Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 28 November 2011

Why electoral reformers should want boundary changes to fail

I know, I know! AV lost. Decisively.

So why am I still banging on about electoral reform?

Well partly because I can't help myself! It is one of my pet causes and I still think that eventually circumstances will arise in which FPTP becomes indefensible. I appreciate this is likely to be a fair way into the future but it is worth considering how it could come about.

Which actually brings me to the point of this post. One thing that is abundantly clear following the AV failure is that we will only be able to get a majority to back change if there is perceived to be a real need for it. That is one of the main reasons why AV struggled to get traction and opponents were able to argue there was no need to change.

The more I have reflected, the more I am convinced that the only way we are eventually going to be able to convince the electorate that change is needed is if there is an unequivocal and unanswerable failure of FPTP. The most likely scenario I can see leading to that is a situation where FPTP chooses the wrong winner.

With the current boundaries and 650 MPs this is actually quite likely to happen within the next two or three general elections. It would take Labour to get within a couple of percentage points of the Conservatives, say 34% Labour and 36% Conservative. Under this sort of result Labour would almost certainly end up the largest party and may even end up with a majority of MPs. Were this to happen, the time would then be ripe for a huge push to change the electoral system to a more proportional one. Defenders of FPTP would be on the back foot trying to argue for a system that had just picked the wrong winner and would be rapidly losing credibility with the public.

But if the boundary changes and MP reduction goes through then suddenly the above scenario becomes a lot less likely. We would of course still have the broken FPTP system but with things nudged a bit more back towards the Conservatives as a result of the changes.

Which means that when the time comes for MPs to vote on these changes we could find an interesting coalition against them forming. It could consist of Labour MPs who are against the changes as a party, numerous Conservatives who fear losing their seats and other MPs who want to ultimately see a proportional system for Westminster. That could well be enough to see the changes fail to get through the Commons.

I usually try and argue for electoral reform from a position of principle but having been thrashed in the AV referendum I am starting to think that reformers need to employ other tactics to get their message through. Trying to ensure that the broken FPTP system is more easily able to be exposed for what it is could be the start of such an approach.


Matt (El_Cuervo) said...

Ha! You disagreed with me a year ago when I suggested something similar. You are turning to the dark side...:D

Duncan Stott said...

Supporting a systemic unfairness for a higher political goal... Isn't this exactly what FPTP defenders do?

Mark Thompson said...

Matt - I don't recall that but I'm sure you're right. The AV campaign was very bruising and we need to come up with different ways of approaching this.

Duncan - Yes it is but look where the principled approach got us with AV. Thrashed. The good guys don't always win!

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, there's the fact that it will be much, *much* more difficult for Labour to get an overall majority in this system - which will mean that they'll be more likely to form a coalition with the Lib Dems. And after the failure of the referendum, any competent negotiator from our side will insist on STV with no referendum as a prerequisite...

Dicky Moore said...

Interesting article. The means vs ends argument is a tough one but as campaigners for better democracy we must ensure our arguments are transparent and about getting a better deal for the electorate. One of the failures of the AV referendum is that it descended into party tribalism, with Lib Dems trying to encourage Labour supporters to vote Yes based on the percieved damage it will do to the Tories. Most Labour supporters responded by choosing the devil they know. But I think the boundary changes can be opposed for reasons of democracy anyway. Without any accompanying electoral reform the changes are just gerrymandering by the biggest party in the coalition goverment.

Of course FPTP has already failed catastrophically on many occasions, most notably in the 1974 election when Harold Wilson was made PM despite his party coming second in the share of the vote. But I agree that this would have to happen again to show today's voters how bad FPTP is, and surely the that's on its way.

asquith said...

Let's say that Labour, as the second party and with 30-something percent of the vote, won a majority. Yes, this might lead to enraged Tories calling for electoral reform, but isn't it more likely that their solution would turn to what's less risky for them, namely English independence?

I myself am a unionist on principle, but I suspect that right-whingers are moving steadily away from what is supposedly their stance. Don't Labour already have a large majority of Scottish Westminster MPs? I don't think this will change soon, Alex Salmond's successes at Holyrood notwithstanding (and of course this might well lead to a referendum on independence that he might win, although I hope he loses).

As I say it's less risk for them. They could come to some kind of agreement and have cooperating centre-right parties on both sides of the border, with a Scottish force emerging from what was once the Scottish Tory party and I should imagine a large proportion of what's now the SNP.

So this, I think, is something you might wish to consider in your analysis. Like most people, even those interested in politics, I can't claim to have given much thought to the boundary changes and I think breakup of the union is more likely to (a) happen very soon or (b) be the consequence of a wantonly unjust general election result.

Stephen Johnson said...

FPTP may fail sooner than anyone expects. Electoral reformers should concentrate on pointing out the unfairness of FPTP, not the merits of STV, and be ready for an anti FPTP campaign.

Electoral reform has to be a long game. Trying to push through electoral reform without a referendum would make Lib Dems the butt of enormous criticism – blackmail, hypocrisy, old politics etc with Lib Dem members being as vociferous with the criticism as anyone.