Nick Clegg and my one-year-old daughter Izzy have something in common. Last week they both took their first grownup steps. The two events had equally devastating consequences. Jo and I have had to raise everything in the sitting room above child height: and, having found that their opponent is a baby no more, Labour and the Tories are belatedly rushing around trying to raise their game.
I missed Clegg’s first performance because the volcano had caused me to get stuck in France. Thanks to a surprisingly luxurious ferry (I know that sounds like a contradiction, but a huge cabin with a kingsize bed, private bathroom and breakfast-in-bed hands Brittany Ferries my vote for Most Stylish Cross-Channel Ferry), I arrived back in time to miss the wedding of my old friend, Christopher Graham.
Chris has one of the most powerful jobs in Britain: he’s our Information Commissioner. Appointed by the Crown, his job is to promote openness by public bodies and protect the privacy of our data. He’s the chap who decides what we should know about our elected representatives and what the government should know about us. In short, he’s our country’s Head of Fairness and Openness, the bloke you go to if you want to find out what our MPs and public corporations are doing or spending.
We met in the early 1970s when we were both BBC news trainees. Chris had been interested in politics all his life: he was a Liverpool city councillor at the age of 21 and he tried in vain to become an MP in the 1980s. It was Chris who first drew my attention to the plight of the Liberals.
He and I had volunteered to work on the results programme on the February 1974 election. Chris was very excited because the Libs, or Soggies as we unkindly called them, were on the verge of a breakthrough. If they achieved over 21% of the popular vote, they’d end up with maybe fifty MPs, compared to the six they currently had. At long last there would be a third force in British politics.
In fact, the Libs succeeded in doubling their vote to 6 million, more than half the support of either big party, but won only 14 seats. Statistically that meant (as Chris would recite endlessly to anyone who would listen) it took just 39,000 votes to elect a Labour MP, but 433,000 votes to elect a Liberal. That’s simply not fair, said Chris. And it still isn’t.
Even if Clegg gets 30% of the vote, he’ll only get around 100 seats – compared to the 200 he deserves. And that’s plain wrong: our cockeyed version of democracy means that if one party is supported by around 39%, that party can pretty well ignore the views of the 61% who voted against them.
After the 1974 election, Ted Heath desperately tried to keep power by seeking a coalition with the Liberals. But Jeremy Thorpe’s condition – electoral reform – was a dealbreaker. This time, the winner will be the party that offers voting reform first. Irrespective of which party gets the most votes on May 6th, unless Clegg falls flat on his face in this Thursday’s debate we’re likely to have coalition politics in Britain forever. That means Lib Dems in government for the foreseeable future.
And that, of course, is perfectly fair. If the Lib Dem vote sticks at around 30%, the British public isn’t going to tolerate Labour, with fewer votes, getting substantially more seats and possibly even forming a government.
Nick Clegg’s newfound popularity has exposed the obsolescence of the British voting system, which will have a serious crisis of legitimacy unless the established parties offer complete reform. The baby is walking – there’s no going back now.