Monday, November 23, 2009

Memo to Lib Dems - don't be the change, make the change

Mike Smithson of is a Liberal Democrat, albeit one who's never been (to put it mildly) slavishly loyal to the leadership, so his views on developments within his own party are always particularly interesting to read. One point that he's made repeatedly over recent months, and returned to in his latest post, is that it would be logically inconsistent for a party that believes in proportional representation to consider doing a deal with a party that has won the most seats in an election, despite having been defeated in the popular vote. (The speculation is that Labour could conceivably find itself in such a situation shortly, if the latest Ipsos-Mori poll is not a blip.)

I have to say that strikes me as an astonishingly misguided interpretation on more than one count. Firstly, I'm wondering if Mike has fully taken on board what PR actually means in practice. As a Lib Dem it would seem odd if he hasn't, but my vague impression is that his own allegiance to the party has little to do with any great interest in electoral reform. Internationally, PR systems quite routinely result in coalitions that exclude the party that has won the most seats, let alone the most votes. So, even if they wanted to be seen to be adhering to "best PR practice", there would be nothing hypocritical about the Liberal Democrats keeping all options open.

But the more salient point surely is that the job of a party that believes in PR is not to eccentrically go around acting as if PR is already in operation when it isn't (is Mike saying to the Lib Dems in Ghandian terms "you must be the change you want to see"?), but instead to take every opportunity to actually bring PR about. That might well involve a deal with a Labour party that had lost the popular vote, because the chances of the Tories making the slightest concession on electoral reform in the next parliament are literally nil. If the current generation of Lib Dems turn down a golden opportunity to finally bring about a fair voting system, and indeed to hold a share of power on a regular basis from that point on, how on earth will they justify it to their successors twenty years from now? "We had to turn down proportional representation, because it was far more important for us to act proportionately". Yes, that'll sound good. It's the philosophy of a pious, self-denying, proportionality-worshipping monk, not of a serious political party.

In truth, if Labour are the largest single party in the next parliament without the mandate of the popular vote, that situation will have been directly brought about by politicians - to a large extent Tory politicians - who have stubbornly insisted on maintaining the rotten first-past-the-post electoral system all of these last few decades. It's not the responsibility of the Liberal Democrats (or of the SNP and Plaid Cymru for that matter) to artificially create a lead in seats for the Tories, when the very electoral system the Tories are determined to uphold has failed to deliver that lead for them. Mike Smithson is putting the onus on the wrong players - if the Conservatives think the electoral system has thrown up a result that does not accurately reflect the popular will, it's up to them to accept changes to that system. Otherwise, they ought in conscience to be prepared to just lump it.


  1. Frankly who cares what knots the Unionist parties tie themselves in with FPTP?

    Whatever their public utterances, the leaders of the UK parties (as opposed to lots of their MPs and voters) eat, sleep and drink politics. They will all be aware of the dynamics of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

    For Nationalists, the only relevant question is how we get the best out of any advantageous situation that UK FPTP throws up.

  2. I think Oldnat is correct. We have to take what advantage we can from FPTP and learn to target seats more effectively. It was done in 2005 and it is being done now. That is how the LD's got their seats.