Monday, 10 May 2010

Thoughts on PR and the Government we need

This is now the fourth time I've started this Post. I've been trying to write a sensible, balanced post without descending into circular arguments or just half-witted swearing.

Essentially there are two interesting things going on at the moment. And they're connected. Actually, there are three things going on at the moment, but for now I'm going to put the the Eurozone Bailout (funded by us!) onto one side for a particularly sweary rant later.

Right, the two things I want to talk about are:
  • Electoral Reform
  • Lib Dem support to the future Government
And boy! are they connected.

The price of a stable Lib-Dem / Tory Coalition will almost certainly be some level of Electoral Reform. I don't know what form this will take but I do know what form I'd like it to take and what form hundreds of under-informed students are stridently demanding it will be.

What I would like to happen is a mature debate around the merits of exactly what sort of elections we should have; who should be elected and what we want the government to do. This is exactly the sort of problem that cannot be solved by a minority shouting loudly for what they want.

The minority seem to be calling for Proportional Representation (or PR to its friends). This is very superficially appealing. The make-up of the House of Commons is decided purely by an exact ratio of the number of votes gained. The Lib Dems would get 23% of the seats, UKIP would get 3.1% and the BNP would get only 1.9%, or a mere 12 seats. As I've said in this piece pure, simple PR would lead to a nightmare situation. The constituency link would be broken and Party Politics would be even stronger than today.

The obvious solution is to say: "Well, sure! PR may not be right then, so let's work on another method". This could be something like the Scottish model, with a two tier parliament, partially composed of constituency MPs and the rest there to make the numbers balance. Admittedly this does use the d'Hondt method of assigning seats, which at least ensures that the smallest parties have to cross a threshold. It's argued that with some form of PR turnout would rise and the smaller, more extremist parties would be squeezed into irrelevance. This doesn't seem to be the case in Switzerland (54% turnout in the major elections. Though of course, much power there is devolved to the regions).

But all this misses the damn question. There are far more electoral problems than the mere method used to allocate seats. Why do Labour have more seats at this election than the Tories did last time, despite nowhere near the same share of the vote (And slightly tongue in cheek, where the hell were all the protesters when Labour 'won' with such a low share of the vote)? Should we have an elected House of Lords (I say no, but I can see how it could work)? Should the PM be elected directly?

Calling for Proportional Representation is just a lazy reflex response to perceived "unfairness". Voting for the Government isn't like ordering at a restaurant. You don't necessarily get what you want. You get what "the people" want. All the various voting systems try to do is work out from the mish-mash of actual votes what people actually wanted. Some reflect the people's will very closely, some lead to stable governments (Afterall, 300 years without a civil war is one of the best records in the World).

As DJPNZ said earlier: "PR will not cure our debt, or our social decay or underfunded armed forces" (he then bought up the possibility of a UK Federal system, bringing yet another possibility to be debated into the open). At the moment, we need to be cautious and have a mature, grown-up discussion about all the various things we need to do to improve the way we vote and what we're voting for.

The second interesting area is the possibility of a Lib-Con Coalition. On Friday morning I wrote a post suggesting that this could be exactly what the country needs for the future. There's a glorious possibility of two Parties coming together, losing their worst parts and becoming something greater than the sum of the parts.

I'd like to be optimistic and say that this is going to happen. It would probably be best for the country that it did. There's a lot of common ground between the Tories and the Lib Dems (despite the horror of some people on the left that perhaps politics isn't the simple right/left divide that they assume it is). The two parties both have good people and maybe could even do some good work together.

But, on the other hand, I can see this happening: The Lib Dems demand immediate, full PR. The Tories knowing this is a) suicide for them and b) bloody stupid (as outlined above) resist. Labour give Gordon Brown a revolver and a quiet room for the afternoon. Ed Millband (or Alan Johnson, or any of the various non-entities at the top of Labour) becomes the new PM. He then promises the Lib Dems a shared government, with both Parties having the same number of cabinet seats. Maybe the Lib Dems will get the seats which mean nothing to Labour, like Defence Secretary (which under Labour is the 23rd most important cabinet seat).

This coalition will be unable to do anything about the deficit (or stand firm on any other area) and the country will lurch forward another six months, teetering closer to the abyss (though unlike Greece, we don't have a $1,000 Bn bailout package set up for us). Eventually, probably on a minuscule point, the LabLib coalition will fall hard and a new election will be called. Odds are this would be before the coalition could push through PR, so it will be under FPTP again. Lib Dem voters would be demoralised and by then even Labour voters might be able to see the true face of their party. The Tories would win with a massive landslide and start taking the steps necessary to fix the country. They might be too late.

The latter situation would be best for the Tories as a party. They can watch the country burn whilst they wait for their moment in the electoral sun. Maybe we should all just be impressed that they actually seem to be trying to do what's right for all of us by pushing towards a stable Con-Lib coalition.

Are the Lib-Dems going to be able to put the country first as well? Or will they be seduced by Labours offer of anything they could possibly desire?

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