The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

Posts Tagged ‘electoral legitimacy’

The Importance Of Being Mandated

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 7, 2010 @ 17:57

This particular mandate caused a lot more problems though...

A post on this morning by the always excellent David Herdson about the tedium of the Labour leadership contest got me thinking.

David’s point was that the contenders just aren’t really talking about anything. They can all do platitude, but none of them is seriously raising a genuine policy agenda for what they would advance as an alternative during their opposition wilderness. It’s a fair point, but Tory observers need to recall that about the only substantive thing David Cameron said in his campaign was to bring the Conservative Party out of the EPP grouping in the EU Parliament…

But there is a serious downside to not saying anything during a campaign. And I mean any campaign. It is the question of mandates.

Mention “mandate” to Joe and Joetta Public and I suspect the eyes would glaze over. But mandates have a crucial place in the centre of a democratic system; one of these things that we acknowledge and accept without ever truly appreciating what they’re all about.

By talking about an issue, talking about it openly, publicly, and engaging in serious debate in the subject, you get a grudging appreciation from people that “x” is what you want to do about the issue. And then, if you happen to win said election, all of a sudden you have a mandate for that topic. Regardless of whether or not people were really voting for you with that particular issue in mind.

The voters have spoken, you can say. I have legitimacy to carry out my agenda. I have the endorsement of the public/my organisation/my trade union, whatever, to carry out these changes.

Mandates are an essential part of democracy. They are accepted by people without truly realising the underlying process. The present coalition government sort of has a mandate to carry out their rather radical agenda (though how radical it is remains to be seen over what the result of various reviews are) because the partners achieved a very significant backing at the polls compared to all previous governments.

The winner of the Labour leadership race will have authority as the winner of the contest. They will have authority to lead the party in whatever direction they wish.

But, because no one is really prepared to put their neck on the line, they’re not going to have a proper mandate for any of the pet projects they wanted to pursue. While it’s a useful strategy if you don’t want to frighten the horses, if you want to make a major change, by silencing critics with the weight of your ringing democratic endorsement, you really do need a thumping great mandate.

Sometimes politicians have to take risks with these things. The risk is they’ll lose the election by standing out. The reward, however, is that if you can win, and have your prior agenda in place, you’re going to get a lot more acceptance for whatever it is you want to do.

That’s supposed to be what elections are all about.


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Come The Revol… Referendum

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 3, 2010 @ 09:34

Stolen from the Electoral Reform Society's website. Not that it's anything interesting to look at...

For us young un’s, especially if we’re English, we’re not used to being consulted on things. Sure, we vote in local and general elections, but they’re about a huge ball of issues, entangled, intertwined, whatever. More often than not we base our votes on silly little things that don’t matter, like whether so-and-so “looks like a Prime Minister”. Wot?!

So with the good news that we’re going to be consulted on one very specific issue – voting reform – it makes me kind of excited. But then, I am a political nerd. Then again, perhaps you are too. You wouldn’t be here otherwise. Admit it.

The last, and first, all UK referendum was in 1975. Given that you had to be 18 to vote in it, that means that everyone born since 1958 has never once been consulted in a British referendum. Have there really been no issues of major national importance in all that time?

Of course, the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been slightly luckier, getting referendums for their new Parliaments and Assemblies. And more are on the horizon. London got one too, and though it was asking 6m people, it was still a “local” issue, regarding a mayor that has barely any powers to speak of.

Politicians generally don’t like referendums, because they don’t really want to have to get the backing of the public again after all that general election fuss. Opponents say they are only ever used when government or opposition is divided. There is some truth in that in Britain, but the worldwide story is far more mixed.

But this referendum is going to be very different. Yes, the government is divided, but so what? Once more we’re going to get, from the coalition, a remarkable demonstration of grown-up politics. People agreeing to disagree, and instead of bitching about it in Cabinet or in the corridors of Westminster, they’re going to take the argument to the public for a decision that will shut both sides up for at least a generation.

That idea is revolutionary for British politics. It worked over Europe for Harold Wilson (though maybe it’s time we were consulted again) and there’s no reason why it won’t work again.

And, in the worst nightmares of all strident anti-referendumistas, once you pop, the fun don’t stop.

