Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Majoritarian Muddle

There's an interesting piece from Dan Hodges yesterday in which he suggests that many Tories are so sick of having to govern in coalition with the Lib Dems that they may actually prefer to be in opposition.

This is a phenomenon that I witnessed first hand in the run up to the 2010 general election. At the time I was doing a lot of media and in one of my radio studio appearances I was chatting to a right-wing commentator who I knew from previous conversations was considering a potential future career as a Tory MP. The subject of electoral reform came up and he stated in blunt terms that if first-past-the-post was ever abandoned for Westminster he would quit politics. For him it was not enough to have power, it had to be absolute power for his party alone.

As a long-standing pluralist, I find this attitude hard to understand. Some might suggest that as a Lib Dem I would say that. But I thought this long before I joined the party. Compromising with colleagues is something that almost everybody does all the time in the "real world". Extending this across party boundaries within politics should not really be controversial and yet, somehow, it is. Well, in this country at least. Most other countries have political systems that ensure the most likely outcome is the sharing of power in various ways. Very few have such a brutal winner-takes-all system as the United Kingdom.

Even under first-past-the-post, it seems likely that the smaller parties will continue to eat away at the long-term vote share for the big two. Indeed, across the world the "Westminster model" is now usually returning hung parliaments. This could well lead to more opportunities for coalitions in the UK. If this is correct, Conservative and Labour MPs and activists are going to have to get used to sharing power. The sort of monumental strop that numerous backbench Tory MPs are now throwing will be utterly counterproductive.

The idea of working with one's political opponents has been anathema to the main parties for the last 60 years. The "winner" of the election gets a majority of seats and pushes through what they want. That has been the basis of our politics for so long that it is a genuine culture shock to find ourselves in a world where constant compromise is necessary. That is as true for the Lib Dems as for anyone else, which is perhaps surprising given they are the party of electoral reform - but that shows how deeply embedded our previous settlement was. We need to see a culture change in this country's body politic. Instead of compromise with political opponents being seen as weak, we need to accept it as an inevitable part of policy making. No one party has a monopoly on good ideas and our country can actually be strengthened by ensuring that more than one political philosophy and tradition has input into that process.

And if we can all accept this, then maybe next time we have a coalition the MPs that form the backbenches will have a slightly more realistic expectation of what can be achieved and perhaps be grateful for the opportunity to contribute, rather than equate compromise with betrayal of their principles.

This post was first published in the New Statesman online

1 comment:

Hugh said...

Though FPTP is thought to not to yield hung parliaments, the current climate (even now) is very conducive to them. With two major parties polling within 10% of each other, a third (or fourth) party at 10% or above is very powerful and can easily block any Commons majority, provided it doesn't indulge in the fantasy of thinking it's contesting a PR election.