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Saturday 8 May 2010
Letters: Forming a coalition government
A century-old plan for pact
In 1911, L T Hobhouse, in his Liberalism, identified a more natural alliance between the Liberals and Labour than with the "devious windings" of Conservatism.
His vision was aimed at "setting Liberalism free from the shackles of an individualist conception of liberty", suggesting the possibility of a new form of "Liberal Socialism" which united the more moderate wing of the Labour movement with a developing form of New Liberalism.
Rejecting the extreme individualism of earlier variants of liberalism, and the high levels of economic inequality it countenanced, Hobhouse argued that the move away from laissez-faire was "not destroying liberty but confirming it", that without some level of equality Liberty is "a name of noble sound and squalid result".
Instead, he held that "a thoroughly consistent individualism can work in harmony with socialism", and characterised the budget of 1909 as representing "the united forces of Socialist and individualist opinion".
For Hobhouse, "the growing co-operation of political Liberalism and Labour ... [was] no mere accident of temporary political convenience, but [had] its roots deep in the necessities of Democracy". Unfortunately, our archaic voting system postponed such a development by fracturing the progressive vote; now may be the time to resurrect it to combat the laissez-faire resurgence of the neoliberal right, with its pernicious and atavistic interpretation of "freedom".
Frederick Forsyth and I recently disagreed over who to vote for in the General Election and also disagree on electoral reform. PR does not make majority government impossible; a majority of South Africans voted for the ANC.
It's a simple matter of fairness and democracy. That it would let "extremists" into Parliament is irrelevant. Have we replaced the divine right of Kings with the divine right of "moderates"?
I favour full-package, fixed-term parliaments, AV for the Commons, PR for the Lords, equal power for each House, people's peers by write-in, STV for local authorities, and referendums on major issues. My fellow-reformers don't generally seem too keen on that, I suspect because they foresee results they wouldn't like.
As a Lib Dem supporter, the election result is the second-best result we could have hoped for. A Lib Dem surge would have been wonderful but if electoral reform is your priority (and it's mine), this result must mean a change to the voting system is inevitable.
The Tory argument for First Past the Post has been destroyed. Cameron tells us it's the only desirable system because it gives the country and the government a clear result. But it's given the vaguest, most uncertain result conceivable.
Under their FPTP result, the Tories can rule only by coalition and cannot therefore argue that coalition government is wrong. They cannot dismiss PR on the grounds that it produces coalition government. By pressing the argument so unyieldingly, they've lost the argument entirely.
The Tories have always been the hanging party and in this election they have hung themselves.
If the people have spoken, the politicians are still not listening. It has clearly escaped David Cameron's attention that, despite his claims of a mandate for change, actually only 36 per cent of people who voted, voted Conservative. That amounts to just under 11 million people. But more than 15 million people did not vote. Some mandate.
The expenses scandal has fatally destroyed our faith in our politicians. The political class, journalists and politicians, the party system, all have let us down and let us down badly.
Then there is the national debt. If the national debt is as calamitous as the political parties would have us believe, then we have a national crisis to deal with. Why not then a government of national unity?
It should, of course, be led by Cameron as leader of the biggest party, but a bit of adult behaviour, a bit less of the pathetic tribal language that bedevils the Conservative and Labour parties and a little less presumption of a right to govern would go down well. If our political system and the political class are to retain any credibility with the electorate, now is the time to demonstrate it.
Can our politicians show they can act responsibly in the national interest, instead of just using the words?
As someone who signed up to Power 2010 after the pressure group was highlighted in The Independent, I am a strong supporter of electoral reform not least because I live in a constituency with a solid Conservative majority, making my vote virtually irrelevant.
Unfortunately, in spite of the comments of certain politicians and political commentators, I see absolutely no proof that the British electorate have voted in a way that demonstrates their commitment to some form of proportional representation.
It is quite the reverse because the Lib Dems have made no progress over their 2005 performance and the party (Conservative) which has openly rejected such a change has substantially increased its share of the vote. Indeed, the swing to the Tories in England and Wales has been extraordinary.
If Scotland is excluded from the calculation, the Conservative Party has a solid mandate, and there is no evidence that the Scottish outcome for Labour has anything to do with the voters' desire for electoral reform but most likely reflects disillusion with the SNP.
Chesham Bois, Buckinghamshire
There has been much talk of a "new politics" after the election. This has mostly referred to electoral reform. To a people who have been battered by a barrage of assaults on their civil liberties it may indeed seem novel to have them restored.
