11 May 2010

There is much in the Con-Lib programme that we can and should support - and much we can't and won't.

During my two decades of political activism, I had never got round to attending an election count. I put that right last week. And it was magical. Like a democratic technology at which those from a different era or political system might only wonder. 

As the papers spilled out, we could be sure that nobody had been physically threatened during their journey to and from the polling stations. No gangs had tried to disappear a ballot box or two. No bribes had been offered to (let alone taken by) those counting what had been cast. Relief that the campaigning was over mixed well with a certain pride that an election free and fair was culminating in the trays of neatly clipped papers piling up in front of us. The Sunday Times completely missed the point with an article fretting about the non-requirement of ID. Damn skippy we do not have to prove who we are to polling station staff. Long may it remain so.

It is easy to take for granted the pacifity with which one elected representative is chosen over others in our body politic. For while magical, it is no illusion. 

That said, I make no claim for our democracy as the optimal reflection of the collective choice, effortlessly creating a consensual vision of the future around which a cohesive national effort for unstoppable reform and progress is launched. For now, we find value elsewhere in the decisions taken on 6th May 2010 - and 1st May 1997, 3rd May 1979, 28th February 1974, 18th June 1970, 15th October 1964, 30th May 1951 and 5th July 1945. On these dates, incumbent governments were essentially given their notice by voters who wanted them out for reasons (both real and perceived) of incompetency, leadership failure, simple over-familiarity, or the alternatives being better. 

Political scientists talk of "change" elections. I think a better description is "safety valve" elections, in which frustration is expressed and then relieved. The choices made under such circumstances may not be postitive but they are no less significant for that.

Which is why as progressives we can feel disappointed with the General Election result but, on democratic principle, satisfied with the outcome of coalition talks. The people spoke. And their will has been alchemised into an administration.

Ultimately, renewing ourselves in government turned out to be nigh on impossible. In opposition it will be much easier but riskier. Our approach must be measured and pragmatic. This was no 1997-style wholesale rejection of a long-standing government but we did lose badly and the message has been clear: while there is much to be proud of in the indisputable progress of the last 13 years, there is also room for contrition and some in-hindsight recognition of when we got it wrong. Equally, there is much in the Con-Lib programme that we can and should support - and much we can't and won't.

The Left's rather odd (and one would think contradictory) propensity for reactionary and elitist responses has already been glimpsed in the Take Back Parliament campaign. What if the electorate made the right choice? Not "right" as in what we agree with. "Right" as in what people felt about the parties, their leaders and the policies. Just because the Lib Dems didn't do as well as you hyped hoped, does not mean that the election was "broken".

We are already in danger of tying ourselves up over process and nurturing a resentment of what ordinary men and women think while real opportunities to influence pass us by. Choosing a different direction over the coming weeks will ensure that our experience of being out of power this time is for years, maybe months, rather than decades.

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