When things go wrong in British politics they don’t half go wrong. The collision near the launch of Labour’s final poster campaign on Friday was a headline-writers gift: The Car Crash Election. The final mishap in the worst Labour election campaign since 1983, when the late Michael Foot – a man of great intellect but little popular appeal – led the party to its worst defeat in half a century. Who’d have thought that Gordon Brown, one of Labour’s brightest young stars in 1983, would lead a campaign that compares unfavourably with that?
I recall Footie, with his stick and fly away hair, stomping round the country from botched photo-opportunity to heckled speech. Manfully trying to defend “the longest suicide note in history” as the Labour manifesto was called. He scarcely seemed to know where he was most of the time, and nor did his aides. But he never lost his dignity. He might’ve got in a muddle with his microphones, but Footie wouldn’t have dismissed a loyal Labour supporter as a “bigot”, even in private, and he wouldn’t have testily blamed his staff. Nor would Foot have abased himself, and demeaned his office, by turning up with the world’s media in tow to beg for Gillian Duffy’s forgiveness. (One of the explanations for Brown’s “bigot” remark, by the way, was that he had thought Mrs Duffy had said “f@@king immigrants” not “flocking immigrants” – to which you can only say: that’s a flocking ridiculous excuse.)
The 1983 general election almost destroyed the Labour Party and the question this week is whether Gordon Brown could finish the job. I don’t think he will, not least because our unfair electoral system is designed to prevent parties like Labour expiring through natural causes because people stop voting for them. It props them up like cadavers in a Frankenstein beauty contest of the damned. In 1983, Labour plunged to 28% of the vote, only 2% ahead of the SDP-Liberal Alliance. But Labour ended up with 209 seats in Westminster and the Libdems only 23. It was a brutal result, which made a nonsense of democracy. By rights, voters should have taken to the streets, as they did in Eastern European countries where the electoral systems were similarly rigged. But they didn’t, Neil Kinnock came along, and the rest is history.
In 1983, Margaret Thatcher got a parliamentary majority of 144 seats on only 42% of the popular vote – a spurious mandate which she used to devastate industrial Britain. Thursday looks like being every bit as perverse as 1983, even though David Cameron is never going to win a majority like that. The poll of polls seems to be suggesting a hung parliament with the Conservatives on around 300 or so seats; Labour coming second with 200 plus; and the Liberal Democrats having to make do with under a 100 seats, despite winning more votes than Labour. Any such result will be an outrage. As someone put it: we can’t go on like this. I find the alphabet soup of AV, STV, AMS as tedious as the next man – but after this election something must be done to make this country a democracy. Actually, I suspect that the death knell for the present system tolled mid week when voters realised that that Labour could come third in this election and still win the most seats in parliament. Never! Never! Never!
But as the hours and minutes tick away, Labour are telling anyone who’ll listen that the way to achieve democratic change is to vote, not for the party of electoral reform, the Liberal Democrats, but for Labour. The logic is thus: If the Tories win, and the Liberal Democrats come second, Nick Clegg will have no choice but to support David Cameron. It may be a hung parliament but if Labour is third there could be no chance of a Lib-Lab alternative. A vote for the Libdems, then, is a vote for David Cameron. Ergo, to give the Nick Clegg a sniff of power, and to halt the Tories in their tracks, you must hold your nose and vote Labour. Hasn’t Gordon said that Labour now accepts electoral reform?
This argument is too clever by half. For a start, Labour’s promises of electoral reform are generally forgotten the moment they gain power – they promised a referendum, remember, in 1997. Even if Brown comes second in terms of seats, there is still no chance of a Lib-Lab coalition. The British people will not accept a party that has been defeated in an election hanging on to power. Nick Clegg would still have to let David Cameron form a government and, here’s the twist, so would Labour. Yet, the democratic reality is that Labour and the Liberal Democrats will have an overwhelming majority of the votes cast on Thursday. In any proportional system Britain would long since have had a stable coalition of the progressive forces of the centre left.
And right now, an overwhelming vote for the Liberal Democrats is – in England at least – seems the best way of demonstrating the central point: that Britain cannot be called a democracy so long as the number of seats in parliament bears no relation to the number of votes cast.
The time for holding noses is over. Some Scots will vote for the SNP to register their discontent on Thursday. More are likely to vote Liberal Democrat. This is not 2007, and the issue in this general election is not who governs Scotland, but how to reform Westminster. Of course, the vast majority of Scots will continue to vote Labour, as they always have, especially in the West of Scotland, where hatred of the Tories is the driving force. I fully respect that. However, in those seats where it counts, I hope people will at least consider voting tactically for whichever party seems most committed to change.
We have one chance: to end of this rotten, corrupt and unfair electoral system, which has deformed our political culture. Which has allowed leaders like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, with inflated majorities in parliament on 43% or 42% of the popular vote, to push through policies like the Iraq war and the poll tax that the majority of British voters never wanted. Voters have an opportunity to make themselves heard on Thursday: Let’s open our mouths and scream.