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Don’t hold your nose on election day. Vote for fair votes.

     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. 

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


17 thoughts on “Don’t hold your nose on election day. Vote for fair votes.

  1. Sorry Iain just as there is a hard core Labour vote there is also a hard core SNP vote which will always be there and is on the increase.

    Posted by Conway | May 2, 2010, 4:13 pm
  2. I'm sorry too. I think many Scots will be in shock at what we've seen in recent weeks in the English media who have virtually controlled the campaign. I have hated all of it and especially the TV "debates" during which "real" questions were not permitted. That Clegg shot to the position he is now in on the basis of these debates is absolutely terrifying. The prospect of Cameron, and the Tories, back in power is even more terrifying for Scotlad. I have many, many issues with New Labour but I feel physically sick every time I hear Cameron utter a single word. I am worried about what is to come after this election and just how bad it is going to get. I worry about interest rates starting to climb again, about the return of inflation and I worry about jobs. I work in the public sector. These are not "New Tories". They are unchanged and still bleat about "waste" in the public sector and lazy benefit claimants who should be forced to work. The clearout of the public sector has already been done to death to the point where most government departments function with the bare minimum of staff: under Labour benefit claimants currently do the jumping through hoops and it is difficult to imagine how much worse the Tories can make the whole process. I have to say also that despite my issues with Labour I believe the treatment of Gordon Brown by the English media has been quite disgusting. For many the focus has not been on politics but on one other thing only: his Scottish accent. So I think Iain that Scotland is going to view Thursday's gloomy outcome with some fear – and so we should. Jo G

    Posted by Anonymous | May 2, 2010, 10:57 pm
  3. What Scotland votes on Thursday will be irrelevant in a UK context. We have been 'opening our mouths and screaming' for a few decades now, and yes, we were rewarded by getting a devolved parliament, but little else has changed at Westminster.There are two likely outcomes which will automatically force constitutional change at Westminster.1. The Lib Dems as a coalition partner for either of the main parties will force PR into future Westminster elections.2. A Tory majority will mean the exclusion of Scottish votes on English matters, creating an unwritten federal system, as well as a hardening of attitudes to the Tories governing non-Tory Scotland. And perhaps even fiscal autonomy to appease both Scots as well as Barnett-hating Tories.

    Posted by Andrew BOD | May 2, 2010, 11:33 pm
  4. Nice to see you back Iain. You must have a few bob to have been able to be off so long!

    Posted by Dark Lochnagar | May 3, 2010, 9:13 am
  5. Andrew Bod, I'm not sure you're correct on the barring of "Scottish votes" at Westminster. It is the UK Parliament, not the English Parliament, and all UK MPs have the right to vote on all issues there. Cameron is going to have to deal with that and the lie he has been feeding those in the south for such a long time now. But then he too believes it is the "English" Parliament and not a UK Parliament. For him, England IS the UK! Some Parties with MPs at Westminster but whose home nations have devolved governments do abstain in votes on English issues. (Had Labour instructed their Scottish constituency MPs to follow the same example the "English votes on English issues" thing would never have come to this. That is the only way to do it. But "barring" anyone from a vote is not an option Cameron has. It would be illegal in a UK Parliament. Pure and simple. His nasty, narrow, restrictive and twisted little mindset and his deception of the English in suggesting he could ever do this proves what Cameron is. Jo G

    Posted by Anonymous | May 3, 2010, 3:13 pm
  6. "Some Scots will vote for the SNP to register their discontent on Thursday. More are likely to vote Liberal Democrat."The latest poll I've seen – in the Herald on Sunday – put the SNP at 23% and the Lib Dems on 16%, so that assertion seems a bit suspect. The Lib Dems may well win more Scottish seats (ironically, because our crooked electoral system works in their favour north of the border), but I'd be happy to have a tenner with you that the SNP get considerably more votes.That quibble aside, the warmest of welcomes back, Iain. We've missed you.

