>New old politics


The unfolding drama of coalition formation, although in a more lucid moment I had inadvertantly predicted it, left me non-plussed and not very happy: partly because I didn’t like the outcome and because, not for the first time, political events I thought I had handle on left me flat footed. I had basically expected the Lib Dems to go no further than a confidence and supply deal with the possibility of playing both big parties off against each other to some extent, but underestimated the Lib Dem thirst for office and the extent to which the right-wing Orange Book group of economic liberals (which includes Nick Clegg himself) had come to dominate the party’s leadership. In our local public library the next day I chanced upon a biography of the party’s previous leader (until 2005) Charlie Kennedy and flicked through to see if – as the instant political history in the papers claimed – he had really been forced out for political reasons (too left-wing), rather than because he was an alcoholic.

The answer though seems to be that the booze that did for him and that he was a walking political liability for years, although as everyone in the party – right down to an ex-student intern I interviewed for a place at UCL – knew for years he was often too drunk or hungover to function, the timing of his downfall (months after David Cameron and the Tory modernisers came on the scene) was to say the least interesting.

All this doesn’t, however, help my post-election hangover and bright-new-dawn ‘new politics’ rhetoric and reformspeak of the Cameron-Clegg doublt act – echoed by newspaper pundits across the political spectrum – leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Most bitter and disorienting of all is the way that constitutional and electoral reform – a high minded preoccuption of liberal-minded intellectual folk since 1980s – and the main concession the Lib Dems have supposedly wrested from the Tories seems suddenly degraded like some rare radioactive isotope into a series of political fixes to shore up the new coalition: the 55% supermajority reqirement to dissolbe parliament conjured out of the air (the type of rule that would be consitutionally entrenched in countries with a written constitution) and the realisation that the alternative vote (AV) system we will be asked to vote is unlikely to the first step to some more rational and balance electoral system, but simply a means (if it passes) of boosting Lib Dem representation by steering lots of 2nd and 3rd preferences towards them, while keeping the system majoritarian enough to block small challenger parties like the Greens, whose minor miracle in winning Brighton Pavilion in a three-way fight is unlikely to be easily repeated elsewhere. Indeed, Václav Havel once advocated AV for Czechoslovakia precisely for this reason – because he thought it would favour the political centre, although I suspect that Lib-Cons (see how easily that phrase starts to trip of the tongue) will increasingly form a bloc and with the two parties’ voters tending to second preference each others’ candidate.

Frankly, a French or Hungarian style second-round run-off election would be more transparent. – and more fun (I like elections) If we do get AV, I’m sure the Lib-Dems will quickly discover its virtues and forget about Single Transferable Vote and any other form of PR or decide that that they would like it only for the House of Lords or local government.

There is little real discussion of the democratic merits or likely effects of AV in the press. Ironically, it seems, however electoral reform (any electoral reform) is seen – as in Romania and Bulgaria – as a kind of magic bullet, which will automatically and of itself bring in a host of desirable changes. I am sceptical. Indeed, so sceptical that I think I will vote ‘no’ in that referendum. I’ve never changed my mind about any key issue so decisively in such a short space of time. Perhaps two party (or two bloc) politics is what fits in this country- this is, after all, not Holland or Norway with a of multiple crosscutting historical and cultural cleavages to accomodate – and, in somewhat, new and re-invented form two bloc is what we will probably what we will end up with. A new old politics.

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