Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Lib Dems' strategic blunder means that the coalition is more likely to be an aberration than a new dawn

"Coalitions are here to stay," declares Nick Clegg, leaving me scratching my head slightly. Now, if the Lib Dems had done what they should have done in the coalition negotiations and held out for nothing short of AV+, it would have been a perfectly reasonable boast. But AV on its own - and it really is jaw-dropping how large swathes of the media have spectacularly failed to cotton on to this simple fact - is not a proportional voting system, and does not in itself make coalitions any more likely. Indeed, in circumstances where the two largest parties occupy the centre ground and the smaller parties hold more radical positions (as in Australia), it can actually entrench the duopoly, and make single-party government even more likely than it would have been under first-past-the-post.

What the Lib Dems are banking on, of course, is that as a centre party they are well-placed to be "everyone's second choice" and thus make significant gains under AV. Along with making a renewed coalition more likely, those extra seats will, the theory goes, create a bridgehead from which the prize of proper electoral reform can be pushed for. But the paradox is that, as a direct consequence of entering government with the Tories, the Lib Dems' first preference vote has now utterly collapsed in the opinion polls. Unless they can reverse that trend, it will more than offset any boost they might receive from a switch to AV, and the net effect will be that future coalitions and electoral reforms have been made somewhat less probable by the Lib Dems' deal with the Tories, not more so.

Hung parliaments under first-past-the-post have tended to be a bit like solar eclipses - they occur extraordinarly rarely, and when they do it's not necessarily at a time that will suit. Yet, because they represent the third party's only golden opportunity to reform the electoral system, the moment has to be seized with both hands whenever it does crop up, otherwise that party will just condemn itself by default to a few more decades out of power. The FPTP neanderthals in the Tory ranks (not to mention the Tom Bradby ranks) seemed to instinctively sense that such a pivotal moment was upon us earlier this year, hence the hysterical attempts in the run-up to the election to weave the apocalyptic narrative that, during an economic crisis, it was not the moment to be "irresponsibly" focusing on changing the electoral system, and that no-one would ever forgive the Liberal Democrats if they did so. But, hang on - wasn't the last hung parliament election in 1974 also a "moment of crisis"? Indeed, couldn't the same have been said to some extent of other close elections, like 1979 and 1992? The message to the Liberals has invariably been : there's always tomorrow to think about fair votes, and tomorrow is never more than a few decades away.

By settling for a referendum on a voting system that no-one really wants (except, ironically, parts of the Labour party) the Lib Dems have just flunked their - and our - golden chance yet again. Next try in 2037?


  1. James: all very true and excellently put. The last time the Lib Dems were anywhere near PR was 1997 when New Labour thought it might need Lib Dem support and so the notion of Lib Dem seats in the cabinet was mooted and Labour included a commission and a referendum in its manifesto. The commission was set up under Roy Jenkins chairmanship and it rejected AV for having as many faults as FPTP and for not being in any way proportional. New Labour, however, began to benefit from FPTP and so the notion of reform was dropped and the commission’s findings shelved. The Lib Dems should have insisted on the findings of their own commission as the minimum acceptable to form the coalition. It leaves advocates of PR like myself in a quandary when it comes to how to vote in this referendum. I’m convinced that voting for AV and the referendum being a success will shelve reform for a generation and leave us with a system as bad as FPTP. Voting against will be voting with the Tories, which sticks in the craw, and if that succeeds the Tories will claim that people are happy with FPTP and will see that as a huge mandate to keep it. It is really no choice at all.

  2. Munguin, I've unenthusiastically come to the conclusion that I'll probably vote in favour of AV, even though it's a sideways step to another majoritarian system, rather than a stepping-stone to PR. Whatever the outcome, I'm sure we'll hear that "the matter is now settled". Do you remember the likes of Roy Hattersley saying in the wake of the 1997 devolution referendum that "the people of Scotland have rejected independence"? How did that work exactly, Roy? By voting for the closest option on the ballot paper to independence I was voting against it, was I?

  3. The trouble is that they there will be no losers in this referendum except the British people.

    I'm thinking along the same lines are you are James, although I doubt that it will do any good. Labour and the Tories against and only the Liberals behind it... and it seems to me that it's a sunk ship before it's been launched.

    However the thought of the smarmy smile on Cameron's face as he congratulates himself that the British public is foursquare behind him on this is just too sickening for words.

    No, I can't bring myself to vote the way that David Cameron or Tom Harris will urge me to vote, so although I think that Nick is a bloody fool to have been bought off for so little, I will vote with him.

    I've come to the conclusion that even the young British public are too supine to fight for radical change in anything, and the old have mainly had all the stuffing knocked out of them, so as with independence, it's a case of slowly slowly catchee money...