Like most political anoraks across the country, I’ve glanced over the Coalition Programme today, in an attempt to see the shape of legislation over the next five years. One paragraph in particular in the Justice section has attracted my attention:

“We will introduce a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ that will pay independent providers to reduce reoffending, paid for by the savings this new approach will generate within the criminal justice system.”

Like many of the pledges in programme (excluding those involving badgers), it’s a little sparse on detail. However, it’s fairly easy to anticipate the form that this will take. External contractors will be able to bid for contracts for services designed to reduce reoffending rates. It’s analogous to A4e’s work with the unemployed: ex-cons will be put through rehabilitation programmes organised by private sector companies, who’ll be paid depending on how many reoffend.

It’s the logical extension of A4e, and a welcome extension of the unemployment metaphor into the area of rehabilitation, recognising that under certain economic circumstances it makes sense to commit crimes. However, depending on how it’s implemented there’s a strong chance of it being a plan with a negative impact upon civil liberties. Put simply, if a company is incentivised to reduce the reoffending rates of the ex-cons put onto its books, it can either do that via training and activities designed to improve the life chances of those ex-cons, or by monitoring the behaviour of those ex-cons and intervening to prevent re-offending.

The cost effectiveness of each approach will depend on the ex-con involved, but I can see situations in which this would incentivise provider companies to lobby for increased powers to monitor their charges. Having just heard Clegg talk about a Great Repeal Act that removes the power of local authorities to spy on their citizens, it would be a great shame if we had to take up a similar campaign against the private sector too.

Labour (or someone who looks really, really like them) have quickly whipped up a campaign website at http://www.noto55.com/ in opposition to the coalition government’s move to remove the power to dissolve parliament from the Prime Minister and change it to require a vote of 55% of parliament. Initially, the site claimed that the 55% rule referred to a vote of no confidence, but has since been amended to reflect reality slightly more accurately:

“This campaign originally stated that the government planned to introduce a 55% threshold on votes of no confidence. This was incorrect, but the effect of introducing this ‘dissolution vote’ is the same: that a successful vote of no confidence in the government would no longer lead to the dissolution of Parliament.”

Let’s go through the reasons why this is stupid. Before this move, only the Prime Minister had the power to call an election by going to the palace and asking the Queen to dissolve parliament. The PM could do this whenever they chose, but was required to do so after a maximum of five years following the previous election. A vote of no confidence is a vote in the House of Commons in which the ruling party (or parties, natch) is defeated on the Queen’s Speech, the Budget or a specific early day motion. Convention then usually requires the PM to go to the palace to ask for a dissolution.

That’s right, convention. Even if a government has lost the confidence of the house (and cannot therefore get through any legislation), it can still legally remain in office. However, under the LibCon proposals, it cannot do so any longer if 55% of parliament vote for a dissolution. This is obviously 5% more than the 50%+1 required for a vote of no confidence, but Labour’s claims that it represents a danger to democracy are rather rendered stupid when one remembers that the devolved governments they set up in Scotland and Wales both require 66% of their respective representatives to vote in favour of dissolution. This is because the systems used to elect those representatives are much more proportional than that used for Westminster, and hence much more likely to be unstable with a low threshold for confidence votes – c.f. the Weimar Republic. This is because it allows small parties to bring down a government without simultaneously ensuring they have enough support to form a government themselves.

We are now in an era of coalition government, and with the advent of a marginally improved electoral system in AV, are much more likely to see this continue for the forseeable future. People in favour of voting reform should look at examples of how PR works in Europe before assuming this is as anti-democratic as Labour would have you believe, while simultaneously reminding themselves that Labour don’t really believe it’s anti-democratic otherwise they wouldn’t have put it in place themselves.

I hate calling a particular type of politics by a particular handedness; it speaks of the sort of crass pseudo-intellectualism that passes for discussion in the media. But there’s little other way to describe the aggregate of bizarre activity & analysis we’ve seen from a particular section of what you could call the wonketariat.

Firstly, the Demo for Democracy that I and many others attended last Saturday in Trafalgar Square. I am entirely in favour of electoral reform (although the chant ‘STV in multi-member constituencies!’ is never going to be a rabble-rouser), and attended in the expectation that this demonstration would be about convincing all the parties that now is the time to change our blatantly unfair voting system. However, after some rather cathartic yelling below Nelson’s Column, the demonstration was shifted to Smith Square, to lobby Nick Clegg directly. When this happened, I went to the pub.

The Liberal Democrats have been in favour of electoral reform for ninety years. Ninety years. Protesting in front of their HQ is equivalent to standing in front of Shell’s corporate headquarters and yelling, “MORE OIL DRILLING! SELL OIL AT THE HIGHEST PRICE YOU CAN GET!” It’s just stupid. I make no apologies for labelling Power2010 and Take Back Parliament daft for doing this, it’s the truth. When Clegg responded to the protest you could almost hear him thinking, ‘Look chaps, if you think I could get any deal that didn’t include at least a referendum on PR through the Lib Dems’ triple lock, then clearly you think I could out-Machiavelli Machiavelli’.

