I have been wondering how the road to reform of the British electoral system might play out. Assume Thursday’s vote gives the Liberal Democrats sufficient power to extract a pledge from one of the other parties to move this agenda forward, what might we expect to ensue?
An easy way to address this question is to assume the Lib Dems end up in the (perhaps unlikely) position of being given everything they ask for on the issue.
A bill would swiftly be pushed through Parliament to switch future elections to Single Transferable Vote in multi-member seats, right? After all, the party’s policy brief on political reform is unequivocal (if frustratingly lacking in detail) on the subject:
The Liberal Democrats will change politics forever and end safe seats by introducing a fair, more proportional voting system for MPs, and for the House of Lords.
Well, no, changing politics forever may not be nearly as simple as that.
The Lib Dems can hardly claim a mandate for a fundamental transformation of British democracy based on what Nick Clegg derides as a ‘clapped out’ and ‘potty’ electoral system.
After all, the party knows that polls suggest public ambivalence, at best, about PR. It would have to offer a ‘fair vote’ on a concrete reform proposal. To me, that means a referendum would be inevitable.
Lib Dems concur. The party’s manifesto describes STV as its ‘preferred’ system, but it also promises to ‘introduce a written constitution’:
We would give people the power to determine this constitution in a citizens’ convention, subject to final approval in a referendum.
So, in the Lib Dem ‘dream scenario’, a government would be expected to
- Set up a process that it wouldn’t fully control (and that’s not to criticise the need for inclusion and consultation).
- Through that process, agree a constitution that would contain a package of issues that went far beyond electoral reform.
- Put the whole package to an up-or-down vote and then live with the consequences.
All this would, presumably take time (creating new constituencies would then take even longer). In some ways, this would be good for the stability of a coalition. After all, the Lib Dems will have an enormous incentive to trigger a new election once PR is in place.
But there would be considerable political dangers as well. One can’t help being reminded of the tortuous process that led to the Lisbon Treaty. It also started life at a citizen’s convention and then floundered through a series of referenda.
Surely a Lib Dem-ish government would risk losing a vote on PR because the electorate objected to other parts of the proposed constitution; or was angry with the government for other reasons (highly likely, in an era of austerity) and used the referendum to punish it.
And if the referendum was rejected, wouldn’t the government fall as well? Either because the Lab Dems pulled support in a huff. Or because the government was simply discredited by losing such as important vote.
In reality, of course, this scenario ignores the wishes of Lib Dems’ majority partner in any coalition (and that the Conservatives could still gain a majority, and would almost certainly try to govern as a minority if they got the chance).
But Labour, too, promises a referendum on electoral reform (this for the alternative vote system which the Lib Dems dislike). I wouldn’t bet on the ability of a new Brown government to win any referendum, given the mood of the country.
David Cameron, meanwhile, has refused to irrevocably rule out a deal on PR. Surely he too would want to put any new voting system to the country?
Given an overwhelming majority of Conservative party members (MPs too, I suspect) would be against abandoning first-past-the-post, wouldn’t much of the party then campaign for a ‘no’ in any referendum?
In all these scenarios, you’d have to
- Expect an extended period of political instability at a time when the government will face a highly challenging domestic and international agenda.
- Give at least reasonable odds for the whole enterprise ending in ignominious failure.
(One further wrinkle would be to wonder what would happen if a government fell after reform had been agreed, but before it could be fully implemented.)
None of this is to argue that electoral reform should be ruled out (truly, it’s not). Nick Clegg would say it’s a matter of principle, and that he would be confident of winning the argument out in the country.
But for those of us who are trying to work out what how the UK’s global role will change after the election, the attempt to agree major constitutional reform could be a very potent wildcard in the short/medium term, just as regular coalitions would be in the medium/long term…
[Read the rest of our After the Vote series.]