    Posted by spungo | May 3, 2010, 5:11 pm
  7. Jo GI disagree. I think Cameron has made it clear that he believes Scottish MPs voting on English Health, Education and Justice issues, is undemocratic, and I have to say I agree with him. Imagine for a minute that the UK parliament was in Edinburgh and Westminster was the English devolved parliament. Would it be correct for English MPs to vote on Scottish Health, Education and Justice matters? I think not. And not just because England is far bigger. It's a wholly undemocratic principle.I think Cameron suggested an English Grand Committee to make it work, and I believe a Scottish version was used before devolution.Me thinks Westminster should really be England's Parliament, and if the people of Scotland really do want remain part of the Union, then we could perhaps make use of the Lords for a Federal Parliament / Assembly on UK reserved matters.

    Posted by Andrew BOD | May 3, 2010, 8:08 pm
  8. Yes, Andrew, I happen to agree with Cameron on the English issues part but that isn't what I'm saying. I'm saying he cannot legally BAR any UK Member of the House of Commons from participating in votes held there. The other thing is that the English really must understand that Westminster is NOT the English Parliament. Again it is the UK Parliament. Devolution gave other home countries separate Parliaments/Assemblies where they took charge of particular areas and Westminster retained the rest. England was meant to do the same, in some form or another, but the process for England appeared to stall some time back. I'm not sure why that was. I believe it was thought a single body would not best serve England, apparently because England was too large an area to cover, and Regional Assemblies were proposed instead. In a test referendum held in the North East, however, it was found that more than 600,000 opposed Regional Assemblies and only around 196,000 backed them. Other research done seems to suggest that the English favour the status quo. I find that odd but there you have it. The fact remains that England has not moved with the other Home Countries in embracing devolution. I don't mean to be rude but England cannot now insist it will simply take over the UK Parliament instead. The UK Parliament is the UK Parliament and Members elected to it have the absolute right to participate in all votes held. They cannot be "barred". Cameron has deceived people by suggesting he would have the power to do such a think. He has also used the issue to suggeset England has somehow been treated unfairly when that is simply not the case. England merely didn't follow the same path it was offered along with the other three home countries. That is not our fault and the ill feeling stirred up, particularly against Scots, as a result of Cameron's anti-Scottish bile on this issue is most unhelpful and also very divisive. Your example regarding "English MPs" imposing anything on Scotland is something Scots lived with for many years incidentally. The Community Charge (Poll Tax) for example was imposed only on Scotland and voted through by Thatcher's government. Devolving issues to each of the Home Countries was meant to address such injustices and England WAS included in that: it just hasn't done it and, it appears, it doesn't wish to. Please remember too that it was a Scottish MP who first raised what is known as the West Lothian Question. The answer to it was for England to embrace some form of devolution in the same way the others did. I'm hoping your final paragraph isn't serious. For one thing you appear to ignore the existence of the people of Wales and NI which in my view is not very nice of you. That said as long as Scotland is part of the Union Andrew we will be in Westminster, the UK Parliament, not the English one and I suspect the Welsh and the N.Irish would take the same view. And all three of us will consider ourselves just as important in that Parliament as our neighbours, the English. We are all equal or so it is meant to be in a real democracy. You may think Westminster "should" be England's Parliament but I really would read up on the constitutional implications that arise from such an assertion: they are many. : ) Jo G

    Posted by Anonymous | May 3, 2010, 9:46 pm
  9. Jo GThanks for the response, but we seem to be misunderstanding one another.My last paragraph assumed NI, Wales and Scotland retained their devolved assemblies/parliaments and England also became devolved. As you have pointed out, the people of England do not want regional assemblies, but they could have a devolved parliament. (Cornwall might be the exception.)Whether England's devolved parliament sat in the Commons or the Lords or somewhere else in England is probably missing the point, but the set up would definitely have to include a separate federal parliament or Senate with checks and balances to ensure the large English representation doesn't have overall control. A reduction in political representation would inevitably pay for this, and may actually improve accountability of our politicians.This idea is nothing new as countries across the world have adopted very similar constitutional models, but whether a country with such a dominant state could be happy together is questionable. However, I believe that it is worth trying and definitely more democratic than the current, almost imperialist set-up.The problem is that there is no hunger for this in England as 'England' and 'Britain' are almost interchangeable concepts and nobody gets hung up about this except the 'Celtic Fringes'. So unless Barnett changes and 'English votes for English policies' are pursued by Cameron, the people of England will think no differently and the undemocratic constitutional mess that is the UK will continue.

