Don’t stand a candidate

I have wondered many times in the last few years whether Lib Dems really want PR. And the reason for this scepticism is that we keep propping up First Past The Post (FPTP) in the way we campaign and act politically – with disastrous results for our political success, our influence within government and for liberalism across the UK.

The arguments for a change in the electoral system are well known – for every million votes cast for a party at the 2015 general election , the Greens won one seat, UKIP won a quarter of a seat, the Lib Dems won 3, Labour 25, Conservatives 29 and the SNP 39. The figures might change a little from election to election, but the unfairness won’t.

For a generation, Lib Dems have worked to win within FPTP by targeting individual wards or constituencies, and this has been a successful strategy compared to other smaller parties. But it has never achieved democratic parity with Labour or the Conservatives. For example, at our high point of national vote in the general election of 2010, it took 120,000 votes to elect a Lib Dem MP and 35,000 to elect a Conservative. Our leaders accepted the reality of FPTP and we took our place in government based not on our national vote but on our number of MPs. We have all seen the consequences, and they are not pleasant for our party, however optimistic we all like to be.

My argument is that so long as there is FPTP our party is a sideshow. So how do we deliver PR?

There is only one way to do it. That is to get a majority of MPs in parliament to vote for it. That means defeating Conservatives wherever they are, and defeating Labour MPs who are against electoral reform (most of them).

So, how do we defeat sitting Conservative or Labour MPs? Not on our own, that is for sure. If all a Conservative MP needs to do is divide and rule their opposition – for example, to split the Green, Lib Dem and Labour vote, then the only real solution is for parties to try to agree where they stand and where they don’t. That is true locally as well as nationally.

We need to accept that if a party gets 10% of the vote, they should have 10% of the councillors or MPs. As Lib Dems that means talking to our political rivals and burying our rivalry until we have delivered PR. The most powerful political message we could give as a party would be to support a candidate from another party and not stand ourselves. And likewise for other parties to do the same (the Greens talk about this publicly at the highest level).

There will be some difficult decisions, but in most cases the decision will be about losing again or not.

* William Hobhouse lives in Bath and is co-founder of the Lib Dem Campaign for Manufacturing.

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  • Ciarán McGonagle 2nd Sep '16 - 12:28pm

    It’s and interesting point but, as a means to and end, one wonders what happens when the ends are achieved?

    We voters thereafter be able to distinguish us from other parties who we lent our support to?

    Is it right that the Lib Dems essentially become a single issue party. Consider UKIP who took 20-30 years to achieve their goal and are now collapsing.

  • Ciarán McGonagle 2nd Sep '16 - 12:31pm

    Predictive text on my phone as butchered my message.

    See it here again (this time in English):

    It’s an interesting point but, as a means to an end, one wonders what happens when the end is achieved?

    Would voters thereafter be able to distinguish us from other parties who we lent our support to?

    Is it right that the Lib Dems essentially become a single issue party for the foreseeable future. Consider UKIP who took 20-30 years to achieve their existential goal and are now collapsing.

  • Good article. Really though what is needed is a great reform bill, going way beyond electoral reform (which must be STV) and into the issues of party funding etc. that people can sign up to.

    Another absurdity in the current lib Dem position is that it assumes either the lib Dems winning a majority of MPs (yeah right) or co-operating with other parties after an election while doing nothing to maximise the number of sympathetic MPs in other parties.

  • Richard Church 2nd Sep '16 - 12:42pm

    This is a defeatist recipe for oblivion. The major parties are not interested in electoral reform and the minor ones either have only a tiny number of FPTP seats that they haven’t won already where they realistically can claim they have a better chance of winning the seat than us, or to stand down in their favour would destroy our credibility (UKIP).

  • “This is a defeatist recipe for oblivion” – whereas drifting on to the next election and being reduced to 4 MPs after boundary changes is the road to relevance ? There has been no gains for the lib Dems despite the antics of the labour party, the divisions in the Tories or the unravelling of UKIP. The idiotic approach of Clegg and Co can not be undone by either pretending it’s 1992 again, harping on about how marvellous the coalition was or day dreaming about Labour splits and 18,000 new members. The Lib dems are dead in the water in 90% of the UK.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 2nd Sep '16 - 1:32pm

    This is very sensible if it were possible , unless Labour and the Greens agree it , then its a non starter. Caroline Lucas has spoken in favour of local agreements , so that means the ball is in Labours court ! Labour at its worst loathes our party and pr, so , how ?!

