What responsible opposition is, and what it isn’t… (it’s more than attacking Tories and demanding voting reform)…

It’s not about “getting rid of the Tories” or “changing the voting system”. It is about holding the government to account, and giving a voice to the millions who are unhappy with the way things are going.

There’s a powerful case for voting reform. There’s been a powerful case ever since the Labour party emerged as a force in British politics a century ago because first-past-the-post only makes sense in a two party system.

There’s a great deal to question about the present government. I can understand opposition parties wanting to see it gone. But action is needed now, if there’s a change of government in four years’ time.

At an emotional level the bracketing-together of “opposition”, “getting rid of the Tories” and “voting reform” makes most sense as a reaction against the turbulent time we are in, but makes it harder to achieve each of those three aims.

A psychoanalytic lens

A little psychoanalytic theory might be a useful way to think of some of this. Melanie Klein suggested that small babies, trying to make sense of the world, tend to think in terms of simple binaries — things are “good” or “bad”, “pleasant” or “unpleasant”, and that, as they grow, they then develop a more sophisticated way to be with things that are more nuanced than that. Slightly-unhelpfully, she called these the “paranoid-schizoid position” and the “depressive position”. She suggested that they continue in all of us, and that, in times of stress or under threat, we can go back into more of a paranoid-schizoid way of thinking.

I’ve phrased it this way because we are living in an extremely difficult period. It’s very easy to blame the government, assume that a different voting system would have meant either a different government, or one with a much smaller majority, and want to plan for a change. This is a stark, paranoid-schizoid way of thinking. It’s also a flight from reality.

One of the flies in the ointment is that the thinking that wants a nice, apparently-simple binary, might well explain why people have tolerated the first-past-the-post voting system, as it’s only virtue is that it tends to produce clear majorities for either a Conservative government of a Labour one.

The trouble is that this is also a highly-tribal way of thinking. It doesn’t help to assume that the Tories are unquestionably bad, or for Labour supporters to assume that all the opposition parties should bury their differences — the implication is that Labour is “good” and the Tories are “bad” and no further thought is needed and everyone should get in line. (In brackets, this also illustrates one of the Liberal Democrat critiques of Labour — that they are too authoritarian).

Responsible opposition now

We’d be horrified if, after a General Election, only the MPs of the winning party turned up in Parliament. Yet behaving as if the opposition parties need to work together to get rid of the Tories is to behave as if there is nothing for MPs outside the ruling party to do in the mean time.

The role of an opposition isn’t to oppose for the sake of opposing. It is to hold the government to account. It’s to question ministers and point out when things are awry. It’s to speak up when a government does things that harm people — particularly if it’s harming people the government might ignore as they voted for other parties.

This isn’t to oppose everything a Tory government does. That easily generates wrecking tactics that no-one should heed. It is to support when support is due, and oppose when it is not. It’s closer to “critical friend” than “enemy”. Keir Starmer is leader of “Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition”. He is not wrecker-in-chief. At best, when an opposition party shows itself to be responsible, it shows itself to be a credible alternative when the next election comes. If it’s not been responsible, why should anyone vote for it?

Imagine a scenario where Boris Johnson gets up in the House of Commons and says:

“It’s become clear that Brexit isn’t going to look anything like what we argued for in the referendum campaign. It’s going to do real harm to the economy and to Britain’s influence in the world. Covid19 has brought enourmous strains and it’s become clear that the best way out of this situation is by full membership of the EU. There isn’t time for a referendum. We will therefore bring forward a bill to authorise the start of talks to rejoin the EU.”

A responsible Opposition would applaud Johnson’s courage, not attack him because this is a “Tory initiative” — even though it also means they wouldn’t be able to win the next election on the back of “Tory Brexit” trashing the economy. The Opposition would be grossly irresponsible if it put its own election chances ahead of the national interest.

In reality, it’s wildly optimistic to think that Johnson would make a U-turn like that. But it’s something a responsible opposition can facilitate — by holding the government to account, and being willing to support when support is due.

