TOWARDS ELECTORAL COALITIONS? Pt I
The electoral system works heavily against smaller parties. Under a ‘First Past the Post’ system parties unable to muster at least a third of the vote and often more, are unlikely to be elected to any seat. Although there has been some loosening of the system for ‘Regional Assemblies’ such as the GLA and the Scottish Parliament, under pressure from Europe, the system still holds for most elections.
The consequence of this system is that many candidates have little or no chance of being elected and not just so-called ‘fringe’ parties (in whole swathes of the country only one party can get elected). There is a wealth of talent and ideas out there but most remain un-tapped and some of its representatives no doubt give up after a while.
Ideas, which are not catered for by the establishment parties, are hardest hit; perhaps this is the intention of the system and it certainly seems to be so in the minds of its contemporary supporters. Ideas about the democratic deficit of ‘Representative’ democracy compared to forms of ‘Direct’ democracy, the decline of local democracy in favour of centralisation or bogus ‘regionalisation’, the state of England within the Union, the social and cultural impact of mass-immigration, and even our relationship with Europe are only debated, if at all, within set frameworks in our Assemblies, Parliament or Council Chambers. Those with views outside the establishment framework are treated as pariahs and ‘extremists’. Whether the alternative view represents a minority or majority, it should surely be represented by elected officials in order to bring even ‘unwelcome news’ to the blissfully ignorant.
We are not however going to see a change in the system of voting and the election of candidates overnight. The interest New Labour once showed in electoral reform has waned since they realised how useful the existing system was for them too. At the last but one General Election they commanded a sufficiently large Parliamentary majority on merely 32% of the national vote (of those that even bothered!). Until one of the ‘big two’ parties decide to adopt electoral reform it will remain a ‘dead letter’.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
If there is little prospect of the system facilitating the election of ‘outsiders’ then can small groups engineer a ‘breakthrough’?
One of the main reasons given in opposition to electoral reform is the maintenance of ‘strong government’. The fear of coalition politics is built upon anecdotal evidence from Europe. Italy is often cited as a prime example where it is nigh impossible for any party to govern alone. The fear is that a similar system for Parliament and Councils (working Regional Assemblies are largely regarded as ‘talking shops’) would force politicians to endlessly broker deals and coalitions and result in much energy spent just maintaining a workable administration. Whilst one can cynically say that our professional politicians actually fear having to justify their existence continually, rather than every four or five years, and concern that some of them would be ‘culled’ to make way for newcomers, the argument is legitimate if not sacrosanct.
On balance however we would say that where a ‘coalition’ has had to be brokered, say at local council level, it has worked, indeed of course it must. When politicians become used to this they can find themselves quite accommodating, safe in the knowledge that they never had a mandate to do as they will. The Liberal Democrats inevitably have the greatest experience of this.
The problem however is that the system still ensures that with most constituencies the winner is often elected on a minority vote and minor parties rarely get a look in. If a group represents 5-10% of a town’s population surely they should be represented on its Council (or wherever)?
We believe the time has come to form electoral coalitions whereby the resources of the many can be utilised for mutual benefit. There are a number of different models.
The first is one between two or more parties. It may or may not have a name and is more of an electoral pact. Is often an agreement not to stand against each other but could be a precursor to a merger or even ‘acquisition’ (which is also a reason why they can fail).
A second is a loose agreement between very small groups, often geographically apart, to offer an electorate an ‘Alternative List’ to the established groups. Without any common ground or platform however it is more beneficial under a PR system which rewards national/regional etc coverage.
A refinement of the latter is one which balances the need to create a viable identity and a credible alternative whist retaining the independence of its constituent parts. There needs therefore to be a common platform of policies or ‘exhortations’ that the group would adhere to if elected.
Therefore if several small groups come together, perhaps with independents too, they could achieve the following:
Firstly, the constituent parts would no longer be seen as minor players but part of a larger grouping and if able to stand candidates for at least half the body they are seeking to become elected to, then they could potentially form an Administration. This is a vital ingredient to credibility, a factor which is often lacking for small parties/individuals.
Secondly, by pooling resources they are more likely to have more funds available, galvanise their own supporters (success – or the prospect of – breeds success) and be taken more seriously by the media.
Thirdly, if one of the groups is seen as unpopular or controversial it should not reflect too heavily upon the ‘coalition’, being only a small part of it. The fact that one could have diverse groups/individuals on the same ‘ticket’ could be seen as real democracy in action (but see below).
Fourthly, if voters are attracted to the agreed/accepted mutual platform (and the choice is crucial) they can be ‘steered’ towards the constituent’s groups candidates. This ‘blessing’ is vital as it can overcome existing images (or prejudices) towards the constituent parts i.e. those seen as lone mavericks and ideological parties ‘obsessed’(?) with one issue.
The weaknesses or challenge will be in the process of brokering such a coalition. We believe though that there is a successful formula and it is one we are presently developing (so like coca cola’s recipe it must remain, for the present at least, a secret!).
In the next Part we will look at some of the pitfalls such as Policy, ‘Extremist’ groups, Personalities, Promotion.
Date: February 1, 2010