Would PR spell the end of the Liberal Democrats?

It is one of the biggest yet most under-appreciated ironies of British politics that the policy that unites the Liberal Democrat party membership in its most fervent rapture — the introduction of proportional voting to Westminster elections — is also, probably, the thing most likely, if implemented, to lead to the end of the party is we know it.

That is not to say that PR would necessarily lead to the break up of the party, but it is undeniable that majoritarian electoral systems force together the relatively broad coalitions that are the pre-requisite to winning elections.

The way in which individuals end up as supporters of particular parties under the present system is an interesting consideration in itself. Location, temperament, experience, upbringing: all can be more important factors than ideology. Paddy Ashdown became a Liberal because a canvasser persuaded him that he ought to. Nick Clegg became a Lib Dem because his then boss Leon Brittan thought he would fit in. Whether, but for these encounters, they would have ended up in the party is a matter on which we can only speculate.

Small, individual decisions, and a good deal of chance, explain why self-definining social democrats like Vince Cable and Andrew Adonis, socially and economically liberal politicians like Jeremy Browne and George Osborne, and centre-right Christian Democrat types like, well, David Cameron and Tony Blair end up in different, opposing parties.

What got me thinking about this was this post by Jeremy Cliffe over at the Economist. What, he asks, would British politics look like if we took a similar approach to our northern European neighbours? Here’s Jeremy’s guess, albeit with the sensible caveat that “[s]uch an exercise is doomed to be imprecise”:

Christian Democrats (c.30% support)

  • Core agenda: Pro-business, institutional conservatism, support for families
  • Voters: Middle- and upper-classes in suburban and rural areas
  • Would draw on: Conservatives, Lib Dems
  • Foreign corollaries: CDU (Germany), Moderates (Sweden)
  • Possible leaders: David Cameron, Ken Clarke, Jesse Norman

Social Democratic Party (c.30% support)

  • Core agenda: Progressive taxation, industrial activism, vocational training
  • Voters: Working- and middle-classes in urban and suburban areas
  • Would draw on: Labour, Lib Dems
  • Foreign corollaries: SPD (Germany), Social Democrats (Sweden), NDP (Canada)
  • Possible leaders: Ed Miliband, Andrew Adonis, Vince Cable

Free Liberals (c.15% support)

  • Core agenda: Cutting taxes, pro-immigration, social liberalism
  • Voters: Younger, urban, middle- and upper-class voters
  • Would draw on: Lib Dems, Conservatives, Labour
  • Foreign corollaries: FDP (Germany), VVD (Netherlands)
  • Possible leaders: George Osborne, Nick Clegg, Peter Mandelson

People’s Party (c.15% support)

  • Core agenda: Living costs, curbing immigration, social conservatism
  • Voters: Older working- and lower-middle-class voters in post-industrial areas
  • Would draw on: Labour, Conservatives, UKIP
  • Foreign corollaries: Die Linke (Germany), Socialist People’s Party (Denmark)
  • Possible leaders: Jon Cruddas, Robert Halfon

National Party (c.10% support)

  • Core agenda: Socially conservative, small-state, anti-immigration
  • Voters: Older middle-class and upper-class voters
  • Would draw on: Conservative Party, UKIP
  • Foreign corollaries: True Finns (Finland), Lega Nord (Italy)
  • Possible leaders: Nigel Farage, Liam Fox

I think Jeremy is broadly on the money with his guess of the various potential parties we might see, and the spread of current politicians among them. I am less convinced on the estimated vote-shares. In particular I think he overestimates how well the People’s Party and National Party would do.

The other particular unknown is the effect of history on the extent of the changes: would, for example, a new Social Democrat Party emerge, or would the Labour Party simply evolve into it? If the latter, to what extent would those lifelong Labour supporters stick with the party, even if, say a People’s Party, better represented their views? In other words, would voters look dispassionately, rationally at the party that correlates most closely with either their ideology or interest, or would other, less rational, motivators prevail?

Fundamentally, political parties will always adapt to the system in which they operate. An equally plausible alternative to the reversion of the Lib Dems to its predecessor parties would be for the party to remain broadly intact, united as now by some of the fundamental liberal tenets that the vast majority of the party holds dear, but fighting elections in a rather different way: more distinctively liberal, less populist on issues like immigration. The electoral necessity to stick together might not be as strong, but the common threads and shared history would be.

Do share your thoughts below: Would PR be the end of the Lib Dems? Should it be? What of the other parties?