It is within Nick Clegg's gift to restore them.
Not allowed to vote
The organisation of this polling was an embarrassment that has disgraced the "home of democracy". In Manchester Withington, scores of voters attended polling stations more than an hour before the close, to be greeted be a queue that would shame a third world country. At 10pm, prospective voters were told they would be denied a vote.
The only obligation a voter has to fulfil is to attend the polling station between 7am and 10pm. It is the obligation of the polling station and electoral committee to ensure that sufficient manpower and resources are in place to ensure that everyone who wishes to vote is able to. It is not the responsibility of the voter to accommodate flaws in the polling system.
I find it abhorrent that inadequate organisation of polling has essentially stripped citizens of their basic civil and democratic right, and I call for an exhaustive, independent enquiry and that results be declared void with a subsequent by-election if necessary.
"The law" says I have the right to vote, as long as I present myself at the right polling station between 7am and 10pm. I arrived at the said station by 9.40pm. I could not get in because there were 100 people in front of me.
"The law" says that the polling stations must close their doors at 10pm. I was not allowed to vote. What does "the law" say to "the law"? Where's Michael Mansfield?
Hove, East Sussex
I have been closely following the election, and The Independent has kept me up to date, without trying to patronise me with smear stories. I am also one of the many first-time voters who have been inspired to make their vote count at this poll.
Much to my shock and disappointment, I was left unable to vote by a mistake made by my local Electoral Services. And they said this was the year that we could really make a difference.
We can only hope Robert Mugabe has been permitted to supply monitors to help confirm the validity of our election result.
The Scotland question
The great loser in this election is likely not to be Gordon Brown, but Britain itself. With only a quarter of the popular vote in Wales, and less than 17 per cent of the vote in Scotland, the Tories have demonstrated again that they are an English party and not a UK one. Indeed, the only party that can claim a decent share of the vote across the UK constituent elements is Labour.
It is highly likely that any attempt by Cameron to form a government will polarise opinion in Scotland and Wales and lead to the final break-up of the UK.
Alternatively, the SNP may seek to support an anti-Tory coalition to provide the stability and gain significant concessions for Scotland, including a vote on independence. Alex Salmond just can't lose.
Gatley, Cheadle, Cheshire
An urgent answer is now required to the West Lothian question. The Tories have a substantial overall majority of the MPs elected from English constituencies.
It would be undemocratic for the 59 MPs returned by Scottish voters, with only one Tory among them to obstruct the clear mandate the Tories have to legislate on English domestic issues, when Scottish domestic issues are decided by Scottish MSPs elected by Scottish voters, on which the English electorate and the 533 English MPs have no say.
Perspectives on PR government
Problems and the solutions
New Zealand elected its first parliament under a system of proportional representation in 1996. It resulted in an immediate change in the face of parliament.
Many more women, Maori, Pacific, and Asian MPs, of various ages, classes, sexualities and party alignments were elected. Combined with reform of sitting hours and voting procedures this made the parliament very much more representative in appearance.
My experience as an MP and minister suggests that whether anything of substance is changed by proportional representation depends upon two other factors: the form of proportionality which is instituted and reform of the rules about financing parties and elections.
Proportional systems put an end to voting to keep the other side out. A well-chosen system will reflect precisely what the voters say they want.
But New Zealand chose MMP, a form of proportionality which depends on party lists. In New Zealand, this has not been a step towards greater democracy.
It disempowered MPs and enhances the power of invisible party bosses. Unelected party bosses are even less accountable than the hierarchy of the parliamentary parties which are at least subject to public scrutiny.
The Single Transferable Voting system (STV) is preferable because voting reflects a positive rather than a negative choice. This system ensures that the make-up of the parliament reflects the real preferences of the electorate.
But my experience suggests that this will not result in greater democracy unless there is change in who pays for parties and elections. Big interests expect to get the policies they have paid for. Big business pays all the parties likely to hold significant ministries.
They regard these donations as access- and influence-money, and party bosses trying to fund their party machines make sure they don't waste their cash. Under list systems, anonymous bosses make sure the political life of a minister who fails to deliver those policies is nasty, brutish and short.
Restricting which interests may donate does not work. For example, a majority of the New Zealand electorate opposed the extension of gambling. As a minister [of Customs and Consumer Affairs], I quickly found that gambling interests are intertwined with media, hospitality, entertainment and tourist interests.
Policing political donations is difficult, but not impossible. Funding restricted to limited, individual, transparent donations administered through a statutory independent body with clout would help.
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