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Wednesday, 11 May 2011

The people spoke - and this is what I heard

It has been a fascinating fortnight in politics and I wanted to wait a little bit to see if there was any major fallout from last Thursday's referendum, local and devolved national elections before I made any comment.

First, here are the headlines..

1) The AV referendum vote was a resounding 'No'. I always felt that if AV was the answer we were asking thh wrong question. So it was that less than a third of a surprisingly high 42% turnout voted 'Yes' to AV. I do wonder what would have happened if it had been a choice between FPTP and AV Plus or AMS or a properly proportionally representative system. But we now won't find out for a generation. The Lib Dems blamed Ed Miliband for not pulling his Labour party together behind the 'Yes' vote. But Miliband did the right thing, more than half his MPs were voting 'No' so he really couldn't afford to push too hard. The fact that the 'Yes' camp had the burden of proof that FPTP needed to be changed and hid behind hogwash like 'it will stop expenses scandals' or 'it will make MPs work harder' instead of the real arguments, and wheeled out Eddie Izzard and Colin Firth against David Cameron is the reason the country voted 'No'. Does this mean the fabled 'progressive majority' doesn't actually exist?

2) In Scotland, the AMS electoral system - which was brought in for the sole reason that it would ONLY produce coalition governments - produced a majority government for the SNP. This was a fantastic result for Alex Salmond, who has grown into the role of Scotland's First Minister in ways nobody expected when he first took power in 2007. I do worry for him though. Firstly, he will have to hold a referendum on independence, and 2/3rds of Scots are against it, mainly because they know that should it happen they would have to pay for their own national defence and their share of the UK's deficit, which was hugely affected by having to bail out RBS and HBOS (and we all know what the 'S' stands for!). Secondly, Salmond won the election partly because of promises he made on having no tuition fees and free prescription charges among other things. He is an economist so will know there is an opportunity cost to these promises - in that some things will have less money. OR he will have to borrow a large amount of money and put Scotland in even more debt. It is quite possible the electorate didn't understand that. More likely is that they had little reason to vote for the others.

3) The local election results were surprisingly favourable to the Conservatives, unsurprisingly damning for the Lib Dems, and in my view unsurprisingly unrewarding for Labour. Labour increased their share of the vote by 11% but the Conservatives still won on share of the vote, although they lost 2% of their vote in 2007. The Conservatives also gained seats when it was believed they could lose as much as 800. . I believe Labour didn't do as well as they might because they haven't come up with a realistic alternative to the Conservatives' current course of action. Talking to a Labour activist the other day I asked what the alternative was, and he said "cut less" and I said "cut WHAT less" and he said "you know, just cut slower". Couldn't tell me what changes he would actually make apart from say he wouldn't do anything the Conservatives are doing - at which point I said, "yes, but what WOULD you do" and he went back to "cut less", and we were back at the beginning. I  believe that unless he is playing a canny long game, Ed Miliband is going to have to become far more of a leader than someone who seems merely to carp from the sidelines, because his followers have no idea where they are going.

As for the Lib Dems, they were almost obliterated, and are very unhappy about it. They have complained about the tactics the 'No' campaign used and they have complained about being a human shield for the Conservatives.  But here's a little story for you.

During last year's election campaign I happened to know the Conservative and Labour candidates in a particular constituency quite well. They finished up 42 votes apart and actually got on very well, with mutual respect developing between them despite clear ideological differences. The Lib Dem candidate finished third in this particular consistuency with over 16,500 votes, which is a considerable amount for a third placed candidate, and more than many seat-winners elsewhere.

During this campaign, the Conservative candidate was questioned about his pro-Israel fervour as a result of a leaflet produced by the Lib Dem campaign that assured voters he was heavily pro-Palestinian. Nothing strange there right? Well you'll be interested to know that the Labour candidate was also questioned about her Pro-Palestinian views as a result of a leaflet ALSO produced by the Lib Dem campaign assuing voters that the candidate was, in fact, a committed supporter of Israel.

The winning candidate noted that in her many years of politics it was the nastiest campaign she had been involved in, entirely because of the behaviour of the Lib Dem candidate. On further investigation it was found that the Lib Dems are particularly happy to fight dirty, something revealed by the press in response to the Phil Woolas case last year, where a Labour MP was stripped of his seat because of lies his campaign spread about the Lib Dem candidate in Oldham East.

The reason I'm telling you about this is because when the Lib Dems cry foul about others' campaigns, as they did about the 'No' campaign during the AV referendum (and I don't disagree - see this blog), they need to be careful as the stones they throw are all piled up next to them in their glass house.

The real issue for the Lib Dems is that when you are a protest party of opposition you can gain plenty by being all things to all people - as they famously were over issues like tuition fees, and in the example above, the Middle East peace process - but when you are a responsible member of a Coalition government you can't get away with that. Granted - there are plenty of Lib Dem Ministers who aren't very good at acting responsibly (HELLOOO Mr Cable), but to be fair to Nick Clegg, at the very least he has understood his collective responsibilities now he is Deputy Prime Minister (which is lucky because so unused are we as a country to coalition that it seems very few of the public or the media understand at all).

Ultimately - right now there is very little reason to vote for the Lib Dems. When they went into Coalition with the Conservatives they must have known that for the first year or two they would struggle in the polls. Given that the Coalition is front-loading the pain in terms of deficit cutting, there was always going to be protests and fightbacks and yes, the Lib Dems are bearing the brunt of it.

But if they have any guts they will stay the Coalition out until the year before the next election in 2015, then develop a programme of their own which takes into account this time that they MIGHT actually get into government, instead of the 2010 manifesto, which can only have assumed that they wouldn't. Should they do that, they could, with proven experience that they can govern a country, do better than the last election. But if not, we could be back to a two-party system again in the UK, and politics will be all the poorer for it.

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