Comment: A wasted opportunity

Today’s events may seem unprecedented, but in fact they will cement the political status quo.

By Ian Dunt

When history records what happened today, it will note that what seemed unprecedented at the time was actually the most uneventful outcome which could have emerged from the rubble of the 2010 general election.

For a short time it appeared things might change forever. A rainbow coalition would have been hugely unpopular in the right-wing press, but it could have passed wholesale reform of British politics and then called another election in two years. History forgets the daily headlines. A referendum on proportional representation would not just have served the Lib Dems. It would have helped all smaller parties – some respectable, some disgraceful.

Instead, things will stay broadly the same. The Tories may secure a referendum on the alternative vote (AV), although the opposition in the Commons and the Lords makes this highly questionable. The referendum may even pass, although with the government setting the question and campaigning for a ‘no’ vote, that is also questionable. But even if this takes place, AV, a non-proportional system, won’t produce the results required to truly shake British politics out of the rut it is in.

From what we have seen today, from the various outspoken comments delivered by Labour Cabinet members and MPs, it appears it was Labour which brought this morning’s Lib-Lab talks to a halt. That fact should confirm something about British politics: Labour and the Conservatives can always unite on preventing real change to British politics. Labour and the Tories were created to represent social and economic classes which have ceased to exist. But their role-swapping domination of Westminster will continue. This was our chance to change the system forever, to reflect the views and sentiments of modern British society. It has been lost. Labour chose to consolidate its brand as a progressive party, rather than work with the Lib Dems to really change our politics.

Cameron will call the election as soon as he believes he can win, and the Lib Dems will be cast aside once more, except this time they will be discredited by their association with Conservative politics right at the most tortuous phase of recent British industrial relations.

Labour’s electoral chances are actually very high. A fresh faced leader – probably David Miliband – will be able to present himself as the figurehead of centre-left forces at the next election, without the Lib Dems muddying the picture. The Lib-Con coalition will probably only last two years. When it falls apart Labour might come in, condemn the cuts it would have made itself if it was in that position, and then unite the left. The weakness of the Lib-Con government will make power so tantalisingly close that Labour may not experience the dark night of the soul it so desperately needs.

But Labour should be cautious. Those Labour MPs saying they could use some time in opposition forget that similar things were said in 1979, just before the long wilderness years. You never know what’s going to happen in politics – better to be in government if you can.

Those of us hoping for a shake-up of the entire system should be bitterly disappointed, even though minor reforms – such as fixed term parliaments and reform of party funding – will at least be forthcoming.

But there is one major plus to this mad week in Westminster. We have victory on civil liberties.

The process begun by New Labour, which ground down British freedoms in the interests of state control and anti-terrorism, will grind to a halt as it becomes one of the main issues on which Lib Dems and the Tories agree. If you’d asked me months ago how that fact makes me feel I would have responded with brazen euphoria. But after all the optimism and excitement of the last week, it seem little consolation to what could have been a historic new chapter in British history.

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