Monday, April 19, 2010

Why doesn't Clegg make the case for PR directly?

As my previous post will testify, I hold no brief for the Liberal Democrats, but there was something rather chilling about reading the principal political 'news' story in the online edition of the Sun today. No-one can seriously dispute the historic nature of the first British Polling Council-approved poll to show the Liberal Democrats in the lead (let alone that this development should happen just seventeen days out from polling day), and yet instead of reporting that dramatic news, as you might naively think is the first duty of a newspaper, the Sun set out to change the news. More specifically, to make a decisive intervention in the election campaign and thus determine who will govern us for the next five years, just as they did - to our eternal gratitude - in 1992. Apparently, the real significance of the poll is that the voters disagree with the Lib Dems' "potty" policies, but - the silly dears - are still toying with the idea of voting for that party and not the Tories. High time for the public-spirited Sun to take them by the hand before they go and do something Rupert Murdoch might regret.

In truth, the Sun had to move heaven and earth to frame their poll questions in such a way that allowed them to claim that the voters reject a majority of Lib Dem policies. And, having spent much of the last few weeks defending YouGov against paranoid CyberTory attacks, I'm utterly dismayed that particular polling organisation has gone along with such a cynical charade. Look, for example, at the description of the nuclear weapons policy that respondents were invited to agree or disagree with -

"Replace Britain's Trident nuclear weapons system and develop a variant that is a lot cheaper but less powerful and possibly easier to detect and stop."

The Sun must have been horrified that such a breathtakingly loaded question failed to produce the desired response, with as many people supporting the policy as opposing it. And the paper fell completely flat on its face with its bizarre characterisation of proportional representation -

"Change the voting system for electing MPs, so that individual constituencies become much larger and parties are represented in parliament broadly in line with their national vote"

Now, of course it's quite true that STV would lead to larger constituencies, but does that particular detail really get to the heart of the issue? Amusingly, in spite of this obfuscation, there was overwhelming backing for PR in the poll, by 54% to 16%. There can be little doubt - electoral reform is hugely popular with the public, almost regardless of how you present it to them.

So what puzzles me is this - why doesn't Nick Clegg take advantage of this issue where he's (like the SNP) so clearly on the right side of the argument, and the Tories, Labour and the right-wing press are so clearly on the wrong side? Jeremy Thorpe, David Steel, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy never had any problem envangelising for PR in straightforward terms. But somehow on Thursday night Clegg couldn't quite bring himself to confront the public with the actual policy, instead using code-words like "cleaning up the political system from top to toe". But if the electorate are already on his side, where's the need for such timidity? Paddy Ashdown used to say to the Tories and Labour "don't even pick up the phone" to ask for a coalition if they weren't prepared to concede "fair votes", and it didn't seem to do him any harm. The cynical side of me wonders if Clegg doesn't rank electoral reform as quite such a high priority as the rest of his party, and wants to at least keep the option open of selling Lib Dem principles down the river if the right offer presents itself.

The good news is that I doubt his party would let him get away with it.

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