Opinion: Could Nigel Farage’s success lead to cross-party support for proportional electoral reform?

The pain has almost ceased, yet it is clear many in the Liberal Democrats feel it is an opportunity lost for a political generation. Mark Pack’s five point plan for the next Liberal Democrat manifesto was clear in its advocacy of wholesale local election reform- a change to the way we elect our MPs to Westminster is no longer on the table. Yet if the political landscape on the right has shifted to the extent many believe, the opportunity may come sooner than expected.

Nigel Farage has become many things to many people: a crusader reliant on a crude anti-establishment message, while advocating a regressive status quo on all things from marriage to the amount the wealthiest pay in taxes. The one thing he could never be accused of is progressive politics that enhances public belief in the body politic.

Yet on the first nationwide plebiscite conducted since 1975 (the one he probably tries his best to forget) Farage advanced a message of optimism- aimed at engaging ‘the new generation’. Were the AV referendum conducted today, his clear popularity could be put to great use by the ‘Yes’ campaign that was, like it or not, largely fought on personal popularity rather than constitutional principle.

Imagine a modern politician better placed to communicate the simple idea of three people wanting to go to the Dog and Duck, the Kings Head and the Red Lion- while two, albeit probably members of a ‘metropolitan cabal’, force everybody to get Frappiccinos.

The paradoxes are clear, with areas such as Castle Point- which saw the highest AV rejection rate of an council district in the UK, some 79.71%- being a constituency nominally ‘won’ by Ukip this month. Yet as Professor Tim Bale has pointed out, the balance of power has shifted as a result of Ukip, and proportional representation would now to advantageous for the Conservative party.

In countries across Europe and particularly Scandanavia, operating under proportional systems has consolidated the right- despite the cross-national surge in populist parties fragmenting their traditional vote. Either in coalition or through legislative support, parties such as Italy’s Northern League and the Netherland’s PPV have maintained the comparable ‘centre-right’ governments of Silvio Burlusconi and Mark Rutte in office. In contrast, a result of the voting system in the UK, shifts towards such parties here are more likely to result in governments of the centre and centre-left.

Clearly, there exists a difficulty in persuading swathes of Conservatives to countenance electoral reform. However, it perhaps remains politically plausible that a referendum offering a genuine form of proportionality could be discussed in 2015 on the grounds that, more than ever, the electorate would havd been ignored by an outdated system. What better way to take a positive from the success of a party so bereft of substance and ideas than to support their one truly liberal, democratic policy.

* The author is an active Liberal Democrat and Alliance Party of NI member, and has done work experience at Lewes and South Belfast for both. He is shortly starting a PhD at Queen Mary looking into coalition and inter-party politics in Britain.

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  • Alan Wager’s conclusion is wrong. The Conservatives and most of the Labour Party believe that they can achieve a majority government. It is only once this belief has been proven false that they might chance their position. If coalitions become the norm then they may accept the fairness argument that the number of MPs a party has should be in proportion to their share of the vote. However it might take three or four general elections followed by stable coalitions to achieve this change of opinion.

    The example of choosing a pub does not work with the average voter they seem to think that if two want to go to one pub but three others want to go to three other separate pubs then it is right to go to the pub with two votes.

  • nuclear cockroach 23rd May '13 - 7:19pm

    Proportional representation presents an existential threat to the Conservatives, as they are by far the broadest of the three broad churches. UKIP is after all nothing but a bunch of conservatives angry at the Conservative Party. The Conservative Party would only support a proportional system, if UKIP eat further into its support and it was felt that there was no possibility of bringing the estranged back into the big tent. That realisation would take several electoral cycles.

    Labour probably doesn’t feel particularly threatened by PR, as its support is solid enough that it wouldn’t splinter under a different system. It can gain a majority readily enough with our current electoral system, but it would also generally be the largest party most of the time under a proportional system. However, it opposes PR for two reasons. Firstly, many individual MPs would lose their right to thesafe seats which they currently occupy. Secondly, Labour has long felt that PR would reward the “traitorous” (in some of their eyes and all of their rhetoric) Lib Dems.

  • FPTP still suits Tories and Labour, so no chance of reform any time soon.

  • Mack(Not a Lib Dem) 23rd May '13 - 9:27pm

    You seem to have forgotten that the people have spoken and have made clear their overwhelming support for FPTP. You’ve lost the argument. Get over it.

  • Until we have proper laws which govern the way referendums are conducted and campaigns funded – in the strict way that applies to our general and local elections – there will never be a fair vote on FPTP/AV/STV/etc, What “Mack(Not A Lib Dem) fails to realise is that the AV referendums wasn’t “the people speaking and voicing overwhelming support for FPTP” but was in fact dominated by an anti-Clegg agenda, misinformation on what AV meant, and more. It was a sham. In a sense it serves us (Lib Dems) for imagining that it was ever remotely sensible to have the referendum in the first place given how it was bound to won where the bile and money led.

  • The first point I want to make is – no more referendums, ever, on anything. They are the tool of anti-democratic forces everywhere.
    On 2015 I do think this is the one thing we could say to UKIP voters -“lend us your vote for this Election, Your Party cant break the system open & maybe Ours can.”

