Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A second-class electorate?

Well done to Michael Crick for pointing out one reason (of many) why the Tories' logic for opposing electoral reform is somewhat hypocritical - the rules for their own leadership contests. Since the 'magic circle' was abolished by Sir Alec Douglas-Home in the mid-1960s and replaced by open leadership elections, there have been many alterations to the exact rules. And yet no system used by the party has ever allowed a simple plurality for the leading candidate in a leadership ballot to be sufficient - if no outright majority is obtained, an additional ballot has always been necessary. Indeed, in the famous contest between Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine in 1990, not even an outright majority was sufficient on the first ballot. Thatcher achieved well over 50% of the vote, and yet a second ballot was automatically triggered because she did not - quite - have a lead of 15% or more over her nearest challenger.

It's worth pointing out that the Conservatives don't make these rules for show, or to indulge anyone. They do it because it is considered so essential for any leader that emerges to command the clear confidence of a majority of the party - when so much is at stake, there can be no room for 'back-door' or 'through-the-middle' winners. Curious, then, that the Conservatives aren't willing to apply the same principle to the electorate at large, when something as important as the governance of the whole country is at stake.

For the avoidance of doubt, though, I'm not in any way an apologist for Gordon Brown's new-found love of the Alternative Vote system. The paradox is that, while it certainly would ensure that any individual MP has the backing of a majority of his or her constituents, it's no better (in some cases it might be even worse) than the present system at ensuring that the government have the backing of a majority of the electorate.


  1. Theres a debate on AV starting here.

    personally I think trying to predict voting patterns in retrospect is as unreliable as guessing ho moving everyone into a marginal seat would impact on their behaviour


  2. I agree up to a point - clearly there would be considerable shifts in the pattern of first preference voting, because tactical voting would - if people are behaving rationally, which they may not - go out the window. But Curtice's suggestion that the largest party would get an extra bonus (ie. things would become even less proportional) does seem intuitively right.