Maybe It’s Time to Think the Unthinkable on the Voting System
The Liberal Democrats are now almost tied with the other two parties in the popular vote, according to opinion polls. Much of their recent rise in the polls can be attributed to the televised Leaders’ Debates.
Even before those debates, however, the Liberal Democrats were nudging towards 20% in the polls – more than half the level of the Tories and Labour.
The Liberal Democrats have long demanded a Proportional Representation (PR) system for electing MPs. Such a system is already used for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. (A different variation is used for the European Elections, but that variety uses enormous multi-member constituencies that severely weaken the links between constituency members and their electorates, so in my view is far inferior.)
The traditional Tory answer to the Liberals’ demand has been to defend the current “First Past the Post” system thus:
- First Past the Post tends to produce definitive results, with one party having an overall majority.
- First Past the Post tends to magnify differences in the popular vote, so that the party with the highest popular vote generally wins an overall majority.
- PR would give too much power to the party with the smallest vote – the Liberal Democrats – since they alone would be amost guaranteed a part in the governing coalition.
These arguments were completely convincing with a system in which there were two main parties with a big share of the popular vote, and the third party’s support was insignificantly small. In that two-party system, those advantages of First Past the Post were compelling.
Traditionally, the winning party (Conservative or Labour) would receive well over 40% of the vote and be well ahead of any other party. 40% is not a majority – but it’s not far off. And if the next party has only 30%, it is possible to make a powerful case that the public interest of having a decisive government with an overall majority makes it reasonable to give the winning party the majority of seats in Parliament.
However, once the third party’s support becomes significant, First Past the Post works very much less well. At the last general election, in 2005, Labour won an overall majority with just 35% of the popular vote in the UK as a whole (and a smaller proportion of the popular vote than the Conservatives in England).
2005 Election Result – Votes and Seats
This time, if current polls are to be believed, Labour could be the largest party in Parliament with their share of the popular vote being substantially smaller than that of either of the other two parties. The Liberal Democrats could have the largest share of the popular vote – and still have less than half the number of seats of either of the other two parties.
This election is clearly being faught under the present system, and we should accept the result. But that situation is not tenable or defensible in the long run. It is not so much that First Past the Post is discredited or bad in principle, as that it does not work well when there are more than two parties with high levels of support.
So what about a PR system? What would the effect be?
Tories have traditionally battled against PR, because of those arguments I listed above, and also because of party advantage. There has been a view (and still is amongst most media commentators) that the Liberal Democrats would always ally themselves with Labour in Parliament, resulting in the Conservatives being in permanent opposition.
That is not necessarily true. The main reason for the Liberals’ current reluctance to work with the Tories is that the Tories are adamantly against PR.
In any case, under PR, something very different might happen. All three main parties (including the Liberal Democrats) are at the moment coalitions put together to survive under First past the Post.
The Conservatives are composed of the Free Enterprise, Eurosceptic right – people like John Redwood – and the Traditional Tory left – people like Ken Clarke.
Labour are composed of the Socialist left – people like John McDonnell – and the “New Labour” right – people like David Miliband.
And the Liberal Democrats are composed of the heirs of the old Liberals, with an emphasis on civil liberties, small government and decentralisation, together with Social Democrats, believing in a mixed economy, government intervention but not necessarily control, and European integration.
Under PR, these party coalitions would no longer have any reason to exist. It is very easy to imagine each of the three parties splitting in two. Giving those parties their European-style labels here’s what we might end up with.
The Conservatives might divide into a Free Democratic Party, led perhaps by John Redwood, and a Christian Democratic Party, led perhaps by David Cameron.
Labour might divide into a Democratic Socialist Party, led perhaps by John McDonnell, and a Social Democratic Party, led perhaps by David Miliband.
The Social Democratic part of the Liberal Democrats might splinter off and join the new Social Democratic Party, leaving a rump Liberal Party.
There would also be other parties represented in Parliament, including the Greens and UKIP (althougn UKIP might well merge with the Free Democrats).
Possible governing coalitions could be:
- Free Democrats (with or without UKIP) plus Christian Democrats plus Liberals
- Democratic Socialists plus Social Democrats plus Liberals
- Social Democrats plus Christian Democrats
- Democratic Socialists plus Social Democrats plus Greens
or one of several other less likely combinations. This is, broadly, what happens in countries like Germany.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel Waves to Supporters at an Election Night Rally
Therefore it is far from clear, to me, that supporters of the current Conservative Party would be permanently in opposition under PR.
What is more, under the present alignment of parties, it is possible with a more popular Liberal Democrat Party that the Tories will never again win more than around 35% of the popular vote. That could mean permanent opposition for the Tories under the present voting system.
It is also apparent that some of the extra support for the Liberal Democrats that we have seen over the last few days has come from people who previously had not voted at all. As a Tory I would prefer those people to be coming to the Conservatives – but if this development encourages them at least to take part in the democratic process, that is good for all of us and for our country.
Of course, over the next two weeks, the Liberal Democrats could slip back in the polls – or the polls may even be completely wrong. In that case, we could be back to business as usual. But Conservatives need to be thinking about this and getting their minds around it. If this election produces a result in which the Liberal Democrats come first – and are rewarded with a relatively very small number of seats – and Labour come a distant third – and are rewarded by being the largest party in Parliament, then the demand for PR could in any case become unstoppable.