The Liberal-Democrat Accession and the English Parliament

You should always be careful what you wish for and be wary of the law of unintended consequences. Although I will probably be voting Lib Dem this time round – unless my Tory MP astounds me by previously unsuspected support for an English parliament – a Lib-Dem break-through could have far-reaching ramifications for the prospects and nature of any future English parliament.

For a start, as they made clear yesterday, the Lib Dems will make their support for a minority Labour- or Conservative-led government conditional on introducing proportional representation. One imagines this would involve a referendum on changing to the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system for UK-parliamentary elections.

Many supporters of PR see it as a way to mitigate (i.e. ignore) the West Lothian Question. The logic behind this position is simple, though flawed in my view. For example, under STV, if the actual vote on 6 May exactly followed yesterday’s ICM opinion-poll ratings (Con 33%, Lib Dem 30% and Lab 28%), then the Conservatives would be the largest party both in England and the UK as a whole; and in any coalition of the parties to form a government, the UK majority thus constituted would also be consistent with the parties’ shares of seats in England. Therefore, on one level, it would no longer matter if non-English MPs voted on English laws, as the same laws would be passed if only English MPs voted.

On the other hand, the reverse logic could also apply: if the votes of non-English MPs were no longer needed to pass English bills, why let them vote at all? The only real justification for non-English MPs voting on English legislation presently is when there is a link to spending in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland via the Barnett Formula. But presumably, the days of that formula itself might well be numbered under a Con-LibDem coalition, as the Lib Dems favour scrapping it and even the Tories talk in their manifesto of greater fiscal autonomy for Scotland.

Indeed, in a proportionally elected House of Commons, the situation of non-English MPs voting on English laws would come to appear blatantly, if not scandalously, anomalous. Under First Past the Post, by contrast, the fact that Labour’s Scottish MPs have occasionally been required to pass the government’s England-only legislation against the will of a majority of English MPs did not on one level seem that outrageous in that the government majority procured in this way was no more disproportionate than the normal majority of English MPs only it would expect to command, as both majorities were merely the product of the absurd FPTP electoral system rather than of the way English people actually voted at the 2005 general election.

In other words, in a situation in which voting majorities in the Commons bear little relation to the way the public actually voted at the election, the misuse of non-English MPs to inflate those majorities even further does not stand out too obviously. By contrast, in a proportionally elected House where the parties’ shares of the seats are meant to reflect the way people voted, and where MPs are meant to be more accountable to their electorates, distorting those shares by allowing MPs not accountable to the people affected by bills to vote on them would be completely inconsistent and unacceptable.

Accordingly, I tend to think that, rather than mitigating the WLQ, PR would render it inoperable. But then if you do not allow non-English MPs to make England’s laws, what arrangements would be made for that little matter of how to govern England? Do you go down the route of an English Grand Committee: English laws debated and voted on by separate sessions of English MPs only? Do you draw the logical conclusion and say that Parliament needs to evolve into an English parliament to deal with English matters, with a separate set of representatives elected from across the UK to deal with reserved matters? Or do you just try to ignore the problem by pretending that England does not exist and that the West Lothian Question simply does not arise, let alone require a solution – the Labour government’s approach?

In this way, by insisting on introducing PR before dealing with the English Question, the Lib Dems might find that question comes and bites them in the bum: they could create a constitutional mess in which the very legitimacy and function of the parliament for which they had finally secured PR was called into question – a British parliament without a valid democratic role and status in most of what it did, i.e. in English matters.

To be fair to the Lib Dems, their manifesto does state that they want to hold a citizens’ convention to help draw up a written constitution, and the English Question would be dealt with as part of this process. But the Lib Dems are not going to be in a position to carry out this commitment in full as part of a coalition government. All they’ve actually said is that they’d make electoral reform a minimal precondition of any deal to support a minority government, not the whole constitutional-reform programme; and neither Labour nor the Tories have any appetite to address the English Question. But as I say, the English Question may impose itself as unavoidable if the Lib Dems do succeed in introducing STV.

