Paul Dundon’s Weblog

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A little cheese and a little whine

Five Reasons why Gordon Brown should Introduce Proportional Representation

It would give Labour a chance of staying in government. Let’s face it, the party’s over. The problem for labour was always bringing together the conservative working and middle class, the radical working class and the liberal intelligentsia. In 1997, they had the dream ticket: Blair, the public school boy lawyer, was the poster boy for the conservatives; Straw and Mowlam were there for the liberals; and Brown was the ticking time-bomb for the radical left, biding his time at the Treasury until the time came when he could take the party back to the left. The tension between Blair and Brown was a beautiful piece of theatre, because it reinforced the notion that Brown had his own agenda, keeping the radical left content. But then Straw gave way to Blunkett, and Labour’s slide into illiberalism (the Iraq War, ID cards, 30 days detention, et al) began. It became apparent that Brown had no problem with these policies and the liberals were alienated more or less permanently. Then when Brown came to power, he did anything but take the party to the left economically: the time bomb turned out to be a dud. Yet Brown will never be the nice professional English schoolboy Blair was; he will always, to the conservatives, be the shadowy figure just a step a way from raising taxes to pay for silly things like healthcare and education. Brown might just re-align two of the three groups, but structurally, there are too many limitations to allow him to rebuild the coalition that kept Labour in power.

 

It’s a good thing to do, and they said they would do it. The current electoral system places too much power in the hands of the essentially conservative region of the country we know as Middle England; this acts as a braking force on every sane and civilised policy any government wants to introduce. In the land of the Mail and Express, fear, uncertainty and doubt rule as the bastard children of acquisitiveness, moral condemnation and unconscious hegemony, and only through a divisive jingoism which would be in keeping at the Coliseum (lock them up, keep them out, send them home, make them work, make them pay) can any government hold on to power. We all knew this in 1997, and we wanted it to change, and Labour said they would change it. But they didn’t; an unexpected landslide made them realise that they could hold on to power without reforming the electoral system, so long as they had Blair.

 

It would prove Brown had courage. We should really have known, when Brown took so many snubs from Blair, that he was not a man of courage. When he let Blair hold on to power for the start of the third term despite his personal unpopularity, we should have seen that Brown was not a man who would seize his advantage. And looking at his performance in the treasury, we should not really been surprised: this was the chancellor of Prudence and Sustainability. And holding on at the Treasury until Blair was basically willing to go without a fight was Prudent, and Sustainable. Introducing PR would at least show that, even if Brown couldn’t lead the party to a fourth term, he was willing to do something daring.

 

It would give Gordon a legacy as Prime Minister. People are divided on Brown’s legacy as Treasurer; 10 years of strong economic growth on the one hand, but unsustainable house prices and personal indebtedness on the other. As Prime Minister, however, Brown is yet to really accomplish anything, and the danger is that he will be remembered only for taking labour out of power.

 

It would reinvigorate democracy. The hold of Middle England is only one of our problems as a democracy. The truth is that, in their bid to return to power during the nineties, Labour transformed many of our important political institutions – trade unions, local councils, the party itself – into organisations with fewer and fewer opportunities for real participation. This was necessary to eliminate and moderate the radical left, a process without which Middle England could never be appeased. But the effect was to bring to a close almost a century of participative democracy in the labour movement, creating a political class whose ambition is to keep hold of power for the good of the people. A cynical dictatorship is bad, but a dictatorship that sincerely believes it is doing the right thing is a great deal more dangerous. Reform of the electoral system would mean that parties other than Labour and Conservative would become real players, opening opportunities for different models of engagement and massively increased participation. Real democracy doesn’t happen at elections; it happens in the spaces between them, and shapes what happens in them. In the last twenty years, we’ve lost sight of this fact. It’s time to rediscover it, and Gordon is the only man who can help us.

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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