  • Stuart Mitchell 23rd May '13 - 10:32pm

    The article may be about proportional representation, but the OP has muddied the waters by bringing up AV, which as you and I know has nothing to do with PR.

  • Mac has a point. Whatever the benefits of PR, and they are considerable, the disaster of the AV referendum has pushed that kind of electoral reform further away than it has ever been. Frankly, whoever it was decided that we should be asked about AV, rather than PR, should be held to account for being so politically stupid.

  • I think it will take a ‘wrong’ GE result for electoral reform to be a serious option again. Our equivalent of Bush vs Gove. Obvious example is Tories get most votes, Labour get most seats. Possibly dozens of seats where us/Labour squeak through due to Tory/UKIP vote-splitting, but as per the Witney council result FPTP supporters will say it shows the system working.

    But when our chance comes, we need to campaign for something we believe in properly – one of the problems with AV was that even its supporters didn’t really believe in it, and it was too easy to show how it could produce less proportional results. Our lesson should be that if it goes to referendum, it’s whole hog to proportionality or nothing.

  • If (and it is a big if), UKIP continues to have a level of support at around 15% at the next GE, I think people commenting here are too pessimistic about the chances of electoral reform. There is a very real possility that this could lead to a result where the Labour party achieve an overall majority with the lowest share of the vote in history and UKIP get 2 or 3 seats with a higher share of the vote than Lib Dems who get 50 seats.

    I think that would be sufficiently “wrong” to have everyone scratching their heads. I see little hope of a genuine cross-party campaign but this issue isn’t going away….

  • Julian Tisi 24th May '13 - 4:28pm

    Alan Wager is too optimistic and some other comments here too pessimistic about the likelihood of electoral reform at the next election. First of all – the likelihood of either Tories or Labour being convinced about PR for general elections in 2015 is precisely nil. But this does not mean there is no prospect for reform. PR (and we should push hard for STV) in local government is a realistic aim. It was agreed in Scotland, which like Northern Ireland now uses STV for local government elections. So only England and Wales to go. The reason it’s a real possibility is that MPs won’t be turkeys voting away their own safe seats. Incoming governments always do badly in local elections in their electoral cycle so there’s a potential self-interest in any coalition partner. And the change might be seen as modest – even some boundaries might not need to change as we already have many multi-member council seats. If we eventually get House of Lords reform and a PR system for that then the Commons is going to be the only body elected by FPTP. In an era of multi party politics this will look increasingly anomalous.

    So it’s not a quick win, but it’s very achievable in the long haul. But only if we get the politics right.

  • Malcolm Todd 24th May '13 - 8:10pm

    “I think it will take a ‘wrong’ GE result for electoral reform to be a serious option again. Our equivalent of Bush vs Gove. ”
    Which of course did not even result in a serious campaign for electoral reform in the US, let alone actual change.

    “There is a very real possility that this could lead to a result where the Labour party achieve an overall majority with the lowest share of the vote in history”
    Even lower than last time, when they won an overall majority of 66 on barely 35% of the vote? Nobody seemed to notice in 2005.

  • Bush versus Gove?

    Now there’s an image to savour.

  • Harry Beckhough 24th May '13 - 10:07pm

    Hi, I came here from the UKIP Newsletter. I am a UKIP supporter and more right than you would probably care to be in the same room with, but the fact that we agree on this shows that your understand of what right is probably doesn’t reflect the truth, it would be better to describe me as a Libertarian.

    Anyway, I support an English Parliament (in England, not London, which, thanks to you lot, isn’t English any more) and a new voting system. This was England would never have another left wing government again.

    That, by the way, is what’s going to happen.

  • Surely, the real tragedy, is voter disenchantment.?
    When you really sit down and think about it, the really depressing thing in all of this EU shambles, is that we British, must now rely on a beer swilling fag smoking spiv, to wrench democracy back, from the clenched fists of three posh boy, referendum deniers. How (politically), sad is that ?
    But in a politically ‘scorched earth’ landscape,..needs must. And for the sake of regaining democracy, we must hold our nose and keep voting UKIP, again and again, until one of those posh boys lose their white knuckled grip, and releases a referendum on Europe.
    It’s just a matter of time.

  • Bush versus Gore didn’t lead to a change in the system, but in the UK we don’t have the same fetishisation of constitutional arrangements that the Americans do.

    FPTP is fine with two strong parties, just about passable with three strong parties (unless you are part of the smaller group supporting the third-placed party) and breaks down entirely with four parties. So a strong UKIP showing in 2015 would reopen things despite the short time since the AV referendnum,

  • One question not asked here, following UKIP’s success is are the LibDems still enthusiastic for PR. For all my life this has been the one policy all LibDems were known for and agreed on but when the council elections were declared Simon Hughes went to great lengths to insist that UKIP had not overtaken the LDs because the latter may have hadfewer votes but because of the FPTP system they still have more councillors.

    Paint me cynical but the LDs principled support for PR seems little mentioned now. Does the party still actively, not just nominally, support it?

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