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Time to get real

Posted by Richard Sunday, April 10, 2005

The editorial in The Business this week is written by Andrew Neil, former editor of The Sunday Times, and no political lightweight.

His piece is powerful and compelling and has major implications for the Eurosceptic movement, and for the fate of the EU constitution.

Headed "Banana republic Britain", Neil's thesis is that, for the first time since 1992, the outcome of the British general election on 5 May is not a foregone conclusion. The Tories are back in the game and, while an overall Labour majority remains the most likely result, the British general election of 2005 will be a real contest.

But, writes Neil, the current shift in public opinion against the government will not be properly reflected in the House of Commons after 5 May. Britain's voting mechanics are now so fundamentally biased against the Tories that, in a close contest, the legitimacy of the election itself could be compromised.

Amazingly, if on 5 May, Labour and Tories get exactly the same share of the popular vote, such is the bizarre electoral arithmetic of the British voting system that Labour would still end up with 140 more MPs than the Tories - a result would compromise the democratic legitimacy of the election.

Add to that the increase in postal voting, which has made mass fraud a distinct possibility, in constituencies where the result is close, postal vote fiddles could determine the result.

Then there is the so-called West Lothian question, whereby Scottish MPs (who are predominantly Labour) are allowed to vote on English domestic matters. English MPs now have no say on purely Scottish domestic matters but we could find ourselves in a situation where England votes Tory but Labour still forms the British government because its Scottish and Welsh lobby fodder give it an overall majority. In that case England would be ruled by a government which did not have the consent of the English people.

To pick up new seats, the Tories need a huge swing in their favour. In 2001, Labour with 42 percent of vote (against 33 percent for the Tories, 19 percent for the Liberal Democrats), won a landslide 167-seat majority. Suppose that the Tory and Labour shares of the vote were inverted on 5 May (i.e. the Tories get 42 percent): astonishingly, the Tories would barely scrape into power with a tiny and unstable majority of four.

On 5 May the Tories will need an 11.5 percentage point lead over Labour merely to win by a whisker; an 11.5 point lead over the Tories would give Labour another stratospheric majority. Even if the Tories have a 1.2 percentage point lead in the popular vote on 5 May, Labour would still have an overall majority of MPs.

The British electoral system has not been so undemocratic since women were denied the vote, concludes Neil. The threat to British democracy is grave - and the closer the election result the bigger the danger to the election's legitimacy.

Now, in my view, this scenario completely changes election calculations, but above all else, its implications for the EU referendum are profound. And, in addressing this issue, there are two questions genuine Eurosceptics need to ask themselves:

1. Given the possibility of a French "no" vote, is there any guarantee that Labour, if elected, to government, will hold a referendum on the EU constitution?

2. If a referendum is actually held, would the chances of a successful "no" vote be enhanced by the election of a Labour government?

If the answer to both questions are "no" and you feel that there should be a referendum the UK, and you want the outcome to be a "no" vote, you then have to ask yourself how your own personal voting strategy will best bring this about.

Whether your own personal answer, the one thing that is certain is that there is no room for gesture politics. With the system so heavily weighted against the Conservatives – which have committed to a referendum and will campaign for a "no" vote - there is no room for any activity that will make a Conservative victory more difficult to achieve.

Under these circumstances, it is time to get real.