Coalition and Electoral Reform


They say a week is a long time in Politics, and never has this been more true than in the 5 days since the UK went to the polls and failed to elect a majority government. The Liberal Democrats, still a minority party, now hold the key to the next government but even now it is unclear whether that government will be led by the Conservatives of David Cameron or a Labour Party with an unknown leader. In all three camps there is much soul-searching and fierce debate, and the key now appears to be Electoral Reform and each party's ability to embrace it to an extent acceptable to the Liberal Democrat party as a whole. Yet there are a lot more issues to consider than might at first be obvious, and below I'd like to give my own personal assessment of the situation we are in and why I believe we now find ourselves in a situation where there can only be one successful outcome.


My History

Before I start, it is probably worth explaining where I stand. My first real experience of a General Election was in 1987 when the newly formed "Liberal SDP Alliance" stood against the ruling Conservative Party and the mess that was Neil Kinnock's Labour. I was some months short of my 18th birthday and it frustrated me greatly that I could not vote. Labour was trying very hard to woo the "youth vote" and the "Red Wedge" union of musicians, fronted largely by Billy Bragg, tried hard to persuade one and all that a vote for Labour was the right thing to do. I went to the newsagent and bought all three party manifestos. No matter how hard I tried I could not bring myself to have sympathy with Labour, a party who elected their elite by a block vote system controlled by the extreme left-wing unions and whose view on defence was unilateral disarmament, whatever that might mean for the security and safety of the people of the UK. The Conservative government had become "too big for their boots" and were arrogant in the extreme, only the Liberal-SDP proposal really made sense to me. But I knew then, as I have known at every General Election since, that the Liberal-SDPs had no hope of power because of the way that the elections worked. I dreamt then of a better electoral system where nobody's vote would be lost yet the Liberals had no influence to speak of and neither of the "major parties" would even consider it. It seemed a long way off.

When "New Labour" came to power in 1997 there was promise of a debate on electoral reform. Their manifesto stated:

We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system.

A commission was set up, headed by Roy Jenkins, which recommended (in September 1998) that an "alternative vote top-up" (AV+) system be adopted, where individual constituencies elected their MPs but a "party list" provided a set of "top up MPs" which would correct any inconsistencies between the percentages of MPs for any one party and the percentages of the national vote for the same.

Alas, Jenkins's report was effectively put into a cupboard and forgotten - at least for General Elections. Such a system was, however, put in place for the national elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In the 2001 election Manifesto, Labour stated:

We will review the experience of the new systems (in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) and the Jenkins report to assess whether changes might be made to the electoral system for the House of Commons. A referendum remains the right way to agree any change for Westminster.

This "review" never came

AV versus AV+

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It is now probably worth looking a little more into what AV+ actually is, and what how it is relevant to the situation we find ourselves in here in May 2010. AV+ is an extension to what is called the "Alternative Vote" system (acronym AV) so we need to look at that one first

With an AV system instead of putting an 'X' against a candidate the voter ranks the available candidates in order of merit on a ballot paper not unlike that you can see here (taken from Wikipedia). This allows the voter to say who they REALLY want to be elected but also who they would be happy to see elected should their preferred choice not win. So a Green Party supporter in a safe Tory Seat might, for instance, put a "1" against the Green Party candidate, knowing that it is unlikely they will win, a "2" against the Liberal Democrat candidate, knowing that they are in with a chance, and so on.

The AV system is significantly better than the "First Past the Post" (FPTP) system we currently have in place because it allows people to vote for who they would like rather than who they think have a chance. A candidate has to attain a majority of votes in the Constituency (ie. over 50% of the vote) so how it works is that the first choice votes are counted, in much the same as with a FPTP system. If the candidate with the most votes attains the required 50% then it stops there, and the results would be no different than on FPTP. However, if they have not then the candidates with the least votes are removed from the ballot and their voters' second choices added to the remaining candidates. This continues until a candidate has the required 50%.

What can happen here that is quite interesting, and should not be forgotten, is that the candidate with the most first choice votes can lose as they can be overtaken by the second votes. However, it can be said that the candidate who triumphs has a mandate as they are the "most acceptable to the majority of the electorate in that Constituency".