    Posted by Andrew BOD | May 3, 2010, 10:52 pm
  10. "England as 'England' and 'Britain' are almost interchangeable concepts"Yes indeed Andrew, but only for the English and if the Celts on the sidelines object to such a concept they have good reasons for doing so, the main one being, England is NOT Britain. : ) I'll leave it at that. Thank you for engaging with me on this issue.

    Posted by Anonymous | May 4, 2010, 11:12 am
  11. There are already too many politicians and parlaments running Scotland. We do not need Scottish MP's at Westminster, all they are doing is interfering in English matters.England does not need or want another layer of government. They like us have the EU parliament so why have another layer of unemployed wasters in England that we have in Scotland with regard to Westminster.Scottish MP's = £35 million that could go to help pay off the national debt or pay for a load of operations in the NHS.

    Posted by Billy | May 5, 2010, 9:29 am
  12. Hi Billy, interesting solution but you're forgetting quite a lot of things. Reserved matters for example. Should we just sack all Scottish MPs and forget about about those, including what we have sitting at Faslane and other Defence related posts throughout Scotland? Independence, if it is going to come, won't come overnight nor will it happen without long drawn out negotiations on many issues. It really isn't as simple as saying let's just withdraw our MPs. You also have a constitution – unwritten or not – to deal with. So I'd say we should keep them there until we sort all of that out. Jo G

    Posted by Anonymous | May 5, 2010, 10:50 pm
  13. Hi Jo GAny negotiations will be between the Scottish government and the Westminster government so why should we keep people there doing nothing.Even if every Scottish MP was SNP or at least all on the same side it would make no difference to anything, reserved or not, as the rest of the Westminster MP's will out vote them and vote through whatever they want and that is what will happen in that scenario.

    Posted by Billy | May 6, 2010, 8:45 pm
  14. Billy I think you don't quite understand how it would all work. It really isn't as simple as you make out. For a start the Scottish Government as we know it doesn't have responsibility for the areas currently under Westminster's jurisdiction. We'd need a referendum first too supporting independence and after that negotiations would begin to dismantle the Union as it were. That is no simple process. You also need to bear in mind that even in an independent Scotland if that should come all politicians will not be SNP. We will still have a Party system. Jo G

    Posted by Anonymous | May 6, 2010, 9:12 pm
  15. Jo GI certainly do know how it will all work.The scenario you talk about will only come about after a referendum and only if the SNP have a majority or support in the Scottish parliament for a referendum and it is voted for by the Scottish people.The Scottish government will then start the negotiations with the Westminster government meanwhile our Scottish MP's at Westminster who do nothing at present but interfere in English matters will be banned from doing that. They will still be doing nothing during the negotiations.The Scottish MP's are going to be banned from English issues soon now anyway so there is going to be more people questioning why they are there and why they are still being paid full time wages for not even doing part time work.

    Posted by Billy | May 7, 2010, 8:58 am
  16. Billy, errrr, no. Currently Scottish MPs at Westminster can't be banned from voting on English matters because it isn't the English Parliament, its the UK Parliament. All elected Members therefore can vote on all matters. (They could choose to abstain as SNP MPs currently do on English matters but they cannot be banned.) It really all isn't as simple as you say. Our devolved Parliament in Edinburgh is exactly that at the moment. The discussions will not just involve the Government in power at Westminster but the entire establishment down there because the dismantling of the Union is a massive step indeed. It isn't something that will be quick and it is extremely complex. I for one am very glad that it will be done carefully and not in the almost overnight manner you suggest.You are still ignoring the fact that Westminster retains responsibility for many other matters. With respect I think you do many Scottish MPs a grave disservice. They are not all lazy and they are certainly not all "doing nothing" as you say. We will have to agree to disagree on this.

    Posted by Anonymous | May 7, 2010, 10:56 pm
  17. Neither Foreign Affairs nor Defence, to name but two, are devolved matters therefore as long as they are the reponsibility of the UK Parliament and as long as Scottish regiments are deployed at the behest of the UK Parliament then Scottish MPs representing Scottish Constituences have the right to sit in the UK Parlaiment so that a Scottish 'voice' is heard in debates on Defence and Foreigh Affairs.

    Posted by Anonymous | May 11, 2010, 10:56 pm

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