As mentioned in my previous post, I think Cameron’s best shot at victory is to steal the reformist mantle from Clegg by proposing something that is perceived by the public to be even more radical. I mean this is his best shot in the same way that jumping out of your car when the brakes don’t work and you’re heading for a petrol station at 120mph is your best shot, but nonetheless, there might just be something in it.
With that in mind, I felt it necessary to look at one of the Lib Dems’ favourite mantras, that of reforming our ‘broken politics’, as Clegg puts it. A large part of that would be reforming the electoral system. This is also an area worthy of exploration because, if it were my money, I would bet on this being one of the tricky areas of agreement in a Lib-Tory coalition. What electoral system would be proposed, why, by whom and to what end?
Most of the time you only hear Clegg talk about “Some form of proportional representation”, but according to Chris Huhne, it is the Single Transferable Vote system they favour. Gordon Brown’s deathbed conversion to another form of PR, the Alternative Vote, is nonsense in two senses: his zeal for reform is completely disingenous and the AV system is crap. I won’t go into why because I’m already going into the why the STV system is good, and that’s complicated enough.
In First Past the Post (the current system), once a candidate has won their constituency, all of the remaining votes for that person are wasted. None of those voters need have turned up, their vote is meaningless. Under the STV system, instead of putting a cross next to one candidate’s name on your ballot paper, you would vote for all of the candidates standing in your constituency but in order of preference. That way, when your first choice candidate has won, your vote transfers to your next choice and is counted. Every vote counts.
Marvellous, you might think. Where has it been all our lives? What’s the problem? Well part of the problem is that it would take days to get an election result rather than 24 hours. But you might say that’s a price worth paying for the increased level of fairness in the system, and I would have to agree.
A much bigger problem – potentially, depending on your views of fairness – is that majority governments might become a thing of the past. At this point I am going to hand you over to my esteemed colleague, The Rt Rev Andrew James and his analysis of what the last election would have looked like and how the forthcoming election might look under an STV system.
In essence there is one main problem if you’re not a Tory and two if you are. The first one is the one already raised; if your voting system tends to return hung parliaments and requires coalition governments, is it fairer than one that wastes votes but gives you strong governments that, as Andrew points out, whatever you think about their unfairness, were the choice of the majority? In other words, does ‘fairness’ only pertain to the strength of your vote? One might argue that there’s no point making sure your vote counts if less is done to improve your country as a result.
The second problem (the one that only exists if you’re a Tory) is that, because the votes trickle down through your selections, the fact that there are two relatively strong centre left parties and only one relatively strong centre right, in an STV system the Tories would be severely punished. Clearly most Lib Dem and Labour voters would choose the other as their second choice. This might not have mattered quite so much before the recent Lib Dem revolution but it matters hugely nowm first for that very reason but also because there are plenty of Tories, like myself, who would put the Lib Dems second as well.
To borrow an example from Andrew’s post, using PoliticsHome/YouGov regional data, the forthcoming election would yield the Lib Dems 106 seats under First Past the Post, but 161 seats under STV. I am not arguing that this is intrinsically bad – clearly it is much fairer. Rather I am pointing out the political dangers of it for the Tories and, by implication, the huge problems for a Lib-Tory coalition in which the former puts electoral reform at the top of their list of demands.
I don’t think there is genuine appetite for electoral reform amongst the public. Rather it is the Lib Dem surge that has brought to people’s attention just how unfair the current system is for them (the LDs). But as I’ve said before, three party politics is not the norm; most of the time FPtP does favour our party system. Changing the electoral system because of an unsual turn of events in the party system is not necessarily the best idea and not, I would argue, good for the country. There is an in-tray from hell waiting on the next government’s desk; whomever it consists of need to be working on that, not squabbling about how they got there.