AV would certainly be a better system than FPTP, where a candidate can win with a "majority" of 20 votes - a term that is quite mis-used as this often means no real majority at all (ie. LibDem 25,400 - Tory 25,380 - Labour 18,000 - Others 8,000 which is actually merely "20 more than the next largest share"). It would also, to some extent, remove the abhorrent concept of "tactical voting" where candidates from the parties that "could win" try to persuade voters to change their political allegiance in order to "keep out the enemy". Under an AV system we would get a much clearer picture of who the electorate actually WANT in power, rather than who they want to keep out.

AV by itself, however, would not resolve the biggest problem with our electoral system, that being that small parties have little or no hope of ever getting MPs.

Let's take a scenario where Party X gets 30% of the vote in every single constituency in the UK. Under FPTP they would most likely not gain a single seat in Westminster, because in each case there will be a party candidate that would get slightly more. Yet, when all the votes are counted, the governing party might only have 37% of the popular vote nationally and the opposition maybe even 28%. So you have Party X with NO seats, and a party with LESS votes nationally with (say) 200 seats. Can that be right? I think not.

Whilst an AV system might get Party X a seat or two, due to second choices, it would still not correct that anomaly. To do that we need to think nationally as well as locally.

And that's what the Jenkins Commission's AV+ system does. The AV system is used on a Constituency level and an MP is elected for each area. The total votes cast nationally are then taken into account and "top up MPs" are elected. Party X would, therefore, get a lot of "top up MPs" with their 30%, though probably not enough to bring them 30% of seats in Westminster but certainly "getting there". Whilst AV+ cannot completely right the wrong of "wasted votes" it goes some way to doing so

Where we are now

Following the General Election both parties have offered the chance of an AV system to the LibDems in return for a coalition. Not AV+, you will notice, but purely AV. Whilst this is a step in the right direction, it is not what we as a party want as it fails to provide a proportional parliament, simply a more democratic system at the constituency level. It is something that we should embrace, however, because without "tactical voting" we will get a clearer picture of the wishes of the country and this may help to win the argument next time around to bring in AV+

As a LibDem who has grown up loathing the Tory Party and all it stands for I would much rather see a Lib/Lab coalition, but there are many reasons why this seems a disaster in the current circumstances.

Firstly, there are the numbers. Any government that did not include the Conservative Party would be a very unstable government. They have potentially 307 of 650 seats - that means that all the other parties only have 343. When you remove Sinn Fein from the picture, as they don't participate, and consider that the DUP are allies of the Conservatives you get a situation where even with everybody else on board it'd be a very weak government with a tender majority, not to mention the number of party leaders involved, any one of whom could withdraw. The Conservatives and LibDems together would have a healthy majority.

Secondly, there is a distrust of Labour. As mentioned above, in 1997 they promised the chance of Electoral Reform, set up a committee and then proceeded to ignore it as they had a second landslide victory and "felt safe with the current system". Their own committee recommended a course of action and they shelved it because it didn't suit them. Can we trust them?

Thirdly, Labour have "offered" to bring in an AV system and then "ask the country afterwards". How popular is that going to be?? A Prime Minister without a mandate from the people imposes an electoral system that the people haven't had the chance to debate? We would fully expect riots in the street - a very poor idea, and one that would probably ensure that neither Labour or the LibDems regained power for generations: equally, the "First Past the Post" system could become viewed as "a fundamental part of our national identity", rather like lbs and ozs. The Conservatives have offered a referendum on Constitutional Reform, we may win it or lose it but whatever the outcome everybody will get the chance to "say their piece". And that, in my view, is democracy.

We have a lot of challenges ahead, not least the global economic crisis, and we need a government that will stay in power for years not months. The last thing that the UK needs is the uncertainty that tiny majorities bring with them - remember John Major in his last term, doing deals to ensure that he could pass motions with large numbers of his own MPs voting against him? Do we want a repeat of that?

Where I am now

For the reasons stated above, I believe that there is only option that is sensible for Nick Clegg, and right for the country, and that is a coalition with the Conservatives. However abhorrent that might seem, Cameron has a mandate from the people, we have concessions on Electral Reform and we will end up with a government that can actually govern with a healthy majority.

It pains me, but I cannot see any alternative.


©Sean Miller - 11th May 2010.