Notes on the Election

David Runciman

This election promised to produce constitutional confusion and uncertainty and instead it has delivered stark clarity. The British electoral system values clarity: few people dissent from the line that it is better to have a government that can pass legislation and take decisions when it needs to than to be stuck with one that stumbles on hand-to-mouth from vote to vote. We seem to prefer certainty to confusion. But why? What evidence is there that majority governments are better at governing? The fundamental long-term problems this country faces – inequality, a struggling education system, growing health costs, changing employment patterns, environmental threats – are ones that a series of majority governments (and I include the coalition, which had a big parliamentary majority) have failed to address. This is not just a left/right issue. Blair didn’t tackle them, despite his massive parliamentary ascendancy, any more than Thatcher did. Majority governments flatter to deceive. They are not more decisive. They are just more biddable.

The two countries that have seen the greatest rise in inequality over the past couple of decades are Britain and the United States. Both have a first-past-the-post system designed to offer a clear choice between two main parties. Yet whichever of the two parties wins, the drift towards inequality has been inexorable. This contrasts with continental Europe, where there are barriers in the way of vastly unequal distributions of wealth and power and where there also happen to be proportional representation systems that force multiple parties to negotiate for influence and outcomes. We live in a world where national governments are increasingly buffeted by forces – notably international finance – that are very hard to control. Decisive, single-party governments are not the way to resist these forces, because their freedom of manoeuvre makes them easier to buy off without anyone else being able to hold them to account. What national democracies need is not more autonomy but more barriers in the way of any single political faction or grouping being able to call the shots. The presence in government of multiple parties representing multiple interests helps to give democracy a measure of defence against the whirlwind of money that swirls around it. It makes it harder to sell out, because it makes it harder to do anything reckless. I realise that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement of democracy. But for now it’s the best one there is.

What single-party governments do, instead of making the messy compromises that might offer their populations some real protection, is focus their attention on the areas where their freedom of action can make an immediate difference. The most chilling moment on election night was hearing Theresa May, when asked what she now wanted a Conservative government to do that it had been prevented from doing by having to work with the Lib Dems in coalition, answer that her first priority was to pass legislation that would empower the security forces and the police to conduct surveillance on the scale needed to keep the country safe. It is no coincidence that first-past-the-post states also tend to turn into national security states: their governments have the capacity to take aggressive action against immediate threats that appear amenable to massive concentrations of firepower, regardless of the long-term consequences. (France, which is a hybrid model under its presidential system, is also moving this way.) Unencumbered executive leaders worry about being lumbered with the blame for any failures of national security, because their autonomy leaves them exposed to carrying the can. Majority governments spend more time avoiding the risks that impinge on them than mitigating the risks that threaten the rest of us.

This is the reason, beyond questions of perceived unfairness or inefficiency, why the British electoral system desperately needs reform. The problem, though, is that electoral reform is a very hard sell and it is getting harder all the time. The public has bought into the idea that clarity about who rules is the primary virtue of any government. Politicians – most notably, I’m afraid, Ed Miliband – have been pandering to this with their increasingly absurd insistence on red lines that can’t be breached and manifesto commitments that can’t be touched. Miliband did it in the name of restoring trust in politics but in reality he was stoking the problem he was claiming to cure: by putting a premium on the ability of any party to hold the line he made it much harder for anyone to do what good government requires.

The Tory victory looks like evidence of how little the public is now willing to tolerate compromise of any sort: the message that hit home hardest during the campaign was the threat of constitutional chaos if a minority Labour government had tried to cling to power with the support of the SNP and a host of other minor parties. It would indeed have been extremely messy and there would have been an almost intolerable level of grumbling about the lack of transparency and the inevitable compromises required to keep it going. But those compromises and backroom deals are precisely what might have made it an improvement on what had gone before and on what we’ve got instead. We’ll never know, because we are never going to get it now. Far from putting proportional representation on the agenda, the Tories are now in a position to push through reform of electoral boundaries under the existing first-past-the-post system to make it fairer (i.e. better for them). That’s the thing about first-past-the-post: the winners get to decide. And that means doubling down on the current system.

It is not the case that a Tory government with a small majority won’t be messy too. Commentators are already pointing out that if this is 1992 all over again then David Cameron is going to have a hellish time with the rebellious fringe of his own party, just as John Major did back then. But this is the wrong sort of mess. It is not compromise and accommodation in the name of defending politics against the forces of nature, technology and finance that threaten to destroy it. It is blackmail and veto power, with small groups clamouring to get what they want from the people in charge. This is the current model of American politics, which for all its premium on clarity and executive power is also extremely messy, with all sorts of minor players holding the big boys to ransom. It is what Francis Fukuyama has called a ‘vetocracy’, which means a system that puts barriers in the way of reform more than it does in the way of social decay.

Cameron’s biggest immediate headache will be how to deal with the SNP, since the Tories are now a one-party national government facing a one-party regional state within its own borders. It is hard to see how this relationship can be a constructive one. Cameron will make concessions to Scotland but there will be no meaningful collaboration, because neither side has any incentive to engage substantively with the political concerns of the other. The medium-term focus of the Cameron government will be on the promised in-out referendum on Europe. Perhaps this is not the time to be making predictions, after the most genuinely unpredictable election in living memory, but I think the referendum will happen and that Cameron is likely to win it. He will campaign for and probably secure a vote for Britain to remain in the European Union, subject to whatever concessions he is able to extract from Brussels. This will enhance his authority, and also his sense that he can govern effectively by asserting his own will.

None of this is good news for the Labour Party. This election has been a disaster for them, as it has too for the Liberal Democrats, who paid the price for locking themselves into a secure majority government for five years rather than seeing what they could achieve by working with a Tory minority administration. It is hard to know what the future holds for the Lib Dems. But for Labour it is finally time to abandon the idea that its primary purpose is to secure majorities in the House of Commons and that it should do nothing to put that prize at risk. It needs to become more like a typical European social democratic party, which recognises that nothing can be achieved without forging alliances with others. That is much easier said than done, not least because conventional social democracy on many parts of the European continent is facing its own uphill electoral battles. But this time there really is no alternative. Europe will become the focus of this Parliament and Britain’s place in Europe will be clearer before the end of it. That is where Labour needs to look not just for short-term tactical opportunities – a chance to split or defeat the government – but also for inspiration. Otherwise, this defeat really could be the end.

8 May