There are two possible scenarios that follow on logically from this. Firstly, if the Lib Dems do secure STV (and if, as I argue, this would lead to an urgent need to address the English Question because of the crisis of governance it would bring about), then any English parliament would also be based on STV. Having gone to the trouble and expense of introducing STV, which would require the re-drawing of constituency boundaries and the amalgamation of constituencies into multi-member seats, there is no way the English parliament could then revert to the pre-STV single member-constituency system. Having finally achieved their goal of a proper proportional system, the Lib Dems would never accept an inferior system for England; nor – I think – would the English people.

However – scenario two – what if the British public did not endorse STV in the initial referendum required to adopt it as the system for UK elections? For instance, Gordon Brown favours the Alternative Vote (AV) single-member system, and if the Lib Dems’ referendum were held under a putative Lab-LibDem coalition, it could be a multi-option referendum with AV as one of the systems on offer. Labour could be expected to argue strongly for AV, which is in reality merely a mitigated form of FPTP and would preserve the unfair advantage the present system gives to the party. Who knows, voters might prefer to retain single-member constituencies and the winner-takes-all aspect of the present system, albeit in a slightly fairer form. Under this second scenario, the West Lothian Question could remain in place for much longer, as AV would perpetuate the disproportionality of the present system from which the very ability of Labour to form any kind of government depends and which also disguises the outrageously unfair extra advantage Labour obtains from the WLQ.

In this context, the Lib Dems could find themselves in the unenviable position of propping up an unfairly elected Labour government that exploits its stronger base of support in Scotland and Wales to secure its power in England. Would it not then be both more effective tactically, and give greater moral credibility to their demands for constitutional reform, if the Lib Dems declared now – ahead of 6 May – that they would not exploit the West Lothian Question in the new parliament, even if to do so were the only way in which a coalition of which they were a part could actually form a working majority?

After all, how can the English people believe in the Lib Dems’ advocacy of greater democratic fairness and proportional representation if they are in theory willing to exploit one of the most egregiously unfair and disproportional aspects of the present system simply to have a share in government? If they want England to back them on 6 May and support STV in a referendum, then surely they should back ‘building a fairer Britain’ in the forthcoming parliament, too – including fairness for England.


The SNP would break its self-denying ordinance and support a minority Labour government

I’ve just been listening to an interview with SNP leader Alex Salmond on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme. Towards the end of the interview, Eddie Mayer asked Salmond if the SNP would be prepared to break the self-denying ordinance it has hitherto observed in parliamentary votes on what Mayer called ‘devolved’ matters and what Salmond rightly insisted on calling ‘English-only matters’.

The context of the question was the SNP’s election-campaign claims that they would use their influence in a hung parliament to defend Scotland’s interests, in particular to shield Scotland from the severity of the budget cuts that those of us living south of the border are going to have to endure. How could they exercise that influence if they refused to support the party of government in England-only votes?

Salmond stated that he wanted to keep the option of voting on English matters ‘up his sleeve’ as one of the trump cards he might need to play to secure the SNP’s objectives. In other words, the SNP would be prepared to vote on English matters in some circumstances.

Mayer then set the example of a minority Conservative government needing the SNP’s support in a vote on an (English) education bill. Salmond suggested that the example was unrealistic, as the SNP would be more likely to support a more ‘progressive’ policy agenda than one of Tory cuts to public services. This is a round-about way of saying that the SNP would prop up only a Labour minority government or Lab-LibDem coalition, not a Tory government or, one assumes, a possible Con-LibDem partnership.

In other words, if Gordon Brown wants to cling on to power after the election – whether Labour wins the largest or second-largest number of seats – his best bet might be to forge a deal with his SNP compatriots and, of course, Labour’s Plaid Cymru Welsh-Assembly coalition partners.

Come to think of it, it’s rather obvious that Salmond could not get away with suggesting he might do a deal with the Conservatives at Westminster, as the SNP has tried to position the Tories as an anti-progressive force intent on savaging Scottish public services. Salmond is therefore indirectly encouraging Scottish voters to vote Labour in seats where the SNP can’t win in order to ensure a sufficiently large ‘Scottish block’ of ‘progressive’ votes in the new parliament that can override the Tory-LibDem majority in England.

