PR: HAS NICK CLEGG SOLD OUT ON THE PRINCIPLE OF PR
HAS NICK CLEGG SOLD OUT ON THE PRINCIPLE OF PR?
Whilst the parties sat in long talks over who would form the next Government at one point John Redwood (Conservative MP) stated that the current situation was “a disaster for British democracy” and that it was “all that some of us feared about hung parliaments. There’s complete chaos and confusion. I think the Liberal Democrats feel they can dictate everything to either of the two main parties”.
Following the announcement therefore that the Liberal Democrats (LDs) are going into a coalition with the Conservative Party one might wonder what they ‘dictated’? In truth the Conservative concessions are in fact a bitter blow to genuine i.e. conviction driven Liberals. This is not so much over the possible policies of such a coalition, a propping up of a Conservative Party or the failure of a so-called “Rainbow/Progressive Alliance’ but with the price the LD’s ‘dictated’ (sic) for their support.
That price (beyond positions for the professional politicians) is a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote (AV). Yes, after years of bemoaning a system that ensures that the top two establishment parties form Governments on a minority vote, after complaining that the LDs (and others) never receive a fair number of MP’s commensurate with their vote, after pointing out that the ‘political constituencies’ that exist (and would probably increase without the ‘wasted’ vote) are rarely reflected if at all in Westminster, they settle for that?
The AV works by topping up candidates votes by removing the lowest contenders second preference votes (given to them by their voters) until a candidate eventually reaches 50% and is then elected. This is the system presently used to elect London’s GLA’s Mayor. It may result in a more ‘consensus’ candidate being elected but it certainly isn’t a fairer system.
A FAIRER SYSTEM
A fairer system is one that produces a Parliament that more reflects the political ‘divisions’ within the country. This is why the system(s) that does so is called Proportional Representation’. There are various systems on offer with different checks and balances but all attempt to reflect the countries political ‘mood’.
The arguments about the benefits (and costs) of First Past The Post, such as a clear, strong Government, have been debated elsewhere but the choice about which electoral system we could end up with was with the Lib Dems, a party committed (allegedly) to electoral reform based on PR.
Now it is probable that the Conservatives would not have offered any more than they have. After all they said so and given their anathema for electoral reform it is likely so. So what were the alternatives?
‘AV PLUS’ SYSTEM ON OFFER?
The only other possibly was a deal with Labour. Now we are told that AV would be brought in (this was in the Labour manifesto) and a referendum offered on PR (a package branded as AV+). On face value this seems to be a far better deal since it would have given the Lib Dems the chance to obtain what has been one of the most important principles. Why then wasn’t it accepted?
Well Lib Dem sources suggest they were concerned that Labour couldn’t deliver i.e. bring their own MPs in line. There were rumblings from the latter about the value of doing such a deal but their main complaint seemed to be about a lack of briefings let alone consultations with them. The actual prospect of retaining power, albeit in a coalition, may well have persuaded them to accept any deal.
The other concern was over the stability or lack of it with such a coalition. The combined Lib-Lab number of MPs is 315, 11 short of an overall majority. This would have meant relying as partners or otherwise upon the minor, largely Provincial MPs (DUP, SNP, PC etc). Obviously that would be a more precarious arrangement compared to a Lib-Con Coalition of 365.
WHY THE TORIES AND NOT LABOUR?
However with all Coalitions, particularly in a country without that experience, are fragile and may fall. Whilst the arithmetic of a Lib-Con pact is stronger than a Lib-Lab one if the LDs fall out with the majority partner the coalition and thus the Government will fall regardless. So why did the LDs plump for the Tories and not Labour?
Most Lib Dem MPs are left of centre, many may even have been previous Labour voters if not activists. Many of their policies are similar. Many of their most serious opponents are Conservative and some are elected by Labour voters voting tactically. The policy deals on offer would clearly favour a Lib-Lab pact.
What we don’t know of course is what Labour were offering in terms of a partnership i.e. what cabinet positions were on offer? What we do know however is that Nick Clegg was offered by the Conservatives and accepted Deputy Prime Ministership and four other LD MPs as Ministers plus a further 14 posts. Have they accepted therefore the Tory coin for status and squandered a once in a lifetime opportunity to get PR?
A PRICE WORTH PAYING?
If they had accepted the Labour offer and held a Coalition together, at least until they had had a referendum on PR, and they were punished for the failure of the Coalition (if it did fall) in an ‘early’ election or for propping up a Labour run Government (although more LD voters may punish them for propping up a Conservative one!) it would be a price worth paying.
Any PR system would give the LDs (and smaller parties) more seats even with a potential (hypothetical) fall in their national vote and in time the LDs could ‘bounce’ back to be contenders as the majority party in future, but that now seems lost?
As National Liberals we support the concept of political partnership including Coalitions but Nick Clegg had an opportunity in his grasp to funamentally shake up the political system by giving the people a chance to voting in a fairer electoral system. He has failed his own political tradition let alone the electorate in exchange for status and patronage not least for himself. Will Liberals one day curse his name?
(Free to circulate with due recognition)
Date: May 13, 2010