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Some observations on electoral reform

September 6, 2010

Some observations on electoral reform For almost two decades now, British psephologists have been in firm agreement that the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system has worked to the Conservative Party’s detriment.

Yet despite this at each of the past four general elections we have campaigned robustly in its defence. Never was this more apparent than during the final weeks of this year’s General Election campaign. Then as the opinion polls indicated a likely hung parliament, David Cameron took the lead in making the Conservative case for retaining the voting system. This was conventionally and unashamedly pro-‘strong, decisive government’; in opposition to ‘post-election behind-closed-door deals which take no account of the wishes of the electorate’ and in defence of FPTP as ‘the clear way for voters to eject an unpopular incumbent government.’

Proportional representation, even in the form of the Alternative Vote (AV) system that is now being proposed as the price of the current coalition, will end these constitutional safeguards at a stroke – and end them forever.

Conservatives respect and carefully husband our nation’s constitution. Invariably we do so in what we regard as the national interest. It should never be the Conservative way to tamper with the voting system or electoral boundaries for narrow party political advantage. The timelessness of our nation’s constitutional arrangements is too important for that. Yet the current proposals for AV and the reduction in number of parliamentary constituencies are being promoted by Party managers as an expedient way to prevent our principal political opponents from recapturing office.

Constitutional change should be promoted sparingly. As we have seen from the tampering over devolution and the Lords during the early Blair era, it requires knowledge and understanding of historical perspective. Reform to our constitution should never be made as a short term, tactical gambit.

Support for fundamental change to the voting system should be underpinned by an appreciation of its likely effect over decades ahead, rather than being designed to reinforce the electoral prospects of a government in office or for the convenience of contemporary political leaders.

So if we are to embark upon a programme of fundamental constitutional reform, common sense and history suggest that we should not rush. Surely it would be better to allow the political class and the general public to see the coalition at work for at least one year to dispel the conventional concerns Mr Cameron voiced so loudly this spring. Better this than being bounced into far-reaching changes whilst the novelty of the ‘new politics’ has yet to wear off. Thus I believe any referendum on the voting system should take place no sooner than autumn 2011.

Change to the parliamentary voting system will also fundamentally change policy and political messaging. The clamour for the ‘centre ground’ (wherever that may lie at any point in time) will be the holy grail of political spin-doctoring. In fact the entire focus of political campaigning especially at election time will be transformed. Instead of promoting what Conservatives believe, the strategists will calculate what position on issues of the day will most appeal to Liberal Democrats and Labour voters as they cast their second preference. Make no mistake, if AV comes in then a discernibly right-of-centre agenda on tax, immigration, crime or Europe will never again be put to the electorate……or not, at least, by the Conservative Party.

Political consensus and the appearance of parties working together ‘in the national interest’ has a certain appeal. Centrist voters like it; managerial politicians are in their element; highly-educated, urbane opinion formers in our universities laud it.

Until all of a sudden our country desperately needs change. Then consensus driven government – especially one institutionalised by manipulation of our voting system – has the potential to spell catastrophe for the credibility of our entire political process.