Sunday, November 22, 2009

John Cleese and the Politics Lesson

[Today's MORI poll in The Observer puts Labour just 6 points behind the Conservatives. Could this mean that neither party will have an overall majority after next year's General Election?]

The odds appear to have shortened on our parliament being hung after the next general election. While many of you may wish to add the words “drawn” and “quartered” to the above sentence, I’m not referring to the fate of our dishonourable MPs, but to the increasing possibility that the Conservatives may not get an overall majority in the forthcoming election.

As a wet and windy winter settles in, the price of fuel rises and our local Wine Racks go bust, morale couldn’t be worse. Yet, according to today’s MORI poll, the Tories only have a 6% lead over what is supposed to be a party with the least popular leader in history.

What happens if, miracle of miracles, we get a whiff of warm Spring air before May and Britain’s economy revives itself with the daffodils? Could the unthinkable happen and we end up with small parties holding the balance of power?

Quite why the Conservatives are doing so badly is a mystery. Some blame The Sun newspaper: its constant pillorying of Gordon may have helped him. Friends of mine, normally to the right of Genghis Khan, are openly feeling sorry for the poor man. Or maybe people are finally getting suspicious of the dough-faced Etonian and the appalling Osborne, reciting their menu of opportunistic platitudes devoid of real policy?

Yesterday’s poll, published in the leftie Observer, could have been just a blip, but could it signify uplift in national confidence and a feeling that, after all, the Labour devil you know is better than the Tory devil you suspect?

If the resurgence holds, would a hung parliament be so dreadful? People point to the walking wounded Labour governments of the 1970s, desperately struggling to survive with the help of the Liberals. Sure, everyone says that what the country needs to get out of the recession is strong government, but is a hung parliament necessarily a weak one? After all, it’s a natural consequence of all electoral systems that use proportional representation, or PR. Does PR lead to political impotence?

I know a little about the subject thanks to John Cleese. In 1987 he rang me out of the blue and asked if I would help him make a party political broadcast for the SDP-Liberal Alliance. In the previous election 28% voted Labour and were represented by 209 seats, whereas 26% had voted Liberal and were represented by just 23 seats. This was clearly unfair: would I agree to help him?

I could hardly say no to the opportunity of working with the comedy genius, even though I had no idea how we could make an amusing programme out of something so innately dull. I recall we started with Cleese asleep, bored by the fact that he already knew what he was about to say. Nearby a stagehand was snoring loudly. It was the first time a comedian had presented a political broadcast and it caused a furore. But the truths within it hold true today.

Britain is virtually the only civilised country in the world (apart from the United States) without PR. Strong economies like Germany, Holland, and all Scandinavia have successfully used it for decades. Over there, everyone with a vote has a voice. It seems iniquitous to me that in most British parliamentary constituencies a vote for anyone other than the incumbent is a waste of time. In our system, the only real democracy lies within marginal seats.

If the LibDems agreed to share power, it might be on condition that Britain finally adopts PR. I can imagine why both Brown and Cameron would hate the idea. It gives power to the people and encourages consensus rather than autocracy. It avoids extremism and swings of policy. It promotes cooperation and is both fair and democratic.

Now wouldn’t that be a great way to start the next decade?

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