Lessons From America

One of the most fascinating political events last year was the presidential election in the USA. It took five weeks of farce and drama before the electoral authorities and courts could decide which of two candidates was to be the most influential person on the planet. Meanwhile, countries like Iraq, Cuba and Zimbabwe, whose elections the Americans have often criticised, mischievously offered to send observers to oversee the counting of the votes.

It seems that the large number of uncounted votes appears to have been due mostly to the decrepit old hole-punch machinery used to mark and count ballot papers, and one can only hope that they sort this problem out before the next presidential election is due.

Our trusty old pencil and paper ballot does not usually cause many problems here – but there are two other issues from which we might learn a lesson on this side of the Atlantic.

It seems that although George Bush captured a majority of the electoral college votes which guaranteed him the presidency, Al Gore actually received about half a million more individual votes than his rival. So had there been no electoral college, we would now be looking forward to four years of President Gore.

But nothing like that could happen here, could it? Well, yes, as a matter of fact. Twice in the last fifty years we have had similarly close elections in this country, where the party which formed the government gained fewer popular votes than the runners-up. In 1951 the Conservatives won 17 seats more than Labour, despite polling 250,000 fewer votes. And in 1974, the Conservatives gained 226,000 votes more than Labour, but fewer seats. In both cases, a government was formed by the party less favoured by the electorate, and I would argue that in a mature democracy this is not acceptable.

The second issue which should be ringing alarm bells over here is the appallingly low turnout. Barely half of those registered to vote bothered to do so. And again, I would argue that there is something badly wrong with a system which leads to such a poor level of participation. Our participation in general elections is not as bad as the United States’ – yet. But local elections here are often decided by a small handful of voters.

Liberal Democrats believe that both these issues demand a reform of the voting system. A system in which every vote counted would reduce dramatically the chance of perverse results like last year’s American fiasco and the 1951 and 1974 UK elections. A fair voting system, which ensured that all votes were of equal worth, would also encourage more people to vote.

But there is more to it than that. Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, has noted more than once that people are ‘fed up with politics and fed up with politicians’. One of the reasons for the poor turnout in the United States was that people did not feel that their votes would make any difference to their lives. Politics is becoming irrelevant. And the same is happening here. Endless point-scoring and yah-booing across the floor of the House of Commons leave most of us cold. The reconnection of politics with people’s lives is a top priority for most of us – though not, sadly, for the leader of the Conservative party..

William Hague has coyly denied that there is any such thing as ‘Hagueism’. But he is wrong. And here’s another lesson we can learn from the USA. Frank “Boss” Hague was the mayor of Jersey city from 1917 to 1947. He had a talent for sabotaging political debate with a smokescreen of mendacious propaganda. Here is a quote from the New York Times in 1944: “Appealing to special interests whenever a seed of scepticism could be planted, the mayor’s forces succeeded in creating confusion … the Hague tactic … was to frighten one group and then another with sensational falsehoods.”

I would hesitate to describe our own Hague’s tactics as sensational; I suspect most people are rather bored by his relentless opportunism. But he is certainly adept at creating confusion, and people will be put off politics as long as serious political debate continues to be sabotaged.

There are two dangers here. One is that voters may be beguiled by populism, unaware that populist measures rarely achieve what the people who vote for them really want. For example, people may be misled into assuming that tax cuts would make them better off, only to find that those same tax cuts have to be paid for by reductions in police numbers, cuts in the health service and so on – leaving them feeling worse off, despite having more cash in their pockets.

The other danger we face at present is that there is a vacuum where the Labour party’s principles ought to be. What do Labour want for this country? Nothing much, as far as I can see, beyond another Labour government after May 3rd. Where are their principles? What do they believe in? The threat such a vacuum poses to Tony Blair is that as soon as someone comes along with a coherent set of beliefs, that vacuum will be filled, and he will be on the scrap heap.

The good news for Blair is that the ramshackle Tories show no sign of coming up with a coherent set of beliefs in the near future. The good news for the rest of us is that the Liberal Democrats do have such principles, and will be continuing to harry the government for better provision for health and education, higher pensions, a decent transport system and more police on the beat.

In the meantime, a happy 2001 to you all.