The West Lothian Question could be more alive and embittered than ever in the new parliament – which of course also suits Mr Salmond’s agenda just fine.

Make Gordon Brown say ‘England’

I’ve ranted on enough about the way England-specific topics are unlikely to be explicitly dealt with as such in the much heralded prime-ministerial debates, including in this blog. But now Power 2010 is giving people a chance – however slim – to persuade ITV to ask the leaders where they stand on English votes on English laws (EVoEL) during the first debate tomorrow, on ‘domestic’ (i.e. mostly English) issues.

They’ve set up a web page that allows you to send an email requesting that ITV ask the West Lothian Question that the Labour and Tory manifestoes, published this week, have already shown the parties to be unwilling to even address, let alone resolve in any meaningful way.

Give it a go and, you never know, the leaders might actually be forced to utter the ‘E’ word: it’ll be worth it for the sheer entertainment value of watching Gordon Brown squirm as he pushes that hated word out of his mouth!

Vote hung parliament!

The English tend to resent people telling them what to do. But at the risk of provoking such resentment, I want to set out here why I think the best result for England from the British general election would be a hung parliament, and then discuss how best to bring about that result.

In a hung parliament, the party that was able to form a government – whether Tory or Labour – would be especially reliant on their MPs elected in Scotland and Wales (and, in the case of the Conservatives, their UUP MPs, if any) to pass legislation affecting England but not the countries those MPs are supposed to represent. If the government relied on some sort of pact with the Lib Dems (whether an actual coalition or an agreement to support the government on principle, if not in every single matter), it might be the case that the support of both the government’s non-English MPs and non-English Lib Dem MPs would be required to vote through English bills.

This situation would make the unrepresentative and unjust character of the West Lothian Question even more obvious than it has been under New Labour’s 13-year-long disproportional rule. So much so, in fact, that the WLQ could come to the attention of many more people in England who have hitherto been blissfully ignorant of it. Who knows, this could even provoke as much outrage as the expenses scandal, and English voters would be rightly furious that the government was exploiting this gerrymandering principle to impose its will on England. Even more so if the SNP and Plaid Cymru, in return for government concessions making the injustices of the Barnett Principle even more onerous to English people, decided to relinquish their self-denying ordinance by voting on non-Scottish and non-Welsh bills respectively in support of the government.

In short, a hung parliament could help bring about a constitutional crisis by waking English people up to the way they’re being ripped off by Westminster.

A second way in which a hung parliament could help along the process of constitutional reform is if the Lib Dems extract an agreement for constitutional and electoral reform in exchange for their support for the government. At the very least, this might involve proportional representation (PR); although I wouldn’t be too surprised if the lily-livered Lib Dems were content to let Gordon Brown (if Labour remained in government) have his insulting referendum on the Alternative Vote (which, as I’ve said elsewhere, is not a real alternative to First Past the Post), rather than pushing for a properly proportional system, which England deserves.

At best, the reforms that might follow could involve a constitutional convention, which the Lib Dems favour, in which potentially all options would be on the table, including an English parliament. It is, however, extremely unlikely that the party of government would agree to such a wholesale process of constitutional reform, even if the Lib Dems made it a condition of their support. However, smaller-scale reforms would be a step in the right direction; and under PR, there would at least be a reasonable chance of electing some English-Democrat and UKIP MPs, depending on which system was adopted.

How to vote for a hung parliament

Under the First Past the Post voting system, the sad truth is that, in most constituencies, it really doesn’t matter how you vote: the incumbent party will almost inevitably win. This is, for instance, the case in my constituency, which is a safe Tory seat.

However, if you are ‘lucky’ enough to live in a marginal constituency, then your vote might actually influence the eventual outcome of the overall contest, and could serve the cause of a hung parliament. This is what I’d recommend:

  • In seats where the Lib Dem candidate has a realistic chance of winning: vote Lib Dem, as this will increase the chance of a hung parliament
  • In seats where it is a fight between Labour and the Tories: either vote Conservative or any other party than Labour. Don’t vote Tory if a) the prospect of doing so makes you feel sick, including because they aren’t remotely interested in governing in the interests of England or English voters; or b) because the opinion polls nationally are suggesting the Conservatives are in danger of winning an overall majority – in which case, they don’t need your vote, and at least you’ll have voted in accordance with your conscience.

