Opinion: The British electorate did not speak with one voice – but we must

The British electorate has spoken!

On Thursday, and (given the numbers of postal votes cast in the 2010 General Election) for many days before, the British electorate ‘spoke’. But it didn’t speak with one voice.

For decades our electoral system has suppressed dissent and aided those who dismiss fundamental disagreements as ill-considered discontents. First past the post in UK parliamentary elections has been a variant on Henry Ford’s famous maxim – you can have any colour, providing it’s black.

But the British electorate isn’t made up of post box red or royal blue electors. It has been multi-coloured for a long time and now it has become a rainbow electorate.

At the very alter – no doubt afraid of losing old certainties/of the unknown – an important part of the British electorate lost its courage. It appears that more than a million electors recoiled from the real change on offer at the very last moment.

The difference between the final opinion polls and the exit poll, which was confirmed by the General Election poll itself, can only be explained in terms of a great loss of nerve by huge numbers of UK citizens; people who had been taken to the very edge of an historic change, by the Liberal Democrats.

Nevertheless, enough of those who had summoned up their courage and who stuck to their guns signalled a willingness to hang our current electoral arrangements. 23% of those who voted voted for the Liberal Democrats – more votes, though fewer seats, than in 2005, our previous high water mark. It was a remarkable moment, spoiled only by our sense of what might have been.

Now we have to be mature about what follows; what must always follow in a balanced parliament: talks.

Talks between parties are the inescapable result, the obvious corollary, of an election which no one can claim to have won. That is a remarkable result, given an electoral system that is designed to gerrymander a red or blue majority and shut real debate between parties down.

No one won – and, in a sense, EVERYONE lost. Do all the parties and the party leaders realise that? Do electors realise what they have done? The realisation appears to have been dawning, but more quickly for some than for others.

Liberal Democrats who cry out ‘I did not vote for a Tory government’ or ‘I did not vote for more of Brown’ must try to think and behave rationally. I say to them: “Your Liberal Democrat vote meant that we don’t have a Tory government with untrammelled parliamentary power or a Brown led government, with the authority to go on (and on)”.

Liberal Democrats who are desperate for more representative parliaments must accept that even though they have garnered almost a quarter of the votes they have only 10% of the seats in parliament AND recognise what that means, in our parliamentary system: a great responsibility goes with a remarkable result.

The outcome, the parliamentary arithmetic, of the election is – can only be – a step along the way; it is surely an outcome we always knew we would have to deal with, in order to achieve the change we continue to seek.

While none can dispute that the outcome of the election is unjust or that its parliamentary consequence is disgracefully unrepresentative, it is what we always knew we would, at some point, have to deal with.

Our obligation, to those who voted for us, is to make the best of it. We must make the best of it for our country. We must make the best of it in not only in the short but the long term interests of our country. And, fortunately, by pursuing our policies – most especially those formulated to fix Britain’s broken political system – we can.

We must – as our representatives in the new parliament, led by Nick Clegg, are trying their utmost to do – advance the cause of electoral reform. That requires skilful negotiation; it would be an abrogation of responsibility on the part of our leaders and our party not to talk with that goal in the forefront of our minds.

Of course, we all know it isn’t possible to get blood out of a stone, we also know that the party led, if that is the right word, by David Cameron cannot, as they must have expected they would be able to, do whatever they want. That is because there are 57 Liberal Democrat MPs and one Alliance MP in the House of Commons.

Though the British electorate is deeply divided it is entitled to more intelligent politics. We are not only the most democratic of Britain’s political parties we are, without a doubt, the most intelligent. We planned ahead for the possibility of a balanced parliament and we provided the machinery to talk not only to other parties but to listen to one another (at the same time as talked with our opponents).

If we are to negotiate and show – as we do so – that we are the most intelligent, the most reasonable and the most far seeing of Britain’s political parties, we must do more than converse reasonably with our political opponents. We must strive to talk rationally and reasonably to one another; our goal, to reach agreement amongst ourselves AND remain a united party. That, of course, is how we will demonstrate our maturity and our capacity to do what all political parties, wishing to be taken seriously, have to do in the end.

We must show we are capable of expressing differences…but end up talking with one voice when we explain what we have agreed, how we have come to agree it and why.

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12 Comments

  • Andrea Gill 10th May '10 - 4:38pm

    Liberal Democrats who cry out ‘I did not vote for a Tory government’ or ‘I did not vote for more of Brown’ must try to think and behave rationally. I say to them: “Your Liberal Democrat vote meant that we don’t have a Tory government with untrammelled parliamentary power or a Brown led government, with the authority to go on (and on)”

    Thank you.