* Nick Thornsby is a day editor at Lib Dem Voice.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I was agreeing with you til I got to “George Osborne” leading the Free Liberals, he’d be much better in the CDU

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 6th Jun '13 - 12:39pm


    I disagree. Osborne is many things, but socially conservative is not one of them. On things like same sex marriage he is more socially liberal than some LDs. He’s also a more open-minded politician than David Cameron. It was Cameron, for example, who blocked a mansion tax – Osborne was receptive to the idea.

  • Yes, PR would be the end of the Lib Dems and probably for the best.

    I wrote about this before; http://www.rightliberal.co.uk/2013/03/two-factions-are-better-than-one.html

  • I don’t really see the rationale. Surely policy is what decides voters’ allegiances, not the electoral system. And if you ditch those policies when you get into government, it seems they abandon you very quickly.

  • No Green Party?

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Jun '13 - 1:08pm

    I note in your list of political parties there is no “green party”. And nothing that would cover “radical liberal” as the term used to be understood when it meant the left-wing of the old Liberal Party. Also no party for young working class people in rural and post-industrial areas. But I suppose that’s what you’d expect from the Economist, all part of the plan to wipe out the very memory of what used to be meant by “liberalism” and hijack the term to mean what I call “Economism”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Jun '13 - 1:13pm

    Will Mann

    Surely policy is what decides voters’ allegiances, not the electoral system.

    No. Most people do not look at political party manifestos and make a rational voting choice situation based on that. There is plenty of research which shows that. However, you might just look at the way people have reacted to being displeased by the right-wing economic policies of the current government – by voting for a party (UKIP) which supports that sort of policy but in a more extreme form – to see how far removed voting choice is from rational consideration of party policy.

  • paul barker 6th Jun '13 - 1:25pm

    I feel that you are underestimating both what holds Libdems together & our potential support.
    Also, Labour are in no position to evove into anything because of their crippling burden of Debt & their links to Unions which can so easily be taken over by extremists.

  • Is there any evidence that a significant change in voting system leads all the existing political parties to split and recombine like this, I wonder? There are considerable barriers of history, relationships and resources within the existing party structure, and (as some of remember all too well) there isn’t likely to be much of a short-term electoral reward for those involved in all these mergers and splits?

    PR reduces – but doesn’t remove altogether – the barriers to entry for a new political party, and doubtless over time there will be the occasional big issue that creates a split in one of the existing parties that cannot be repaired. But then an in/out referendum has every prospect of doing that to the Tories under the current system. And some of the existing fringe parties might be able to slowly build a firmer base once they secure representation and a share of the media air time that goes with it.

    Equally interesting is how a different system might change both the way people vote and the outcomes for the existing party structure. It is ironic that a scenario where the Tories might have benefited from AV whilst the LibDems might have been disadvantaged is quite possibly in the process of arriving. Under proper PR LibDems would benefit from being freed from the wasted vote argument, but also lose tactical and many protest votes – arguably an accentuated version of the position we already face. It will also take time, and probably a lot of it, before people appreciate how the system works, just as tactical voting took a long time to really catch on. For example under the “1,2” supplementary vote system used to elect the London Mayor, I am convinced that there are voters who give us the second preference in the belief this helps us, rather in the way that a second place vote in many contests does (for example Eurovision) – the fact that they can give us ‘half a vote’ in this way actually reduces the number of first preferences we get. Similarly under the current “three X” system for local government elections, in 2010 enthusiasm for the idea of coalition led far more voters than usual to cast one of their Xs for each of the three parties, which is probably an approach least likely to actually produce a coalition! So a more dramatic change in voting system will almost certainly have a lot of effects that are hard to predict. I would guess that the LibDems would continue as a party that resembles the current one; we’d lose a few people off the ends to the Greens and other new groupings that emerge, but equally pick up people from the two old parties, especially those that are driven by ambition to make a forced choice between Tory or Labour. Our representation would increase but I rather suspect our vote share could decrease by at least as much?

  • I personally think if the politicians were able to say what they really thought rather than what they thought would give them the most votes in an adversarial, outdated “two-party” system, then the voters would be better able to distinguish between them, and behave more “rationally” – although I question the use of rationality in this context given most people vote on emotional concerns like loyalty, fear and identification.

    However, I do agree that parties will be more representative of differing strands of thought, more people will vote according to their real preference, more coalitions will be formed and decision making will be more collegiate (given there would be more coalitions) and more akin to how we make decisions in the business world – which isn’t so bad, really.