It’s too long between elections anyway, and it’ll only get worse if we get five year fixed terms.

But maybe it’ll stem the endless legitimacy drain from a government if there are national referendums at least once a parliament.

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Five Years Is Too Long

Posted by The Futility Monster on May 14, 2010 @ 12:14

Maybe this parliament won't even live to see five years anyway...

“That’s all we’ve got, we’ve got five years…”
– David Bowie

Parliaments that last five years invariably end in disaster. Look at recent precedent:

1992 – John Major squeaks home with a 20 majority that could so easily have been a hung parliament.

1997 – John Major ends a disastrous term, battered from crisis to crisis, buffeted by events, ending in a Labour landslide.

2010 – Gordon Brown fails to seize the early initiative, “goes long”, and sees Labour suffer a 5.6% swing against his party in England and Wales, bringing an end to 13 years of Labour rule.

2015 – ?

The argument is that we need a five year term because it gives “stability” for the long term. Except five years isn’t the long term. Let’s face facts, politics is not about the long term. It’s about the short and medium term. Lib Dems want five years because they know it might take that long to reverse the reputational damage suffered in Lib/Lab marginals. It’s also enough time that something good at least might come from it.

The Tories too like the idea of five years because it guarantees the levers of power for that long. No worries about economic catastrophe caused by savage cuts, and an uprising in the Labour Party led by a wonderful new leader, consolidated by leftie Lib Dem defections. Because a mere 2.5% swing to Labour on current boundaries would put Labour strongly back in the driving seat.

But five years is too long.

Maybe we can make an exceptional case that, just this once, five years might be needed to ride out the economic misery ahead. And then after that we lean back towards four years ago. After all, Scotland, Wales and NI have fixed term parliaments. Four years works for them. Four years works for most democracies. Australia go with three, and the House of Representatives gets just two!

Only, if the Lib-Con coalition is to be believed, we’ll never have four year elections again.

I wrote a load of old rubbish last September about how the legitimacy of a parliament declines over time. Of course, my formula was gerrymandered to fit how short I think a parliament should be, but the underlying idea that people get restless as time goes by is sound.

I just think five years is too long to ask people to wait to cast their verdict on what’s happened, and what’s to come. Democracy needs to be more reactive to the people if we are to encourage the next generation that politics is worth doing.

Nobody’s listening, however.

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Old Parliaments Die: And This Is Why

Posted by The Futility Monster on September 26, 2009 @ 09:50

Last Saturday I wrote about the key political concept of legitimacy: what it means, where it comes from, and what happens to it.

The goal of any political reform must always be to enhance legitimacy. That is obvious from common sense: no democrat would argue for a reform that would damage the legitimacy of a system. Not intentionally, anyway.

But what is important is that legitimacy, within a political culture, is quantifiable in a theoretical way. What does that bullshit mean?

Well, it means that for any elected body (the only institutions that can have a genuine claim to 100% legitimacy)  we can put a rough value on just how legitimate it is.

Better still, using some formula jiggery-pokery, we can make a reasonable guess as to how legitimacy declines over time. Because legitimacy, being derived from election, must inherently diminish as time goes by from the last election to that institution.

Let’s imagine that an election takes place to the House of Commons. On day one, it could be assumed to be 100% legitimate, being an accurate (ignoring the question of proportional representation) reflection of the will of the electorate who turned out.

Click for a closer look

Click for a closer look

As time goes by, that legitimacy slides away. Slowly at first, so much so that after 12 months still 96% of the population would deem the Parliament to be legitimate. But 12 months later, that has dropped to 86%, and 12 months further still, it has dropped to 68%. Click the graph to the right for a closer look.

At what point is a new election desirable? Should we wait until dropping below 50%? Or is it better to nip the decline in the bud by going for slightly earlier?

Why is respect for our current Parliament so low? It’s not just the expenses scandal. I would argue that it’s because of how long it has been since the last election, almost 54 months. That would give a legitimacy rating of just 30%. Most people, when questioned, would like an election almost immediately. Does that lend credence to such a low legitimacy rating?

Indeed, by the next election, some 60 months after the last one, I would argue legitimacy would be as low as 14%. The way the formula works is that, the further away from the election you are, the faster the decline (because of its logarithmic nature).

