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Friday, April 08, 2011

Can we learn coalition politics?

I am in favour of a form of democracy which more closely represents the views of the electorate. I've blogged previously (and here, here, and some more comments here) on why I'm not altogether sold on the alternative vote system that's on offer; but it's a lot better than FPTP in many ways, so I'll be voting for it in May. At least you are better able to say who you LEAST want to elect. FPTP hugely and unfairly benefits the biggest parties, as this You Tube video entertainingly shows.

If we adopt an electoral system that's more representative, it is unlikely to elect a single party with a clear majority. We'll have a number of parties with seats, no one party (possibly no two parties) having a majority. Parties will have go form coalitions to achieve a majority.

The current conservative/lib-dem coalition hasn't, so far, set a good example of how this could work. The tories have a much bigger vote than the lib-dems, and appear to have used this to steam-roller get many of their policies through, including many that the lib-dems had previously objected to vigorously. In a sense, that's the electoral maths in action, and why shouldn't they?

But what hasn't worked is that the lib-dems seem to be sticking to a form of cabinet government that has lots of problems when you have a single party in power, but really doesn't work with a coalition. I've always been uncomfortable about the way that politicians in the cabinet have to pretend they're completely in support of all the cabinet's decisions, regardless of their actual views. We all know that there must have been dissenters to many of the decisions...

If you enforce this with a coalition you have a situation where - as seems now to be the case - members of the minority party in the coalition have to pretend they're fully in support of policies which were never part of their beliefs or their plans. So we've seen Nick Clegg pretending to support increased student loans, NHS reforms, and much else, that most liberal democrats would oppose vigorously.

The system - which seems, to his shame, to have been accepted by Clegg (although there are now some signs that things may be changing) has brought an unpleasant level of dishonesty - or a remarkable volte face to today's politics.

Not only do liberal democrats both believe in a fairer voting system because it's right; they also stand to benefit from such a system. (The lib-dems would have a lot more seats in parliament if the number of seats each party got was was in proportion to the number of votes cast for them.) I'd understand it if the LDs were to agree, as part of the coalition agreement, to help the tories to implement bits of legislation the LDs didn't like, on condition that the tories would support them on one or two bits of legislation that they weren't keen on. If Clegg were to come out and say "we don't really like student loans, too-big-too-quick cuts, NHS reform etc; but supporting them is the price we are paying for getting a fairer voting system which, in the long term, is a higher priority".

What I really dislike is his giving the impression that he really believes in these things, when they conflict with so much of what his party has always stood for.

If - as I hope we are - we are to move towards a more representative voting system, we need to learn a way of doing coalition politics that accepts that compromises will be made, but which can be open and honest about them.
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