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Electoral Reform – Making the Best of a Bad Idea

Thirteen years ago, with a different election result, we could have seen a new Labour government forming a coalition with the Lib Dems, with electoral reform as their power broker’s fee. Of course, it never happened, though 1998 saw the Jenkins Commission recommend an Alternative Vote system

So it’s taken this long for Gordon Brown to suggest a referendum on electoral reform. (Is there an election in the offing? Maybe a hung parliament?)

Now there hasn’t, as yet, been any large organised campaign in favour of First Past The Post (FPTP), mainly because there hasn’t had to be, even though a number of different systems have been trialled in other elections, with varying degrees of success. “Success” being, as it has to be in politics, whatever you want it to be.

Discussions around electoral reform often settle around PR, which is based on the assumption – challenged too rarely – that a body of representatives that directly reflects the proportion of votes cast is “fair”.

Yet what is proposed today is AV, which is not strictly PR, rather a system that still retains the constituency link. Like PR, though, it tends to benefit more the smaller parties and – let’s be honest – the Left, which has been more prone to factionalism than the Right, at least in the UK. Not that that is in any way the Government’s motivation, is it? By getting electoral reform of some description in then open before the election, any coalition process with the Lib Dems in a hung parliament will surely be smoother, with the possibly unpalatable pill of electoral reform already swallowed.

So, as a Conservative, I guess I’m should be somewhat wary about electoral reform … and I am. Whether an AV, STV or “proper” PR system is in place, the end result will typically be more coalition governments. Now if you believe that the best form of government is one where you throw everyone into a political melting pot and the best ideas will magically rise to the top and a golden age of governance, world peace and love and big hugs all round will ensue, then you might genuinely believe yourself when you say that a series of coalition governments is a good thing.

There is a great irony about those who propose systems that naturally increase the chances of coalition governments. That is: who votes for coalitions? If Gordon Brown and Nick Thingy do a deal after May to form a coalition, we will have a Labour/Lib Dem government. Fine, you may say, but (a) how is it fair that a party with maybe 18% of the vote decides who forms the government and (b) unless any ballot papers actually featured a Lab/Lib candidate, we will have a government that nobody voted for – surely even less democratic than a government formed on the back of 42% of the vote?

But wait … do Conservative have something to fear from electoral reform? Probably not, in the long term. Firstly, we should qualify that question by defining “Conservative” in the broader sense of the Conservative movement. It is quite possible that just as AV or PR favours smaller parties on the Left (including, lest we forget, the BNP) so it will also do for the Right, so we may well see a higher profile UKIP. Those familiar with centre-right politics will recognise that a large bulk of UKIP support and activism is essentially Conservative with added Euro-scepticism (which is why Conservative leaders would do well to treat UKIP voters as lost sheep to be tempted back to the flock, rather than xenophobic outcasts to be shunned).

Some of my fellow Tories may fear the Conservative/Lib Dem 1-2 which voters may plump for, as the electors make the common mistake of thinking that the Lib Dems are somehow in the centre, to the right of Labour. Yet after a term or so, it is more than possible that centre-right voters will default to a Con-UKIP / UKIP-Con combination. So, not only would the Lib Dems not fair as well as they have been hoping for decades under a new system (and that’s not counting what a stronger Green vote would do their core support), but the possibility exists for many right-wing ideas to still find their way to fruition as part of Conservative/UKIP coalition in a electorally reformed future.


One response to “Electoral Reform – Making the Best of a Bad Idea

  1. Toque February 2, 2010 at 5:15 pm

    The Tories and Labour have something to fear from proper PR – it would crack open the bipartite Westminster system.

    It was hilarious listening to Brown addressing IPPR, discussing how to make parliament more accountable.

    If he really wanted to do that, then the place to start would be English Votes on English Laws, to prevent democratically unaccountable Scottish MPs voting on English matters that have nowt to do with them.

    He won’t do that because, as with this electoral reform fudge, the Labour Party is more important than democracy.

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