite party, has gained almost nothing in return, save to mitigate the worst of the Tories’ policies. For months, he has, as many have observed, looked alternatively thunderous and depressed, sitting beside the PM on the front bench, like a man with a gun poking gently in his side, forewarned not to do anything stupid.
This week he hit back, withdrawing support for the Tories boundary redistribution. The Tories want to reduce the number of Commons seats from 650 to 600, and to end the practice whereby constituencies follow the contours of traditional social boundaries — around towns or valleys, ridings or the like. The system preserves a notion that a community if being represented by a member, but it’s impossible to balance demographically. The result is that Labour benefits from a larger number of inner-city seats, and the lack of recognition of demographic shift, as suburbs have swelled vastly.
It’s difficult to argue with the Tories’ proposition that boundaries should be drawn and redrawn around equal demographic areas — as they are in Australia — but the problem for Labour is that such redistribution would make their job more difficult. So much of the UK’s populace is concentrated in the south-east, and so much of that leans Tory, that redistribution would give them a bump-up in winning government in their own right. In a 2PP system, even-handed demographics are unlikely to benefit one side or the other — in a FPTP three-party system, it can help one party nudge ahead on a 35%-40% of the vote.
That is of great interest to the Tories, because at the moment they face a disturbing prospect — that they will never be able to gain the 42%-plus national vote that they need to govern in their own right. They had hoped that, as the Coalition had progressed, people would increasingly come around to the idea that the Tories should be given their head to have a one-party government. Rather the reverse has occurred, as the toll of incompetence and deceit has mounted.Labour, with a desperately uninspiring leader, is accumulating enough support that it could benefit from the small swing required to become the party of government — again with the Lib-Dems in coalition. No more than 25 seats would need to change hands — in total from Labour to Tory — to make that a possibility. Given that there is a greater affinity between Labour and Lib-Dem — or the bulk of the party anyway – the Tories face a nightmare prospect of being the natural party of opposition.
Consequently, they are furious at Clegg for abandoning the shift — which would see the Lib-Dems themselves lose a score or so of seats, Clegg being a genius deal maker — and the war drums have started beating for an internal revolt, with inevitable talk of Boris Johnson as a new leader. The issue would come to crisis at the vote, if Clegg decides to lead the whole party away from the vote — thus forcing Lib-Dem ministers to vote against the government they are in, and either resign, or make a mockery of the Westminster system.
Cameron’s announcement that he will proceed with the boundary reforms anyway, suggests that he is willing to play a game of chicken with his coalition partner on the matter — perhaps as yet another attempt to assuage the demands of his Right to go up against the Lib-Dems ceaselessly. Yet Cameron is not having a great time either, with the recent announcement by high-profile MP Louise Mensch (nee Bagshawe), that she will be resigning after no more than two years as an MP, to join her husband — a rock band manager, most particularly of Metallica — in New York.
The move has created white-hot anger among the Tories, for Mensch was selected as a high-profile glam candidate — chicklit novelist, bit glam, facelift that makes her look like a Batman villain — and parachuted into the constituency of Corby in the East Midlands, against the wishes of local branches. That constituency is marginal Tory/Labour, and Mensch’s decision to abandon her duties so abruptly to conform to her husband’s working life — she had told the people of Corby “I am a feminist and I don’t care who knows it. If you don’t like it, don’t vote for me” — will add to the impression that the government is flighty, distracted, unserious, arrogant and out for itself.
Doubtless the shift to the US is all about family, and has nothing to do with the social media site that Mensch has started (with a former Labour spinner), and for which she is seeking venture capital. It’s called Menshn, and don’t anyone get trampled in the stampede to switch to it from Twitter. Nothing at all to do with that. Cameron, George Osborne, Boris the Fly, Louise no-Mensch, Cleggbot … what a crowd.
Their comic incompetence, alas, is not a measure of their weakness, but of Labour’s — had they any sort of popular program and plan, they would be polling for clear victory by now.