This is an extremely basic formula, but I would argue with some tweaking it could be adjusted for turnout: the idea being that the lower the turnout, the lower the starting point should be, and the faster the decline. It could also be adjusted for political culture: for example, elections to the US House of Representatives are every two years, so the decline would be much steeper.

Using this we can make a case for when the “ideal” time for an election should be. Five years is far too long, and risks the kind of fag-end, lame-duck administration we’re seeing now. Four years is better – but at 44% I would still say it’s a bit too late, as towards the end such a Parliament’s age starts to show.

I think three years would be better (the Australian Parliament seems to have this right)… but why must we always deal in exact years? Why not 3.5 years (at 57%)? Just before the majority of the country get fed up, and round enough to be nice and predictable.

Of course, all of this is a creation of my over-active imagination.  There is no scientific basis behind it; only a guess based on hunch and instinct as to how Parliaments decline in the eyes of their electorate.

But I think, with the proper study and testing, it could be revised and enhanced to cope with more variables (like turnout and electoral system), and it aids understanding as to why we need a regular supply of elections, and when they should occur.

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A Question Of Legitimacy

Posted by The Futility Monster on September 19, 2009 @ 08:00

Legitimacy, of course, being one of the things Voldemort used against Mr Potter...

Legitimacy, of course, being one of the things Voldemort used against Mr Potter...

Please be warned, this post contains political “science” stuff that probably bores most people to tears. I’m sorry. It’s just something I want to get down in writing for future reference.

Parliaments wither. So do governments. As time goes by, they degrade and become less useful. Less vigorous. Less relevant.


In a liberal democratic system, it is because of this magic concept of legitimacy.

Legitimacy is the idea that a body of authority has the support and the capability to exert said authority. We all accept the government has a right to govern, to tell us how to live our lives (within reason, limited by a higher authority such as a constitution or appeal to human nature, even religion), even if we don’t agree with it, because we know it is legitimate. We accept that the police officer has a right to stop us if we’re speeding, because his/her authority is derived from law, laws which have been approved as a result of a democratic process we’re all signed up to.

So legitimacy derives directly from election. We tell dictators that they are not legitimate because they haven’t been elected. Dictators aren’t bothered: they have power – the ability to co-erce – which, ultimately, achieves the same end as legitimacy.

On the other hand, some dictators deliver the goods to their people. They may abuse others in the process. But to those who are being looked after (example, the Sunnis in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) the dictator has a very special kind of performance legitimacy. The people are content because they are getting what they want and to disrupt such a regime may produce undesirable affects. So they accept the current power situation, may even fight to defend it, and in turn legitimise it.

Legitimacy is one of the most fascinating concepts in political science. What construes a “legitimate” arrangement varies wildly from country to country depending on the political culture of the nation. For instance, the sudden introduction of a majoritarian winner-take-all system to a consensus-orientated country like the Netherlands would be seen as grossly illegitimate. Or in Belgium – if the leading party declared it was to rule the country how it saw fit, because it had achieved the most number of seats in the election, there would be uproar because of unfairness.

Meanwhile, in this country, we think nothing of the idea that someone could be elected on 33% of those who voted, and even less when the actual size of the electorate is accounted for. They become our representative, and, though we’re not happy about it if we didn’t vote for them, we accept that they sit as the MP for our constituency, and take part in the parliament or government on that basis.

Some of us are not so keen to accept that mandate, particularly anyone who subscribes to ideas of proportional representation. We argue that a more proportional parliament would be more legitimate. But we don’t go so far as to say that our current parliament, our current representatives, are not legitimate. If we did that, we would a) be guilty of hypocrisy by participating in such a sham; and b) we would be undermining the broader system which we claim to support.

These arguments all have a conclusion: that legitimacy comes in degrees – we could even put an arbitrary percentage to it – and is not directly comparable between political cultures.

Therefore, any revisions we make to our system must broadly conform with our political culture, unless we all (in reality, a sufficient majority) agree on some new terms, some new redefinitions before we begin. The goal of such reforms must always be to increase legitimacy. Politicians understand that, hence why any reform is always couched in such terms. Hopefully, the electorate understands it too.

