The British parliament will soon debate electoral reform, thanks to a citizens’ petition. This campaign looks hopeless, but then so did Brexit not that long ago – so am I being too pessimistic?
This was one of the issues that first drew me into politics, back in the 1970s, along with Europe (I was an enthusiastic pro-European from the start). However, since the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) in 2011, I have found the topic deeply depressing. That referendum showed how low the forces of conservatism could sink in order to defend what they thought was in their interests. And then The Economist, the paper that originally persuaded me of the virtues of AV, turned against it, simply because they didn’t want to back a loser. That showed just how hard reform will be.
Is it worth getting excited about? My chief objection to the current system is that it is undemocratic – not so much in the overall result, but in how the results are achieved at constituency level, where an MP can be picked on a minority of the vote. And then there is the issue of safe seats, which mean that so many people have no meaningful choice. Travelling across southern England during the June election was to witness a depressing sea of blue. Supporters of other parties were effectively being disenfranchised, as it was not worth these parties putting any serious resources into these contests. I received not one single piece of literature from either of the two main parties where I lived, because neither thought it was worthwhile campaigning there. As it happens they were mistaken – Labour took the seat off the Conservatives. It pays political parties to concentrate on a small minority of seats; the problem for the Conservatives in June was that they picked the wrong ones.
Still, other electoral systems have their disadvantages too, and it is hard to argue that they engage their voters more effectively. Political disenchantment is widespread, and largely independent of electoral system. Still, injustice is injustice. The British system excludes more people than it should, and all too often it empowers the mediocre, rewarding schmoozing with activists rather than dialogue with ordinary electors.
Proportional representation (PR) has been brought into British politics since 1997 (and earlier in Northern Ireland). This was first in the devolved parliaments of Scotland and Wales, and then the largely powerless London Assembly. Elections to the European Parliament were also changed to a proportional system. This has given oxygen to smaller political parties, provided that they achieve a certain critical mass – which few manage. Ukip was obviously a big beneficiary, and also the Greens; less so the Liberal Democrats, in spite of their ardent support – the party has had little idea of how to campaign under proportional systems – preferring locally targeted messages to broad ones. But perhaps the biggest beneficiary has been the Conservatives. The party was practically wiped out in Scotland under First Past the Post – they won no seats there in the UK parliament in 1997, and hung on to just one from 2001 until this year. That is enough to suffocate a political party – as Labour have found in the south of England, outside London. But with PR the Conservatives established a substantial presence in the Scottish Parliament, and led a fightback from there. The party is now in second place, and gained 12 seats in the UK parliament – without which the party nationally would have been sunk.
But implementing PR at UK level involves some tricky calculations for the main political parties. Actually not so tricky for the Conservatives; they have been so consistently opposed to reform in the past that a change of mind would cause major ructions they don’t need – even if it would be a good way to build the party up in north England. Labour would stand to gain hugely in southern England, where it struggles to get traction under the current system. The party has a strong brand with wide appeal, and it could use this like the Tories have in Scotland. But it also reduces their chances of achieving an overall majority in Westminster. And to many in the party, nothing matters more than the possibility of monopoly power at national level.
But there is a possible compromise, which might appeal to the more strategic Labour and Conservative leaders: PR for local government. Far too many local authorities are run as one party states, to the huge detriment of the quality of government. PR would tackle this, and give both parties a chance to establish themselves in areas where the other dominates. And it might even make life easier for parties in those areas where they do have monopolies: they do not have to stuff their benches with mediocrities to make the numbers up – and it should sharpen them up generally, as competition usually does. I think it was Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s biggest mistake not to go for local electoral reform in the coalition negotiations with the Conservatives in 2010, instead of what turned out to be that hopeless referendum on AV. David Cameron and George Osborne might just have gone for it. Whether it would have done the Lib Dems much good is another matter – but democracy would have been a winner. The party must not make that mistake again, and it should make local electoral reform a major plank of its policy platform. There is a precedent: the Lib Dems forced local electoral reform in Scotland on a reluctant Labour Party as part of a coalition deal.
That’s one small hope. I don’t see either Labour or Tory establishments having the guts to take such a reform forward by themselves however. The only possibility I can see is if Labour’s newly recruited younger activists take an interest in the issue: such people tend to mistrust systems handed down by their elders. The parliamentary debate will hopefully flush the Labour leadership out. As more younger activists get involved with the injustices of the current system, that could create some real pressure. especially if the Lib Dems can become competitive to Labour leaning voters again.
Long shots. But that is all advocates of electoral reform have.