This is straight-forward political ignorance. Handing power to as many people as possible (and away from politicians) is a key tenet of liberal philosophy. First-past-the-post tends to render the votes of so many people irrelevant that it can never fulfil this objective, regardless of whether it ends up with a single manifesto put into practice or not. If you’ve voted for a particular collection of policies, wouldn’t you rather that your vote led to at least some of those policies being implemented, rather than none? While PR decreases the power of the ‘winning’ voters, it enhances the power of voters overall. It therefore distributes power more widely, and is inherently liberal as a consequence.

A further demonstration of political ignorance (actually, this one might be just stupidity) comes courtesy of the Fabian Society. They’ve argued that a Lib Dem coalition with the Tories would lead to a Lib-Lab swing at a future election that would see Labour gain many seats from the Lib Dems. They do this on the back of a national poll conducted by YouGov that ostensibly shows that Lib Dem voters view themselves as being closer to Labour than to the Conservatives. 39% of Lib Dem voters consider the party to be centre-left or left, compared to 33% who believe it to be in the centre and just 5% who consider it to be centre-right or right.

This is a bad analysis for several reasons. Firstly, the YouGov poll did not differentiate between the types of seats in which the polled Lib Dem voters were located. This will necessarily have an impact; generally people will vote for the Lib Dems either positively (i.e. for our policies or the work of our candidate) or tactically, against our main opposition in the seat if we’re in second place. This means that Lib Dem voters in Labour-facing seats will be voting for our policy platform/candidate or against Labour. A coalition with the Tories, which implements several Lib Dem policies, would not necessarily affect this vote.

It’s much more likely that a coalition would affect our Conservative-facing seats, which have been the recipient of tactical voting in our favour from Labour supporters. This would lead, most likely, to us losing seats where we face the Tories – but not to Labour.

The Fabian Society appear to regard a particular demographic – the disenchanted Labour voter who’s switched to the Lib Dems – as constituting the 39% of our vote who view us as being a centre-left party. As discussed above – and this is the point that the Fabians appear to have missed – it’s entirely possible to be on the centre-left and not want to vote for Labour over the Tories.

This relates to a wider confusion on the Left about what liberalism is and how it relates to the Labour party. This is demonstrated by Polly Toynbee, who says:

“Here at last is the historic chance to heal the pointless rift between two near-identical progressive parties, divided only by history, tradition and a rotten voting system.”

I suspect calling Labour and the Lib Dems near-identical would cause many members of both parties to take some serious umbrage. The doctrine of liberalism is wildly different to the statist doctrines pushed by the Fabians; it merely appears on the surface to be similar because many of its goals appear to be the same.

Educating and providing the support for the worst-off are a moral imperative for the Fabians, in which the end justifies the means – the means being expanding the state to ensure these moral goals. However, for liberals, education and welfare are tools of empowerment, to set the worst-off free from that which enslaves them. In this, the means are important: when setting people free, placing them in hock to the State at the same time does not constitute empowerment. In this, we share values in common with the Tories, in our goals, values in common with Labour.

The end can never justify the means wholly, which is why, for example, I know of no Lib Dem leaflet which has knowingly lied about our opponents’ policies. This is in contrast to Labour, who during the recent Islington campaign put out leaflets claiming that the Lib Dems would shut down the NHS. For the Fabian mindset, this is justified in terms of their moral goals, but in my view renders any attempt at moralising on their part meaningless.

Liberals have values in common with the Tories. If a coalition with them leads to empowerment of individuals whose votes would otherwise be rendered meaningless under FPTP, if a stable coalition leads to more peoples’ jobs and livelihoods being saved from the worst effects of the financial crisis, if a coalition can lead to educational and tax reform that lends resources and opportunity to the least empowered in our country, then I say we must take it. After all, a coalition with the Tories would represent at least part of the wishes of 59% of the electorate, while a rainbow coalition with Labour would represent 56% of the electorate. Although the margins are small, a Lib-Con coalition would empower more people than a Lib-Lab coalition. And that, after all, is what liberalism is all about.

While the outcome today is still in flux (and I snatch a brief moment in between dispatching activists), remember this one fact. Whoever wins this election will be required to make the most swingeing cuts in a generation. Those cuts will almost inevitably be across the board, and they will inevitably lead to misery. And not just misery – the Tories know that refusing to back the pledge for a one-week wait for cancer tests will inevitably lead to more adverse clinical outcomes, which with cancer can mean an increased death rate. The next government will make cuts that will lead – perhaps indirectly - to the death of some of its citizens. I say this not in a prejudical way, for any party that gets in will be forced to make cuts that will have this impact.

They will be forced to make choices that will mean people who otherwise would’ve lived longer will die sooner. They will be exercising power at its most brutal.

To do so, I argue, they require a mandate. That mandate cannot come from a minority of our population whose interests would be best served by the necessary cuts. Rather, they must demonstrate that they have the support of at least half those who vote in this election. They must be able to demonstrate that these cuts are truly the will of the country, and not of an economic interest group.

Otherwise, the cuts to come will constitute the tyrannical imposition of that group’s wishes upon the majority; the savings we must make must be filtered through the nexus of at least two parties sufficient in popular vote share to truly claim to represent a majority of the country. How can a party that gets less than that possibly have a moral right to govern in times such as these?

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