The British are a funny lot. Currently there seems to be a parallel consensus that:
- Our voting system last week produced the farce of secret smoke-filled room deals where people horse trade this-bit-and-that-bit of their manifesto for a seat at the big boys’ table. This is vulgar, ‘undemocratic’ and a betrayal of what people actually voted for.
- Therefore we need Proportional Representation to make it all ‘fair’ and so that people can get what they voted for.
It is absurd that there are so many people who agree with both statements despite their obvious mutual contradiction. If you think closed-door horse-trading stinks you cannot be in favour of PR. Under PR you would have that farce after every single election. The key difference would be that the likes of Nick Griffin would also be in the room getting concessions aligned with his agenda before anyone could get on and govern. Aside from the BNP (with 11 seats) being the most extreme example, other people who would be able to hold the nation to ransom (had last weeks voting been under PR) would be UKIP (17 seats) and the Greens (5 seats)*
The current First-Past-The-Post system does have flaws. People say that Tories only favour the system because it favours them – well, that’s not true – think on this: Labour got 34% of the vote in 2005 and 356 seats – (and there was no national outrage in favour of PR then!). Whereas last week the Conservatives got 36% of the Vote but only 306 seats. Whilst Labour were able to comfortably hold a five-year term with their 34%, frankly we’ll do well to even get through a year with our 36%. The system, as is, is significantly weighted in Labour’s favour. So why do the Tories support it?
My instincts remain that running a country by committee of people who can’t stand each other is a recipe for gridlock and failure. The principal of our current representative democracy is sound – each area votes for an individual, if that area thinks he did a rotten job they can vote him or her out at the end of each term. The link between a member and a constituency is a valuable part of our democracy which we would be foolish to throw away. However, I do accept that it is an uncomfortable fact that very, very few MPs will actually have got more than 50% of their vote locally.
The more I think about it the more the answer seems to be to concede that the Alternative Vote (AV) may be the way to go. Under this system every candidate elected would have had a positive vote from over 50% of voters in their constituency (albeit not necessarily as first preference – but the voter at least had the chance to express their ‘true’ intention first – and then vote their next best option second knowing the second choice only counts if their first choice fails – it removes the need for ‘tactical’ voting, keeps the principal of constituencies and every voter knows that their vote mattered. This gives the MP confidence in their mandate. We also need to do more work to even up the size of constituencies to stop the system being so weighted in favour of any one party. This coming Parliament will give us a chance to do that.
For those still demanding PR perhaps there is a compromise through which it can be accommodated in part. The obvious solution is to have PR in the Lords. If we are to move to an elected second chamber then in this arena PR makes more sense. There is no link between representatives and constituencies to break in the Lords. Appointments to the upper house have always been about patronage so it isn’t a particular step backwards that people placed at the top of party lists are guaranteed their seats. The one downside is that as a nation we’ve been served well from both less ‘party-political’ tribalism in the Lords and the existence of members who are genuinely apolitical. Perhaps this could be balanced by mixing the available Lords seats with the vast majority being elected through PR – but supplemented by ‘apolitical’ members appointed on behalf of of key institutions – for instance Senior Judges, University Vice-Chancellors, Heads of Key UK Faiths, Ex-leaders of the armed forces, Local Government Leaders, Science (perhaps appointed by the Royal Society), Heads of Royal Colleges of Surgery, Nursing etc. I’m not sure if the supplementary idea could fly – it’s just an idea – but however we constitute the second chamber it would be a shame if we did lose the diversity of expertise we currently enjoy.
One thing does look certain – we seem set for some level of constitutional reform. Given the proposals look to be for AV then I may be at odds with my party position and actually get out there and campaign for it. Thank goodness that, despite the noise, PR for the commons no longer looks like it is on the table.
(*figures of likely seats under PR taken from Glyn Ley’s Blog)