You Can Follow Morality Or The Rules. You Can’t Follow Both
May 11, 2010
by Martin Odoni
There’s an air of desperation around the political heartlands of Britain, isn’t there? The Conservatives are panicking about losing the coalition they need with the Liberal Democrats, Labour are about to lose their leader over forming a coalition of their own, the SNP seem to be falling over themselves to sound like they’re an important presence in British politics and not a foaming-at-the-mouth pressure group, and the Liberal Democrats themselves are looking increasingly pressured, dizzy and confused as they try to comprehend the different offers they have received.
The Tories, understandably, are feeling a bit cheated at the moment. At the General Election, they got the most seats in Parliament, they got the most votes by more than two million, and have spent nearly four days in painstaking negotiations with the Lib-Dems to form a pact of some kind, In that light, it seems incredibly wrong, undemocratic and unfair if the outcome of this week’s dramas is a badly-beaten Labour Party retaining power in the Tories’ stead.
Yes, it would be deeply immoral if this happens, and it would damage the credibility of British Democracy. The counter-argument that proponents of a Lib-Lab coalition offer – many more people voted against the Tories than for them, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats collectively received far more votes – is disingenuous and dangerous. After all, the combination of parties is entirely arbitrary, and it further undermines the results of almost every General Election in British history, including all three terms of the last Labour Government. After all, when is the last time any party got more than half the votes in an Election? By the negative reasoning the Lib-Lab proponents are using here, that is the minimum requirement for a mandate.
Unfortunately, moral arguments from the Conservatives sound awfully hollow, especially on the matter of electoral fairness. Is it morally-right that the Liberal-Democrats keep getting over twenty per cent of the vote at General Elections, if they keep getting under ten per cent of the seats? Whenever anyone raises such an objection, the Tories will always be the first to say, “The rules are the rules.” They will then follow that up with their eternal, tired mantra about how First-Past-The-Post rules are the ones that provide strong Government (like, for instance, right now? Like in 1974?), which, even if that were true, isn’t answering the question, which was about fairness and morality.
Now let’s not make any bones about this, there is nothing in our unwritten constitution that says that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet must be taken, in whole or in part, from the largest party in the House of Commons. I agree that the rules should say that, but the simple fact is they don’t. Therefore the Lib-Dems and Labour are violating no rules if they try and form a working Government together in the event that the Tories cannot do so.
Does this mean a Lib-Lab coalition would have moral legitimacy? No, because it has no recognisable mandate, bar one that has been arrived at via a very arbitrary calculation, But would it have legitimacy within the electoral system? Yes, because the system has nothing to preclude it.
Here’s the thing. When the outcome of the rules suits the two big parties, and especially the Tories, the rules are what counts. When the moral outcome suits the two big parties, it’s suddenly wrong to stick to the rules and apparently everyone should follow their consciences. In other words, the attitude of the Tories is every bit as arbitrary as the attempts to justify a Lib-Lab pact, and undemocratic though it may be, they are getting exactly the quandary they deserve.
The irony in all this is that the Tories’ objections, carried to their fullest logical extent, are in fact an argument for the very policy that they are digging in their heels over (obstructing their chances of a pact with the Liberal Democrats) – electoral reform. Because of narrow self-interest, the Conservative Party has for years beyond counting opposed almost any changes to the British electoral system. If they feel it’s wrong that it’s possible for a Government to be formed without the largest party being represented – and it is – well why is it they and their predecessors have never done anything about it, despite having by far the longest record of governing Britain through the Twentieth Century? Eighteen years just for the Thatcher/Major Government saw next-to-nothing in terms of meaningful electoral reform. It seems that the Tories have only just noticed that there are serious weaknesses and flaws in this tired Victorian system we are still lumbered with, in spite of people yelling at the tops of their lungs about it for decades.
But also, the Conservatives only appear to notice the flaws in the system that are inconvenient to themselves. It’s unfair that the largest party can be deprived of a role in Government, but it’s still fine that smaller parties can be so badly under-represented in Parliament? No, David Cameron, no, William Hague, no, George Osborne. Either both of these phenomena are acceptable, or neither of them are. Either the rules must always take precedence over common morality, or they must never do so. You can’t pick-and-choose which standard should apply, and when.
Damaging the credibility of British Democracy is therefore not that bad a thing to do; the flaws in the system are so glaring that it requires a grotesque act of doublethink to refer to it as a ‘democracy’ at all – it’s effectively twin-oligarchy – and the damage might be the catalyst for a proper reform program to begin.
We now see that it is in everybody’s interests, including even the Tories themselves, to reform and to modernise the way Parliaments are elected in this country. But it has to include real and fundamental reforms, with all the absurdities and inequities demonstrated by this General Election being addressed, and not just the ones that the Tories do not like.
Accusations being thrown at the Lib-Labs this morning in the right-wing media that they are selling out to suit their own narrow interest are not fair. The Liberal Democrats have spent days trying to hammer out an agreement with the Tories – negotiations dutifully assisted by the outgoing Labour Government – and the offer that the Conservatives have placed on the table does sound stingey on this very issue of electoral reform; a referendum on the Alternative Vote is about as slight and superficial as a policy on such reforms can be. And in fairness to Labour, they are acting on the public rejection of Gordon Brown; Brown has announced his resignation. This still wouldn’t establish measurable legitimacy for a Lib-Lab coalition, but it’s an improvement.