    Do I care whether the Lib Dems break up or not ? Now I do, of course, but if the electorate is better served by differing groups going different ways, and the marginal utlity of belonging to a political party goes up, then what’s the harm? I think we’d probably survive as you say Nick, but the important thing is democracy works better.

    In a word, as David Aaronwitch said today, the voter can be wrong (often they really can’t ALL be right), but is not stupid.

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Jun '13 - 2:33pm

    An interesting and fun post Nick. Yes I think PR would be the end of the Liberal Democrats as we know it. I also think a Moderate Party is missing from the above list, which I would find myself most comfortable in (if somewhat fiercely so at times).

    Looking at Jeremy Cliffe’s scenario, a flaw with PR seems to appear: who would be the prime minister? I am not an expert in constitutional reform, but I do have some reservations about PR.

  • Malcolm Todd 6th Jun '13 - 3:34pm

    Eddie Salmon: “who would be the prime minister?”

    As now, the prime minister would be the person who could command a majority in the House of Commons. That would usually, but not always, be the leader of the largest party (which is one reason why there almost certainly wouldn’t be a rush for the big parties to split up into smaller, more ‘rational’ splinters).

    If you think it’s important that the voters choose the prime minister (which they don’t at the moment, though it more or less works as if they do), then you’d need to separate choice of prime minister from election of parliament and directly elect the former. Israel tried that for a few years in the 1990s but abandoned the system — I think because it was leading to ever-greater fragmentation in parliament.

  • Alex Harvey 6th Jun '13 - 4:31pm

    IMO you’d be looking at more:

    Social Democrats – 30% or so
    Christian Democrats – 25% or so
    Economic Liberals – 10% or so
    Social Liberals – 10% or so
    Greens – 4-5%
    Racists – 10%
    Leftists – 4-5%
    Nationalists of all stripes – the remainder

    That’s all top of the head stuff mind.

  • Geoffrey Payne 6th Jun '13 - 4:48pm

    I have to say that I think the categories divided up here are simply wrong. I think there is very little difference between Camoron and Osborne. And I cannot for the life of me see any connection between Jon Cruddus and UKIP. I do not think that PR specifically would break the Libral Democrats.
    I do think that there are signs that because of the economic strife that society is becoming more illiberal. There is good news on gay rights and equal marriage but attitudes towards immigrants and Muslims in particular are becoming more illiberal, civil liberties are under attack, concern about the increased poverty caused by benefit cuts is reducing, as is concern about taking action on climate change.
    The Liberal Democrats need to make their case to stop things getting worse but on some of these key issues we are divided ourselves.

  • This has long been my view. Interestingly, Ken Clark also said the same a few weeks ago on the radio. He admitted that all the big parties are coalitions that would not exist if we had the same sort of voting systems as the continent.

    The awfulness of our system creates a great rigidity that keeps all the parties stuck in whatever rut they are in and hence perversely creates an opportunity for a ‘non of the above’ option that exists irrespective of that party’s actual stance on anything. Hence the easy transference of the ‘non of the above’ vote to UKIP despite their very different policies.

    This has allowed the Lib Dems to enjoy a level of support in Westminster elections they never really earned on their merits and despite the lack of any real vision (in local elections by contrast they often have provided leadership and good governance). Everything is focussed on hovering up as many of the discontented as possible in the facile belief that, if only the Lib Dems could get a toehold in government, the increased exposure would transform the voters view of the Party.

    Well, it has but not quite in the way expected!

  • Oh hell, I find myself agreeing with every word Matthew Huntbach says.

    There certainly isn’t a party in the list in the original post I would feel at home in, and I’d be looking for a radical liberal option – possibly the pirates? Or possibly a Green party cured of woo.

  • David Allen 6th Jun '13 - 5:57pm

    The Economist article is a cynical little piece. It identifies at least four excitingly different ways to be right-wing, but only one way to be left-of-centre, a Milibandist party. Then there is this wonderful “People’s Party”, which is supposed to be based on “Die Linke”, but nevertheless belongs only to ageing conservatives, and clearly makes no sense except in former East Germany. As others have pointed out, there are no Greens, no radical Liberals, and nobody remotely interested in mass youth unemployment and the things the Occupy movement stood for. There is also no UKIP. That’s because the Economist would like everybody to share its own kind of right-wing beliefs, and everyone else to FO and D.

  • Peter Bancroft 6th Jun '13 - 6:10pm

    I think this is an interesting posting, but has the likely political outcomes a bit off.

    As Brian says, I think you’d be likely to get a “Social Liberal” party which would actually be the centre of the Lib Dems today. Those on the fringes may well go off and join the Socialists/ Social Democrats or the various types of free marketers/ conservatives, but I would expect to see that happen rather than the party actually split.

