Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Could David Cameron be the PM to introduce a proportional electoral system?

Bear with me here. I know that the Conservatives seem viscerally opposed to a change in the electoral system for the Commons. I have heard enough Tory MPs speak about this and debated with enough Tory members and activsts to know that there are very few of them in favour of any change to First Past the Post. In fact it is possibly the issue that unites them the most.

So why on earth would David Cameron introduce a proportional electoral system if he were to become Prime Minister?

Well I think something fundamental has changed in the last two weeks. Electoral reform has traditionally been a subject only of interest to a small number of political obsessives (Hello!). We bang on about the iniquities of the existing system and point out how much better things will be once we are on the sunny uplands of Proportionality. And people largely ignore us. It's a boring, technocratic argument about boundaries, constituency links and arcane algorithms used to divvy up the votes and decide who has won (we are told). Therefore most people in this country have not really been aware of the big problems with the existing system and what could be done about it. The argument was simply never had in the mainstream.

That used to be enough to keep us suppressed. However since the Lib Dems shot up in the polls two weeks ago and have since been either first or second in the popular share of the vote according to polls a day has not gone by when electoral reform has not been discussed in the mainstream media. There has been newspaper article after newspaper article, TV report after TV report and in each one the bar charts have done their work. You know the ones. The ones that show the Lib Dems maybe getting 30% or more of the vote and yet only getting about 13% of the seats. Or that show Labour in a clear third place in terms of vote share and yet in a clear first place in terms of seats.

There can be very few people who watch or read news in the UK now who are not very aware of these facts. It is starting to show through in opinion polls. A majority in a recent YouGov poll stated they were in favour of a more proportional system. I think whatever happens in the election, the facts that have been revealed to the public during this election campaign will stick.

So what does that have to do with David Cameron?

Well, all of this will not have gone unnoticed by the Tory leadership. They may be dead against change but they will be wary of ending up on the wrong side of the argument. Hence David Cameron's refusal yesterday to be 100% straight on this. He was asked 4 times and even though each time he stated he was not in favour he would not categorically rule out change under him. Why would he not do this? Because he wants to keep his options open. I used to think until recently that the Tories would never do a deal on electoral reform but now I am not so sure.

Nick Clegg has stated that a referendum on a proportional system is a prerequisite for co-operation in a balanced parliament situation. Some senior Labour figures appear to be receptive to this and I would not be at all surprised if they were willing to pay this price. There is a tradition within the party for change and although they have lost the battle for the last 13 years, they are likely to move into the ascendency now.

If the Conservatives refuse to countenance any move to put a change to the electorate in a referendum then they are effectively ruling themselves out of being able to rule with any sort of a majority if they cannot get more than 325 seats themselves. They may even be pushing the other two main parties together and hence themselves into opposition by holding out on this.

And if an electoral reform referendum is going to happen anyway then an alternative approach may well beckon for them. Perhaps David Cameron will calculate that they might as well be involved in putting it to the country themselves.

The Conservatives are the most successful UK political party in history. Whatever adverse situations they have found themselves in, they have always bounced back. They know how to win elections and how to get and keep power. Therefore I am absolutely certain that even if a referendum were to pass, the idea that they would be "locked out of power" permanently is just nonsense. They may have to compromise a bit more but I bet there are plenty within their ranks who will secretly think that is actually a good thing.

I think all of these considerations and more will be swirling around the upper echelons of the Tory party at the moment.

If they want power after the election if they do not get a majority on their own they may well decide to take the pragmatic route and be part of the change they have railed against for so long.

Stranger things have happened.


Unknown said...

This is understandable political bluff from Cameron at the moment and I wouldn't expect anything different from him at this stage of an election campaign. Actually, it's bluff and counterbluff from all three parties; but the message is pretty clear. Clegg will play hardball on electoral reform with both parties. For the sake of the (wibbly) mandate that FPTP gives, but also for the sake of stability, if the Tories get both the most seats and the most votes, then I would expect (and hope) that Clegg gives them first dibs on a deal, but makes it damn clear that if they don't give any ground, then he'll offer the same deal to Labour, who would gladly lap it up.

Cameron knows that would be a very real danger and there's nothing in it for him to watch a LibLab coalition form: simply because of the risk that it could all go right (and end up with elcetoral reform anyway, and probably of a much stronger version than he would be able to manipulate if it was a LibCon deal). As someone pointed out this morning (I forget the article) Cameron can still dump the Lib Dems, blame Clegg and Cable for making a hash of things, and call an election with no need for reform; but that's also risky. I agree completely that the tories can operate under a PR system - their views are equally as mainstream as the other two parties and they'll always be represented, it's just that the power they do have will always be moderated somewhat. But the same goes for the other parties too. There's no reason why there can't be deal between Liberals and Tories for decades to come or Liberal/Labour pacts either (and, of course, there's no reason why the Liberals have to be part of any coalition at all if other parties start coming into the frame).

The Great Simpleton said...

I presume you've read Heresy Corner on this subject? He put in to historical context.

When I was in the army we had a modern history lecturer who used to point out that the reason we never had a revolution like the French is that the Establishment knew exactly when to change. The Conservatives have a similar approach when it comes to Power and I think you Heresy Corner are correct, they will go further than anyone thought possible to protect their own base.

Anonymous said...

There are many open aspects to this question, but it's still an interesting possibility. David Cameron doesn't want to bring in PR, but he probably wants to update and reform the electoral system.

But what form of PR will Nick Clegg ask for, what form would David Cameron be prepared to accept? How would the question be phrased in the referendum? Most importantly, if a referendum goes ahead and the people vote for no change, will the Lib Dems no longer ask for PR?

Nick will need to be careful he doesn't push for a form of PR that the people reject. Just because people are happy to have a hung parliament doesn't mean they want PR. Especially if the referendum takes place after six or twelve months of possible chaotic coalition government.