  • George Potter 2nd Sep '16 - 1:35pm

    The problem is this only works if your primary motivation is voting reform. However, on issues other than voting reform there are plenty of very serious policy disagreements between the “progressive” parties which can’t just be ignored in favour of a coalition for PR.

    For instance, if I lived in an area where we had a single pro-PR “progressive” candidate who, apart from that policy, also held disdain for trans rights, opposed GMOs, supported homeopathy and supported policies I considered to be economically illiterate, then there is no way I could be convinced to vote for them.

    Voters aren’t just tokens to be shared out at the whims of the parties they vote for.

  • Daniel Walker 2nd Sep '16 - 1:44pm

    That means defeating Conservatives wherever they are, and defeating Labour MPs who are against electoral reform (most of them).

    To be fair, there is a Conservative Action for Electoral Reform group. They favour STV. I’d be interested to know Mr Hobhouse’s opinion on supporting such candidates.

  • As Lib Dems that means talking to our political rivals and burying our rivalry until we have delivered PR. The most powerful political message we could give as a party would be to support a candidate from another party and not stand ourselves.

    That basically was the option on the table in the preamble to the 2015 general election. But as we know the LibDems got cold feet about Coalition with various mutterings that with hindsight weren’t to dissimilar to many of the comments made by those favouring Leave in the EU referendum…

  • With the reduction in MPs to 600, the government is very much interested in making the system less fair. Guaranteeing perpetual Conservative government is now on the cards due to Scotland flipping to the SNP.

    Labour/post-Labour will eventually have to come out in favour of electoral reform, as the current system will now totally block their route into government once we drop to 600 MPs. The question will then be if the progressives can manage to overthrow the entrenched Tory vote across England or not.

  • Daniel Walker 2nd Sep '16 - 5:15pm

    @William Hobhouse I wasn’t saying there was majority (or even a sizable minority) of pro-PR Tories. I was just saying there are some. In your PR plan, should we stand aside for Ben Howlett in Bath, even though until 2015 it was a pretty solid Lib Dem seat?

  • Matt (Bristol) 2nd Sep '16 - 5:36pm

    If I had a conservative MP who I trusted, and they had decisively pledged that they would definitely go against their party’s whip and self-interest to bring about STV, and there was a meaningful STV proposal on the table definitely going to be brought before parliament by an opposition party, I would seriously considering voting for that MP in a general election.

    But that’s a heck of a lot of ifs.

  • Many years ago I asked one of the party’s more promising and thoughtful younger members if he could give me one good reason that couldn’t simply be dismissed as vested self-interest by our political opponents why PR was a good thing. After some thought, and somewhat to my surprise as I thought that at least one reason was easy, he admitted he couldn’t think of any.

    While it’s perfectly true that FPTP isn’t fair, arguments that don’t go way beyond that are never going to open many doors so let me repeat that challenge to the LDV commentariat.

  • David Allen 2nd Sep '16 - 5:57pm

    Gordon is right. FPTP is not fair, but nor is pure PR. In a pure PR system such as Israel’s, getting 1% and hence 1 MP in every 100 may give a fringe party the power to decide which of two larger parties should govern. A huge amount of power for a tiny percentage of the votes. What’s fair about that?

    STV isn’t pure PR, but it isn’t that far away from it. In the old world where Lab and Con regularly almost tied with about 40% each while Lib got 20%, Lib would have been able to choose the government every time. What was fair about that?

    Roy Jenkins, who led the enquiry which came up with AV+, set himself the goal of developing a voting system which was, roughly, equally fair to small and large parties. He sought a voting system which would often lead to an outright winning party and would often require a coalition government. This, he pointed out, would neither prevent nor enforce coalition government, it would give the voter a choice. Sadly, there aren’t many living politicians with Jenkins’ intelligence and vision.

  • The accommodation reached across the broad left for this year’s Japanese House of Councillors election is an interesting point of reference.

