Tuesday 11 May 2010

It wasn't PR that got us into this mess - why this looks like the ''new normal" for FPTP

To think, if we had PR, we'd have this charade after every election. What an unedifying prospect, blogs Iain Dale.

Up to a point, Lord Copper.

Yes, those who back PR need to show that either coalitions or minority governments can work. That is part of the LibDem dilemma in particular.

We can expect this to be a central anti-PR talking point for opponents of electoral reform, particularly in any future election or referendum campaign. This may prove an effective public argument.

But it is mostly nonsense.

This was a first-past-the-post election.

But a one-off? We've had sixteen majority governments in eighteen general elections. Yes, but there is lots of evidence to suggest 2010 could represent "the new normal" for first-past-the-post elections, though things could get much worse too.

While the 2010 result does broadly reflect public opinion in the distribution of power (if not entirely in seats), one of the next two or three future FPTP elections is very likely to create a "second past the post" democratic crisis which its supporters will find very hard to explain or defend.

When Jonathan Isaby writes that "This hung Parliament is very much the exception to the rule. First-past-the-post has in the main delivered a decisive result", much of the evidence is against him. He can point to the recent post-war history but the case for the system depends primarily on it working in future.

Tom Harris makes that "rare example" case too - as part of a more nuanced argument that all systems are flawed, which is true. Harris argues for the majoritarian principle: the public want to choose a government. The logic of his position is to now advocate a majoritarian system that works. (That is probably a directly elected Prime Minister or government, then working out how to relate that to a legislature. Alternatively, it could mean advocating disproportional representation deliberately - for example, having a "winner's bonus" of 50 seats after an STV election - and winning the public argument for that).

Thinking FPTP does what it says on the tin to elect a national government is now "fingers crossed politics" at best. Dale, Harris and Isaby are being too optimistic about getting "back to normal" in future first-past-the-post elections, unless they have a cunning plan to engineer a dramatic reversal of the sustained political shift of the last 35 years away from two-party politics.

Here are five reasons why the 2010 result looks more like the "new normal" than the exception:

(1) How often could the Conservatives expect to do better than in 2010?

- A 13 year old government, the worst economic crisis for 70 years, an unpopular Prime Minister ... and no Tory majority.

- The Conservatives in 2010 won a 6% lower share and 3.5 million fewer votes than when John Major squeaked home with a majority of 21 in 1992. So they remain a very long way from reaching the levels of popularity and support of the Major government, which is not widely remembered as a strong and stable government itself.

- Why the Conservatives are so confident of winning a majority at a new election this Autumn or in 18 months is a mystery. (Most were similarly confident even after the exit poll last Thursday). They obviously think a Lab-Lib government would be considerably more unpopular than Gordon Brown was. And if they are confident about sticking to FPTP, the Tories must think they can lead by ten points in a second election by running against the hnng Parliament, and that they could repeat the trick again after five or six years time as a grateful nation takes its economic medicine.

(2) The main reason the electoral system has survived is luck: we very rarely have close General Elections

- The post-war electoral geography which made FPTP work has been breaking down since 1974, yet it has survived because only one election in 35 years (2005) saw the two main parties finish within 5% of each other, with massive swings between Tory dominance against a divided oppositin in the 1980s and Labour's landslides after 1997.

- The main argument made for FPTP is that it will usually give the party with most votes a working majority of seats. It will probably do this - as long as Labour wins by 2-3% or the Tories are ahead by 9 or 10 points. Otherwise, expect a Hung Parliament as the norm, and the strong chance of a much more difficult political crisis than the 2010 outcome.

(3) We should all expect FPTP to give a "second-past-the-post" result soon

- The result was much less controversial than those which many of the campaign polls would have generated. If the Tory lead had been less than 5%, Labour would almost certainly have "won" the first-past-the-post election, by being the largest party. This would not have been a fluke: it would have happened at every post-1992 contest with a slim Tory lead, as the Jenkins report summarised

- In the six post-war elections where the parties finished within 5% of the vote, FPTP picked the "wrong winner" twice. That mattered less in the political culture of 1951, but it would cause a major legitimacy crisis now. This is because it depends primarily on happy accidents of electoral geography if we ever have a close election.

- So by keeping first-past-the-post we are playing Russian roulette with our democracy. If the two major parties ever finish within 5% of each other, you should expect the electoral system to break down completely, though Labour might still win a handsome victory on a small lead.