Opposing the Tories for being Tories, rather than for their actual actions, doesn’t help anyone. The trouble is that, given the strains we now face, a paranoid-schizoid approach that does just see them as “evil” can be tempting — wise governance demands the opposite, even if it feels counter-intuitive.

Voting reform

People quote lots of figures to support voting reform, usually highlighting the difference between the proportions of the vote that went to each party, and the actual composition of the House of Commons.

These figures don’t mean much. There’s no way they can take account of people voting tactically, or of the people who didn’t vote because they think they live in a safe seat. They also can’t take account of how our political parties would function if the electoral system were different — such as the people whose views would make them natural Liberal Democrats, but who chose instead to join Labour or the Conservatives because those parties see more people elected.

There are also real questions about what a new voting system should look like. Should it be single-member constituencies (as now) or larger, multi-member ones? Should there be “top-up” MPs to correct any discrepancies?

I think it is likely to be a two stage process — an initial change to something better, some time for the impact of that to work its way through our political life, and then a second change to adjust to that.

From this perspective, Liberal Democrats were right to press for the Alternative Vote when in coalition. It remains a highly-attractive first step because it doesn’t need a re-drawing of constituency boundaries. Because it involves people ranking candidates in order of their preference, it also gives some fine-grained data to model further changes so that the composition of the House of Commons does reflect people’s preferences.

Voting reform was rejected in a referendum

But the Alternative Vote was defeated in a referendum, securing only 31% of the vote (albeit on a low turnout).

A misleading advert from the AV referendum campaign

As with the Brexit referendum, there are questions about some of the campaign tactics. I heard Tories say “Vote ‘No’ to AV to give Clegg a kicking over tuition fees” (despite having pushed the Liberal Democrats into a painful compromise). There were adverts suggesting the Alternative Vote would take money from babies or from the armed forces, which presage the reality-defying adverts from the Leave campaign in the EU referendum. There were stories suggesting that the “No2AV” campaign had managed to persuade voted that it was impossibly complex, or that some people would get additional votes, or that it was somehow “undemocratic”.

Underlying this is a (small-c) conservative reason for the change not happening — a sense of stability in the present system. That is a voice that needs to be heard, alongside the voices of people (rightly) offended by the injustice of the present system. This is a place where Melanie Klein’s language is useful: the anxiety we are experiencing now, with Covid19 and Brexit, will swing some people to wanting a nice simple binary (first-past-the-post) and away from wanting change (when lots is already up in the air). The country might need to get out of the present crises before it can think sensibly about a change to the electoral system.

The parties who didn’t do as well as they hoped in December 2019 are not going to endear themselves to those (small-c) conservative voters who voted against AV and who are already feeling rattled because of the difficult times we are in, if the sense is that the pressure for change can be dismissed as “sour grapes”.

Labour, in particular, should think carefully about their attacks on the Liberal Democrats for having been in coalition with the Tories. One of the things that the coalition did show is that coalitions don’t mean unstable government — so the prospect of coalitions is not a reason to oppose a change to the voting system. But when Labour attack Liberal Democrats for having been in coalition, they are speaking against the voting reform that would lead to more coalitions.

The other thing that will be needed for voting reform to be viable is for political discourse — in political parties and in the press — to become more nuanced, so that people become used to the idea of parties working together without merging. A simplistic approach that suggests “all opposition parties should bury their differences”, whether that is to remove the present government or change the voting system, is arguing against that nuance. It is arguing against a change to the voting system.

For now…

We need a responsible opposition, willing to criticise the government’s mistakes and also to applaud when it gets things right. It’s hard to predict the likely outcome of the turmoils of Covid19 and Brexit, and how legitimate anxiety over climate change will affect this. It’s entirely possible that the landscape of our political parties will change significantly. We need to be able to have responsible dialogue, engaging a range of views, rather than reduce that to a simple axis of “Tory” against “anti-Tory”.

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