Change is happening, right under our noses

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The Independent Online
CONSTITUTIONAL crises can take a long time happening. So long, in fact, that they don't feel like crises, just everyday life. This may be happening in Britain, as our government becomes a one-party affair. Whether it is or not, is at the heart of the work of Labour's Plant Commission on voting reform, whose lengthy deliberations chugged on yesterday, bolstered by a survey suggesting that at least half of the new Labour MPs want changes.

Everyone is wary about saying the Conservatives will not be beaten for the foreseeable future, though that is a perfectly reasonable supposition. The Tories themselves shy away in case it tempts fate; Labour and the Liberal Democrats recoil from it because their lives are predicated on the opposite belief; and commentators treat it cautiously in case it returns to embarrass them when John Smith wins his great victory of 1996.

There comes a point, however, when caution becomes blindness. It would be unfortunate, to say the least, if all that accompanied a fundamental change in our political system was a backward shuffle of professionals, muttering: 'Well, let's give it another five years, and then we'll see.'

At this point, the majority of people who find the word 'constitutional' tedious will remind us that representative democracies are self-correcting. If single- party government is developing and is bad for the nation, then sooner or later the voters will terminate it. But let us be a little worldly-wise. British elections are decided by a small number of swing-voters, who, entirely rationally, treat their prosperity (perhaps in the widest sense) as the big issue when they vote.

Assume that single-party government throws up a series of new problems: corruption, at first minor, but spreading; the politicisation of civil servants; the slow alienation of specific groups of voters from the political process. Why should we assume that swing-voters will put those concerns ahead of their fears about taxation, or their hopes for interest rates?

It is nave to think that the British sys-

tem is automatically self-correcting. It did evolve, but it is a human structure, intended for convenience, not veneration.

In a recent study (Britain at the Polls, published by Chatham House Publishers, New Jersey), Anthony King, professor of government at the University of Essex, points out that the British way of politics differs markedly from the Swedish and Japanese, the nearest one-party comparisons to what is happening here now.

Sweden under the Social Democrats incorporated opposition groups as much as possible: the government's aim was 'to prepare legislation with almost exhaustive thoroughness, to amass every available relevant fact, to consult widely, and to try, in the end, to enact a Bill that had the widest basis of parliamentary and public support'. Opposition MPs were heavily involved well before the legislation was drafted. Japan still has a similarly consensual, painstaking system, though it is also deeply corrupt: 'Japanese politicians buy votes, they buy influence in government, and they buy political advancement. In turn, they themselves are bought.'

Last year's Tory achievement in winning their fourth general election in a row (never mind the possibility of a fifth) has never been equalled in Britain's history as a democracy. So it would be extraordinary if our system were anything other than ill- adapted to it. Single-party government over, say, 50 years, would bring new ways of doing business and problems of a kind we can barely imagine today.

Learning to live with single-party government may be the only choice we have. It could, perhaps, be made tolerable with new checks and balances, and if the Tories themselves elevated self-criticism and tolerance as key characteristics of their party's political personality. But even if they did, for a host of reasons that have been rehearsed on these pages (and will be again), it would still be a bad choice. It would mean the South continuing to dominate over the interests of the North, and the City over industry. It could affect the liberties of the poorest. It would exclude ideas and people who deserve to be included. It would lead, inexorably, to an opposition ignorant of power and therefore less effective in Parliament, and a complacent, insiders' national leadership, out of touch with daily life in the country.

The better choice is for the opposition parties to develop programmes and policies that encourage swing-voters to push the pendulum again. That may have to involve agreements between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and therefore voting reform.

That, too, would change the political system in a way none of us can quite imagine. It could lead to the electoral emergence of a small but nasty right-wing nationalist party, and of a hard-left socialist party. It could involve cross-party deals that many British voters would find incomprehensible, or distasteful (or both).

But the question is no longer as easy as: constitutional change - yes or no? Change of a sort is already happening, day by day, as single-party power trickles through the old system. This change may one day be seen as more significant than the replacement of the old Liberals by Labour; or the partial revolution of the Thatcher decade. Understandably, Labour still hopes a status quo ante can, one day, be regained. But it cannot know that, nor assume it. The old world of alternating governments, swinging in or out on the traditional voting system, may already have quietly died.