In 1955 Isaac Asimov published a short story, Franchise, in which the result of United States presidential election was decided by a single voter, chosen by a computer as the most appropriately representative person – demographically speaking – in the country.
The story was set in 2008, so Asimov’s prediction wasn’t too far out. It became reality in Britain last week. Instead of the computer, however, we have the peculiarities of the British political system to thank for choosing the single, all-powerful elector. Who was the person given absolute power to decide the result of the election? Nick Clegg. 30 million votes were cast, but in the end it was Clegg and his closest advisers who had the power to decide between a Labour government and a Conservative government, and chose the latter.
No-one can deny that, in consistently winning a fifth of the popular vote and less than a tenth of seats in Parliament, the Lib Dems have been unfairly treated by the electoral system over the years. But if the past few days have been Fate’s way of correcting that injustice, surely the correction was never meant to go that far.
Clegg has done his best to justify his choice, in the name of providing “strong and stable government”. We can’t dismiss that entirely – the risk of meltdown in the financial markets as a result of a hung parliament was grossly exaggerated, but the country did need a government sooner rather than later. The trouble is, nobody asked Nick Clegg to play this role. Nobody asked him to take on the mantle of guardian of stable government – and certainly not majoritarian government (which is the only way we seem to be able to understand stability in this country).
Britain could have had a new government the moment Clegg said he wouldn’t go into coalition with Labour. Cameron would have been asked to form a minority government, assuming all of the executive powers Prime Minister have, which only rarely require a vote in parliament to exercise. Where laws and budgets had to be passed in the Commons, Cameron could have done what every American president since George Washington has had to do on every piece of legislation they ever wanted to implement – argue, persuade and negotiate his way to a plurality of votes in the legislature.
Many have said that Clegg – reflecting the broadly centre-left policy programme in his manifesto – should have formed a progressive alliance with Labour. My occasional Left Central colleague Elder Stateswoman has argued exactly that in these pages. That might very be true, but it does involve quite a big leap, to suggest that a combined 52% vote for Labour and the Lib Dems really does represent a progressive majority in Britain. I do hope it’s true – but to use that as the basis for forming a government involves too many assumptions about voter intentions, rather than taking the election results at face value. Labour and the Lib Dems had given no indication whatsoever before the election that they were minded to form a combined centre-left bloc in the event of a hung parliament – it would be a great thing if they had, but we have no idea if that would have changed the way people voted in the first place.
So, I don’t think Clegg was wrong in rejecting Labour. But that doesn’t make him right in embracing the Conservatives. We can only speculate as to whether he had other motivations for choosing to do this, beyond providing Britain with stable, majoritarian government. My guess is that the offer of Cabinet posts and a referendum to introduce a voting system that he expects to directly benefit his own party was a temptation he could not resist. (The rest of the deal between the coalition partners is pretty much a whitewash for Tory policy – on taxation, deficit reduction, defence, immigration, foreign policy, banking, health spending, education.) The fact that the coalition has a majority in the Commons and Cameron was prepared to commit to a fixed five-year term meant that even if Labour tried to match the deal, the Tories looked the safer bet.
And that’s really the point. This election came down to who could convince Clegg to support them. I don’t think Clegg has done too much wrong at all in promoting his own and his party’s interests. But he should never been in that position. This is especially so when you consider that the Lib Dems did no better in this election than the previous one, but it would have been true even if they’d done significantly better.
What’s the answer? Well, I’m sure many people will be prepared to accept the fuzziness of politics in a parliamentary system. After all, it’s not very often we get a confusing and inconclusive election like this one. I can’t accept that. There is much debate to be had on the issue, but for me this election shows clearly that we need to introduce a presidential system. Or rather, we need to redesign our political institutions to reflect the reality of presidential politics, and give voters real power over it. Because that’s what people really voted for in this election – to choose a government. A presidential system means that people vote directly for the executive, rather than voting to populate the legislature and letting MPs decide who the executive should be.
And for all those who argue a presidential system places too much power in the hands of one man – a flawed argument in many ways – I ask you to remember that it was effectively one man who decided the outcome of this election.