  • Mr Randall, I could not agree with you more, a very well written piece, the only area I’m not so sure about is, ‘Though the British electorate is deeply divided’, I don’t believe we are deeply divided, divided in some areas yes but not deeply, I think that during this election the goal has been to confuse the electorate not divide them, I think that propaganda in the main stream media has been the front line weapon of choice for those in the two main parties with ‘vested interests’ , and it succeded.
    I dislike very much the main stream media playing down progressive representation the BBC appears to be playing the biggest role in smacking it down, PR IS IN THE NATIONAL INTEREST and the No.1 priority to the people of this country having just endured some of the biggest scandels in living memory, the illegal Iraq war, expenses scandels and more, PR would go some way to sorting out our CORRUPT and BANKRUPT system of politics…

  • Shelagh Boulton 10th May '10 - 6:58pm

    A very well written piece but I feel the need to comment. I voted LD this time as I truly believe the most pressing issue this country has is the state of our economy and the deficit. I truly believed that the most likely outcome would be a combination of lib and con and this would be an intelligent and strong government, each tempering the extremes of the other to bring us out of this crisis. Instead all I read is page after page of bickering about whether or not PR is on the table. As a non political voter I don’t care and that is the truth for most of us out here in the world outside politics. What I do care about is the state of the economy. A lib lab pack would make sure I never voted liberal again, (although I might vote labour or conservative) because I cannot in all conscience vote for a party that puts its own political interests (yes you would get more seats with PR and yes it probably is fairer) over the needs of this country right now. The world will survive if the UK doesn’t adopt PR but if our economy collapses, and under a continued labour governement it surely will, it will be a bleak outlook for the world. Feel free to ridicule me as much as you like but this is the opinion of a dooerstep voter and from conversations I have had or heard both at work and socially of the majority of other ordinary brits out there. We will blame the liberals if labour continues in power and recks our very fragile economy.

  • Dear Shelagh, I’m not in the business of ridiculing anyone. You make some interesting points.

    You say that the most pressing issue is ‘the state of our country’ and ‘the deficit’. That’s two issues. Of course they are linked.

    I believe that the state of our country is a product of our broken political system. I don’t believe it can be improved without fundamental political reform. I also believe that the structural deficit in the public finances cannot be addressed, with any real prospect of success, unless we have a secure and stable government. Secure and stable government requires broadly based support … neither Labour nor Conservative nor Liberal Democrats can provide that on their own.

    Unless we can reform our ‘winner takes all’ electoral system I do not believe we will be able to improve the state of our country and fix our broken political system. I hope you can accept my assurance that fair votes isn’t some kind of ‘a personal interest’.

    As a Liberal Democrat I genuinely believe that stable government, in the short as well as the long term – and any government that is capable of providing robust and intelligent governance – needs to assure the British electorate that it will, in future, reflect and respect the wishes of more than a third of the electorate.

  • Sheelagh,

    Not having PR means that North American billionaires can continue to rule this country and abuse and exploit its people by means of a puppet government elected on a minority vote. Cameron was talent-spotted by the US economic elite and foisted on the Tory Party by means of a bogus focus group run by the Republican pollster, Frank Luntz and broadcast by “Newsnight”. Before Luntz, David Davis (someone the neocons won’t have at any price) was favourite to win the Tory leadership. Michael Gove is the Washington link-man who ensures that Cameron’s every move furthers the interests of North American big money and the foreign policy objectives of the military-industrial complex. Even out of office, Gove is one of the most dangerous men in Britain. If Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats keep this gang out of No 10, then history will remember us with gratitude.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th May '10 - 1:40pm

    Chris Morton

    May I speak for the 35% of voters who did not vote? I think this is because we feel that who ever forms the cabinet, attempts will be made by the horde of ’special advisers’ to bully them into continuing ‘business as usual’, inter alia the poor continuing to get a rough deal while the rich become richer, much talk but little do about climate change and in fact continuing the C20th with all its depradation of the planet, wars, government killing and gross abuses of human rights.

    I find it very difficult to maintain my patience with people like you. I was very tempted to reply to what you wrote with two words, the second of which is “off”and the first has four letters and begins with F.

    I am passionate about politics, have given up so much of my time and money for it, because it’s only by the power of the ballot box that we can challenge the power of money. And then people like you come along and agree with me about how wrong it is that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, but you do F*** all about it except whinge.

    It’s people like YOU, Chris Morton, who have left us in the situation where we are having to negotiate with the Tories and quite likely accept a Tory minority government as the only realistic government. If people like you had got off your arses and voted for us or for Labour or whoever, we wouldn’t have so many Tory MPs and things would be different.

  • I think most voters who endorse the Lib Dem philosophy and even more so, those who have the much older Liberal philosophy in their dna, Have no difficulty in understanding the reality that difficult choices have to be made in the present situation. We can not simply stand aside.

    I personally have a hatred of the Tory Philosophy. However that does not mean that I could not envisage working with them to fulfil an agreed and detailed agenda.
    The same is true of working with the Labour party.
    The important thing is to present the electorate at large with the details of any agreement, so that they can see both the extent and limitations of the programme.

    We should agree to nothing which is contrary to our basic precepts nor include anything that is not in the countries interest.

    We should point out very clearly that we are not propping up either a minority Tory Government or a failed Labour one.
    But we are either forming a new coalition with new policies; or are supporting a time and programme limited executive.

    We do not have the luxury of defining the programme, we can only show the limits of our participation.

    If we or any partner go beyond the agreed agenda it will fail.

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