the day after….
Surprisingly, in the confusion of the following day, and given the fact that no-one had had any sleep for days, all three party leaders behaved in a statesmanlike way yesterday. First of all, Nick Clegg made it clear that the moral victory went to the Conservatives and they should be given first dibs at forming a government – even though this means that Gordon Brown stays in Downing St for the next day or two. Then Gordon Brown admitting that he respected Mr Clegg’s stance; and finally, Cameron offering the big prize.
But the 2010 election does two things. First, it shows yet again how flawed a democratic process is first-past-the-post; and second, it shows up what is wrong with proportional represenation in a parliamentary-ministerial system. This weekend, Nick Clegg is exercising far more power than he has any right to expect. He, not us, is deciding who will be the next government, despite the fact that his party came third in the popular vote (and not a terribly close third either). This is just as undemocratic as the fact that his party has so few seats in Parliament relative to their share of the national vote, and it would be wrong for him to negotiate a system which perpetuates for his party such an undemocratic system.
Under a proportional system, small parties would have much more power. Here’s how a proportionally-elected chamber would look after yesterday’s vote:
Tory: 235 seats;
Labour: 185 seats;
Sinn Fein: 4
plus a few others to bring up the total. A couple of caveats: firstly, no one is proposing a fully-proportional party list system which those calculations assume; and secondly, a different voting system would change the way people voted. All the systems proposed involve putting candidates in order of preference, and I know that my vote would have been different if I had been able to do so rather than making my single least-bad preference known. It’s likely that many other voters would have felt the same.
But it doesn’t alter the problem: minority parties become kingmakers. I’m reasonably confident that Nick Clegg won’t do anything too sinister in the smoke-free rooms where he will be dealing with Cameron; I’m less confident that were Nigel Farage or Nick Griffin in that position, the outcome would be good for the country. I favour a more proportional system for parliamentary elections – we need to make voting more democratic, and the present system is clearly flawed. We can make it better; but if a proportionally-elected Parliament then goes on to choose the government, we risk making things much less democratic.
But there is a solution, which is to face up to the quasi-presidential reality presented in our television debates. General elections have been much less about voting for local candidates than about voting for national party leaders. Technically, only 33,973 people voted for David Cameron; but most of the 10,672,674 people who voted for other Conservative candidates were also voting for Cameron to be Prime Minster. They almost certainly knew a lot more about him than about the shadowy character whose actual name appeared on the ballot paper. Our one cross in the voting booth does two distinct things – it chooses our MP and it chooses our Government; and it’s asking too much of it to do both. One of the reasons Parliament is so discredited is that too many MPs are just lobby-fodder, party-list makeweights. So let’s have a separate, national vote for the Government.
I voted for my excellent, independent local MP who happens to be a member of the Labour Party and who nominally takes the Labour whip. The last time I could, in conscience, have voted for the Labour party nationally would have been in 2001; the illegal war discredited them totally for me. Not to mention ID cards and many other horrors. My local MP, however, voted against the war and against ID cards, so she got my vote.
A separate vote for the Government – on the Alternative Vote system – would produce a national government with the support of more than half the voting electorate: a government which would always have the moral authority to govern, and it would stop the minor parties playing kingmaker. It would also let us separately choose our MPs to be our local representatives, rather than just name-check proxies for our choice of Prime Minister. It’s an essential part of voting reform.