Wednesday, 2 June 2010

A Tory case for STV

Five years from now Britain may well find herself with a new voting system - the Alternative Vote. I will oppose any move to this system up to and including the referendum which the Government has committed itself to hold. It is a frankly stupid system, somehow managing to take all the worst aspects of first-past-the-post and proportional representation, whilst being even less proportional than the former.

If, however, a change is made, it may whet the appetite of the electorate for further electoral reform, possibly to the Liberal Democrats' preferred choice - the Single Transferable Vote system.

I will not pretend to have any idea how this system works because, to be honest, you would probably have an easier time trying to explain advanced quantum theory. What I do know is this: it is the best true converter of votes into seats; it works rather well elsewhere in the world; it could very well renew peoples' confidence in their vote.

Everybody knows at general elections there are millions of votes wasted. Tory votes in inner cities, Labour votes in the country and Lib Dem votes practically everywhere. In many constituencies you only have a choice between red, blue and gold, regardless of whether you actually agree with any of them.

And who cannot sympathise with the 7,780,949 people - over a quarter of the electorate - who voted for the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 only to be rewarded with a meagre 23 MPs? This was only an 11-seat improvement on their 1945 result, when they polled only 9%. Such an outcome is a mockery of democracy.

Many argue that a truly proportionate voting system would create perpetual instability and a lack of any clear, decisive direction in policy. I have to admit, I used to hold that view myself, arguing that only the stability of a semi-presidential republic could make it work. But as we have seen, not only is coalition government stable (because it is in both parties' interests), it also prioritises the national interest over party ideology.

And the Germans seem to make it work pretty well. In the Bundestag, 299 deputies are elected by party-list proportional representation and 299 by first-past-the-post. Since the first elections in 1949, this has produced a surprisingly stable pattern of government.

From 1949-66 the Christian Democrats formed coalitions with the Liberals. From 1969-82 the Liberals instead backed the Social Democrats and from 1983-98 the see-saw returned to Christian Democrat/Liberal government. Gerhard Schröder made history by leading the first ever SPD/Green coalition between 1998 and 2005, but last year's elections brought back the familiar Christian Democrat/Liberal partnership.

In fact, the so-called 'grand coalitions' between Christian Democrats and the SPD, which are forced into being after a hung parliament, have only happened twice in seventy years - in 1966 and 2005. Not a bad record.

So what of the advantages? The last seventy years of British politics, and the last thirty in particular, have tended towards long blocks of large-majority, one-party government. And let me be frank here: this has been wrecking our country.

Many Tories use Thatcher's glorious majorities as an example of why FPTP must be saved - such herculean vision, determination, and grit may not have been possible under STV. But what they are forgetting is that the Thatcherite project, glorious as it was, only really came into being to mop up the almighty mess Labour had plunged this country into in 1945.

Labour's enormous landslide after the war meant Attlee was able to charge ahead with his socialist programme of nationalisation despite the fact that 45% of the country voted against it. It took thirty years, two Tory landslides and 18 years of one-party rule to reverse the rot, though this in itself ended up creating almost as many problems as it solved. Not least of these was New Labour, who proceeded to do the exact same thing for the next 13 years.

I predict an STV-elected Senate will indeed replace the House of Lords in the course of this parliament and hopefully the results of these elections will make an STV-elected Commons irresistible. Conservatives need not fear this - this election has shown us that Liberal Conservative coalitions are viable and stable. And who knows? Changes in voting patterns as a result of STV may even put a Tory/Ukip coalition on the table. I can't see many of the grassroots opposing that.

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