I’ve long been a supporter of electoral reform and proportional representation but this election is testing my commitment to such a policy.
I’ve not changed my views about the reasons why the current system is unfair and should be reformed. As the campaign Make Votes Count say: The present winner-takes-all voting system frequently gives governments exaggerated majorities and leaves a tiny minority of voters in marginal seats to decide elections. A fairer voting system would produce a more representative parliament and make everyone’s vote count equally.
What concerns me is while PR would make a more representative parliament would it make a more representative government?
The strongest argument against PR has always been that it results in coalition governments with excessive power and influence given to minor parties. The German Free Democrats never got close to 20 percent of the votes but enjoyed many years in government alongside their big brother – the Christian Democrats. The Italian government is re-forming itself at the moment but whatever coalition Berlusconi puts together there will be Ministers from parties with single figure votes.
The response to this has merit – it may indeed be unfair to have parties with six percent of the vote getting into government while a party with 30% of the vote sits on the opposition benches but politics is about forming coalitions and in British politics the coalitions are forced to be formed within parties rather than out in the open between parties.
The popularity of PR on the British left was always based around the idea that such coalitions would offer a new political space and break the dominance of old-fashioned Labourism. The Communist Party long supported electoral reform because it believed that it might win some seats and become a partner in a Labour-Communist coalition government that would bring in the transition to a People’s Republic. The Greens have probably had the occassional daydream about a German style Red-Green coalition under PR. The Lib Dems know that they can only ever have a chance of breaking through to government under PR but during the dark years of Thatcher the idea of a Lab-Lib ‘anti-Tory’ coalition appealed well beyond Westminster.
In other words, for years PR was a code word for rainbow coalition politics – Greens, Lib Dems, Labour and some new radical left party all co-operating in a consensual coalition government. Proportional politics fitted in perfectly with the left’s thinking in the eighties about the breakdown of traditional class structures, the new pluralism etc, etc, much of which sprang from the CP’s combination of ‘broad democratic alliance’ strategy combined with the fascination with green and liberal politics that emerged from Marxism Today.
This enthusiam took the debate about PR beyond one of simple fairness and towards the idea of a ‘new politics’. But much has changed since those days when simply breaking the grip of the Tories was the first aim of any progressive.
What would a ‘new politics’ look like with today’s players?
First of all PR would be a major boost for the BNP and possibly also UKIP – they would be in parliament and enjoy the mainstream acceptability that goes with such a status. A scenerio where the Tories would need the support of the far right in order to create a workable majority would not be an unthinkable one.
As for the left – it is still possible that a grand coalition of Lib Dem-Labour and Greens could emerge. But maybe a PR system would encourage some of the old Labour figures to make a break or allow some new far-left formation to emerge – it would certainly encourage people to ‘do a Galloway’ rather than beaver away for change inside Labour.
For a taste of this politics look to Italy (which no longer has an extreme version of PR) where the centre-left coalition constantly has to deal with the quasi-Trotskyists of Rifondazione Comunista when it comes to creating majorities in local, regional and possibly national government. Rifondazione get around six percent of the vote but are able to place all sorts of demands on the major left parties way beyond the influence such a minor party should have. Imagine a Respect-type formation with a similiar ability to make or break governments.
Had we had PR in place over the past 25 years it is possible that the Tory party and the Labour Party would both have split. We could well have a more radical left-wing party with some trade union support while on the right the Eurosceptics might have gone and formed a new party leaving the Tories in the hands of Portillo and Ken Clarke. The democratic left and the democratic right would have been represented by two parties with decent bases of support and capable of working effectively in a coalition government.
But because our politics has forced people to stay inside major parties if they want to have any influence or career (so Redwood is still a Tory and Ken Livingstone came back to Labour), only the cranks are outside the major players.
I’m loathe to give support to reform which would bring such demagogues into parliamentry politics, let alone government.
Yet I still think PR offers a fairer system and if I were drawing up a constitution for the UK would be hard-pressed to make a case for First Past the Post.