But there is no glorious peak, no golden age, that will bring us the ultimate definition of 100% legitimacy. But – following our logic – the only things that could ever hope to achieve such a figure would have to be directly, openly, and freely elected. This is also why we don’t like quangos, agencies and other such bodies instituted by government: they have no direct democratic mandate.

That means the only bodies in this country that have a chance of achieving 100% legitimacy are the parliaments, assemblies and councils that exist throughout the nation.

And, as we implied at the start of our post, that legitimacy is time-limited.

In other words, 100% legitimacy could only occur from day one after an election.

That’s where we’ll leave it. Next time (next Saturday), more pseudo-science, and even an Excel chart!

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Will Woolaston Win?

Posted by The Futility Monster on August 5, 2009 @ 14:53

Yes She Will; and at least the local electorate had some say in the matter, unlike other safe seats...

Yes She Will; and at least the local electorate had some say in the matter, unlike other safe seats...

The Tories little exercise in democracy in Totnes has attracted a lot of interest, especially as the winning candidate, who now becomes the Tories candidate for the constituency, and surely the next MP for the seat, has only been a member of the Tories for three years.

How upsetting that must be for all those other local Conservatives who’d been climbing that greasy pole for years, jockeying for position, waiting for Anthony Steen MP to retire, when all of a sudden a carpet-bagger arrives and – worse – is endorsed by 25% of the electorate before she’s even run for office. What a confidence booster for her to have so much legitimacy before she’s even begun.

Yes, democracy really is a ruddy shame sometimes, getting in the way of all that hard fought patronage and back-scratching. Oh, OK – I admit it… yes, this was a very limited primary, the voters only getting to choose from three hand-picked candidates. But it is a very interesting step in the right direction, one that seems to suggest that voters have engaged with the process fairly meaningfully and can be trusted to choose a sensible candidate… even when members of other parties are invited in.

However, I’m not going to claim that open primaries are about to rescue our democracy. But the outcome of this one is an encouraging sign that people are prepared to get involved. They could certainly make selecting candidates in safe seats, where the winner is almost certain to become an MP, more interesting in the sense that, even though the electorate may have little outcome to which rosette the winning MP is going to be wearing… they can at least choose who that will be from the likely winning party.

I’d favour a closed primary system, with individual registration and each citizen specifies which party they are a supporter of. If they don’t want to indicate a party support, that is fine, and they could still decide just before the closed primary which one they would like to vote in. That way, only registered party supporters will get a say on the candidate. That seems fair and sensible. Much as it seems unlikely, it could potentially be possible in certain seats for an organised campaign by the opposition to influence the outcome of an open primary. 1,000 mischievous Tories in a seat like Bootle (and they do exist) could certainly shift the result if Labour turnout was poor, as it almost certainly would be.

The key point to all this is to try and remove some power from the hands of the local parties, which are invariably cliques of people who all know each other and select each other as candidates at varying times. This is especially true for small parties. But how much more legitimate, and engaging to local party supporters, but not activists, would the whole process be if all of them were invited to get involved?

Despite all this, I’m still unconvinced, simply because there is a much more elegant solution.

STV. The Single Transferable Vote. The system that effectively allows us to combine party primaries and an actual election in the one package. Each election is a genuine fight not only between but within the parties.

That is, unless you’re Sinn Fein – whose fantastically loyal support literally take orders on a street-by-street level on how to rank the candidates. Vote management is the name of the game.

Some say this is a flaw of STV. It is. But all systems are flawed. STV is the best of a bad bunch.

But since we’re never going to get STV, closed primaries will have to do.

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Cuts, Cuts, Cuts

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 11, 2009 @ 17:22

Who Has The Finest Pair? (I'm talking about scissors, Obama!)

Who Has The Finest Pair? (I'm talking about scissors, Obama!)

In case you’ve been asleep through boredom at all recent Prime Minister’s Questions, the political rhetoric is all full of who will be the nastiest public spending cutter at the moment. Labour say the Tories want to shave 10% off various government budgets. The Tories say Labour are planning cuts but Gordon Brown won’t admit to them. The Lib Dems are saying they want cuts, but nobody really gives a fig. Meanwhile, the Civil Service is allegedly preparing for up to 20% cuts in the wake of an election.

