Tom Harris, the leading blogger and Labour MP has done a blogpost today which I feel needs a riposte. I know some people think I bang on about electoral reform too much but today I can honestly say a bigger blogging boy made me do it.
I have quoted his main points along with my thoughts below:
...even those of us who aren’t brainy enough to understand the arguments in favour of ditching first-past-the-post (FPTP) have valid reasons for keeping the system the way it is. And yes, one of those reasons is that it benefits the Labour Party – there, I’ve said it.(”What?!” I hear you say, spitting your muesli onto your laptop screen. “A Labour MP wants a system that will benefit his party? Outrageous!” Yeah, and the LibDems support STV for entirely altruistic and principled reasons…)
I would not use the word "outrageous" but it hardly a good argument for someone to openly favour an electoral system that disproportionately benefits their own party for that reason. It's a bit more than this though because Tom is MP for Glasgow South which is a pretty safe Labour seat and hence he is personally also a strong beneficiary of the current system.
As for his comment about the Lib Dems not supporting STV for entirely altruistic reasons well I can't speak for the party as a whole but I was in favour of a proportional system for the Commons for many years before I joined the Lib Dems. Indeed it was one of the things that attracted me to the party in the first place. I know that there are certainly plenty of other members of the party for whom electoral reform is a point of principle. There are more than a few within Tom's own parliamentary ranks too.
One of the reasons (but not the only one) I support FPTP is that it enforces the two-party system, and that, as far as I’m concerned, is A Good Thing. FPTP forces the parties to make an effort to be as broad a church as possible and to try to include an impressively wide range of political views within them. That means having a degree of collective discipline, which I know is frowned upon these days. But that’s preferable to having a new party formed every time a party member goes in a huff at every policy decision he disagrees with.
Whilst the parties themselves may have a broad range of opinion within them, what FPTP actually does is make the party leadership focus on the 100,000 or so swing voters in marginal constituencies. These floating voters in those seats are not hugely interested in politics and tend to be part of what is often termed "Middle England". Therefore the parties are trying to crowd in on that territory and the needs and concerns of the millions of people who are not floating voters in marginal seats get sidelined. This is why our politics has become so anodyne and speeches by government ministers or opposition spokespeople are almost interchangeable. Then, of course once a "strong" government is elected with a sizable (and disproportionate) majority, then the concerns of these voters can be actioned because of course their votes will be needed again next time round. So the "broad church" is neutered as whipped vote after whipped vote is pushed through to satisfy this tiny minority. The bigger the parliamentary majority, the easier this is to do. For example in 2005, Labour got 55% of the seats on around 35% of the vote.
FPTP is also the best way of electing governments. Yes, of course general elections are about electing 646 constituency representatives, but it’s also about much more than that. Most people, I think would prefer to know exactly who is going to form the government and which manifesto they should hold them to.
Which brings me to the main point: PR (so not AV, usually) would give the smaller, annoying parties a proportionate number of MPs (which is bad enough) but an entirely disproportionate amount of power in the hung parliaments PR is designed to produce. I’ve seen it happen at Holyrood: the parties stand for election on their own manifestos and then, as soon as the electorate have their say, the leaders go behind closed doors, away from the cameras, and thrash out a deal without any reference whatsoever to the public or to the manifestos they’ve just voted on, bargaining away policy after policy in return for ministerial cars. That is not democracy: it’s the precise opposite.
This presupposes that what the electorate want is a manifesto that only just over a third of the country has voted for pushed through completely unopposed. What on earth is wrong with the idea that there may have to be some compromise? The manifestos of the parties are decided behind closed doors and presented to the electorate as a "take it of leave it" option at the moment. With coalition or minority governments, more interests are taken into account in decision making. That is more democratic, not less.
And while PR might well ensure that you can keep a particular party out of government, wouldn’t it be better to argue positively for a particular platform rather than rely on shifty electoral calculations to stymie a particular viewpoint? Had PR been introduced in the ’80s or ’90s, Tony Blair would not have had to argue that Labour should change; he would simply have phoned Paddy Ashdown and asked him how many Cabinet seats he wanted. Job done. And it was dashed inconvenient, afer all, having to ditch Clause IV and actually make an effort to engage with the views and aspirations of ordinary people…
That is just not true. If PR had existed in the 90s, Blair would still have wanted to reform his party. Just because a party is unlikely to achieve a majority of seats does not mean that it does not want to increase its vote. It's just that under PR, it will be able to do this without having to focus on a very narrow section of the electorate.
The Tories won more elections than the Left in the 20th century, not because of the electoral system, but because the public voted for them. They voted for them because they preferred Tory policies and politicians to ours. Democracy sucks, doesn’t t? Maybe if Labour had better policies they might have won more elections, yes?As to the argument that electoral reform improves engagement and turnout, how much higher is turnout in the European elections now compared with the last time we used FPTP?
I don't know the answer to Tom's question about the European elections but the turnout for those has always been relatively low anyway. The more pertinent question is about turnout for national parliamentary elections and on this subject I saw research back in 2007, presented Steve Fisher of Oxford University which used a comparative study of electoral systems data across a number of different countries to show that changing from FPTP to other, more proportional systems does have a positive effect on turnout. What's even more important though is that the research showed that it is the least politically engaged who are disproportionately less likely to vote under FPTP. The gap between voting levels for the least and most politically engaged closes when we move away from FPTP systems (by 16 percentage points!). This demonstrates to me that a move from FPTP would help with the political engagement of the most marginalised in society, an outcome that I suspect Mr Harris would wholeheartedly approve of.
This whole debate reminds me of a story Tony Blair tells when explaining the evolution of his own particular brand of politics. He says when he was a local activist in London, he joined other party members distributing a local Labour newspaper to the residents of a godawful sink estate with huge levels of crime, unemployment and ant-social behaviour. What was the central message of the newspaper to its readers? “Join CND”.
There will always be "more pressing things" to focus on than the electoral system if such a narrow view is taken. This comment from Tom completely fails to take into account how much better all the other issues that people are concerned about could be represented under a proportional system.
AV would, I grudgingly accept, change precious little, but some of its advocates in my party want it simply as a stepping stone to further reform – a halfway house between FPTP and (shudder) STV. They actually see nothing wrong in spending the next ten years arguing about electoral reform, failing to see that such a debate will do precisely nothing to “engage” the electorate. Rather, the public will see it (rightly) as a vanishingly small political elite self-indulgently discussing the number of angels dancing on pinheads.
I hope some of the points I have made above address Tom's concerns about this being a self-indulgent political elite issue. It is fundamentally about how we are represented.
Also, there is by no means a guarantee that if we were to get PR, that the Lib Dems would always be king-maker and hence permanently in a coalition. This has not happened in either Scotland or Wales. Once people got more used to the fact that their votes really counted we would see all sorts of changes in voting patterns. I suspect that both UKIP and the Greens would get much higher vote shares and hence a decent number of MPs and we could end up with a realignment of politics. The point is it would be the people who decide.
What Tom seems to want to to preserve in aspic our current 2 party system when it is clear what the public wants is a more pluralistic system. I blogged back in July how in 1951, 93% of people voted either Labour or Conservative but how by 2005 this combined total was down to less than 68%.
Our current system is no longer fit for purpose.