In my case, I’m pretty convinced I’ll end up voting UKIP because the only alternatives to the big three, in my seat, are UKIP and the Greens. As I said, it’s a Tory safe seat, so it essentially doesn’t matter how I vote, and none of the main parties are remotely interested in how I do so or in fighting for my vote. So I’ll vote UKIP because I’m furious with the way they all reneged on their commitments to a referendum on the EU.

If, over the course of the campaign, it started to look as though the Lib Dem candidate had a chance of winning, I’d switch to voting for him – simply in order to try and get a hung parliament.

So my recommendation is: vote hung parliament – if you can!

The Alternative Vote: An Opinion

Yesterday, Parliament voted to include a referendum on replacing the existing First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system for UK-parliamentary elections with the Alternative Vote (AV) system in the Constitutional Reform Bill presently being debated in Parliament. For those who still don’t know what AV is: instead of marking a cross beside the name of their preferred candidate, voters rank candidates in order of preference. Then, if no candidate obtains more than 50% of first-choice votes, the bottom-ranked candidate is eliminated and the second preferences of those who voted for that candidate are added to the totals of the remaining candidates, and the process is repeated if necessary until one candidate has more than 50% of first, second and, in some instances, third, fourth, fifth, etc. preferences.

I support the view that Gordon Brown’s insistence that the referendum proposal be included in the Constitutional Reform Bill is an entirely cynical ploy to position the Labour Party as a supporter of constitutional and electoral reform ahead of the general election. This is because the bill has no chance of being passed before the election, as it still has to go through the House of Lords, where it will face opposition, and time is running out. Brown is trying to hoodwink voters into believing that Labour supports electoral reform while the Tories manifestly do not (as they’re committed to retaining FPTP) simply in order to attract the votes of Lib Dem voters in seats where Labour needs their support to avoid being beaten by the Conservatives under the present voting system. In short, it’s a tactic to win tactical votes.

There’s absolutely no guarantee that Labour, should they be re-elected, would revive the legislation that includes the referendum on AV: the Bill would have to be revived, or a new one drawn up, as the existing one would be dead. And even if they did follow through, the AV system is designed to engineer a permanent Labour / Lib Dem majority in the House of Commons, and thereby to disadvantage the Conservatives. See for example the excellent analysis of what the election results from 1983 to 2005 might have looked like under AV on the BBC News website. This reveals that, in scenarios where more Lib Dems vote Labour as their second choice than Conservative (i.e. in the last three elections and probably the next), the number of seats won by both Labour and the Lib Dems would be greater, to the detriment of the Conservatives. According to the analysis, the Tories would have been practically wiped out in 1997, with only a few more seats than the Lib Dems presently hold, despite being the second-largest party in terms of first-choice votes.

And this illustrates the deficiency of the AV system. Gordon Brown has stated that it would restore the public’s confidence in politics and Parliament, because it would mean that all MPs would enjoy the backing of a majority of their constituents. But this is a fallacy. This supposed ‘majority’ is in fact merely an artifice of the AV system. For example, you could in theory carry on eliminating the lower-ranked candidates until only the winner was left standing, who could then be said to enjoy the support of 100% of voters. And it all depends on how you reallocate the second preferences. For example, there could be some instances where the candidate that is first to cross the threshold of 50% based on the second preferences of people voting for smaller parties would actually lose if you counted the second preferences of the stronger-performing, eliminated candidates. This might be the case in a narrow finish between Labour and the Conseratives, where a Conservative could narrowly win based on the second preferences of those who selected UKIP or the BNP as their first choice, but where the Labour candidate might win if you went on to count the second preferences of the losing Lib Dem candidate.

