Electoral reform, Donald Trump … and Theresa May


For years, it was said that there was a threat to western democracies from far-right parties with extremist or populist opinions. The BNP were, in the 2000s, supposed to be ‘our’ version of this phenomenon, before they collapsed and – arguably – their vote went elsewhere.

But, still, the possibility of a small extremist nationalist party gaining undue influence was held to be a convincing argument against electoral reform. I think it may now be possible to say with great certainty that this was either a fallacy or a lie.

Why? Because there are two countries where, this year, populist/nationalist agendas have upset the existing political order: Firstly, the USA (in the person of Mr Trump); and secondly, this country (in the shape of Brexit). That is to say, two countries with plurality voting, who have historically rejected voting reform and proportionality as alien to their political culture.

And why might this have come to pass?

Doing it the easy way

Well, I would argue that if an established party with a strong likelihood of being in government is captured by an outsider figure with radical ideas (as the US Republicans have been) or decides to treat with ideas from the radical Right (as is the temptation to our own Conservative Prime Minister), then the radical Right does not need to go to the trouble of winning elections on its own merits, it just needs to co-opt or scare the ‘mainstream’ Right into following its lead.

And in the US and UK systems, you don’t have to go on to win an unsurmountable test in terms of the popular vote once you have a large party playing your tune.

Under 50% of American ballot papers appear to have been cast for Trump, but he won. He is supported by a raft of Republicans in both Houses, who may not share his views but will feel obliged to create a climate in which he can operate – out of sheer tribalism.

Here, the Conservatives have a small majority with just 36% of the vote, and a divided Opposition. Theresa May, with no clear-cut internal opposition so far, has embraced Brexit and moved right, keeping UKIP out but playing their game.

Passing the electoral test

Instead, it is in Europe, where it is harder to gain full control of a nation’s government without a genuine majority of the popular vote, where any international move to the populist Right will really be tested.

If in 2017, Marine Le Pen occupies the Elysee Palace, if Geert Wilders ousts our fellow Liberal Mark Rutte, if Alternativ Fur Deutchland can unsettle or restrict Angela Merkel  … well, then the popular consensus for liberal democracy is besieged across the entire democratic world.

But if those radical parties cannot secure enough votes to form broad-based governments with freedom of action, the world will see that more proportional, consensus-based systems – long advocated  by this party – are both the future and the safeguard of democracy.

Where do we go from here?

So we in the Liberal Democrats need to not just defend past liberal and democratic achievements, but also to advocate further ways in which the underlying values behind those achievements can benefit everyone in society (and voting reform is just one aspect of this).

We need to continue offering reform that is workable and long-lasting, and we need to become again a ‘party of ideas’ that sets the agenda, even when we have only 8 MPs.

And we desperately need to find a way to genuinely reconnect with those who think Trump or  Farage – and, yes, Theresa May – can speak for the powerless when it is demonstrable that they do so inconsistently, unreliably or duplicitously.

It’s been a long time coming, but we still need change in our political system, and not the sort of change that Trump is selling to his nation.

* Matthew Campbell is a member of Bristol LibDems, lives in South Bristol and works for a local authority in the South West of England. He also posts on this site as Matt (Bristol).

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  • About three years ago I had a spell of pointing out on LDV that there is a fundamental contradiction in liberalism between support for globalisation (our long held belief in free trade), and the power that globalisation delivers into the hands of oligopoly capitalists (our belief that concentration of power should be resisted and that power should be spread as widely as possible). I don’t know how to square that circle, but it is the politicians who have engaged with the disempowered who have reaped the electoral rewards in recent years. We should have been challenging the power of the international corporations rather more than defending the structures that have allowed them to destroy communities with impunity.

  • See there is concern in left wing quarters of Canada that the Liberals are going off electoral reform, one of their manifesto commitments. Is this because they have the NDP on the run? – only at 11% last week, Liberals at 49%.

  • Matt (Bristol) 11th Nov '16 - 10:08am

    Jedi – it’s a fine balance, but the worst option – to me – is the one that results in the implementation of extreme and untested policies that are not supported by a straight majority of the electorate.

    I am further saying that your assessment (and previously that of the UK governing class) that the chances of extremist influence on or entryism into a major party were ‘vanishingly small’ is going to need to be reassessed in the light of event.

