Only cleaning will get rid of the dirt

The BNP’s success is due to public anger, not to proportional representation

By Nick Clegg, June 11, 2009

Last week, record numbers of people across Britain chose to stay at home rather than cast their vote in the European election. Even worse, almost a million turned out for the BNP. A British party of fascist thugs now has not just one seat at the European table, but two. And one of those has been taken by their leader: a man who has dismissed the Holocaust as propaganda and hysteria.

The BNP has been able to seize on widespread dissatisfaction with mainstream politics, and exploit the tensions heightened by this increasingly painful recession. Such despair and frustration are a demagogue’s dream, helping extremists turn the rubbing points between communities into full-blown clashes. That means more antisemitism, more Islamophobia, more bigotry and bias across the board. And while voting for the Far Right would have been unthinkable for many people just a matter of months ago, it is now a seemingly acceptable, seemingly rational choice.

So, with greater urgency than ever, it is up to mainstream politicians to drain the deepening swamp of support manipulated by dangerous fringe parties. Central to that is a fundamental clean-up of our political system; one which regains the trust of the British people and which hands back power. I simply don’t believe that this requires endless committees or reviews, as the Government and the Conservatives insist. But what I do think is that politicians who stall won’t be forgiven.
That is why I have set out a 100-day plan for radical constitutional renewal, with no MP leaving Westminster for his or her summer holidays until we have transformed our political system: from overhauling expenses to giving people the right to sack their MP, and ending the staggering golden goodbyes, funded by taxpayers, for disgraced politicians. My plans also include getting big money out of politics, as well as replacing the House of Lords with a directly elected Senate.

But no programme for reform is complete unless it replaces our outdated voting system with a proportional model in which every vote counts. The current Government was elected on just 22 per cent of the eligible vote, and hundreds of MPs are returned to power election after election. That is no way to keep politicians honest. Instead, it breeds arrogance by removing the need to listen to what people want.

Labour and the Conservatives have never changed this system because it suits them. Now, David Cameron is actively arguing against fair votes, arguing that proportional systems favour extremists. This is utter rubbish. Trying to pin the gains made by the BNP on the proportional voting system used in the Euro elections misses the point entirely. It wasn’t that system that kept voters in their homes or pushed them into the hands of the BNP; it was the belief that mainstream politics has failed. And empowering people through votes that count is precisely how we win them back.

I believe that if we fix our politics to renew the fight against racist fringe parties here at home, we can also do the same abroad. Tackling prejudice — specifically antisemitism — in Britain and in Europe is what I’ll be talking about to the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism next week. It is not just the UK where right-wing parties have made gains; for a range of different reasons, they have gathered deeply worrying levels of support across the European Union. But Britain can lead the way in putting the fight against antisemitism at the heart of Europe — provided we get our own house in order.

Too many Jewish communities already feel vulnerable and bear the brunt of growing hostility. If we sit back while populists continue to capitalise on discontent, that is only going to get worse. We have to take away the anger that these extremists feed off, and that means reforming our politics without delay.

Nick Clegg is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To apply for tickets for his lecture to the EISCA in the House of Commons on June 15 please email

Last updated: 12:06pm, June 16 2009