Nothing is certain in politics, but three things seem pretty certain about the next general election, whenever it comes. First, Labour’s share of the vote will go down (from just under 41 per cent in 2001). Second, voter turnout will also go down (from 59.4 per cent). Third, Labour will still win with a sizeable majority. Understandably, no one is particularly happy about this, least of all in Downing Street, where there has been talk behind closed doors about a possible crisis of legitimacy. It is this looming crisis, as much as the more immediate struggles he faces in Iraq and with his chancellor, that set the tone for Tony Blair’s speech to the Labour Party Conference last month. He and his advisers have been searching for a way to reconnect with the electorate, so that their triumph next year will seem like something more than a victory by default. One model to which they have turned in their desperation is the Tory Party’s revival during 1986 from the doldrums of Westland, sealed at their conference that year, when the party is reputed to have rediscovered its radicalism and its nerve after seven years in government.
Vol. 26 No. 22 · 18 November 2004
David Runciman is right to say that New Labour has brought us to the precipice of a crisis in democratic legitimacy (LRB, 21 October). But he misidentifies the nature of the crisis. He writes that ‘the British electoral system is now weighted in Labour’s favour (if Labour polls the same share of the national vote as the Tories, they could end up with over a hundred more seats, because of the way constituency boundaries are currently drawn).’ This is true, but the real crisis in legitimacy is caused by differential abstention rates. Because there is a fairly strong positive correlation between income and inclination to vote, politicians cast around for middle-class votes – increasingly, it is mostly the middle class that votes. In my ward, half of which is a council estate while half consists of much ‘nicer’ private dwellings, all parties are tempted on grounds of political expediency to concentrate their efforts on the richer half of the ward.
Why do so few political commentators understand this point, or, if they do understand it, decline to make it public? Perhaps because it is too uncomfortable to acknowledge that our political system has so gutted the faith of the less well-off that they have increasingly given up on it, leaving the middle classes to vote for policies that work mainly for their own long-term economic interests.
Proportional representation must be introduced, not because it will solve this problem – it will not – but because it is one of a set of reforms needed if public faith in our system of governance is to be restored. Such a restoration of faith will depend much more crucially on our turning away from neo-liberal, pro-globalisation policies which only encourage a sense of the pointlessness of contemporary politics. The problem is that all three main parties in Britain are now in thrall to just such neo-liberal orthodoxy.
City Hall, Norwich