Monday, May 10, 2010

Keeping things in proportion

Shuggy wavers between agnosticism and heresy over proportional representation and has prompted me to do something I never intended to do, comment on the election ... well the one in 1951 anyway.

This is because he starts by asking a straightforward and pertinent question; "Why, for example, has this election 'discredited' FPTP more than the last one"? The simple answer is that it hasn't, it is just that the media are more interested and the Labour Party have started to think, once again, that PR might just be in their interests. I do support electoral reform, though, for me, the election that discredited the current system took place a year before I was born, in 1951.

I have lost count of all the fatuous arguments I have seen about the reason for Labour's defeat. The simple answer is that it was the electoral system. 1951 was their best ever result, the largest share of the vote any party has achieved since the Second World War and a popular endorsement of Attlee's government, despite the election being held, unnecessarily, in difficult times. And Labour comfortably lost, in the nearest thing to a straight two-party contest we have seen, to a Tory Party that polled fewer votes. The Conservatives then got the political benefit of the post-war boom. It was a critical turning point.

Actually, the current clamour for PR is nothing new. In 1917, the Speaker's Conference on Electoral Reform unanimously recommended the adoption of the Single Transferable Vote to accompany the enfranchisement of women and universal suffrage. Subsequent attempts at legislation then became tied up in a dispute about whether to adopt STV or the Alternative Vote and I have a sense that history may well be about to repeat itself. Eventually, during another period of three party politics and minority governments, a Bill to adopt the Alternative Vote was introduced by Labour, passed through Parliament, but fell with the government when MacDonald broke his own party by forming a coalition National Government with the Tories in 1931.

So why PR? Shuggy makes a perfectly reasonable point about its limitations when he says that proportional systems tend to result in a situation where "the guy who came third gets to decide who comes first". My only answer is to point out that this is a likely, but not a necessary, outcome of a proportional system, though it certainly would be the case in most elections. What concerns me is that there is, to my mind, an even bigger democratic problem with the current system and it isn't about disenfranchisement, wasted votes, or even fairness. It is all about the representation of collective interests.

OK, under PR the make up of a government is decided by deals with minority parties, but under the current system winning a majority in Parliament depends on gaining the votes of a very small group indeed, new and swing voters in marginal constituencies. No one else really matters. And what studies show is that these people tend to be affluent, apolitical, conservative with a small 'c' and very middle class. If you don't win their support you lose. To get their votes, parties pander to their self-interest. As for the working class and for the poor? Their votes don't matter, their abstentions don't matter and so, neither do they. The current system is a neat method of political exclusion.

And so the best the poor can expect is for something like New Labour that appeals to the prejudices of the Daily Mail, whilst surreptitiously throwing a few crumbs at the lower orders hoping that their new friends don't notice. Interestingly, the Tories got this wrong by being too overtly nasty. Labour understood this perfectly by offering, to use the repulsive Clintonite phrase, 'tough love'. These voters have their self-image to preserve and Cameron's strategy was solely about being cuddly enough to make it seem acceptable to vote Conservative.

PR offers a chance to break this dismal stranglehold. However, anyone thinking that it ushers in a new era or a revolutionary new politics is wrong. There is another battle to be fought, the one for democratic choice. A politics dominated by an intellectual neo-liberal hegemony will remain a choice between lesser evils, whatever system is used. And if you want to see the raw impact of neo-liberalism, even in prosperous Europe, look at Greece.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I could put ten policies of the main three parties at this election down on paper, and ask someone from outside the UK whether the policies were from a right-wing, centre, or left wing party, and they would get them all wrong.

When there are no major political differences between the parties and they all triangulate with each other, then PR seems a sensible approach.