    In some districts all of the participating parties stood aside and supported a progressive independent instead. It’s not hard to imagine why some party activists might have found that more palatable than endorsing a rival party, (and yes, some of the independents did go on to win).

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Sep '16 - 7:00pm

    One step would be that Northern Ireland should elect its MPs the same way it elects councillors, assembly members and MEPs. STV is also used in the Republic of Ireland.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 2nd Sep '16 - 8:45pm


    I see that you do mean what George wonders, just for pr, an agreement , a a one off, because otherwise you would not be advocating a pact , even with UKIP, an agreement too far I believe !

  • paul barker 2nd Sep '16 - 9:43pm

    Whoa! Its much too soon to talk about this. We are faced with a bunch of “Known Unknowns” :
    More United could provide a way round this problem but we dont know if it will succseed or not.
    The Tories could still split or make themselves very unpopular with infighting & damage to The Economy. We just dont know.
    We do know, mostly, that Labour will split but we have no idea when.
    We know that we are recovering somewhat but we dont know how far that will go or how fast.
    Its just too soon to get out collective knickers in a twist over this.

  • Eddie Sammon 2nd Sep '16 - 11:06pm

    If the public want PR enough we can have a referendum and not bother with alliances, which not many want anyway. The far left are not going to get into a coalition with centrists and vice versa. Aiming for a PR coalition would require people from centre-right to far left and even far right getting together – UKIP are pro PR after all, so using this logic we should have an alliance with them.

    I don’t think this would be a good idea.

  • “one good reason that couldn’t simply be dismissed as vested self-interest by our political opponents why PR was a good thing.”

    My 30 seconds of thought on this – “It gives you (the voter) power over the politicians. FPTP gives the politicans power over you.”

    As to standing aside for pro-PR candidates that would mean a pact including Douglas Carswell and Caroline Lucas. Probably never going to happen – but there is some scope for a Scottish Constitutional Convention/Cook-Maclennan II style arrangement

  • Matt (Bristol) 3rd Sep '16 - 12:16am

    Eddie, there are flaws to the ‘elect a coalition for PR’ argument – but if you want a referendum how are you going to get it?

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Sep '16 - 12:32am

    The truth is, I’m not too fussed about PR, Matt (Bristol). If people want to win a ward or constituency then they should find out what the voters want and try to win.

    I’d like a governing party to introduce it, referendum or not, but I’m not going to vote for a party I don’t like in order to achieve it.


  • Peter Davies 3rd Sep '16 - 8:27am

    If we stood down in some Labour / Tory marginals, it would not affect the result. Our vote would split more or less evenly.

    It would ensure that we were seen as Labour stooges in every Lib-Dem Tory marginal and we would be crushed there even if Labour didn’t stand. In those seats we are already capable of squeezing the Labour vote to a tiny core which would probably vote for an independent socialist.

  • Philip Knowles 3rd Sep '16 - 9:46am

    As one who suffered through an electoral agreement I think I can comment. We were asked (by the local independents) not to put a candidate up for a local by-election and in return they wouldn’t contest the vacancy resulting from the death of one of our Councillors. The Tories thrashed them 60/40. I stood for the vacancy and lost by 31 votes to the independent. Last month there was another vacancy at the original ward. We stood and got 37% of the vote but lost by 25 votes. The independent (the same one who stood previously) got 21%. We hadn’t contested the seat since 2007 when we got 27%.
    We have decided that the only way to build is to fight every seat. I live in a constituency which has been Tory for over 100 years. If we want to change that we have to win District Council Wards and then use that base to win County Council Divisions. Success is built on giving people a reason to vote FOR you not a reason not to vote for someone else. We are concentrating on positives about what we will do not negatives about the rest.
    In 2013 I stood for the County Council elections. A chap going into the polling station said, ‘I used to vote LibDem when you were the party of the thinking working man. You’ve lost that’. We’re trying to get back to that here.

