Be Careful What You Ask For
One old chestnut that comes up from time to time is that the Conservatives have only won the majority of elections since 1918 because the â€œprogressive consensusâ€ is divided between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Hence, if only proportional representation were introduced in British elections, Labour and the Liberal Democrats could form a more or less permanent administration.
It would appear that former Lib Dem Leader, Paddy Ashdown, was convinced that Tony Blair would offer his party some form of proportional representation, in the run up to the 1997 general election, in return for his partyâ€™s support. In the event, Labourâ€™s victory was so overwhelming that Tony Blair could afford to ignore him.
I am not intending to comment on whether PR is a good thing (and I can see both sides of that argument), but whether it really would lead to permanent centre-left government in this country. I believe it would not.
While it is true that the Conservatives have not gained an overall majority of the vote since 1935, it is equally true that no other party has either. If there is an anti-Conservative majority in the country, there is also an anti-Labour, and anti-Liberal Democrat majority as well.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats often differ over many issues. Following the Scottish and Welsh election results, the Liberal Democrats have refused to form coalitions with Labour. It was clear to me from my conversations with several Liberal Democrat activists at Mike Smithsonâ€™s book launching that many of them would detest the idea of forming a coalition at national level with the Labour Party.
In short, it is quite wrong to regard Labour and Liberal Democrat voters and members as being ready to regard the other party as their automatic second choice. What is true is that from 1992 to 2005, many such voters were willing to vote tactically against the Conservatives, but there is no reason to believe that that is a permanent feature of our electoral system. In local elections, anti-Conservative tactical voting has disappeared.
PR would reduce the share of the vote won by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. There is a significant minority of far-Left voters who hold their noses and vote for the two parties. Under PR, they would have an excellent chance of returning MPs who were much more to their liking. The Greens, Respect, and perhaps other Left wing groups could all expect to gain votes at the expense of the two parties. While the Liberal Democrats could expect to gain seats, even as they lost votes under PR, it is very hard to see what benefit Labour could derive from PR. They would lose both votes and seats.
Paradoxically, Labour and the Liberal Democrats could also lose votes to eurosceptic and far right parties. There are very socially conservative Labour voters who would cut their right arms off, rather than vote Conservative. Yet it is clear that some of them have been prepared to vote for the British National Party in local elections.
Likewise, some Liberal Democrat voters are simply protest voters who canâ€™t stomach either Labour or the Conservatives, but will happily vote for parties that are reviled by the establishment in order to make a point. Under a system of PR, such voters would know that their vote would cease to be a wasted vote, and instead, would have a good chance of returning a representative who was much more congenial to them. In the last round of European elections, conducted under PR, UKIP and the BNP took almost 22% of the vote between them, and not all of that vote can have come from former Conservatives. In the Devon and Cornwall, for example, UKIP polled especially well in a number of areas that are strong for the Liberal Democrats at Parliamentary level.
There was one by-election last night, and one countermanded election.
Brent LBC: Dudden Hill. Lib. Dem 1262, Labour 1177, Conservative 412, Respect 160, Green 156. Lib Dem hold. The Liberal Democrat candidate had won last year, but was disqualified on a technicality. The result showed almost no swing between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, compared to last year.
South Gloucs. UA. Frampton Cotterill. This election was delayed, due to the death of a candidate. Lib. Dem 1524 and 1624. Conservative 1165 and 1179. Labour 162 and 225. A comfortable win for the Liberal Democrats.
Sean Fear is a London Tory and writes a weekly column here