I liked it when a woman asked Gordon Brown in a radio phone-in whether he would support the Tories or Lib Dems if no party had an overall majority and Labour came third. However, to be realistic, the chances are with our ridiculous voting system that Labour will come at least second in seats even if it is third in votes. So, if no party has an overall majority, the Lib Dems are more likely than any other to hold the balance. How would they use it? Could they achieve PR by STV with it? Should they?
If one party is only a handful of seats short of an overall majority, it will probably form a minority government, make a few concessions here and there to the smaller parties (perhaps including a nod to electoral reform) and limp along for a few months until either it is defeated or opinion polls indicate it might win an overall majority in another election. That’s what Labour and Conservative politicians like to call a “hung parliament” and, although electoral reform would certainly be discussed in those circumstances, our chances of achieving it would not be high.
Suppose, however, that one or both of the largest two parties are about 50 seats short of an overall majority and the Lib Dems have about 100 seats. In that case, it would be unrealistic for any party to form a minority administration. Any two of the largest three parties should be able to form quite a stable coalition. We would then have, for the first time since 1945, a government elected by a majority of voters. I would call that a “balanced” – not “hung” parliament. In that situation, there should be good opportunities to advance the cause not only of electoral reform but also STV in particular if Lib Dems refuse to be embarrassed and hold their nerve.
Some Lib Dems seem too embarrassed to support electoral reform in public, perhaps because Labour and Tory politicians accuse them of supporting reform only to improve Lib Dem representation, so let’s kill that myth:
If Lib Dems wanted reform only for partisan reasons, they would settle easily for any old PR system, but they campaign for STV, which would be best for voters and not necessarily best in gaining seats for the Lib Dem Party.
STV is best for voters for many reasons, including:
- Only STV can make MPs really and directly accountable to voters on their expenses claims and local issues, major decisions on war and peace, the environment and the economy – indeed all issues.
- It allows them to choose the particular candidates they believe best represent their individual views (not just on party support but also on policy matters, topical issues and preferences on moral and gender grounds) which other types of PR and First Past the Post do not;
- It provides People – rather than Party – Representation, unlike all other PR systems, which give Parties more influence on who is elected through list systems.
- Most voters will have an MP they have helped to elect and with whom they can identify, unlike Labour voters in safe Tory constituencies and Tories in safe Labour ones with First Past The Post.
With a few honourable exceptions, Tory and Labour politicians support First Past The Post because it has given them more than their fair share of seats, especially if they are “safe”, and they hope it will continue to do so. Accordingly, they are hardly in a position to accuse Lib Dems of supporting reform for party reasons.
Compromising by accepting a voting system inferior to STV would destroy Lib Dems’ moral authority of campaigning not to benefit their party but to benefit voters.
Lib Dems should not be at all embarrassed to campaign for such an excellent voting system as STV to benefit voters and the nation.
If a minority Labour party wants Lib Dem support to form a government, it will probably say it has already promised a referendum on AV+ and offer concessions towards other Lib Dem policies, but refuse at first to offer more on electoral reform. Some leading Labour MPs have shown clearly they want to give parties more power by espousing a PR system using party lists.
On the other hand, the Conservatives are said to favour STV if PR is to be adopted as it meets two of David Cameron’s espoused principles – more power to the voters and less influence for Parties through party lists. Moreover, the freedom to choose MPs by STV fits well with Conservative rhetoric about freedom of choice. A minority Conservative party’s starting point may be no electoral reform at all but bigger concessions towards other Lib Dem policies. Some of these other concessions may be very tempting to Lib Dems after so long in opposition.
However, this is the best opportunity in my lifetime to make Britain a real democracy and it may be the only opportunity for the rest of this century, so I urge the party leadership to make STV – or a referendum on it – non-negotiable. It would be worth putting up with some second-rate Labour or Tory policies for four or five years to gain a permanent improvement in democracy. At least the policies of subsequent governments should represent the wishes of the majority of voters
We should also consider the longer term effects of entering into a coalition with (a) First Past The Post or AV or (b) STV for the subsequent election. If the Government becomes unpopular as is very likely in view of the hard economic decisions it will have to make, it will probably lose votes in the subsequent election. The distortion effect of First Past The Post means that the Government parties will probably lose a larger share of seats than of votes. Moreover, the junior Coalition party will probably lose an even greater share of seats. In contrast, if the subsequent election uses PR by STV, Lib Dems could still lose votes but, because they would get their fair share of seats for the first time, they could gain seats.
But would it be feasible for Lib Dems holding the balance of power to hold out for PR by STV? It depends on the exact arithmetic of the election, how hungry the Labour and Tory leaderships are for power and how determined Lib Dems are to achieve PR by STV.
If both other parties want power enough, they may start bidding for Lib Dem support first by making more concessions other than electoral reform and then including electoral reform if the Lib Dems are firm enough. If each of the other major parties is too small in the Commons to form even a minority government and the smaller parties do not hold enough seats to make up the difference, the only alternative to an alliance of some sort between either one of the largest two parties and the Lib Dems would be an alliance between both of them – a so-called “Grand Coalition” – to keep Lib Dems out of power.
Lib Dems need not fear that. First, the other two parties are unlikely to come to an arrangement with each other. Secondly, if they did, voters would become even more cynical towards them after all they have said about each other in the election. Thirdly, Nick Clegg, as Leader of the Opposition, would probably be in a much stronger position to become Prime Minister after the subsequent election, even under First Past The Post, than he would as a Minister in a government led by Brown or Cameron.
So Lib Dem negotiators should hold out for PR by STV.
* A former Liberal activist, Anthony Tuffin has been independent of party politics since 1988 to devote his political energy to electoral reform. He is now: Hon. Treasurer of the Electoral Reform Society, Editor of STV Action, Chairman of Make Votes Count In West Sussex, Publisher of “STV News” – but he has written this article in a personal capacity.