Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Conservatives are hypocritical on PR

As Paul reported on Liberal Burblings on Friday, two senior Tories (Andrew Tyrie and Sir George Young) have authored a report where they are advocating a system of proportional representation for a mainly elected second chamber. Here is a snippet:

We favour a system of Proportional Representation for elections to the chamber. We believe that the First past the post system, with its ability to deliver clear party majorities, works well for the Commons and entrenches its role as the source of legitimacy for a government; however, the second chamber requires a demonstrably different system

Elections for the chamber should be on the basis of the regions that are used for European elections, although the electoral system should favour greater voter choice than a pure party list approach.

As you would expect, I completely disagree with what they are saying in the first paragraph but what I wanted to focus on was the fact that they are advocating PR at all, for any chamber. It would seem from what they are saying that they are favouring some sort of Single Transferable Vote system for the second chamber (exactly the system that most electoral reformers including myself think should be used for the House of Commons). But just a few weeks ago at the start of June David Cameron wrote a piece for the Evening Standard which did its best to rubbish any arguments for PR at all. I did a blog post at the time which exposed the 4 main canards that he came up with.

What has happened in the last few weeks to change the Tories mind on this? What about Cameron's 4 main arguments (canards) from the Standard article:

1) PR is a move to faceless politics where all too often you find yourself voting for a party, not a person.
2) It gives smaller parties an unfair and disproportionate boost.
3) It leads to weak and unstable administrations.
4) It inevitably creates coalitions that degenerate into back-room deals.

It seems to me that if the Tories really believe Cameron's arguments then 2, 3 and 4 would still apply here to the upper chamber. Surely they would want FPTP to deliver a strong and stable revising chamber with no chance of small parties getting in and no need for deals in "smoke filled rooms" as they would doubtless characterise it (see my above linked post for my ripostes to these canards by the way).

What is most astonishing though is to discover that the Tories are after all aware that a system of PR exists that does not require party lists (STV). Judging by Cameron's comments where he said:

PR comes in many forms but more often than not you find yourself voting for a party rather than just one person.

I thought they were not aware if its existence.

OK, enough with the sarcasm already. What's happening here is that the Tories favour FPTP for the House of Commons because it suits them and will likely give them a decent sized majority on a minority of the vote when they are on or above 40% (as they are in polls at the moment). They also support proportional systems in the Scotland Parliament (where it has led to a Tory resurgence that would never have happened under FPTP) and the Welsh Assembly. It so happens that in those parliaments PR favours them so they support it.

An FPTP system would probably favour them in the second chamber as well but they know full well that to try and introduce a system that effectively gerrymanders things in their favour would not wash for any reform so they are talking up PR for the second chamber but trying to pretend that the fairness it brings is unneccessary for the House of Commons.

The system used in the House of Commons is an accident of history. If it was being created now, there is no way the system used would be as it is now with all its unfairness and inherent advantages for the major parties. The Tories (and Labour) can only get away with advocating it because it is the incumbent system, and boy do they advocate it.

The thing to remember, and it is starkly underlined here, is the Conservatives will advocate whatever system is most politically expedient for them. So for the House of Commons it is FPTP (they get a decent majority on a minority of the vote in a good year). For Scotland and Wales it is a form of PR (helps them maintain a foothold in those parliaments that they would likely not get under FPTP due to their unpopularity there). For the Second Chamber it is a form of PR (that under other circumstances they pretend does not exist) because they know they will not get away with advocating an antiquated system.

Remember all of this the next time you read an Op Ed piece from David Cameron earnestly trying to persuade us of the merits of the FPTP system for the House of Commons. They only favour it when it suits them and they can get away with it.

There is no principle here, only political expediency of the most cynical and hypocritical kind.


Kalvis Jansons said...

You say "Conservatives will advocate whatever system is most politically expedient for them." Surely, this is exactly parallel to the reason for the Lib Dems wanting PR. I do believe, however, that PR would be better for the UK.

PR is better for minority parties, and Labour will soon be one. So this looks like a good time to push the idea.

Mark Reckons said...

It is of course true that PR for the Commons would favour the Lib Dems (in that it would give them fair representation) although I would like to think that even if we ended up as one of the big two we would still push for PR given the many decades of campaigning on this issue my party has done.

As an aside, I have been a supporter of PR for many years, long before I joined the LDs (in fact it is one of the reasons I joined) so for me personally it is a position of principle, not expediency.

I think the key point here though is that with the Conservatives they will support whatever system suits them best in whatever situation. Even to the point where the arguments they use against PR in one situation still apply in another so they hold contradictory positions. There is no principle here despite what Cameron might try and say in his newspaper pieces.

Optimistic Cynic said...

They also don't use FPTP for electing their leader. If they did, David Davis would be Conservative leader.

Mark Reckons said...

OC - I did a post about that a few weeks ago although the counter argument is that the first few rounds were just the MPs selecting the candidates for the actual election. That doesn't quite wash with me and I think it is more like a FPTP electoral college system in the first few rounds. It certainly bears no resemblance to the system they advocate for Westminster!

Anonymous said...

You say "Conservatives will advocate whatever system is most politically expedient for them." Surely, this is exactly parallel to the reason for the Lib Dems wanting PR.

Just because Lib Dems may do better (depending if anyone votes for us under a real PR system - ie no need to vote 'tactically'), - doesnt make it any less right!

Mark Reckons said...

So are we advocating different systems (PR and non-PR) for different parliaments and assemblies based on which is best for us in each individual case? No, we are consistent in our support for PR and it strikes me as the most principled position of any of the main parties.

Kalvis Jansons said...

I agree with you Mark, but it is nice to see your replies all the same. :)

AndrewFK said...

Regarding multimember constituencies vs. single member constituencies; surely the Conservatives aren't averse to competition to drive up standards? Or doesn't this apply to politics?

Voter said...

Nick Clegg talks about "a fair voting system" in his response to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill.

However, his preferred system is MC STV which does not seem very fair to the Green party.