Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Cameron will say anything to avoid electoral reform

Aaaaaaagggrrrhhhh! I'm really busy today but David Cameron has forced me to take time out in order to address a bunch of canards he has come up with in a column for the London Evening Standard about proportional representation.

I was going to do a full on fisk but I don't have time so just to address his main canards:

"Canard number one please!"

Proportional representation may sound like a fair and effective system but it's anything but. Let me explain. First it removes the link between one MP and one constituency. PR comes in many forms but more often than not you find yourself voting for a party rather than just one person.

Under our current system, when you put your pencil to the ballot paper you're putting your cross against someone's name — one person to represent your interests, to go to if you have a problem: one person whom you feel a direct link to. A move to faceless politics would sever this local link and damage voter engagement.

Single Transferable Vote (the system favoured by most electoral reformers) still allows you to vote for a candidate directly. In fact you can rank them in order of preference to ensure that even if your favourite candidate does not get in, your views can still affect the outcome and no need for tactical voting.

"Canard number two please!"

The second problem with PR is that it gives smaller parties an unfair and disproportionate boost. This may sound good but what you'll find is that more often than not, PR turns politics into a beauty contest between various fringe parties — either peddling niche concerns or ugly extremist views.

This Thursday Britain votes in the European elections. If just eight per cent of the electorate votes for the BNP then as a result of the PR system that Labour forced on us, that party is guaranteed a seat in the European Parliament. Imagine the same thing happening in national government. Not only would the BNP get in — they would also wield influence out of all proportion to their numbers, for the simple fact that in coalition governments, it's the smaller parties that are the power brokers.

Frankly, this is rubbish. Single Transferable Vote would make it almost impossible for extreme fringe parties to get in because the second, third, fourth and so on preferences of people are taken into account. Cameron is taking the worst sort of PR system, a straight list system (which nobody is advocating for Westminster) and extrapolating from this what could happen but it is a straw man argument. NOBODY IS ADVOCATING A PURE LIST SYSTEM MR CAMERON.

"Canard number three please!"

That feeds in to the third weakness of PR — so much of the evidence from abroad shows that it leads to weak, unstable governments. Between 1947 and 1993 Italy's parliament was voted in through a system of proportional representation. During that time the average government lasted just nine months. Why? Because when you force together a number of different parties, each with different outlooks, philosophies, priorities, you're bound to get indecision and division over decisive action and unity.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no as Miles Hunt might have said. He has picked the most extreme example where arguably PR has not been a huge success. What about Ireland, Holland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Australia and many more countries who have proportional systems and who seem to function just fine? What about Scotland where the SNP are managing just fine as a minority government. Of course they have to win the argument each time in order to pass legislation but isn't that a good thing? The Poll Tax, the Iraq War and countless other policy disasters have been rammed through by governments with Commons majorities all of whom did not get a majority of the popular vote. Every political party is a coalition anyway. Is Mr Cameron really trying to claim that Kenneth Clarke, Liam Fox, John Bercow and David Davis all agree about everything? Of course not. Having to win the argument would ensure a much more rigorous process was applied before law could be made.

"Canard number four please!"

The fourth major problem with PR is that the coalition governments it inevitably creates inevitably descend into backroom deals that betray the will of the people. Instead of voters choosing their government on the basis of the manifestos put before them in an election, party managers put together a government that suits them after rounds of horse-trading and bargaining for power.

This is just not true. Any coalition discussions would be open to massive scrutiny by the media and people like me! They would not get away with dodgy deals in back rooms. Instead, the larger party would get the majority of their programme through and the minority party would get some of their programme through. In a few years time, both parties would be looking for re-election so they are still going to be very responsive and receptive to the needs and wants of the electorate. They will not be insulated from the public by massive and undeserved majorities on the back of a broken electoral system.

I have said it before and I will say it again. You cannot rely on the word of someone who has such a massive vested interest in the existing system. If the polls are right then David Cameron will have a 3 figure majority as Prime Minister within the next 12 months under the existing First Past the Post system. He will likely be in power for a decade or more with untrammelled power to do within reason whatever he likes. THAT is why he is calling for a General Election right now, because he wants that to start as soon as possible. Any change to the electoral system would reduce the power he would have. He would still almost certainly be Prime Minister but he might have to compromise on things and win the argument on issues before being able to legislate.

Mr Cameron does not want to have to do this so he will employ all the arguments he and his researchers can muster to obfuscate this issue and make sure he gets his unopposed 10 years in number 10.


liquidindian said...

Re the first point - it also suggests that there can be zero engagement between the MP and you... if you didn't vote for that person. Is he suggesting he only represents those in his constituency who vote for him?

Unknown said...

The worst thing is that he knows his arguments are daft - he's already on record as saying that he thinks STV would be the fairest system.

Constantly Furious said...

Hmmmmm. Great post, and I agree with 75% of it. But ...

Any coalition discussions would be open to massive scrutiny by the media and people like me! They would not get away with dodgy deals in back rooms.
I just can't believe that. There really wouldn't be any transparency in those discussions: even if you could (somehow) force open discussions, deals would still be made beforehand, and then presented in the 'official' session.

And that to my mind, is where the whole damn thing falls down.

As CallMeDave says "Instead of voters choosing their government on the basis of the manifestos ... party managers put together a government ... after rounds of horse-trading and bargaining for power". I'm afraid he's right on that, at least.

East Midlander said...

Cameron MUST go. Dont be Vague, vote for Hague.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Excellent summary. I think you missed a bit - CallmeDave says "If just eight per cent of the electorate votes for the BNP then as a result of the PR system that Labour forced on us ..."I thought the EU parliament voting system was fairly standardised across the EU, in which case he is factually incorrect. It's quite a good system as it happens, much better than STV - which you probably only support because you're a Lib Dem...

Mark Wadsworth said...

OK, it's not standardised, but that makes his mistake even worse (certainly from a Lib Dem point of view).

Wayne Smith said...

It is the current system under which governments are formed by deals made in smoky back rooms.

After a proportional election, the parties go through a formal negotiation process that culminates in a signed agreement on who will be the Government, who will be in the Cabinet, and what will be the government's agenda for the next few years.

This written agreement is subject to scrutiny by the voters, the media, and the parties in the Opposition.

When you have a fair voting system, government is transparent and accountable.

Andrew Allison said...

You have broad agreement from this Tory. Preferential voting is the only way forward. It will still ensure there are working majorities in Westminster and it removes the need to vote tactically. You know if your first choice is not elected, you can always have a say in making sure your second choice stands a better chance over the person or party you can't stand.