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A Hidden Tipping Point

The rise of the Non-Voting Party at the 5 May UK Election has put proportional representation on the agenda argues TOM NAIRN

Since the British general election of 5 May, something quite unexpected has been happening. Everyone knows that Tony Blair’s New Labour Party won. But it’s becoming clearer that something else won too — not a set of candidates or policy ideas, yet something arguably more significant than anything people directly voted for in May. Beneath the familiar showtime of Westminster politics, a tipping-point may have been reached. And if that’s the case, everything will soon be changed.

There has been a deep shift of attitude within the British electorate. Commentators recognised it, but most have dismissed it as a transient mood or fashion. Now, however, stronger evidence for its seriousness is emerging — and indeed, showing itself inside the victorious party itself. Far from revelling in complacency, today’s news is of a growing number of New Labour representatives and party workers joining frustrated voters and the less party-biased commentators in troubled surmise. Just how and why did they win on the 5 May? Can such a farce ever be repeated? For sound reasons, people are worried about whether such a system can continue at all without serious reforms.

Many readers will remember the overall result. Blair’s party won a solid, sixty-three-seat majority of the House of Commons votes, on the basis of little over 20 per cent of the registered British electorate. New Labour got the largest single share of votes cast; yet that was only 35.3 per cent, far from even a simple majority. And since nearly 40 per cent of electors hadn’t voted, five more years of near-absolute power was delivered by an even smaller percentage than at the previous election in 2001. If this trend continues, 2009 or 2010 could witness a third triumph of what has become the dominant force in British politics: the NVP, or non-voting party, with government resting on even less than one-fifth public support.

Nor will that government necessarily be New Labour. This is what’s really worrying the more alert Blairites. It’s giving sleepless nights to those older disciples who recall what happened to Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative regime in 1997, after eighteen years in office. At that moment, what had been the dominant governing party for over a century — Britain’s century of global hegemony — was unceremoniously cast into the dustbin of history by a resentful public. And seven years later, 5 May showed that (even with help from Lynton Crosby) it still hasn’t climbed out of it. But couldn’t a similar fate await New Labour in turn? Whether or not Tony Blair follows Thatcher, in the sense of being personally dumped by his party, couldn’t   the movement itself fall victim to another such tide of popular nausea and rejection?

It is this dread that’s turning responsible Establishment chaps to thoughts of fairness and proportional representation, and even to an elected Senate replacing the House of Dead Lordship. After all, the only party that succeeded on 5 May was the one that had made constitutional reform its main priority, Charles Kennedy’s Liberal-Democrats. They gained sixty-two seats, eleven more than in 2001, with 22.1 per cent of votes — even though, as Kennedy bitterly remarked, one of the minor miracles of first-past-the-post voting  is that it took 96,378 votes to put in a Lib-Dem, as opposed to merely 26,877 for installing the average Labourite. Even more important, the devolved Welsh and Scottish parliaments created since 1998 have used PR, and coalition governments of New Labour and Lib-Dems have been working quite well there. Fairness did not prove fatal. Voters there are not hankering for the good old days. More astonishing still, in Scotland the fair-share system is about to be extended to local and regional government as well, so that by 2007 the entire northern system will be democratised.

It can seen from this how the context has been altering around UK state politics. The Iraq War also played its part in the change. Popular anti-war feeling and fear of the continuing consequences were bound to feed the Non-Voting Party, amplified by doubts about such blatant subjection to US power. Then, right after the May vote, another electric shock was administered by European events. The UK political class saw the electorates of France and the Netherlands in outright rebellion against their political elites. The message that came across was no longer: ‘Thank God we’re so different’. It was that it can happen here — as Blair immediately acknowledged, by abandoning his own plans for a British referendum.

Scotland’s leading political correspondent, Iain Macwhirter of the Glasgow Sunday Herald, wrote on 8 May:

This was the most grotesquely unfair election in British history. Labour won a lower share of the vote than any government in history … How long can we continue with this profoundly undemocratic system? It is assumed that Labour will reject calls for reform because it has won another clear majority. But that may not be so certain …

He has been proved right. Over the past month, a vigorous campaign has sprung up for electoral and (more broadly) constitutional reform. Led by the Independent newspaper, the long-established reform group Charter 88 and the Electoral Reform Society, in association with the Liberal-Democrats, the Green Party and the nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland, this movement has forced the formation of a new all-party campaign for reform in the House of Commons itself. Labour MP Austin Mitchell commented on 3 June that: Electoral reform has come back from the dead with this election … I think the whole issue will revive. Each party has its own electoral reform group and we’re looking for a consensus.

August but primitive, the UK’s early-modern version of democracy has  lasted three-and-a-quarter centuries. So it is, surely, one of globalisation’s lesser surprises that big changes are due there — only a century or so late. Yet its implications may not be so  lesser. If things proceed along this new course after the tipping-point, it’s banal to point out how one thing is certain to lead to another. However think-tank protected, no politicians can hope to reform just one part of such an ancient palace. One door being opened will lead to others, equally in need of air, modernisation, or simply demolition. Taken seriously, reform is bound to acquire its own logic and impetus, and this is not likely to cease until some new overall constitution is in place. An extensive survey of public opinion by the Joseph Rowntree Trust last year showed that (contrary to received wisdom) over 80 per cent of people were either mildly or quite strongly in favour of a written constitution spelling out both citizen rights and the limits of the powerful. Nor is such a shift likely to stop short at the Monarchy, given this institution’s current deplorable condition.

In conclusion: one of the places where this is likely to matter most is Australia. It is no longer inconceivable that, for the first time since the founding of the Commonwealth, democratic reforms of the homeland may outpace those of its distant offspring. Just speculation, sure; but isn’t  it already worth reflecting on what an irony of history that would be? The Australian system always prides itself on representing what was worth taking from Old Albion, but with important democratic revisions. What will this mean if a new Albion were to show up, far more revised, more democratic and aggressively populist than the Federation Rules of 105 years ago? Above all, what would it mean to Australian  loyalists like John Howard and so many others, reliant as they have been on doses of comfort from these unchanging symbols of origin?

And how long might it all take? Well, I’d guess two more London elections and three Canberra ones — around ten years. But with globalisation at its present pace, we may know even sooner.

Tom Nairn is a Research Professor in RMIT University’s Globalism Institute

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