Drawing to a Conclusion
but what conclusions?
The confusion between electing a Parliament and a Government is rampant
We have seen a campaign by three prospective government leaders. But outside the marginals we have not seen campaigns for membership of parliament. This would not appear to be a Parliamentary Election.
This confusion leads to the almost hysterical shrieking (such as Michael Gove on BBC radio4 Today this morning) about the need for “firm decisive government” (Ooh Matron!) – without any consideration about the need for a popular mandate (watch the Greek government try to implement policies for which they do not have a mandate – our Poll Tax Riot looks like a picnic in comparison).
This tips over into the discussion of voting reform – electing a representative parliament will apparently (according to the sceptics) lead to weak government. To support this view don’t look at Germany (or many other effective democracies with PR systems), but look at Israel (with its paranoia and its weird voting system). Apparently strength is to be preferred to legitimacy.
It also means that outside the marginals, we are ignored by the parties as our vote will have minimal effect on the choice of government. It also means that the parties see “government” as the be all and end all – hence the power of the parties over their MPs (or should I call them our representatives? No, probably not – let’s recognise reality they are the foot soldiers of their parties.)
Do we conclude that possibly we need to have separate elections and campaigns for a Presidential Prime Minister and for a separate legislature (House of Congress style)? Perhaps we should, if we believe that we should be electing a government. But since situations change between elections (and parties rarely stick to their manifestos), the idea of electing a government on a specific program is possibly a fiction. This also relegates the MPs to being mere lobby fodder. Would it not be better to elected a number of representatives who in the period between elections can act on our behalf to see that the country is effectively governed in the interests of the majority? That would make individual candidates far more important to the electorate than their parties. The candidates would also be in little doubt about who should hold them to account.
A three party system does not work in a two party electoral system
I am not sure what the Scots (or Welsh) will think of that (as a national conclusion) because they seem to have managed a multi-party system. They, however, have abandoned First Past the Post, with a mixed electoral system (the Additional Member System – unfortunately with party controlled lists) for the Holyrood Parliament and full STV (where the voter can express preferences between individual candidates) for local authorities.
Where there is huge disillusionment with politics, a result where the last could come first, and where one party will be massively under-represented will only increase that disillusionment – particularly amongst the young (many of whom flocked to register at the last moment).
Two party systems are naturally adversarial; multi-party systems tend to be more co-operative. Healthy organisations evolve; if we want our parliament to be healthy, perhaps it should also evolve to reflect that we have a multi-party system in the country.
Policies have taken second place to Presentation (and Principles have taken third place)
The “cult of leadership” has put huge emphasis on the leadership debates which despite their length have not allowed detailed advocacy of policies. The rules have been designed to turn the debates into a “sound bite shoot-out”. Hardly surprising that many voters cannot identify which parties support which policies.
Presentation has also come before character. It could be argued that Gordon Brown’s character seems to have the deepest roots (whatever you think of his policies), yet his inability to communicate in the X-factor style debates which put sound-bites before exploration of the principles behind the policies has counted against him (and possibly wrecked his career). He has, however, appeared to come alive on the old fashioned “stump speech” in front of a mixed audience.
The genie is out of the bottle and I doubt that we can do away with the presidential debates. But perhaps (as with all good recruitment processes) we should have a mix of trials through which to put the parties.
I would particularly like to see the leaders given say thirty minutes to make a speech outlining the guiding principles that they would adopt in the forthcoming parliament, followed by questions. In these “egalitarian” days, these would probably have to come from the public; however it might be more enlightening if the questions came from independent experts. I would dearly like to see a professor of political philosophy question each of the leaders. Given that most parties do not keep a number of their manifesto commitments (situations change), and in this election parties have refused to spell out more than a fraction of what they would do about the economic situation, it could be useful to understand their principles and to see those principles tested.