Sunday, May 9, 2010

Our Political System Is Broken - Is PR the Only Option?

So, despite the Conservatives making impressive gains, Labour suffering a Michael Foot-esque collapse and no sign of the much hyped Cleggmania promised by the polls before the election, we find ourselves with a hung parliament.

If the results for the two main parties on Thursday had been reversed, in terms of share of the vote, Labour would have been returned to power with a thumping majority. Brown would be hailed as a master tactician, the great Houdini with an unquestionable mandate to govern for five more long years. The Tories would have been pilloried as pathetic losers, which is what they would have been. There certainly wouldn't be any talk of adopting Proportional Representation (PR) as a electoral system and the Liberal Democrats would continue to have been ignored as the irrelevance they've been for the past 90 years.

But that wasn't the case. Our First Past The Post (FPTP) system produced a hung parliament for the first time since the mid 70's. Such is the in-built advantage to the Labour party, the Tories needed an enormous swing from their 2005 position to win power, even by the slimmest margin. It's clearly unfair that such a bias exists and electoral reform is required to fix it.

All three parties offer electoral reform of one kind or another. The Liberal Democrats are well known for their support for PR, unsurprising as it benefits them in that it would place them in position of king maker a lot more often than FPTP does at the moment, as every election will result in a hung parliament unless one party can get over 50% of the vote. Labour offered a referendum on changing to the Alternative Votes system. Again, cynical self interest prevails here. This system would have delivered an even more disproportionate number of Labour MPs and even fewer to the Tories. See this analysis from Patently. The Tories offer the least radical plan, they propose to get the Electoral Commission to do what they should already be doing and redraw the constituency boundaries so they all broadly contain a similar number of voters. They hope this will reduce the bias to Labour and make for a more level playing field (between Labour and Conservative anyway).

However, the Tories will find that their plan will not completely remove the bias as it has more to do with the difference in distribution of each parties vote as well as overall levels of turn out in different areas of the country, something they can do little about. Their belief in FPTP seems oddly misplaced therefore. PR would actually have benefited them more, especially in 2005 when they were just 3% behind Labour in the national share of the vote.

The truth is that many, on the left of politics, have convinced themselves that the majority of British people hold centre-left political opinions. They base this on combining the Labour and LibDem votes and conclude that it must be so. I don't necessarily believe this and think voting patterns would change in a PR system, but this is clearly the belief of many Guardian and Independent writers and their more politically sympathetic readers.

The motivation for many of the political activists advocating PR is not that it is fairer or would engage more people in the democratic process, although they'll say say this is so, but really they want a system that will lock out the "evil Tories" once and for all. This goes some way in explaining the sudden urgency and passion we are seeing for PR to be made the one non-negotiable position in Nick Clegg's talks with David Cameron. They want it implemented without delay so any future election will produce a centre-left coalition that will rule permanently.

The situation we are now in has brought the LibDems onto centre stage and, although the Conservatives could rule as a minority government without them, they would prefer to have their support to form a more stable coalition government. The failure of Nick Clegg's party to attract any additional support from their 2005 position weakens his position significantly in negotiations. He also needs to be wary of those on the left of his party who can't abide the Tories and want nothing to do with them. Clegg himself is on the right of his party, as Cameron is on the left of his. Both have a tightrope to walk between partisan backbench/activist opinion and pragmatism for the national interest. 

It is telling that, at a time of national economic crisis, when the country is fighting in Afghanistan and we face serious social problems at home, the only topic being discussed by LibDems and the media is electoral reform to the exclusion of everything else. It's an issue, granted, but not the only one and not even the most pressing. I've even heard LibDem politicians suggesting this hung parliament crisis is evidence that we need to move away from FPTP to PR, despite this situation being the norm in every country that has PR. Such bare faced disingenuity proves, if anyone still needed proof, that there's nothing new or different about LibDem politics.

Rather than holding the country's future to ransom over self serving demands for cursory electoral reform, the LibDems should rise to the challenge the people have set them (albeit inadvertently) and agree a programme for government that addresses the immediate crises we face. This is their chance to prove they can put the nations interest first and take part in a government that could make a real difference to this country on the economy, society and eduction, crime etc, all the areas any party serious about power has to address. In doing so, I would hope they'd show themselves to be more worthy of support than Labour and that they could advance in a way the polls suggested they might before the election, eventually replacing Labour as one of the two main parties.

Any agreement should address the genuine concern felt in the country about our political system. An official review of the system and a national debate should take place to fully inform the people and ensure the consequences of any recommended proposals are fully understood before people are asked to decide in a referendum.

I think the current focus on electoral reform is too narrow though. Any review shouldn't just be about FPTP vs PR. It should include a review of the relationship between the executive (government) and parliament including House of Lord reform.

It may be that FPTP could be the most effective way of choosing who governs if combined with a reform of the relationship between then government and MPs that allows more effective scrutiny and debate of policy and legislation. PR may still be desirable, but in itself, it doesn't really address the core faults with our parliamentary systems currently (other than denying the existence of single party majority governments). These faults allow majority governments to govern pretty much unopposed and unscrutinised if they get a big enough majority. This kind of reform plus beefing up review and amendment powers MPs have over government legislation would more precisely address the disrepute that parliament is held in currently. FPTP is good enough for the US (although there are critics there too, of course) but their system has stronger checks and balances on the executive by the legislature. If the bias to Labour can be resolved and the playing field levelled, FPTP could still be a goer with reform of the separation of powers between government and parliament.

But if, after a public review and debate, the people want a fully proportional system that reflects their votes for smaller parties more accurately and they accept the consequences in terms of more hung parliaments, weaker governments, political horse trading of policies etc, then so be it. At least they would do so on a basis of understanding. I know I'd be more confident I'd make the right decision given time and information.

So what should Cameron do if Clegg refused to join the Tories in government without PR being pushed through? I'm of the opinion that anything other than a Con/LD coalition would be too unstable to recommend to the Queen as a viable government in our current economic climate. An informal arrangement where the LDs provide support on certain issues just won't do. It allows the LDs to wimp out of taking responsibility at a time when some very difficult decisions need to be made. Inevitability, when the going gets tough the LibDems will get going, right out of any responsibility for policies that could be unpopular but necessary and the government will collapse. I can't imagine such a set up lasting more than 12 months, if that.

So, if Clegg refuses to cooperate on reasonable grounds, Cameron should explain to the people that Britain needs strong government and not some Heath Robinson affair that will be crippled in dealing with the crises we face as a country and that the LibDems are not allowing such a stable arrangement to occur. Labour will try to seize the initiative and form a government with the LibDems, but they don't have enough seats, even together. They would need an equally precarious agreement with all the rest of the parties to form a majority government. I don't think a Lib/Lab pact will come to pass, I don't think the people would accept a coalition of the defeated. Instead we would have another General Election and this time the people would have the chance to punish those that put their party before country and we'd see a decisive result.

1 comment:

  1. Mike. An appalling typo! The sentence:

    "Such bare faced disingenuity proves, if anyone still needed proof, that there's ..."

    should actually read:

    "Such bare faced disingenuity proves, if proof be need be, that there's ..."

    Correct it pleeeeze. Thankyou.