(4) Parties now need a lead of over 75+ seats to win a majority: they used to need 30

- The main reason hung Parliaments are much more probable can be seen in the Parliamentary arithmetic. There are many, many more MPs from outside the two main parties than 25 years ago. (Martin Kettle has coined the term nottles for these not Tory or Labour forces).

- There were fewer than 12 MPs outside the two main parties from 1945-1970, which meant majority governments when the parties were 1% apart in 1951 (albeit that the wrong party got the majority!). That rose to 37 and 39 in the 1974 elections, and after falling to 27 in 1979, rose again to 44 or 45 in each of the 1983-92 elections, then jumping again to 76 in 1997 with 92 in 2005 and 85 this time. Unless this is dramatically reversed, through the total collapse of the LibDems, it makes majorities much harder.

There will usually be a hung Parliament unless the largest party is more than 80+ seats ahead: the Tories could not achieve that type of lead in seats when taking office in 1951, 1970, 1979 or 1992. They are less than 50 seats ahead now.

- So hung Parliaments will probably be the norm under FPTP unless the long term trend to multi-party politics is very sharply reversed. Similarly, half of the General Elections between 1918 and 1945 resulted in hung Parliaments, so the 1945-2005 period may become seen as the anomaly, not the norm.

(5) If only one major party backs FPTP it is very difficult for it to survive politically.

- An underappreciated irony is that the current British party system means that coalition negotiations under first-past-the-post will very likely be dominated by the question of electoral reform primarily (however much the LibDems claim to give equal prority to the pupil premium or the banks).

Clearly, that would not happen in the event of a hung Parliament under PR!

Under PR, the parties would have been negotiating primarily over the relative coalition strength and the policy agenda on economy, public spending and perhaps other, less foundational democratic reforms.

- For FPTP to work, it requires a broad consensus between two major parties who both believe they can win under it and so who can take defeat on the chin, backed by broad public legitimacy. This was the case between 1945-74 but has broken down since. If only one party backs the system, a change of government is likely to bring a challenge to the system, especially if cross-party cooperation is ever necessary to govern. Though the pro-FPTP party could avoid this by winning several successive elections on 40% of the vote, it is then ever more likely to provoke a countervailing alliance to defeat it with the first aim of reforming the system.

- Once we get here, the system could survive only through winning a referendum in favour of it, and hoping the electoral geography dodges the "second past the post" bullet.

Perhaps a Conservative-LibDem deal could extend the life of first-past-the-post if anti-reform Tories can win the referendum against the LibDem allies. A Con-Lib coalition might also shift Labour opinion back away from electoral reform (on the grounds of "LibDem betrayal") while shrinking the LibDems, as Tim Horton has suggested and many LibDems fear.

Perhaps. But the LibDems are unlikely to shrink to pre-1992 levels, and the "Labour tribalism" effect may well be time limited, unless the Conservatives lost again to a Labour majority government by 2018. A more likely outcome is that the system will blow up in a close general election.

Presumably supporters of the current system must consider this a price worth paying and would, like Attlee in 1951, have to stoically take a bad Umpiring decision on the chin? In fact not. Iain Dale blogged that he would march on Downing Street to protest a bizarre result under first-past-the-post, which means that he supports first-past-the-post, except when it delivers results he thinks are wrong.

PS: The Conservatives do propose to make changes to the system, by equalising constituency size.

Left Foot Forward has cited the academic evidence - that this is largely a red herring when it comes to disproportionality generally, or bias against the Tories in particular, because this is more about the geography of their support than constituency size. (And this overlooks the differential turnout issue, where voters in safe Labour seats are much less likely to vote, perhaps rationally, though social class - and its relation to a sense of duty to vote - effects counter that in safe Tory seats).

Moreover, the particular reforms proposed are very questionable - and it would be very difficult to pursue them as a matter of party political contention.

If the reforms are motivated by the need to give the Tories a better chance of a first-past-the-post majority, they face the chicken and egg question of how to secure both a Commons and Lords majority in order to make such changes in their own interest. It is quite absurd for opponents of PR to claim this reform would give votes an "equal value", which anybody can see is not true. Of all of the concessions the LibDems might make to the Tories, supporting sticking plaster reforms to first-past-the-post may be very low down the list.

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