No, when Gordon Brown says AV would restore the public’s faith in Parliament, what this actually means is that AV is a ploy to deceive the public into thinking they’re getting a more representative and accountable parliament while basically preserving the present parliamentary and electoral systems fundamentally unchanged. Indeed, it’s worse than before, in that the results can be more disproportionate than under FPTP; they fail to fully reflect the strength of voters’ positive choice of parties (as opposed to what they regard as the ‘least bad’ candidate); AV continues to marginalise the smaller parties; and it’s intended by Labour to disadvantage the Conservatives and favour Labour itself. 

In short, it’s just another case of cynical Labour gerrymandering and electoral posturing.

A nice constitutional crisis: Labour win on a smaller share of the vote than the Tories

Imagine this election scenario: the Tories win the largest share of the vote across the UK, but Labour are returned to office with a small majority. It could happen: the Conservatives actually have to win by a margin of around 9% to secure an overall majority, owing to the absurdities of the First Past the Post voting system and Labour’s gerrymandering of constituency boundaries. Admittedly, the ComRes opinion poll last week gave the Tories a 17% lead over Labour; but the most recent ICM poll, also last week, gave them only a 9% lead. (See the BBC’s excellent poll tracker charting the trends shown by different opinion polls over the past few years.)

Obviously, a hung parliament with the Tories having the largest share of seats is a more likely result than a Labour majority despite the Tories gaining the largest share of the votes. Or we could of course have a situation where Labour wins more seats overall, but not enough to form a majority, even though the Tories poll more votes. In all of these cases, the West Lothian Question would really come to the fore, in that it would be Labour’s disproportionate return of Scottish and Welsh MPs that would prevent the Tories from winning a majority or allow Labour to secure one. In all of these scenarios, the Tories would probably win a majority of English MPs.

How aware or concerned would people in England be about the national dimension to this situation of political stalemate or worse (a deeply unpopular Labour government) caused by an election result that failed to reflect the popular will to an even greater extent than normal, in that not even the largest party, in electoral terms, was in a position to form a government? Doubtless the media would conspire with the establishment parties to suppress the uncomfortable fact that the UK result was the consequence of Labour’s relative strength in Scotland and Wales (coupled with the voting system) overriding the will of the English people – although the Tories themselves are highly unlikely to command the support of the majority of voters even in England. But it could become embarrassingly obvious, even to the politically indifferent, that a minority or majority Labour government was totally reliant for its survival on its Scottish and Welsh phalanxes, and that Labour was happy to disregard the way the English had voted so long as the West Lothian Question allowed it to cling on to power.

What would happen in the case of a Labour majority or plurality based on a smaller share of the vote than the Conservatives? Precedent from the last hung parliament, in 1974, would indicate that the Queen would ask the leader of the largest party in parliamentary terms, i.e. Labour, to form a government. Under such circumstances, a man with the genuine leadership qualities that Brown sadly lacks might try to form a unity government: a coalition with the Tories and perhaps the Lib Dems, too, although not with the Lib Dems alone, as that would be correctly interpreted as simply a tactic to shut the Conservatives out of power and to retain a supposedly centre-left government. The more likely outcome would be that a Brown minority or majority government would attempt to soldier on despite its lack of a mandate – at least in England – and would try to morally blackmail the other parties into allowing it to function, on the basis that the economic crisis made political stability imperative. A minority Conservative administration would, I’m sure, behave in like manner: the Conservatives want to hold the reins of power on their own, regardless of the actual will of the electorate. So they’d probably set their stall out with an emergency budget and painful cuts in English public services (bearing in mind their direct spending in most areas relates to English (and occasionally Welsh) services only) and would then go to the polls for a second time to try to win a ‘mandate’ – defined as a parliamentary majority, not a majority of votes across England, let alone the UK.

Whichever party forms the next government is in a strong position to work this two-election poll vault into power, as Labour in fact did in 1974: carry out some emergency measures, and then seek a mandate and win a majority in a second election. The real political-credit crunch would come if a Labour government with an unrepresentative small majority tried to carry on for a full term, or if a second election produced an equally unsatisfactory result. Then, and probably only then, a constitutional crisis might occur that could lead to some fundamental reforms being made.

