Monday, February 09, 2015

Electoral Domesday - could the next government be the second and fourth placed parties?

It was conventional wisdom that the AV referendum in 2011 had effectively 'parked' the issue of electoral reform for a generation or so.  Just, of course, as it was conventional wisdom that the Scottish referendum would also 'park' the issue of Scottish independence.  Neither of these wisdoms look very secure now.  In the case of Scotland, the problem was that the referendum was never allowed to run its proper course as with a week to go David Cameron and his fellow English party leaders changed the issue to something that wasn't on the ballot paper - gerrymandering of a high order.  In the case of electoral reform, Professor John Curtice's interesting figures look as if they too could bring the issue of reform firmly back into the main stream - and, since they were published by the Electoral Reform society that's probably what they were intended to do.

Professor Curtice notes that the key factor for success in the First Past the Post system is the geographic concentration of votes, and he further adds that this is effectively undermining the national claim of the system to be a "winner takes all" one.  His findings (full report here; Electoral Reform summary here) suggest the possibility of a Labour Party which comes second in votes securing the highest number of seats, and being shoehorned into government by an SNP which may well have come only sixth in terms of UK-wide votes, but have enough seats to secure Labour a majority in a coalition.

Curtice looks at the relative prospects of the smaller parties, on whom much of the election outcome will depend, and finds that the SNPs geographic concentration of votes could well propel them into winning significantly higher numbers of seats than the more geographically spread UKIP, even if UKIP scores significantly more votes.  To add to the possible post-election chaos is, of course, the fact that not only will SNP MPs only hail from one part of the UK, but - since the notorious devolution 'vow' - it is part with barely any domestic issues actually decided at Westminster.

Curtice discussed his report on the 'Today' programme (scroll in to around 45.55 minutes) and it makes fascinating listening.  No longer is the issue of whether FPTP throws up another coalition the only point of discussion.  Just as crucial, given the SNP surge in support (largely at Labour's expense in Scotland) is the question of who the coalition might actually comprise.  Thus, to the disproportionality of FPTP is added the unresolved headache of an incomplete devolution settlement.

If this looks like an issue of unfairness to the main parties - and I suspect it is the Tories who would make the most ground on this - then they might like to reflect that their own leaders have led them to this potential impasse.  All three leaders were guilty of panicking att he sight of the Scottish referendum polling figures, and unforgivably altered the basis of the referendum with no thought to the consequences.  In addition, only Clegg campaigned for reform of the Westminster system when he argued for the AV option in the referendum, although his acceptance of a hopelessly skewed referendum question (which only posited AV as an alternative, rather than the principle of proportionality) showed, at best, considerable political naivety.  David Cameron and the rest of the Conservative Party, meanwhile, have consistently failed to consider the inequities of the FPTP system, and then fell foul of their coalition partners in the tit-for-tat of blocking Lords reform (the Conservatives) and constituency boundary changes (the Lib Dems).

Whatever mess emerges after the next election, it is an irony that the men responsible for its genesis will also be the ones charged with resolving it.


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