One of the (few) things I remember from being a nipper at Middle School are my History lessons, largely because of my teacher, Mr Scialuga. He was a highly entertaining Spaniard whose lessons were packed with the sort of anecdotes that are highly amusing to ten-year-olds – castles taken by spies climbing up garderobes, King Harald’s victory over the Chelsea supporters at Stamford Bridge, and so on.

He also imparted one rather sage bit of wisdom, which to me explained a significant amount of our history: The British Establishment always knows when to give a little ground to avoid revolution. Indeed, compared to our colleagues on the Continent, the history of British politics over the last couple of hundred years has been one of marked stability. We’ve had no revolutions, no wholesale reorganisation of our parliament, or indeed major alterations of territory following internal wars. Except Ireland, but that’s a whole other island so doesn’t count.

This can, in large part, be attributed to the willingness of the Establishment to undertake reform when it appears necessary to avoid further unrest. The historical strategy of the top ranks of British society with regard to ensuring their grip on power has always been to invite dissenters into its midst and make them their own. This involves a certain loss of power, to be sure, but losing a slice of the pie is far preferable to losing the entire pie.

I’m bringing this up now as the decision of Cameron to come out and fight for the No2AV campaign appears to have been critical for its success. Not only that, the solid closing of Conservative and Labour ranks under that banner was, quite frankly, astonishing – the tribalists in each party seemingly able to put aside their tribalism for the sake of an electoral system that allows them to continue being, well, tribal.

This was very clearly an Establishment victory. But as an Establishment victory, it falls out of the pattern identified above, inasmuch as it appears to aim at more instability, rather than less. Let me explain.

Far from allowing a ‘progressive majority’ to triumph, which was always nonsense, AV would’ve allowed something much more important: the division of the Left. Since 1997, Labour has been unable to fully represent the economic interests of those sections of the electorate it purports to, because as consequence of globalisation, those interests have diverged. A significant section of the working population of the UK have skillsets that in the new global market are valued at less than the cost of an aspirational lifestyle in the UK. They are the losers of globalisation; the factory workers, the call-centre staff, or, perhaps the most iconic, the miners. At the same time, those slightly better off have taken advantage of the boom in cheaper consumer goods that globalisation facilitates – the near universality of mobile phones can be traced back to the comparative advantages generated by cheaper trade.

The least well off have not done well out of globalisation, but by opposing market forces Labour would’ve restricted its ability to represent those who were benefiting from the flood of cheaper goods. The consequences of this on the voting patterns of the electorate are fairly clear:

Source: ‘Trends in political participation in the UK‘.

Turnout collapsed across all social classes in 2001. While turnout amongst the better-off began to rise to pre-1997 levels in the subsequent two elections, the relative increase in turnout amongst the least well-off was tiny. Labour’s strategy of focusing on the middle classes while assuming that the lower classes had nowhere else to go paid electoral dividends, but it did so by turning off a significant chunk of those same lower classes from politics entirely. To ensure that those people didn’t start looking for other political solutions instead of not voting, Labour kept up transfer payments in the form of improved service provision, figuratively stuffing their mouths with gold, while making no moves to reform the economy along lines that would benefit them more comprehensively.

This was successful, as long as the money didn’t run out. It did, and the Labour Party is currently going through a period of introspection in an effort to resolve this internal contradiction – witness the debate between Blue Labour and Purple Labour. The result can only be a similarly unsatisfactory fudge, as long as the party continues to try to reach out to two groups with differing economic interests. My bet is that the low-skilled will be losers again, from the brutal electoral calculation that the working classes are in terminal decline.

AV would have allowed a better solution – a division of the party into a formal electoral pact between an offering to those whose economic interests are best served by protectionism and nationalisation, and those whose economic interests lie with globalisation. Both would be united by a shared commitment to the provision of public services by the State. The model would be similar to the pact between the Liberal and National parties in Australia, and would enable the least well-off to have their interests represented in Parliament.

My fellow admirers of the free market will at this point be asking why on earth I would want parliamentarians committed to protectionism and nationalisation to have any space in the national debate. The answer is that voting reform has been a long time passion of Liberals for multiple reasons, the relevant one here being stability. If you give everyone an opportunity to have an input into the political process, then you reduce the incentive for civil unrest, because everyone has a stake in society. If there’s one thing the free market requires, it’s stability. The Establishment has moved to ensure that a significant chunk of the electorate will not have the chance to sit at the political table. This, I would aver, is a serious strategic mistake.

