While the Tory party seems to be fixated on finding a Prime Minister with a longer-dated “Best Before” label than Liz Truss, both they and the Labour party appear to have missed a more important point, which is that there’s never been a better time to effect electoral reform for the UK, but neither Party seems to have noticed, being too obsessed with the cult of premiership.
Recent events have shown that the current two party system is even more broken than Liz Truss’ economic vision, and whoever wins the current Prime Ministerial beauty parade is in for a stormy ride, but nobody seems to ask why it’s all going wrong, and what can be done about it.
There was a time when the two party system worked, but it relied on a broad acceptance of an agreed party policy, along with compliant MPs, who were happy to be whipped through the lobbies. W.S.Gilbert foresaw the problem of a less disciplined legislature when he penned the lyrics for Iolanthe, 140 years ago, observing that, “the prospect of a lot of dull MP’s in close proximity, all thinking for themselves is what no man can face with equanimity”. Today, the only common vision within MPs of any party appears to be a desperation to retain their seat, whilst doing the minimum to deserve to. The level of entropy of MPs in both the Conservative and Labour parties now seems greater than their leaders can contain. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister, either before or after a general election, will face the task of managing a party which is madder than a box of frogs.
Two years after Gilbert took his crack at the Parliamentary system, the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) was formed. (Whether there’s a link, nobody knows.) Since its creation, it has fought for fair votes and a better democracy, leading to citizens having high levels of trust in their Parliament and MPs. They’ve observed that, “Right now, disillusionment, disengagement, and distrust are the words most often associated with people’s relationship to representative politics. This is enabled by a voting system which hands one party undue power. Westminster’s centralised system is holding this country back.” It echoes the view of Charles Walker, a Tory backbencher, who eloquently spoke of the current culture of choosing a leader, as one of, “talentless people putting their tick in the right box, not because it’s in the national interest, but because it’s in their own personal interest to achieve ministerial position”.
In the ERS’s Route to Reform strategy, they state that they will work to “persuade one of the two major parties to back proportional representation. This is most likely to be the Labour party, but we will continue to work with Conservatives”.
We have had false starts before in the route to a fairer voting system. The problem has always been one of vested interest, as once a party has used the two-party system to gain power, it sees little advantage in changing that system. At the point a party loses power, it generally does so from a point of weakness, where a snap General Election is called to try to salvage the status quo, and any thoughts of legislative change go out of the window to make room for campaigning.
The state we are in today is very different. The Tories have two years left in this parliament and a large working majority that means they have no urgency in going to the polls. In fact, they have exactly the opposite. According to Statista, their public rating has fallen to just 22%. Electoral Calculus has estimated a slightly higher level of 24% and used that to predict the result of a general election. Their prediction, in the chart below, shows that 317 of the current Conservative MPs would lose their seats, leaving just 48 Tory MPs in the House of Commons, facing a Labour party with 507 MPs. That’s the epitome of what the Electoral Reform Society consider to be “undue power”, which holds the country back.
The result would be so disastrous that the Conservatives may well end up in third place, behind the SNP. So, for the Tories, supporting an early election is as unthinkable as turkeys voting for Christmas.
On the other side, those numbers must sound like a dream come true for the Labour party. The question is whether it would translate into real change for the country?. The euphoria wouldn’t last long before Keir Starmer had to face the reality of governing. Any Prime Minister with a majority of several hundred seats is effectively in the position of a dictator. They can pass whatever they want until the general populace, or divisions within their own ranks, end up stopping them. To be effective when you have that sort of majority requires a Prime Minster with the vision, management skills and determination of an Attlee or a Thatcher, who can govern their own party as well as the country. It won’t work when all you have is a nice bloke in charge of a box of frogs. Unless something dramatic happens with today’s Labour party, everything suggests that a massive Labour win would end up as a squandered opportunity. Certainly not something that would see Starmer’s name go down in history as a Prime Minister of note, which is what I am sure he would prefer. But that could change.
Which is where things could get interesting…
Whoever becomes the next Tory Prime Minister will inherit a record low opinion poll rating and an economy that has been internationally trashed by their predecessor. However competent they are (and Charles Walker’s observation on talentless people doesn’t inspire confidence), the new incumbent is unlikely to change the public opinion of the party over the next two years, especially as inflation and the cost of living crisis continue to bite. As we get closer to a general election, it will become increasingly obvious that the current electoral system will decimate the number of Tory MPs which get elected. Their only chance of survival as a viable opposition is through electoral reform. Moving to proportional representation almost certainly won’t win them the election, but it is likely to save them from losing almost all of their seats. For possibly the first time in parliamentary history, a party in power can benefit from changing the system whilst having time to do it.
The numbers make this strategy very obvious. Taking the predictions from the Electoral Calculus survey and adding in the effect of moving from the current First Past The Post (FPTP) polling to Proportional Representation (PR), we see a markedly different picture:
The Tories would lose over half of their current seats, but would still have enough to act as a credible opposition party, rather than being wiped out. It should be a no-brainer for whoever is the next PM.
So why should Labour play ball? Changing the electoral system is normally the rallying cry of the opposition, which is why the Electoral Reform Society’s strategy has been to concentrate on Labour. But that was before the current Tory suicide cult. If Labour chose to support a change to proportional representation at this stage, it shouldn’t affect their chance of winning the next election. That seems pretty much a foregone conclusion, unless they work hard to throw it away. Depending on the PR system that’s chosen, Labour might not obtain an outright majority, but they would still have more than enough seats to govern comfortably and it would be a more democratic reflection of the country’s mood. However, many in the party, who are currently salivating at the prospect of a overwhelming, super-sized Labour administration, would hold this lessened number of MPs against Keir and any of the opposition front bench who support electoral reform at this time.
Which brings us to a more personal reason why Keir Starmer should support this, which is his legacy. If he worked with the new Tory PM to bring in proportional representation, he could go down in history as the man who had the guts to put the long term future of Parliament first. Both parties are still fractured, with historic issues dividing their left and right. Successive leaders have tried to plaster over those divisions, but they’ve not gone away. Nor will they while we have a two party system. Going into a premiership as the architect of PR puts him in a far stronger position to control the destiny of his own Party and that of the country.
How a PR electoral system would work in the UK is unknown. It would be good to go into it with a well thought through plan, preferably for a mixed member system, like those in Wales, Scotland and Germany. (For a good description of the various mixed member systems, read the entry on Wikipedia.) But given we didn’t have a plan with Brexit, that may be asking too much. Proportional representation may lead to more parties pushing extreme views; it could equally lead to another Government of National Unity, as we had in 1931, with a re-emergence of the centre, which would probably be good for Keir. Or it could result in a diminished relevance for Westminster, with the Civil Service being left to get on with running the country.
Any of those has to be better than what we have seen over the last decade. With proportional representation, those MPs who believe they appeal to the electorate have more power to create new blocks that can split away, rather than being tied to the increasingly unstable orbits of either Conservative or Labour.
The current situation is unique. The Government has the time and reason for changing the electoral system. If Keir Starmer can get his party to find common cause with the Conservatives and support electoral reform before the next election, he will go down in history as one of our great statesmen. It’s a win-win situation for both the outgoing and incoming Prime Ministers. Let us hope they both see the benefit, rather than putting on their Party blinkers and wasting time playing with their respective boxes of frogs.
If you think this makes sense, please write to your MP. We need something better than we are currently experiencing.