In other words, there appears, at last, to be a consensus that current levels of spending are unsustainable. We are entering into extremely uncertain times as a result of that. One can imagine how the public sector unions are going to respond if there are talks of massive job cuts – but I don’t think it will come to that. The axe will fall – but without a doubt after the next election when a new government is at its most legitimate and virile; confident that its recent backing in the polls will give it the power to squelch all opposition.

Of course, we all know the Conservatives are going to win next time, either big or small – but it will be a victory. I think their boldness will very much depend on the size of their majority and alleged “mandate”.  But either way, I genuinely don’t believe the Conservatives will be able to unravel the huge depths of Whitehall bureaucracy at the stroke of a pen. I very much expect some token abolitions which attack the voiceless in society: perhaps SureStart is in trouble, as would be any funding for youth projects, or prison rehabilitation. But nothing so initially inflammatory that would cause all the unions to unite in a campaign to damage Cameron before he’s even begun. No – he is far too clever for that.

He knows that his victory will be played out in the long run. One election win will very probably lead to another – unless Tory tinkering happens to seriously damage the economy. That gives him at least eight years to put his agenda into place.

But what of Labour? What if, by some miracle, they pull this one out of the fire? Well, Alistair Darling has gone on record contradicting Brown to some degree, saying he will outline his cuts before the next election.

In all honesty, he had no choice. But if even Labour are now admitting the state will need to be snipped, it gives the Conservatives plenty of cover for their arguments. It’s going to make a cost-cutting, job-cutting mandate at the next election even harder to protest against when the new government tries to put its agenda in place.

There appears to be no two-ways about it.

The public sector is about to get the shock of a lifetime.

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What Should Labour Do?

Posted by The Futility Monster on July 2, 2009 @ 00:42

Don't do it, Gordon! On second thoughts...

Don't do it, Gordon! On second thoughts...

I originally titled this post “What Should Brown Do?” – but then, in light of my first piece of advice, I decided it would be a very short post…

In my previous article, I said that Labour are finished at the next election. But is there anything they can do to mitigate their failure? The answer is, of course, yes. If they want to. I’m starting to get the sense that Labour are looking forward to a historic defeat at the polls in 2010.

But if there is someone still in there, still thinking, I’m sure they could do with a bit of advice. This is what I would be recommending if I were a senior Labour strategist…

1. Brown has to go. It’s obvious to everyone that Brown cannot win an election. The polling is consistent, spreading back years, that Labour do worse with Brown in charge. Perhaps at first Brown looked like he could be a winner, but that came on the back of the celebration of seeing Blair gone, and Brown appealed to the populist instincts of the right-wing press over super casinos; and then was seen to be dealing with terrorism and domestic strife (foot and mouth) very effectively.

But now? Brown looks tired, sounds completely insincere whenever he opens his mouth, and has no credibility left on any policy. He needs to step aside immediately, for “health reasons”.

2. Labour’s anointed successor will come from the Cabinet. I understand this is because, under Labour rules, the Cabinet gets to choose from amongst its number who it would like to be leader. This leader needs to assure the country they are an interim figure – in charge merely to act as Prime Minister while the Labour Party deals with an internal leadership election.

3. The Labour election will generate a storm of publicity during the normally quieter summer months, allowing Labour to dominate the airwaves and win the media battle. Cameron will be edged out in the face of a genuine, democratic, contest between the Labour candidates.

4. In the meantime, our interim Prime Minister will acknowledge to the country that it has been too long since an election; and in light of the controversy over expenses, will admit that this Parliament and the government have lost their authority to govern. With that in mind, the interim Prime Minister will announce that all legislative activity will be suspended – and the government put into neutral – pending a General Election to be held on October 22 2009 (or thereabouts). The only legislation the interim Prime Minister may wish to pass is the proposed reforms on expenses by Sir Christopher Kelly – and then a Bill to limit all future Parliaments to no more than four years.

5. The Labour leadership election would conclude some time in early to mid August. The new Labour leader would not become Prime Minister; instead the new leader would begin the process of formulating policy and a manifesto, ready for endorsement at the party conference in September. The other parties would do likewise. In the meantime, our interim Prime Minister steadies the ship, but tries to stay out of the political fray. They have to remember that they have no genuine legitimacy to govern, having lost the confidence of the public, and worse, have never faced a General Election.

