Coalitions in All But Name, Both Parties Should Embrace PR

The 2015 election was widely derided as ‘the most disproportionate result in British election history’. For all its disproportionality it produced a meagre 12 seat majority for the Conservatives, hardly a winning argument for First Past The Post producing stable government and leadership. Just one year later we have effectively seen a change in government, and splits and rivalries emerging within both parties. This is mostly the after effects of Brexit, but we have to remember why we got into this position in the first place.

The referendum was called because of Cameron’s need to placate his more right-wing backbenchers and sections of his own party with whom he did not agree. No doubt the plans would have been dropped if he had been able to do what he wanted and form another coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Ironically, the coalition was in comparison a model of stability and good government; history will be much kinder to it than many contemporary pundits. In 2010, Cameron was able to work out a programme and choose his partner in government; in 2015, he was forced to deal with the cranky ‘awkward squad’ of MPs like Nadine Dorries.

All parties are already coalitions in all but name whose wings have been growing apart: having Ken Clarke and Peter Bone in the same party is almost as ridiculous as Peter Mandelson and Jeremy Corbyn both being in Labour. First Past The Post does not allow for parties to change and renew as they do on the continent. The current problems in both are testament to that.

Coalitions are the European norm: they can work and work well. Why do the Conservative and Labour parties still hold off making the inevitable and logical transition to proportional representation? The main argument is that it is against their interest and that they do well out of the current system. This is true to a certain extent.

The Conservative Party, the most opposed, resists change partly because of historical conservatism but also because a split in the left has benefited it, and as a result they have been able to win landslides on small percentages of the vote. For different reasons the same was true for Labour under Blair.

FPTP ENCOURAGES VOTES TO PILE UP IN PLACES WHERE THEY DO NOT MATTER 

The historical argument is the easiest to dismiss. Listening to Conservatives in the 2011 AV debate, you would think that our current system had been around since time immemorial. This is not the case, is simplistic and a bad reading of history.

The Conservative party can trace its roots back to Peel Robert in the 1830s or even further back to the late 17th century split over James II’s right to succeed Charles II. Since then the franchise has been widened, secret ballots initiated, multiple member constituencies and multiple voting abolished.

Our current system stems from the late 1940s, hardly anything to shout home about. When it was seen as corrupt and ineffectual it was reformed - something that should happen again today. It is also questionable whether FPTP currently benefits either party. FPTP encourages votes to pile up in places where they do not matter and means parties are unable to spread their vote effectively. It only really works in a two party system. The Conservatives have had to deal with a split in the right with the rise of UKIP. They do not seem to realise that often people want plurality and choice in politics. Saying ‘we are the only party that can deliver what you want don’t bother wasting your vote on UKIP’ is not working as a message in many areas.

Theresa May should see this as an opportunity to update the party and allow her more right -wing backbenchers to safely defect to UKIP. A system of PR would also mean that the Conservatives would automatically not be a party of the South East and the shires, larger constituencies or a list system would allow them to have decent representation in areas like Scotland, where around 20% of people vote Conservative every election and are denied an MP who supports their views. It may also mean that parties like the SNP who gain most out of the current system would see their influence slashed, perhaps making the union a little more safe in the process.  Since we are condemned to have perpetual coalition government (whether officially or unofficially) the Conservatives could do what they do best and be pragmatic in a choice of partner.

PR would allow the current left-wing coalition to be more honest

The benefits to the left are even more obvious. Labour is an even greater political dinosaur, representing an outdated ideal of organised labour and a statist vision of society. Jeremy Corbyn is a perfect example of the indulgent politics of nostalgia. As a result of listening too much to its membership, the minority of people in trade unions and Labour interest groups, the party has become more conservative than the Conservatives, lacking original ideas or suggestions for change. Few teachers, nurses or other workers want to change a system they work in and help shape. As a result the general public is ignoring them.  

MPs and membership are at odds but denied - despite the obvious need - any natural split because of the risk of starting a new party under FPTP.

The solution is not business as usual but to provide people with what they want, choice. PR would allow the current left-wing coalition to be more honest with the voters: Blairites and Corbynistas could set out their stalls as separate parties with competing visions for society.

Change is not always a bad thing but it is something that tends to be done when there is no other option, such as with the Great Reform Act of 1832. Even then there were still MPs arguing that having constituencies with one voter but two MPs (as a result no contested election) was a good thing because it allowed representatives to be less influenced by the unwashed masses. Current arguments against PR are almost as poor. Many people vote against a local MP and government whom they are then stuck with because a higher minority voted another way. People do not get what they voted for. FPTP no longer even provides stable government.

Instead of putting off the inevitable, parties should accept the trend towards plurality and embrace PR.

More about the author

About the author

Stewart holds a PhD in eighteenth century political history from UCL, having previously studied for a BA and MA in history at Royal Holloway, University of London. 

He is currently working as a Part-Time Tutor for Oxford University’s Continuing Education Department as well as helping to create and launch an online historical archive of magazine-style feature articles written by history graduates called The Past.

Follow Stewart on Twitter.

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