Hindsight’s easy, I know. At the time of negotiating the Coalition Agreement, electoral reform at Westminster was the party’s deal-breaker. The Lib Dem vote had gone up by a million, our number of MPs down by five. The public were in favour, or so the polls said. It’s possible the party wouldn’t even have approved entering the Coalition if the Westminster voting system had been left untouched.
And yet, and yet… Proportional representation at a local council level would’ve been a far more transformational way of shifting the power dynamics in this country, of introducing genuine electoral competition into contests up and down the country. Eastleigh shows us how.
One lesson all parties appear agreed on is this: the Lib Dems’ local strength in Eastleigh – the only constituency in the country where one party controls every single district and county council seat – was crucial to the party’s victory in last week’s by-election. The Tories’ Platform 10 blog summarises why it matters so much:
Elections are not about the election time, they are about the infrastructure you have put in place in the previous years. The Lib Dems became and remained strong locally because they worked hard at a long-term plan. For a number of years the Council leader dictates that each Lib Dem councillor has to canvass two streets every weekend. This knowledge is retained so they know who their voters are and what the undecideds main concerns are. Such organisation allowed the Lib Dems to get almost half their voters to vote early, by post. Maria Hutchings was an enthusiastic local candidate but she had no infrastructure until the by-election was called, and by then it was too late. The Conservative’s lack of local intelligence led to incidents like Boris Johnson – a great campaigning asset – being sent blind into areas to canvass people who were never going to vote Conservative.
Eastleigh: a case study in gaming first-past-the-post
Let’s look at the results of Eastleigh’s council elections in May 2012. The Lib Dems won an astonishing 86.7% of the seats up for grabs (13 out of 15). Yet in not a single one of the wards which were contested did the Lib Dem vote exceed 50%. The Tories came second in all but one of them, polling up to 37% of the vote, but were left almost empty-handed.
In Eastleigh, the Lib Dems have succeeded, triumphantly so, in gaming the electoral system to the party’s advantage.
That works well for us, at least in this one seat. But it doesn’t work so well for the more-than-half the public which voted for parties other than the Lib Dems and saw their votes ignored by a winner-takes-all system.
Eastleigh is, of course, an exceptional seat for the Lib Dems. But its characteristics – one-party rule at council level with local MP of the same stripes – are far from exceptional. What inevitably then happens is, as both the Tories and Labour have found in Eastleigh, your local supporter base withers, and you find you cannot mount a winning challenge to the incumbent. Even when, as the Lib Dems were, they’re mired in the most unfavourable circumstances imaginable.
As a result of this process, of which Eastleigh is just one microcosm, the main three parties have begun to hunker down: retreating from areas they know they can’t win, focusing all their efforts instead on defending their fortresses with occasional incursions into near-by enemy territory.
How can we make politics competitive again?
The result of the next election will hinge on some 120 seats, which will be roughly the same 120 as it hinged on last time. Tough luck if you’re a voter who lives in one of the 530 seats which aren’t competitive. You may as well sit out the next election, and the one after that.
Politics in the UK has become dead-locked, stuck. The parties know it, the voters know it. So it’s hardly surprising they’re looking for any other way, including Ukip, of disrupting that status quo.
I’m not pretending, by the way, that proportional representation at local level is some sort of panacea for the problems facing all three main parties. But what it would achieve is three things:
1) Give all parties a real incentive to fight for every vote, not just the votes in the marginal areas that ‘matter’;
2) Give all voters a reason to back their first choice party and know that their ballot will count;
3) Re-connect the parties and the voters: parties will have local elected representatives drawn from around the country; voters will be able to turn to the elected representative of their choice.
There is no prospect of electoral reform at national level, at least for the next decade. The public’s backing of first-past-the-post (or rejection of AV: whichever) was simply too overwhelming.
There is, though, a desperate need to re-inject some competitiveness into our electoral system. And there is every reason for both the Tories and Labour to force themselves out of their electoral comfort zones into parts of the country they normally write-off.
Eastleigh was a wake-up call to the Tories of what happens if your activist base is hollowed-out. But it was equally a warning to Labour of quite how far away it is from being a ‘One Nation’ party.
I’m sure there are Tory and Labour supporters who’ll continue to dismiss proportional representation as Lib Dem special interest pleading. They think it’s still possible to turn the clock back to the 1950s and simple two-party politics. It’s not going to happen: fragmentation is the new normal. Smart Tory and Labour supporters need to start thinking how to deal with this new reality, broadening their support, reaching out to all voters – not just your core support.
* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from May 2007 to Jan 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.