6. The party conference season would rally the troops, and then dovetail into the General Election proper. By October 22, the country would have a newly elected Parliament, and a chance to start again with fresh mandates for whatever reform the electorate choose to endorse. If any.

To me, this seems a very sensible way to get ourselves out of the hole we’re currently in. As we saw again today, the government is listless, all of a sudden deciding it is going to abandon the Royal Mail part-privatisation after all.

We can’t go on like this, lurching from crisis to crisis, week by week. This time is simply dead time, all going to waste, all simply filling the gap until the next election, when it could be being used by a fresh, newly mandated government to pursue its agenda.

Now, I don’t actually think this will save Labour from defeat. But I think it could be good enough to reduce the Conservative majority to below 30, possibly even single figures. And if things go really well, it could force a hung Parliament.

Now that really would be exciting!

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Whither Brown?

Posted by The Futility Monster on June 27, 2009 @ 18:45

Never a frown, with Gordon Brown

Never a frown, with Gordon Brown

I am especially pleased about the title of this post, as it reminds me so much of various essays and journal articles from my student days. “Whither” has that suitable aura of superior academic stuffiness that makes even the most disinterested politico sit up and take note that this really is going to be something you’re going to find interesting…

Erm. Yes. Anyway…

Brown is finished. I have long held this view; I’m no Johnny-come-lately to this party. It’s so easy to bash Brown that I do actually start to pity him. One wonders whether that is actually his secret electoral weapon: that in the end he will be so hated that the voters actually start to feel sorry for him; that they should feel guilty about the ongoing ritual public humiliation that we have witnessed almost from day one.

But it wasn’t always like this…

Hands up: I admit I was once a Brown fan. In my naive youth, when I thought politicians actually meant what they say, I saw a speech by Gordon Brown. His 2003 address to the Labour Party conference was delivered at the peak of Blair’s unpopularity due to the Iraq war and at the time it was like a breath of fresh air to me. It felt like the whole country wanted that to happen – because there was this colossus waiting in the wings to deliver us from evil.

Indeed, I thought it was superb, powerful oratory (how silly of me: I soon realised what that actually was when I saw Obama at the 2004 Democratic National Convention (and promptly told my friends he would be the next Democrat candidate; to which they replied “Who?” and I now have all the bragging rights)). Brown’s piece of political theatre made me think “Here’s a man who actually has Labour principles, unlike Tony Blair”.

From that point on, it has been all downhill between me and Brown. I know he’s particularly upset about it, but these days, I couldn’t give a toss.

As time wore on, it became apparent that the man is a serial liar. Uncomfortable in his own skin, with breathtaking arrogance or ignorance – whichever the situation calls for – typified by that bizarre moment in Autumn 2007 when he denied calling off the election because polls were showing he would lose. I had already seen these signs, and I spent the whole of 2006 arguing with Labour-leaning friends that Brown would not be the answer to their prayers. It just didn’t add up to me: how could a man who was such a central part of the New Labour project be so different to his contemporaries?

Sure enough, he wasn’t. My friends were suffering the same rose-tinted view that I held in 2003. They really need to learn from the Monster that cynicism has its place in politics: centre stage. 

I also argued that Brown should recognise that our ever-changing constitution required he go straight to the country for a mandate to govern. We may elect MPs, but there’s no doubt we’re voting for a government. Brown has never had any electoral legitimacy, part of the reason why he is so rejected by the public. I hope we never have another “unelected” prime minister again for this reason: times have changed, and a more honest politican than Brown would have appreciated that.

Naturally, Brown is not interested in my sage advice. Perhaps he should be though. If, instead, his first act as Prime Minister had been to ask for a dissolution of Parliament, I’ve no doubt he would have won because the Tories were not ready. The election would also have been held on the old boundaries, giving Labour an immediate boost. He would now be just two years into a (no doubt) five year term. There would be no clamour for an election, because his mandate to govern would still have been apparent.

Instead we’re left with this sad spectacle of seeing a man in decline, dragging a nation in decline into the sewer.

Make no mistake about it – there is nothing left for Brown in British politics. He has neither the time nor the authority to do anything else.

We just have to sit tight for ten months to let this failed experiment with an illegitimate, powerless Prime Minister draw to its inevitable conclusion: with a thumping defeat at the ballot box.

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