GIVE ME PR, BUT NOT YET
Should Liberal Democrat MPs have behaved worse than they did over expense
That is only a semi-serious question – one difficulty the party had, as the
expenses furore swept everything before it, was that it was not untainted but
its MPs had done nothing so appalling that Nick Clegg could make examples of
them, as David Cameron did with his moat and duck house owners.
The result was evident in the elections. The Lib Dems trod water with a slight
fall in the European vote, a quite good increase against a Tory surge in the
English shires – and a poll rating that varied little.
There was a time when the pre-merger Liberal Party would have exploited such a
sudden loss of faith in the main parties without mercy.
Nowadays, Liberal Democrats are one of the main parties and were tarred with the
same brush. The protest vote went instead to the Greens, UKIP, independents, the
SNP, Plaid Cymru and, alarmingly, the BNP.
Get used to it. Lib Dems have never ceased to complain about the dominance of
the two main parties while being entirely relaxed about the dominance of the
three main ones. Any of the variants of voting reform being canvassed will see a
further flourishing of smaller parties.
Public revulsion over expenses suddenly led to an unprecedented surge of
interest in political and electoral reform. That leads to another semi-serious
question – when will the Lib Dems mount a robust defence of first-past-the-post?
This is, after all, the system under which the party does best. Its record in
fighting PR elections is awful – fewer councillors in Scotland under STV than
under the old system, a wash-out in last year’s London elections and yet another
under-performance in the European vote.
The Liberal Democrats cannot fight PR elections properly because their targeting
strategy has gone too far and hollowed out the party in non-target areas, where
it lacks presence and so has to rely on its patchy ability to be heard in
Be careful what you wish for. A new voting system is essential, but the Lib Dems
are in poor shape to exploit AV-plus fully, never mind STV in multi-member
Yet they have to get into that shape because – changed voting system or not –
the party cannot rely on chasing a diminishing pool of target seats and ought
not to find such poor performances in PR elections acceptable.
That, as Liberator has long argued, means coming off the fence, taking risks and
presenting a programme that might grab at least some people’s imagination and
The timid approach of Make it Happen is now redundant. It might be only
nine months old but that manifesto belongs to a vanished world in which market
economics were unquestioned, most people were happy and the party did not wish
to disturb them unduly.
Some encouragement can be drawn. The European campaign, had anyone heard it
above the expenses din, was actually pro-European. ‘Stronger Together’ would
have been a serviceable theme in normal times and far better than 2004’s
cowardly effort, which treated the party’s support for the European Union as an
There has since been Nick Clegg’s change of mind on Trident and the increasingly
successful efforts to engage the public with Labour’s menace to civil liberty,
not to mention Vince Cable’s continuing stature on the recession.
It is no time for timidity because, once the expense issue dies down, the
recession, climate change, authoritarianism and isolationism will all still be
with us, and will be the subjects on which the party needs to be heard.
Before that, the public will want answers on cleaning up parliament. Gordon
Brown’s National Council for Democratic Renewal, which sounds like the creation
of some African coup leader, seems destined to fiddle with parliamentary
procedure, which may be welcome but will not calm angry voters.
The only way to do that is thorough reform of the political, voting and expenses
systems, of the kind the Lib Dems have a better claim to have supported than any
Public anger over expenses is understandable because, while the money was small
in terms of overall public spending (probably less than the notoriously
profligate Ministry of Defence wastes most weeks), it looked as if MPs had
awarded themselves a licence to print banknotes.
Nobody though died because of expenses, only a few backbenchers will lose their
jobs, nobody’s liberty was reduced and nowhere was rendered uninhabitable.
The really serious mistakes made by politicians – the Iraq war, lax banking
regulation, ID cards and inactivity on climate change – did not rouse public
anger as have expense claims.
Can the Lib Dems make the case that these errors, along with misbehaviour over
expenses, are all products of the same decayed and unaccountable political
system and that they have the ideas and will to reform it? If not, someone else
The greatest danger of the expenses scandal is that it will destroy respect for
all mainstream parties, allowing undesirables on the far right to grow. Any Lib
Dem MP who claimed for something questionable should be ashamed for contributing
to this atmosphere.
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