The rise of the bastard vote

As the campaign for London mayor officially begins, Ken Livingstone looks virtually unassailable. Despite spasmodic attempts to blacken his name, the public will simply not believe that a man who lives modestly, travels on the tube and treats newts as his greatest indulgence can possibly be corrupt or greedy in any significant sense. As for Mr Livingstone's opinions - on gays, on terrorists, on asylum-seekers - the voters do not care. His views defy all the opinion polls on public prejudices; almost every time he opens his mouth, he commits what, by normal political standards, would be called a gaffe. Yet it makes not the slightest difference to his chances of being elected.

This is because Mr Livingstone himself is an issue only for the panjandrums of new Labour. For most Londoners, he is simply an opportunity for a protest vote, of the sort that is now familiar from 40 years of by-election results. In the absence of any other means of checking an elective dictatorship, the protest vote has almost become part of the British constitution. Most politicians do not grasp its importance; perhaps they would if it were called "the-keep-the-bastards-in-their-place vote" (hereinafter the bastard vote) as it should be. Outside general elections, a growing number of votes - in by-elections, European elections, local council elections, mayoral elections - are bastard votes. They will usually go against the government of the day; and the greater the potential to embarrass the government, the higher the vote. This is why Mr Livingstone looks set to be a runaway winner and, the more new Labour tries to do him down, the greater his lead.

The reasons for the bastard vote are deeply rooted in how British politics has developed over the past half-century. Front-bench politicians cling to the fiction that the House of Commons somehow represents the will of the people. But it does so only in the limited sense that, in general elections, voters choose between alternative governments. They do not, and cannot, choose representatives who will, on their behalf, most effectively check the executive and represent their interests against it. A Livingstone or a Skinner - permanent oppositional figures - may perform this role to some degree, but it is hard to see how a Blair or a Brown may adequately do so. Yet this was the historic role of the Commons, for the sake of which Charles I was decapitated. Now, the parliamentary victories of the 17th century have, to all intents and purposes, been reversed. The king, in the form of Tony Blair, is again on his throne with only a metaphoric execution to fear, once in four or five years, or more rarely a palace coup.

This would matter less if governments had amassed fewer powers to themselves but, with every Budget handout to schools or hospitals, every new action zone or social regeneration project, every edict on literacy or numeracy, it becomes plainer that Whitehall control grows like an invasive weed. Devolution to Edinburgh and Cardiff was a symptom of over-centralisation, not a cure for it; had Whitehall not become all-powerful in the Thatcher years, usurping the functions of local councils, the demand for a new tier of government might never have arisen.

There are two solutions to Britain's democratic deficit. The first is to create a democratically elected second chamber that carries out some of the functions that used to fall to the Commons, leaving MPs to carry on as lobby-fodder (a role with which most of them seem perfectly comfortable). Mr Blair seems intent on the opposite: a toothless second chamber of yes-people, with uncertain functions. The second is to restore powers to local councils. Again, all movement is in the opposite direction, with Sir Jeremy Beecham, chairman of the Local Government Association, warning of "the strange death of local government". Ministers announce that money will go direct to schools and health services in order to avoid local bureaucracy. They seem oblivious of Whitehall's capacity to create its own red tape, which is documented in a new report from Lord Haskins's task force on better regulation.

Mayors, in London or elsewhere, will not make a significant difference. They are show business, window-dressing, an attempt to cover up Whitehall's growing stranglehold on the nation. The New Statesman, as a Labour-supporting paper, dutifully backs Frank Dobson, a straighter, better, more competent and more sensible man than Mr Livingstone. But it does so in the full knowledge that this election truly belongs to the bastard vote.

This article first appeared in the 10 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The long war against democracy