08 May 2010

Proportional Reproduction

I listened to a surreal piece of radio on "Today", this morning on Radio 4. As part of the post-election analysis, a reporter visited the ultra-safe Conservative seat of Henley-on-Thames, erstwhile proving ground of political luminaries Michael Heseltine and Boris Johnson (listen here). The local voters seemed both confused and angry as to why David Cameron wasn't Prime Minister. Cameron promised them power if only they'd turn down the heating and love gays, and now it seems they have to hug-a-lib-dem to come close to chucking out the chinz at 10 Downing Street. The trouble with the first-past-the-post system, it would seem, is it isn't first past enough.

It seems everyone is angry with the electoral system right now, and not just people in Henley who can't count. Despite the fact the Liberal Democrats polled about the same as 2005, their usual lack of proportional numbers of seats has sparked actual protests on the streets, instead of the more usual muttering in beer. A thousand people gathered in Trafalgar square to demand change, everyone from Lord Mandelson to Gordon Brown has called the system "discredited"; ironic when we consider the chief losers under the system are currently closer to government now than any of their colleagues had been in a generation. Those who grizzle that we are always ruled by a minority vote have got their wish - no-one with a majority of seats.

It seems electoral reform will be firmly on the agenda; either in the form of a concession to the Lib Dems in exchange for underpinning a Tory government, or propping up a Labour one, or in anticipation of the inevitable election that the alternative to those scenarios would bring in the next 12 months. The time is ripe for change, and surely the people would grasp that to their collective bosoms, wouldn't they? Actually I'm inclined to think it would achieve the opposite.

Most people can understand the simple logic of proportional representation; in order to reflect the will of the people there must be a relationship between the number of votes cast and their representation in the Legislature. Clearly the present system favours those parties who benefit from herd behaviour; wherever people gather to think the same way in concentrated geographies. Not necessarily a sound basis for capturing a national mood. Yet bear in mind that although governments are regularly formed by the representatives of less than 40% of the voting public, nearly 8 in 10 will have the chance to vote in a government of their choice more often than not. This is not an argument in favour of the present system, but a caveat about the obvious support there must be for changing it.

The delicate dance being performed by the party leaders is an insight into what a proportionate result would look like every time. And if, as seems likely, a minority Conservative government limps through the year before calling another election, a lot of people, when presented with the reality of coalitions, will have second thoughts about supporting a referendum on PR. So the very thing that enables electoral reform to happen, a strong showing by the third party in a hung parliament, is the one set of circumstances that will make its prospect the least enticing.

I'm of the view that the current position we are in is the most exciting piece of politics in my living memory; uncertainty and the mewling brats of the stock market be damned, this is real politics in the classic definition of the word: the resolution of difficult things by talking and compromising instead of violence. Instead, the most disturbing aspect about the situation, from my position, is the unseen role of the unelected head of state, should Mr Clegg decide to throw his lot in with the Labour Party - entirely possible, given how cool Cameron is towards Electoral Reform. Under those circumstances, two power bases, neither with a majority, would be competing to run a government - and who would have to choose? Step forward Her Majesty the Queen.

It's one thing to have an electoral system whose nods to proportionality are little better than Mussolini's Acerbo Law, because it's based upon how closely like-minded voters live to each other. But surely that pales beside the daftness of someone deciding who should form a government because she is her father's daughter?

1 comment:

Clare S. said...

"nearly 8 in 10 will have the chance to vote in a government of their choice more often than not"

How do you reach this conclusion?

It's a Sunday morning so I'm probably being slow, but I can't figure this out...

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the % who votes for LD, SNP, PC and Others is a more or less constant 30%, and that each of the big parties has a core 30% of the electorate that always votes for them then surely the only group that truely be said to more often than not vote in a government of their choice is the 10% of floating voters who swing between the two big parties, plus, in a period where a government of the same hue is returned a number of times the 30% that support the same party as the floaters.