Alternative Policy Idea: a more proportional electoral system
After the humiliating defeat of the Alternative Vote last year, you might think that supporters of electoral reform should keep quiet. After all, only 32% of the 42% of the electorate who bothered to vote actually supported changing the electoral system. Some may argue that this indicates the disinterest of the British people in constitutional change. More accurately however, the defeat was a testament to the unpopularity of Nick Clegg, the shortcomings of AV and the hopelessness of the ‘yes’ campaign.
The ‘Yes to Alternative Vote’ campaign was heavily metropolitan in tone, despite the fact that most British people are not north Londoners. Furthermore, the form of electoral change on offer was such a paltry, mildly confusing minimal change that nobody could garner much enthusiasm for it. There are compelling arguments for a more proportional electoral system to ensure that fewer individuals’ votes are wasted.
For over a century, British politics has been dominated by whichever party wins the most seats in the House of Commons. Governments have been able to drive through hugely unpopular and badly thought out policies. The House of Commons is so ineffective at scrutinising bills that it has been left to the House of Lords to reject governments’ – past and present – more unworkable bills. In order to make our democracy more democratic, and ensure that governments do not have untrammelled power, the system must be changed.
The status quo is as durable as it is because British politics offers an attractive settlement for the two main parties. First Past the Post is marked by wild swings of power in which a group that has been voted for by a minority of the population can radically affect life for the whole of the population. In the 1983 General Election over 56% of the population did not vote for the Conservatives but they won a majority of 144 seats. Similarly in 1997 Tony Blair won 43.2% of the vote but managed a stunning majority of 179. Would the country not have been better if there had been greater accountability? A more proportional electoral system would mean that the number of seats allocated to parties would better reflect the number of votes cast for each party.
Politicians tend to see every election as winnable through force of their charm or strength of their policies. But what they don’t seem to understand is that the wonderful power this skewed electoral system offers is going to be as likely won by their ideological nemeses. As a politician your party may win some elections, but your opponents will win other elections. A more proportional electoral system, such as the Alternative Member System or Single Transferable Vote would have meant that Blair and Thatcher would have won fewer seats and may have had to go into coalition. I think the excesses of both the Blair and Thatcher governments are good examples of why we need electoral change. In a parliament that better reflected the votes of the public, both Thatcher and Blair would have had less ability to enact their most unpopular policies.
Coalitions are not inherently bad, but they can be lopsided. The Liberal Democrat’s relative weakness in the Coalition is partly explained by the tiny number of MPs they won at the last election. Despite winning 23% of the vote the Lib Dems won only 57 MPs, which is less than 9% of the seats in parliament. If the Liberal Democrat seat number had been higher then the result could have been a Labour – Lib Dem coalition. It is also important to recognise that if the Conservatives had gained 4 more points in the popular vote then there would have been a Conservative majority government with no rein whatsoever on their ideological ambitions.
Most of the fire directed at the Coalition is not due to the fact it is a partnership between two ideologically different parties, but because the Coalition has advocated particularly unpopular policies. For example, the privatisation of the NHS and increase in tuition fees have come about not simply because we are in a coalition government, but because the Conservatives, the senior partner, are pro-free market.
Of course with a parliament in which no party has an overall majority compromise is crucial. If a coalition is made up of two parties, neither party can enact their manifesto in its entirety. But if it is a choice between policies which most people in the country opposes and a mixture of policies from two parties whose supporters make a majority, it seems the latter is fairer. The resultant government from a parliament elected by a more proportional system will be one that is more in tune with the political ideas and ambitions of the people.
Article by Ben Mackay
Edited by Chris Olewicz