The day democracy died

On Thursday the Great British electorate, in its infinite wisdom, chose to retain the first-past-the-post electoral system. I don’t blame them. Because it wasn’t t any day this week that democracy died. It was the day that the Liberal Democrats accepted the ‘miserable little compromise’ that is the alternative vote as an acceptable alternative to FPTP.

It is easy to be wise in hindsight. But the judgement of history must surely be that Clegg and his co-conspirators got this wrong. AV is an absurd electoral system. Beyond absurd. Giving one arbitrary group of voters a second vote has no justification whatsoever. As such the Yes campaign has been unable to put together a positive case for AV, and has been forced to make its pitch at a purely abstract level.

The principle at the root of FPTP is equally absurd from the point of view of democratic principles. But the system has a raw appeal in terms of simplicity, and of course the advantage of incumbency, crucial in a small-c conservative country usually quite reluctant to rock the boat unless it’s absolutely necessary.

It is absolutely necessary to change first-past-the-post. If the Lib Dems had not sold out on electoral reform in return for a few places at the Cabinet table, progressive forces may eventually have been able to coalesce around a real alternative. Now the chances of electoral reform are over for at least a generation.

But it gets worse. Whereas you might think that a referendum on AV is the very least the Lib Dems could have got out of their Conservative masters, they actually had to agree to a shameless Tory plan to carve up the constituency boundaries to serve their own interests.

So now we face a Conservative Party empowered by a referendum victory that was inevitable from the word go, shielded from public backlash against public spending cuts by their coalition partners, rigging the democratic process. Apparently they are also planning to withdraw support now from Clegg’s House of Lords reform agenda. All of this was entirely foreseeable.

It was also entirely unnecessary. The notion that the national interest needed coalition government is ridiculous. If they were so concerned about the deficit, the Lib Dems could simply have agreed to vote through a Conservative government’s spending plans, without necessarily agreeing to the rest of its right-wing agenda. The national interest may or may not have required these cuts, but it did not require Nick Clegg in the Cabinet Office, nor Vince Cable in a non-job at BIS – just as it does not require the marketization of the health service, middle-class tax cuts, war in Libya, and a dilution of banking reform.

Everyone finds it hard to admit when they’ve made a mistake. Mr Clegg, Mr Cable, Mr Huhne – you made a mistake. You have caused immeasurable harm to your party and your country. Don’t make it worse by digging in. Leave this coalition now. The Conservative Party did not win a general election, and by allowing them to govern as if they have, you are undermining everything you believe in.


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