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Britain needs change, and not for just this election

libdemlogo The URL for this blog references the predecessors of the Liberal Democrats, but I am not supporting them on the basis that they are the political heirs of William Russell and John Locke, of Edmund Burke and Charles Grey. I do naturally find sympathy with those who espouse the liberal tradition, but such support should not be unquestioned.

That I would feel culturally closer to the Liberal Democrats than to either the trade unionist tradition of Labour or the socially conservative tradition of the Conservatives does matter to me. But it is simplistic to still reduce the contest to these terms, given the change both larger parties have undergone. Meanwhile, the most pressing issue facing the United Kingdom in the coming years is its budget deficit, and that cannot be ignored.

There are a few Lib Dem policy stances I disagree with. While I would favour tax decreases, I would not favour the approach in increasing the tax credit to £10,000. This would take some workers out of the tax net completely; cuts should rather be in the standard rate, so that as many workers as possible make some contribution. I also oppose taxpayers paying for third-level tuition fees, just as I oppose it in Ireland, but quite honestly, as the party has scaled back on its deadline for implementing such a policy, I don’t believe it would be a priority for them in government.

The Liberal Democrats have changed their emphasis on economic matters, away from proposals such as the 50% tax rate that left me unenthusiastic about them in 2005. Under Vince Cable, who before entering the Commons in 1997 was both an academic economist at Glasgow and a professional economist at Shell, the party has benefitted from being able to take approaches to the unfolding economic and financial situations that in many cases became the consensus view. In recent weeks, I read both Cable’s memoirs, Free Radical, and his study on where the global economy stands after the 2008/09 recession, The Storm, and was encouraged by his outlook. I also noticed the extent to which he could play to different crowds, with a more progressive nuance to the more general audience of his memoirs, and a stringent economic focus in The Storm.

Whatever the formation of the government which will emerge over the weekend, this will be a major election for the Liberal Democrats because of the success of Nick Clegg in the Leaders’ Debates. He came across as capable, if not more so at times, than either of his opponents. This was a reminder that there is a different approach that has been largely ignored. He also showed fortitude in not ignoring any of the less popular planks of the party, being open about their plan for an amnesty for illegal immigrants, which I would lean towards, though I think region-specific work permits are a little daft (or potty as Clegg would put it). He was also quite open about proposals to abolish short-term prison sentences. They are also taking strong case on civil liberties, in areas like ID cards, CCTV and a national database, which unfortunately did not get an adequate airing during the debates.

They represent a different internationalist strain than we’ve seen under Labour, or that would expect to see from Cameron’s Conservatives, more multilateralist, and most favourable towards the European Union. Of course, they are caricatured as being excessively pro-European and anti-American, but that is in large extent merely because of how they are distinguished from the other parties. They are generally no more favourable to the EU than, say, Fine Gael are. Again, Cable in The Storm expresses his growing caution towards entering the euro, such that if they propose it, it would be for sound economic and financial beliefs, rather than a blind adherence to the European project.

Why this election could change everything

This different strain of politics can be seen in political thought and action over the centuries. Across countries, we can identify conservative, liberal and socialist traditions. They are respectively stronger in different countries, but Britain is certainly one country that has had a long and continuing history in each of these traditions. This, however, has not been captured by Britain’s first-past-the-post system. Those who favour retaining the current system argue that it gives voters a clear choice and that by leading more frequently to single-party majority, it ensures that what is implemented is what some people voted for. But what is really more representative, what has genuinely more authority to govern, a party with the support of 35% of the vote, or a coalition between parties which collectively have the support of more than 50% of the vote?

Most of Europe survives quite satisfactorily with proportional representation and the ensuing coalition governments. We’ve managed fine, but a better comparison might be Germany, which for most of its history since 1949 has had coalitions between two of the Christian Democrats, the Social Democrats and the Free Democrats, and more recently the Greens.

Whether the Liberal Democrats can bring electoral reform onto the agenda will depend not only on their share of their seats and their strength relative to other parties in the event of a hung parliament, but also on their share of the vote, as the greater the disproportionality, and particularly in the perverse case that they have more votes but less seats than Labour, the greater their case for reform.

Which is why most of all that I hope that they maximise their vote today. No longer should one of Labour or the Conservative party simply feel entitled to govern alone when the other becomes tired. The Liberal Democrats have energy and ideas, and they should be given a chance to take the part they deserve in a three-party system.

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  1. 16 July, 2012 at 6:23 pm

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