    So as to be clear, in this instance, I am not labelling Brexit in all its forms ‘extreme’, but imo many of the forms of so-called ‘hard Brexit’ would fall into this category. They would not have won at the ballot box in a general election; hard Brexit on its own as a discrete option would not have won the referendum.

    By the way, the French system fits your first criterion (permits extremist breakthrough) but does not fit the second (strongly encourages coalitions).

    The German arguably fits both – to an extent – but has a further safeguard in that it tries to encourage coalitions of the larger parties if a coalition is unavoidable (ie it does not allow a minority coalition).

  • Matt (Bristol) 11th Nov '16 - 10:17am

    Theakes – that’s thoroughly depressing, if true.

  • Matt (Bristol) 11th Nov '16 - 10:21am

    Tony Hill – I don’t think it is a fundamental contradiction – worker representation on corporate boards, and increased support for mutualisation, and improved barriers to demutualisation are just 2 of several ways the tension between those two ideas can be eased.

    Again, as with voting reform, these ideas are tried and tested in Europe. We have been looking the evidence in the face for years, and ignoring it on the basis of a myth of national exceptionalism.

  • Matt, yes true enough, have a look at some of the Canadian political opinion sites, especially “threehundredeight”, probably the best for in depth analysis. Interestingly the Liberal have lost support in Ontario since the election, significantly so, but that has been more than countered by their better positions in British Columbia, some of the Atlantic provinces and Quebec.

  • > See there is concern in left wing quarters of Canada that the
    > Liberals are going off electoral reform, one of their
    > manifesto commitments. Is this because they have the NDP on
    > the run? – only at 11% last week, Liberals at 49%.

    It’s a bit more complicated than that (and irritatingly familiar).

    A multi-party parliamentary committee on electoral reform has been meeting over summer, and MPs have been encouraged to have public consultations on the matter in their own ridings.

    This work seems to be continuing, but Trudeau recently made a remark that electoral reform might be less urgent now, and many interpreted that as him testing the water.

    The Liberals have also tended to couch their support for electoral reform in general terms – a rejection of FPTP more than an embrace of proportional representation. Trudeau in particular has expressed a leaning towards AV, something that Liberal figures sometimes voice as a desire for a voting system that promotes consensus or deters partisanship.

    Their broad approach has been very reminiscent of their Labour counterparts in the UK and New Zealand, who also spoke of a general desire for reform pre-election and then deferred the specifics to a committee post-election, giving themselves ample room to select a non-proportional reform or let the issue fade away when no longer convenient.

    So: The Liberals haven’t necessarily pulled back (yet), but nor were they racing wholeheartedly towards a properly proportional reform in the first place.

  • Tonyhill,
    It’s not “our long held belief in free trade” which is at fault but our failure to achieve it. We are currently part of the EU which operates as a protectionist block in as much as, I understand from recent discussions, an 8% import tax operates on foreign trade into the EU except for entities with whom special agreements have been negotiated. To accord with our beliefs we should be pressing for progressive reduction to zero of that 8%.
    The malign affects “that globalisation delivers into the hands of oligopoly capitalists” should be countered by implementation of land and natural resources taxation which could not be avoided by the huge multinationals as they do now with corporation tax.

    Regarding “challenging the power of the international corporations rather more than defending the structures that have allowed them to destroy communities with impunity” this is especially applicable to the US, Israeli and to our shame British companies complicit in the oppression of Palestine.

  • Matt (Bristol) 11th Nov '16 - 3:48pm

    Thanks Adrian for the further detail.

    I hope Trudeau sticks to his guns and does something decisive. At this stage, I am (unusually for me) less concerned about STV or full proportionality per se, and more about another plurality-voting democracy moving to a system with a better ‘firewall’ against rule by a party with a small minority of the popular vote.

    AV is not ideal, but it’s not useless in that context (though arguably two-round is better than AV in this regard, and a partially-francophone nation might want to have a look at it, costly though it is).

    In this country, I would strongly prefer STV for either House of parliament to be seriously considered in any further reform process, and ideally to be on the ballot in a referendum if it was adjudged that one was necessary. I think AV should for the near-future be out of bounds in the UK, given its defeat within the last decade.

    However, that still leaves the other constitutionally enacted ‘native’ systems of AMS, STV, SV, and the seriously-proposed-but-never-taken-forward option of AV+.

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