  • Sue Sutherland 3rd Sep '16 - 1:28pm

    I think that for our party PR is a default position as the NHS is for Labour. Labour have had little to say politically in opposition so they turned to the NHS to get themselves stirred up and quite a few voters too. I’m very much afraid that we sometimes use PR in the same way but unfortunately very few voters find the subject attractive. If we major on PR in the way William suggests I’m afraid we will be on the road to oblivion. Instead I believe we should be using our Lib Dem principles to develop policies to create the kind of society we wish to live in and that should include standing up for the thinking working man as Philip Knowles suggests. We are not socialists but as Lib Dems we must emphasise our commitment to speak for ordinary people, for the powerless, otherwise they are wide open to persuasion by characters like Farage or Trump.
    Voters aren’t stupid and tactical voting became quite popular before we went into Coalition with the Tories. Bath was mentioned by Daniel Walker and I was very much involved in turning that city from quite solid Tory to Lib Dem. This was helped by tactical voting and Don Foster built up a huge majority which sadly disappeared in 2015. I think it would be far better for us to find out through opinion polls why people deserted us than to enter any electoral pact to get PR which will be seen as self serving.

  • David Allen – You make an excellent point about Israel where a “pure PR” system gives enormous power to fringe groups. IIRC Germany has a 5% hurdle rate, presumably with the aim of stopping the tail from wagging the dog.

    For me, coming from a commercial background, the key case for PR is that it lowers the ‘barriers to entry’ in the ‘market’ for political power. Simply put, a small player has to overcome an impossible hurdle to mount a serious challenge. That hurdle includes staffing, organisation, funding, and, crucially (as all Lib Dems know), credibility. In some countries it includes the incumbents’ control of the election process itself.

    Commercial organisations routinely erect barriers to entry to protect and entrench their position. The Tories and Labour do too and are perfectly well aware of the advantage it gives them. But so too are Lib Dems who have traditionally exploited a LOCAL advantage with slogans like “It’s a two horse race” to buttress credibility and suppress lower-placed candidates.

    The problem with barriers to entry is that, when strong, they reduce competition and that’s a big reason our governance is so poor – the big parties can afford to be out of touch with the electorate because they are insulated from challenge.

    Perversely, it’s also a reason for the relative success of the Lib Dems over many years. The more unappealing the two big parties the more the protest vote grew and that went to the largest challenger – the Lib Dems. But many, grasping at straws, believed what they wanted about them so actual exposure in government served to prick the balloon and collapse much of that support.

    Entrenched barriers to entry are hard to overcome but it’s most easily done are when radial change is afoot and old dinosaurs fail to adapt to a changing world just as the Internet allowed many upstart challengers to break into the big time.

    The collapse of neoliberalism creates a parallel opportunity but PR is a two-edged sword: if enacted it would root out the weaker players over time but Lib Dems shouldn’t assume it would deliver a lasting electoral dividend to them any more than it has in Euro elections. So do Lib Dems have the ambition to be an upstart with all that implies?

  • Matt (Bristol) 5th Sep '16 - 3:15pm

    Gordon, an argument I have that I feel might appeal to those not won over by the abstract notion of ‘fairness’ relates to the fact that FPTP often works to bring about local and regional monopoly, and risks fostering local corruption and stasis; periods of over 60years without seats changing hands is, arguably, just not healthy. The power it gives individual MPs of a dubious bent to set up as local ‘fixers’ is dubious, and needs scrutiny.

    Similarly, most governments of recent times have worn themselves out after 1-2 terms; the particular FPTP culture we have got into post-Thatcher, of long periods of one-party government (four Tory terms, then 3 Labour terms) followed by sharp (disproportionate) swings in the opposite direction, is also non-conducive to effective government.

    Opening up ‘safe’ seats and ‘safe’ regions, to a wider range of challengers (just look at how AMS has allowed the Tories to survive and then revive in Scotland) and placing some kind of cap on the potential extent of a landslide, both ends which STV may facilitate, are good aims which are not self-serving from a Lib Dem point of view.

    Admittedly, these are not STV-specific arguments, but STV has the additional benefit of not working with a party list system and allowing the entry of independent individuals into politics.

  • Simon Banks 6th Sep '16 - 8:00pm

    What a good way of putting the party in terminal decline – to opt out of putting our case.

    I do support the idea of us considering standing down in a limited number of key seats if we’ve found considerable common ground with another party – and they do the same for us and there is local agreement – but doing so purely on grounds of support or opposition for PR would mean supporting UKIP in several places and, for example, supporting some crypto-racist or raucous climate change denier because he or she favoured some weak form of PR. That would really restore clarity about what we stood for.

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