I’m not saying that the outcome of the referendum will indirectly lead to riots, merely that it makes civil unrest amongst those whose voices aren’t being heard more likely. Labour avoided this by effectively paying off the losers of globalisation; the Conservative approach has always been to hope that economic growth will be sufficient to somehow buy them off. This is something of a gamble, but it may yet work. I would’ve preferred the Liberal approach of redistributing power rather than money, but the electorate has spoken. It wants money instead. Pity we don’t have any.


The left has gone a little bit mad over the IFS briefing note that claims Osborne’s June was regressive, rather than progressive as he claimed. To be fair, so has the right. They’re both engaging in the traditional political game of yelling ‘But!’ when the other says ‘Ha!’. Impartial commentators (which, as a Lib Dem, I am clearly not) might like to point out that any budget involving reducing state expenditure isn’t ‘progressive’, in the debased ethical sense of the term rather than the fiscal one. This is a simple consequence of the math of power: the relative ability of a poor person to influence society is significantly less than the rich. The impact of one’s vote on society is directly proportional to the power of the state, so reducing the influence of the state reduces the influence of the less well off on society relative to the rich. As a consequence, I have never claimed that the Coalition’s acts have been progressive, although I have claimed that they were necessary.

The missing factor in this discussion is, of course, the alternative to Osborne’s budget, which one can clearly infer would be a Labour one – the ‘cuts deeper than Thatcher’ line uttered by Darling rather implies that Labour budget wouldn’t be progressive either. Indeed, if we look at this statement on Labour’s deficit reduction plans we find that they too planned to cut benefit spending, alongside other cuts. We don’t know which part of the benefit system they’d take the knife to – but given they’d already looked at cutting housing benefit, it seems likely Labour would’ve cut that too.

We’re back in a situation in which the left is mindlessly jumping up and down without presenting any real alternatives, and the Conservatives are probably wondering why they bother. This is mindless oppositional politics without any constructive engagement, as I’ve said before.

The Guardian today put up a piece asking ‘What is Cameronism?‘, and offering up answers from a wide variety of ‘worthies’ including David Milliband, that well-known scholar of the Tory party. These answers range from the moronically vituperative (“I doubt he has a seriously ideological bone in his body”) to the slavish (“It is a belief in enterprise and aspiration”). None of them use the expression “One Nation Conservatism“, which is a pity, since it appears to be what Cameron himself thinks he believes.

This is the philosophy of Government that puts in the state in the role of a benevolent stand-offish parent; only intervening when you’ve messed up or done something particularly naughty. It is designed to counter growing divisions in society by providing everyone with the tools they need to achieve the goals they seek; it aims at unity and solidarity across class barriers. This is the root of Cameron’s concept of the Big Society: the notion that everyone in the country will share responsibility for delivering morally worthwhile goods. It stands in contrast to the emphasis on social divisions implicit in both Thatcherite and Old Labour models of thinking; where the poor are labelled as unworthy and workshy, and the rich are cast as vicious and uncaring.

Cuts in benefits should be seen in this context – they are aimed at reducing the social division caused by the existence of long-term unemployment funded by the State’s largesse, which creates a clear ‘Other’ in the minds of the middle classes. Claiming that the Tories are picking on the poor only makes sense if you believe the Tories have a clear determination to earmark particular social classes for particular opprobrium; under this philosophy, they do not.

This philosophy is, in many ways, superficially similar to liberalism, which is why the coalition has taken. However, the key contrast between it and a more classically liberal approach to government is that a liberal does not believe it is the role of the state to promote a particular type of living that’s conducive to unity across classes – witness the debate over the marriage tax rebate, for example. This implicit recourse to moralism is one of the many reasons I would never consider voting for the Conservatives.

One nation conservatism has been Cameron’s intuitive philosophy for years – his Broken Britain rhetoric referred not to e.g. sink estates themselves, but to the lack of unity and social divisions they engendered. Labour – and the Guardian – does not understand this, and are likely to continue portraying the cuts as the rich attacking the poor. The nature of these cuts will give the lie to this claim, ensuring that Labour have many years in the wilderness ahead of them.