    If you look at European politics, the Lib Dems are an awful lot like D66 or Radikal, and so it’s a very viable model to follow. Labour and the Conservatives on the other hand could well split as they each are a bringing together of moderate and less moderate beliefs (i.e. Socialists and Social Democats on one side and Moderatene style centre-rightists with loony UKIP types on the other).

    The Lib Dems could well come out of this the best out of all parties.

  • David Allen 6th Jun '13 - 6:22pm

    The other thing which is deeply cynical about all this is the suggestion that it’s OK for politicians to choose their parties in much the same way that they might choose a bank or a professional footballer choose a club. Political principles, so last century!

    Actually, all this parallel cynicism about the enlightened modern voter being quite happy to swap allegiances at will and buy the party/product with the best advertising is more self-serving nonsense, talked up by cynical politicians and their associated advertising industry.

    In truth, the modern voter is totally fed up with politicians who tell him/her lies, and do in Government the opposite of what they claimed were their fundamental principles. As the NuLibDems have found out!

  • Peter Hayes 6th Jun '13 - 6:45pm

    In the last local elections I suspect the winning LibDem in my ward might well have lost under PR of any form as the combined Con / Ukip vote would have let the Con in on second choice.

  • Jonathan Brown 6th Jun '13 - 8:03pm

    As much as I’d like a fairer (proportional) electoral system, I do think over time it would likely lead to a breakup up the party I want to be in i.e. this one. I haven’t been a member very long, but one of the things that appeals to me about the Lib Dems is the mixture of economic liberals, social liberals, ‘traditional/conservative’ liberals, radical liberals and others. I’m sure the considerable differences in politics and principles held by the members of our party is no wider than in either of the others, and I feel very much at home in this coalition. Despite the dismay I feel over some actions taken by the party in government or even over certain party policies and practices.

    I wouldn’t put my wishes above my interest in a reformed voting system, but I’d be sad if the Liberal Democrats did split. (Just as I’m sad that we’ve lost so many fine people over the last few years, particularly although not exclusively on the ‘left’ of the party.)

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Jun '13 - 9:25pm

    Malcolm, thanks for your reply. I do not believe in having a directly elected Prime Minister because I think they should just come from the largest governing party.

    In the Economist’s scenario, The Christian Democrats, The Free Liberals and the People’s Party would probably form a coalition in order to form a majority government, which is similar to what we have now.

    The benefit of PR is the greater harmony and ideological clarity within the parties; however the disadvantage is that people are not really voting for their local MP and because of this PR is arguably undemocratic.

    I know FPTP has its problems and I also know the question was “Would PR spell the end of the Lib Dems”, I just wanted to challenge the status quo that it should even be a high priority for us.

  • Robert Wootton 6th Jun '13 - 10:32pm

    It would be interesting to see what the present government would look like if we had PR in the last general election.
    What would the relative proportions of the cabinet be in terms of political affiliation and the votes cast for them?
    For instance, would the BNP or the Socialist Workers Party be represented? Probably not but the government would still be a coalition even if the Liberal Democrat party disappeared.

  • The point of a political party is to be an agency by which people sharing common, overlapping points of views on important elements of policy can advocate for those policies. A political party whose sole raison d’être is the preservation and propagation of its name, organisational structure, or membership lists is not worth preserving. If the best way to promote those agreed-on policies is to split the party, or to join with all or part of another party, then party leaders and members should be fully prepared to do so — after suitable discussion of course. But “this spells the end of the party!” should not be the automatic termination of the discussion — a party is a tool, a means and not an end in itself, and it should not be seen as a holy church that needs to be kept in existence until the day of judgment.

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Jun '13 - 8:56am

    Brian Robson

    I agree some of those vote shares are out of whack – in particular, I’m pessimistic that a sensible Christian Democrat party would do so well under PR, given the other alternatives on offer (look at the CDA in the Netherlands these days).

    Actually, if people were voting on policies I suspect a Christian Democrat party in European terms would be where more UK people are than anywhere else, so long as it made sure to drop any religious labelling or overt appeal to religious principles. There is a big unmet demand for a party which is moderate economically and socially conservative though not overwhelmingly so. That is contributing to the UKIP rise, though UKIP like most of the far right makes a fairly cynical appeal to the conservative instinct to get support for something that is very different.

