Friday 7 May 2010

Does Nick Clegg believe in first-past-the-post after all?

The election result might show that a hung Parliament is less a golden opportunity for the LibDems and perhaps more of a political elephant trap. The party's response to that dilemma suggests a lack of belief in the arguments for a pluralist, proportional representation political system of which they have claimed to be the primary public advocates.

For surely it is the logic of first-past-the-post which makes that majoritarian argument that it is having more votes than any other single party which confers the legitimacy to govern. That is a majoritarian argument. Citing the number of seats delivered by an electoral system the LibDems decry makes little sense either.

Clegg is a supporter of PR. Yet the logic of proportional representation would contest his argument and counter thus:

If no one party has majority, negotiations should take place so as to form a broad-based government, ideally one backed by parties who have the support of a majority of the voters.

Such a challenge to Clegg's doctrine of the mandate is offered by 'Hobhouse' at Liberal Conspiracy.

Right now Labour and the Lib Dems together have over 52% of the popular vote. Add in Greens, the Irish SDLP and Alliance and the Progressive Majority has nearer 54% of the vote. That’s without even counting nationalists!

Only 36% of people voted for the Tories. Just two-thirds of the progressive vote.

There is a progressive majority in this country today.

Our collapsing electoral system may have failed to fully reflect it. And that’s a crisis.

But for every two people who voted Tory, three of us voted progressive.

We have the mandate. Not them.

Let’s get building bridges.

There are cogent arguments for and against both the majoritarian and proportional propositions. (Roy Jenkins attempted to fuse them together in his hybrid AV+ voting system). But any supporter of PR might think the latter should prevail.

There is merit in the LibDems saying that the first opportunity to negotiate ought to go to the Conservatives. A substantive Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, alliance or understanding would certainly fulfil the PR criteria - but that would also mean being able to negotiate elsewhere too.

But there is no PR logic to regarding the outcome as a foregone conclusion, which would continue to hold even if the largest party was absolutely set on governing alone, and so refused to negotiate and make serious concesssions - such as being willing to offer a referendum on electoral reform.

The LibDem argument is that they could not combine in power with a party which went into an election with a majority and lost it. And Nick Clegg may feel he has some protection in the Labour and Liberal Democrat total number of seats not reaching 326. Yet, even in that scenario, the content and logic of Clegg's majoritarian argument suggests the LibDems would have made the same choice - and so put the Conservatives in to government when another Parliamentary majority (with more than half of the seats and more than half of the votes) was viable.

There could well be a political price to pay for that. The Liberal Democrats have been enthusiastically supported for the first time by many influential public voices - including newspapers such as The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent and the Independent on Sunday - on the grounds that support for the party both promotes the cause of fair votes and forms part of a strategic alliance which would, by giving the LibDems the balance of power, help to keep the Conservatives out.

That advocacy and support would certainly be complicated, and perhaps derailed by a decision - active or passive - to facilitate the appointment of a Conservative-led government, even if it is not the only possible or plausible outcome.


Unknown said...

influential public voices

An influence notable by its absence on the result, one has to say.

Sunder Katwala said...


Good point!

Unknown said...

Much as I agree with the sentiment of this post (being a left-of-centre LibDem who regards any agreement with the Conservatives as unlikely to be workable) the central argument is totally spurious.

Yes, along with Labour we would represent 52% of the popular vote. But along with the Conservatives we would represent 59% of the popular vote. So the plausibility of the claim rests upon the idea that we should be identified with Labour as a 'progressive bloc'. Why couldn't you say:

The LibDems plus the Conservatives represent 59% of the electorate voting for change from New Labour.

Exactly? Total rubbish. What is important is which of the other leaders Nick thinks can best deliver what people voting for us in this election (that didn't defect to the reds for fear of the blues or to the blues from fear of the reds) wanted, central amongst which was electoral reform. But this kind of 'automatic coalition' talk is rubbish, and to my knowledge Nick has never supported FPTP in any way, shape or form. I wish the same could be said of Gordon Brown.

Sunder Katwala said...


Of course, a LibDem-Tory deal with 59% support is legitimate under the logic of both PR and the hung Commons outcome under FPTP. So if the decision is that the Tories would best deliver on electoral reform, that's fine. The question was whether it is the only legitimate alliance or outcome

The central argument is that 'coming first' does not rule out forming another alliance based on political principle and policy alignment.

This hangs on what the Clegg "mandate" doctrine means. Does it just mean "talk first" or does it mean "has the legitimacy to govern". Some have felt it sounds like the latter. That is what the post was about.