Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 26 July 2009

What would a result like this do for the electoral reform argument?

I have been having a little play with one of my favourite web-based tools, the Electoral Calculus User-defined prediciton where you put in the voting percentages and it gives you the number of seats (based on a complex algorithm).

I put in the following scenario:

Have a look at what happens here. The Tories get 36% of the vote and Labour is 1% lower on 35%. I have put the Lib Dems in at a very low 17% (in order to make my point). Look at the number of seats. Labour would have 326 which is a small majority of 2, i.e. just over 50% of the seats. The Tories get less than 40% of the seats despite have won the popular vote!

Now the way things are looking at the moment this is very unlikely to happen, but let's hypothesise for a moment. Imagine that Brown is forced out late this year or early next year and Alan Johnson becomes PM. Imagine he then calls an election during a honeymoon period. Suddenly the Tory and Labour percentages above start to look less unlikely. I don't think the Lib Dems would do as badly as that but ironically in order for the argument for electoral reform to gain common currency we may need something like this to happen.

Imagine the newly elected Prime Minister Johnson trying to justify how he was going to govern for the next 5 years when he got less votes than the opposition and yet got more than 10 percentage points more seats. I think even some Tories would start to realise that things had to change at this point. That would be the perfect time for electoral reformers to make their case to the public as this scenario would perfectly illustrate the problem with First Past the Post.

It's all very well trying to argue about the difference between 35% of the votes and 55% of the seats (as the current Labour government got in the 2005 election) but because they did better than the Tories in the popular vote the unfairness gets lost. In the above scenario it would be abundantly clear that our electoral system is broken.

Like I say, it is unlikely to happen but you never know...

1 comment:

Cardinal Ruchelieu's mole said...

Your example is illuminating although of course it is not able to tell us anything we did not know before, just present it more starkly perhaps. I think people are aware that this rotten New Labour Government was chosen by some vast minority of the electorate (20 per cent. or so as I recall) and yet that is insufficient to fuel popular demand for a fresh system.

A consideration is that the present system is easy to understand. Those for reform present myriad alternatives some or all of which are either not grasped in their complexities by their audience or it is less than easy to envisage what such systems would produce if applied. I suspect those against reform understand and use this point.

Too often it seems the outcome of reform is presented as delivering everyone’s second choice - which may well then be a Liberal Democrat as Conservative to/from New Labour is thought a less probable transfer by the common view that political parties can be seen as a spectrum with the Liberal Democrats somewhere between those others. Yet three quarters or more of the electorate at present spurn the opportunity they are given to choose a Liberal Democrat. (I acknowledge more might vote if they thought a win was probable - although doubtless some current tactical votes would be lost.)

Accordingly, presented with on the one hand a system that is understood and on the other an array of less understandable systems with harder to predict outcomes, but with a presumption that any would be highly favourable to the Liberal Democrats, then that three quarters of the electorate who reject the Liberal Democrats are perhaps understandably less than enthused by calls for reform. They may appreciate reform may work to deny their least appealing opponents sole power from time to time, but that could be seen as a price not worth paying as it would do the same for their preferred party. Government by perpetual second choice fudged compromise just does not seem attractive. That hurdle has to be overcome, it seems to me, before enthusiasm for electoral reform is likely.