For example, a Labour government (after the first election) would probably try to force through legislation on electoral reform, including the proposed referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system. Any second election might well be conducted using AV, if a majority of voters backed it. This change would probably be decried by the Tories as an attempt by Labour to keep them permanently out of power, as AV – which is not a proportional system – would be likely to favour the centre-left majority in England and would bolster the leading unionist party (i.e. Labour) in Scotland and Wales. (You wouldn’t expect the Gerrymander Party to support a voting system that was not biased in its favour, would you?) In fact, based on the very same national electoral logic outlined above, AV might well return another majority Labour government based on a smaller share of first-choice votes than the Tories. However – and here’s the clever part – Labour would try to make out that this was a more genuine mandate as AV allegedly ensures that each MP enjoys the support of the ‘majority’ of their constituents. In fact, it does no such thing, as the 50%+ support each elected MP has to obtain through AV is merely an artifice of the voting system itself: in theory, you could carry on eliminating all of the last-placed candidates in an AV-based vote until only the last man, or woman, was left standing, and they could then be said to command the support of 100% of voters. But that figure is no more real than the 50%+ share proponents of AV say it engenders.

Imagine the Tories’ fury if they were frustrated in their lust for power by a change in electoral system for a second election in 2010 producing a majority Labour government from a smaller share of first-choice votes than the Conservatives! Not only would they be furious but so, this time, would many people in England, as, once again, the Labour majority would be dependent on the West Lothian Question.

The alternative scenario – a minority Conservative government seeking but failing to obtain a majority in a second election – would also be likely to add momentum to calls for fundamental reform. Under such circumstances, the Conservatives would have to rely on support from the Lib Dems in order to govern, perhaps in a coalition. The Lib Dems might then find themselves in a position to demand some meaningful reform measures, such as a move to a genuinely proportional voting system and a constitutional convention. Knowing the Conservatives, they would probably insist on ‘postponing’ such measures till later in the parliamentary term, or to a subsequent term, in the hope – no doubt – that they could put them off indefinitely.

For those, like me, that support the goal of an English parliament, what would the most favourable scenario be? The ‘best’ options would be the small-majority Labour government based on the West Lothian anomaly or a strong Conservative majority with very little representation in Scotland, as these are likely to get up the hackles of the English- and Scottish-nationalist constituencies respectively. On the other hand, a minority Labour or Conservative government, having to rely on the support of the other parties in order to govern, would be the least desirable outcome, as they would be able to appeal to the need to preserve ‘national unity’ and political stability to steer the UK out of its economic and fiscal crisis.

So as a supporter of an English parliament and of fundamental constitutional reform, one is in the invidious position of wishing for the election to bring about a constitutional crisis. But such a crisis would arise only because the established parties are determined to continue exploiting the unrepresentative character of the present system for their own advantage rather than realigning politics so that government is genuinely accountable to the people it affects. The refusal to remedy the West Lothian Question and address the more fundamental question of the governance of England are just part of a general unwillingness to reform a system that gives the main parties such unaccountable power: Labour needs its disproportionate representation from Scotland and Wales to govern England, and the Tories need their disproportionate representation from England to govern the UK. It may perhaps require a situation in which the UK becomes ungovernable – i.e. unworkable minority governments, a Labour government hated in England, or a Tory government hated in Scotland and Wales – to force the hand of the political elite and to bring about a situation in which all the nations of the UK can genuinely elect the government of their choice.

So we should perhaps wish for the Tories to win the election (on votes) but for Labour to return to power (on seats). Such a nice constitutional crisis may bring about political and economic turmoil in the short term; but in the long term, it may be the route to restoring English democracy.

Could a vote for the BNP be a good thing?

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not a BNP supporter. I despise their racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia. However, I agree with some of their key policies: restrictions to immigration, withdrawal of the UK from the EU, withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, and more accountable local and regional democracy. Yes, those last two items are official policies.