    Also, the economic right-wing bias of the Economist shows here as well, as it ignores the left-wing stream of Christian Democracy, which is not so “pro-business”, certainly in terms of support for global corporations, and is instead into things like co-operatives, support for small family-owned businesses against big money, and policies sliding into distributism. The Liberal Party was much more that sort of party than tends to be acknowledged, with its close connection with non-conformist Christianity still fairly visible even towards the end of the 20th century. The “economic liberals” forget the extent to which the old Liberal Party had that origin when they try to claim they are “19th century liberals”.

  • I can’t help wondering why the author of the article didn’t use the political groups/parties we see in the European Parliament. Had he done so he mightn’t have missed the Greens which is a serious omission.

    Some of his party names are “soft-soaped”. Take the pleasant sounding “People’s Party” another sister parties mentioned are members of the EP’s GUE/NGL group – which included various Communist parties and the “Hard Left” ones that renamed themselves suddenly when the Berlin Wall fell. So we are talking about the Communists or the. “We won’t call ourselves Communists but…” party. Likewise the “National Party” – a pleasant name for the Populist Right parties you find in the EP’s EFD – the parties of which stay JUST inside the law to avoid being fined or ostrasised as extremists.

    As for assigning politics here to these parties. How on earth did he decide David Cameron – who vetoed an EU Treaty change and who broke his party’s alliance with the EP’s Christian Democrats (in the EPP) – should be classified as a member of the Christian Democrats, the most pro-EU political parties in EU politics?

  • Gareth Wilson 9th Jun '13 - 9:51am

    PR will never happen in the UK. We all need to move on from it and see how the party can best deliver MP’s in FPTP

  • “PR will never happen in the UK. ”

    Really? Suppose the result of the 2015 election is a slab of UKIP MPs elected but why short of any proportionality. And Tory + UKIP + LD equals a majority. Suddenly you would have a majority made of up parties that all had a vested interest in PR. Suppose then that after an EU referendum UKIP say they will support legislation (not a referendum) on PR as a condition of a coalition.

    OK its a little far fetched but it’s not totally off the scale.

    Saying things will never happen in UK politics is dangerous. Just look at all the stuff written about how Labour could never win a general election after 1992!

  • Mike Falchikov 9th Jun '13 - 12:23pm

    Why not have a look at the councill election results in Scotland, contested under STV in 2007 and 2012?
    LIb Dems onthe whole did well under STV in 2007, gaining seats where we had never had councillors before,
    but perhaps slightly underperforming in some areas of strength. HOlyrood elections in 2011 were disastrous,
    the council elections in 2012 perhaps even more so, due largely to national (both UK and Scotland) factors beyond the control of councillors ,so, under STV, you do need a degree of popularity, as measured by opinion polls, before you benefit from second choice votes.

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th Jun '13 - 8:43pm

    Gareth Wilson

    PR will never happen in the UK. We all need to move on from it and see how the party can best deliver MP’s in FPTP

    Yes, that is what we do. We have got quite good at it. That’s why we have many more MPs now than we had after we won a bigger share of the vote back in 1983.

    In fact when I first saw the title of this thread, I assumed it was about another issue – we seem very bad at fighting PR elections. We’re good at targetting in FPTP elections, but when we have PR elections, such as for the Greater London Assembly and the European Parliament, we don’t seem to have a strategy for fighting them and we seem always to do badly. I appreciate I’ve no familiarity with how we get on with STV in Scotland and Wales, but I think if we got PR for Westminster but the other parties forced us to accept a list system, we’d slump.

  • Like Ian above (3 days ago) I do not accept the basic premise that PR would lead to a radical reconstruction of the current political parties. There will always be various small – sometimes single issue – groupings as there are now. Perhaps some of them would have a better chance of winning a few seats under STV than under FPTP but I see no evidence in other European countries with PR systems of the kind of wholesale change that Jeremy Cliffe envisages.
    Look at our neighbours across the Irish sea where STV has been used for many years.

  • Simon Banks 24th Jun '13 - 7:47pm

    Of course PR has dangers for any large or medium-sized party. That includes the Liberal Democrats and the SNP, though not, I suspect, Plaid Cymru. I doubt if there would be an actual split, which would be far more likely in the Tories than in Labour or Liberal Democrats, but if, for example, the right-wing Tories and the socially liberal, economically strongly free marketeer Tories, some LDs would be attracted into the latter. Conversely, we might get more of those people whose natural sympathies lie with us, but who thought us powerless.

    As for the analysis – what about Scotland and Wale, which have their own dynamics, and that source of many Liberal votes in the recent past, poorer people in rural areas?

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