End is begin

Apologies if you are looking for the earlier version of this article — there was a server glitch and we had to roll back to an earlier version.

In Stratford on Avon the Lib Dem vote rose by 1.7% — higher than the national rise of 1%. Two weeks ago, our poll figures were putting us in contention to win this seat, but the change in the national mood — largely fuelled by the ‘only Cameron can get Brown out’ message pedalled by national newspapers, and now shown to be vacuous — meant that we got none of the 16% boost that we were looking at.

My congratulations to Nadhim Zahawi, who fought a good campaign.

To the 29% of the electorate here who voted for me: Thank you. We have not won this time, but that does not mean we will not win next time. Thank you for the confidence you placed in me. As I promised in my campaign literature, I will continue to live here and work here, and continue to press for all the issues which were so important during the campaign.

We may well see another General Election in the next six months… so don’t settle back down to ‘business as usual’.

For now, we wait the outcome of the discussions between leaders. All must surely recognised that for the Lib Dems nationally to gain 1% and yet lose 5 seats, and to get almost 1/4 of the votes and substantially less than 10% of the seats, demonstrates clearly that our election system is now desperately in need of reform.

More answers than questions

Three months after the close of the consultation on the Fire Service, I have still received no answers to my questions and objections. But six hours after submitting my response to the consultation on a potential Stratford Parkway railway station, I was sent a complete and comprehensive set of answers specifically tailored to my questions (see the previous article), as well as a copy of the outline business case.

This is refreshing, and transparent, and laudably quick.

I do now feel that the outstanding issues have been answered, and I have written back to them to tell them so. Evidently a great deal of thought and research went into the proposals, and many of the fears which have been put to me by local people — especially the fear that Stratford-upon-Avon railway station would eventually close — have now been put to rest.

A certain part of me still feels that these questions could have been answered openly to begin with — but, given the speed with which they responded, I really can’t fault them.

Of course, there is still a great deal of work to be done, and many negotiations must be concluded. Things might still go wrong. But the way in which the planners responded gives me a great deal of confidence that they will see to it that things do not go wrong.

Once again — this is refreshing, and should not be forgotten.

Wrong answer too late.

In tonight’s vote the Commons opted for a national referendum on the Alternative Vote as a replacement for our current first past the post system. The referendum would cost an estimated £80m, but, because the Government has delayed so long (almost 13 years, in fact), it is unlikely that the bill will be passed before the General Election, and therefore even less likely that any referendum will take place.

More seriously, Alternative Vote is not a true proportional system — up to 49 per cent of the votes would still be discarded, meaning that a government can still be elected with an absolute majority on around 30 per cent of the total national vote.

This paragraph is going to be short and mercifully simple. But if you lack the Liberal Democrat passion for discussing complex voting systems, please feel free to skip to the next paragraph.

So: in first past the post, you put down one X on the ballot paper, and, late that night, the candidate with the most Xs wins. The candidate may have gained not much more than 1/3rd of the total vote, and, often, only three quarters of the voters will have voted. As trust in politics declines, the numbers voting shrinks, and so our elected leaders have less and less of a mandate. The alternative vote system gives you a 1-2-3 etc choice of your favourite, second favourite, and so on. When the votes are counted, the least successful candidate is eliminated, and their second choices are distributed among the remaining candidates. This carries on, until one candidate has more than 50 per cent of the vote, and they are the winner. All the remaining votes are discarded. Although this is marginally more successful at giving people an MP they are happy with, it does not mean at all that the government is elected based on the votes cast across Britain. There’s a variation, AV plus, which I won’t go into, which is a much more proportional system. Truly proportional voting comes with the Single Transferable Vote, which is hideous to work out on paper, but which computers can do as easily as AV, AV plus, or even first past the post. And, these days, even the government has computers.

So where does that leave us? The one thing that the Alternative Vote Labour has pushed for tonight will give us is a system where it is much harder for a Conservative government ever to be elected. Gordon Brown may be counting on getting the support of Lib-Dems because of his fig-leaf gesture towards a proportional system, but, in truth, this is tinkering with the electoral system in order to change the result of future elections.

If Labour had done this, as it originally promised, when it first came to power, then we might have avoided much of the collapse of trust in politicians of the last ten years. Even Alternative Vote reduces the number of ‘safe’ seats which play no real role in an election. And it is in the safe seats that we have seen the greatest abuse of expenses. But this death-bed conversion smacks of nothing more than desperation. And it is a desperation which will surely further undermine the residual confidence the electorate has in government.

Quite simply, it is the wrong answer, too late.

Give parliament a clean start

Just 265 MPs have stated definitely that they will stand again, and parliamentary officials are predicting a quarter of MPs will eventually stand down before the General Election, according to the Daily Telegraph. Although this is set to be the biggest exodus in living memory, voters may legitimately be asking the question: “why aren’t more going?” We know that politics in Britain is broken. A large number of MPs who assisted in breaking it, by first voting against the disclosure of their expenses, and then through their unrepentant response when found out, are still staying. Should we really rehire the people who broke it to fix it?

Staying on too long in parliament is like staying too long as the captain of a sports team, when you no longer have the fitness and reactions to be there. I feel this somewhat keenly at the moment, since, as of 1 January, I have stepped down from captaining the West Midlands fencing team. At the age of 43, I am more than twice as old as half of the team, and it was time to move on. The upper age for politics is rather older, but even MPs need to recognise when it’s time to go. This time, though, it’s not retirement and pension which is the issue — it’s the simple fact that MPs have lost our confidence. For some this is an unfair ‘guilty by association’, but others lost our trust because they abused it. For the good of the team, they need to be off.

It appears, though, that not everyone has got the message. In fact, we have politicians who fought tooth and nail against Heather Brooke’s campaign for full disclosure of expenses, voted against it in parliament, and then tried to resurrect their careers and put one over on their opponents by representing themselves as the peoples’ champions when the Telegraph got hold of the story.

We are expecting a number of announcements over the next weeks. Some MPs can honourably step down, having worked hard for many years for the good of their constituents. They deserve our respect. Some MPs who are expenses-damaged but still holding on should go. That way, they can win back some of our respect, and ensure that the next parliament is given the best possible start with a clean slate.

It will be a long, hard job to win back the confidence of the public. But it is a job which must be done, no matter how hard, nor how long.

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