For the former reasons, I would not vote BNP. For the latter, I would not be unhappy to see them doing reasonably well at the general election. What would constitute ‘doing reasonably well’, for the BNP? An article on the BNP website discusses the opinion polls conducted since last week’s appearance of BNP leader Nick Griffin on the BBC1 Question Time political discussion show. It cites the YouGov poll in the Daily Telegraph, which “found that 22 percent of voters would ‘seriously consider’ voting for the BNP in a future local, general or European election. This included four percent who said they would ‘definitely’ consider voting for the party, three percent who would ‘probably’ consider it, and 15 percent who said they were ‘possible’ BNP voters”. In reality, if the party managed to convert the equivalent of all of the ‘definites’ and ‘probables’ into actual votes – making 7% of the vote in the UK general election – they would probably regard that as a considerable achievement, given that they obtained ‘only’ 6.2% of the vote at this year’s European Parliament elections, which tend to produce more support for minor parties than general elections. Nonetheless, according to the same BNP article, an ICM poll last weekend indicated that “54 percent of voters say there are too many immigrants” and that “43 percent . . . said that, while they shared some of [the BNP’s] concerns, they had ‘no sympathy for the party itself'” – which goes for me, I guess.

What would be achieved by a 7% BNP vote at the general election? Well, this would scare the liberal establishment so much that the incoming government – probably led by David Cameron – would have to do far more than is presently being done to stem the flow of net immigration (let alone, overall population growth), currently running at around 237,000 per year. Secondly, the new government would be under no illusion that it needed to address people’s concerns about the ceding of UK sovereignty to the EU; and if this is a Tory government, it would be more difficult for them to avoid giving us a referendum of some sort on the Lisbon Treaty, even if it has already been ratified, which will probably be the case.

I say if this is a Tory government, because a 7% vote for the BNP might help to bring about a hung parliament – but only if the BNP derives enough of its support from people who would otherwise have voted Conservative, thereby reducing the Tories’ margin of victory and making it less likely for them to win an outright majority. However, at the moment, the BNP appears to be gaining most of its support from disaffected white working-class Labour voters who, quite understandably, feel the Labour government has failed to look after their interests. If a substantial BNP vote serves to reduce still further Labour’s share of the vote at the election, this could turn the tables in favour of a Tory victory.

Personally, a hung parliament would be my preferred election result; so I’m hoping that increasing support for the BNP will somehow help bring this about. Given the absurdities of our electoral system, anything’s possible. Why do I want a hung parliament? This is because it offers the best prospect for constitutional and parliamentary reform. The mere fact of a hung parliament could create something of a constitutional crisis, as there are no hard and fast constitutional rules for dealing with such a situation in the UK; although the precedent is that the queen should ask the leader of the largest party to form a government. Imagine a situation in which the Tories were the largest party but did not have a majority, and in which Gordon Brown refused to resign (as Edward Heath did in 1974) until he’d attempted to build a coalition government. Given how he’s desperately clung to power for so long, you would almost expect him to behave in this way.

Regardless of whether the end result were a Tory- or Labour-led coalition or minority government, the Liberal Democrats would end up holding the balance of power. And unlike either the Tories or Labour, the Lib Dems are genuinely committed to constitutional reform – if not specific proposals for English self-government – including the idea of holding a constitutional convention to come up with the blueprint for a written constitution. It’s debatable how much of this agenda they’d be able to push through in the circumstances of a hung parliament; but at least, there’d be more possibility of movement than under majority Conservative or Labour governments.

However, even if the election results in a majority Conservative government, a large vote for the BNP would probably advance the constitutional-reform agenda. This is again because it would scare the main parties and would be seen as a reflection of people’s disenchantment with mainstream politics and with Parliament. Ironically, then, a strong showing by the racist BNP could become one of the most powerful voices for democratic reform, and the need to make government more accountable to and representative of the concerns and wishes of the people. This is a huge paradox and is to the great shame of the self-serving political elite.

So I won’t be voting BNP at the general election; but, though I find their racial politics abhorrent, I hope they do quite well. The establishment needs the kind of kick in the teeth that perhaps only the thuggish BNP are in a position to deliver. And if, in the eventual shake-up, we get an English parliament, that will be an outcome that I personally will be delighted by – even if neither the establishment nor the BNP will be.