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September 14, 2006

Clare Short: Martyr or Traitor?

Clare Short, the former Secretary for International Development and controversial Labour backbench MP, has announced she’s to stand down at the next General Election. But comments made to the Independent newspaper have got her into hot water, with the possibility that she could have the Labour whip withdrawn in Parliament.

In a newspaper article this morning, Short said that she wanted to campaign for a hung parliament, which in essence means that she wants Labour MPs to lose their seats. Always an iconoclastic figure, Short’s declaration will split the party. Some will privately congratulate her for taking a stand, but the majority will probably find her a traitor.

Saying that she had “reached a stage where I am profoundly ashamed of the government”, Short blames the electoral system for the lack of policy debate in the Labour party, and Parliament generally. She hopes that a hung parliament will bring about Proportional Representation, which isn’t exactly a guaranteed piece of logic.

Does she have a point?
In many respects, yes. Policy within the Labour Party is decided inside Number 10, and as she notes, decisions like Trident are made within a sentence that a speech Gordon Brown gives to businessmen. The definition of democracy needs to be reset to its default, rather than the sham we have at the moment. Individuals need to be re-engaged in politics, and Westminster needs to be more open.

But to follow Clare Short’s logic to its natural conclusion, her proposal of a PR-based electoral system would not increase policy discussions within the Labour Party, but would simply force the Leader of the party to discuss policy with leaders of other parties, in order to form a consensus.

Essentially, Clare Short’s wishes look set to bring about policy-making by a slightly wider clique than at present. Secret meetings between Gordon Brown and David Cameron would take Britain to war, decide policy and set the budget. It would result in ineffective governments where mandates would mean very little and the permanent state of governance would be one of compromise.

So while she has a point about the failures of New Labour, her hopes for the future are dangerously misguided and will simply recreate the current faux-democracy under a different guise.

Traitor or Martyr?
Now Short has admitted that she would like to see a hung parliament (where no one party holds a majority) she could easily find the Labour whip withdrawn. This would effectively banish her from the Parliamentary Labour Party. But more damaging is the potential for her to be banished from the Party as an ordinary member, leaving her as an independent.

Given Short’s career trajectory, I wouldn’t be surprised if she wanted to be an independent. But she won’t want to make that decision on her own: she will want to go as a martyr, slain by Blair and Brown, and subsequently given sympathy by those on the Left of the Labour Party who’ve gritted their teeth through 12 years of New Labour.

The real danger for her is that members of the Labour Party could be less fickle than she imagines. It’s more than possible that they will consider a traitor, no longer welcome in the Party. This is not what she will want, but given her unpredictable behaviour and tendency to go against the grain, may be what happens.


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