Hello PR? Goodbye Liberal Democrats… for good.

It is maxim of debates surrounding electoral systems that first past the post elections naturally produce a two-party system while proportional representation produces naturally leads to multi-party democracy.

This is true, but only within defined limits, and those limits explain why the single biggest barrier to the introduction of PR in Westminster elections is also the party that believes that it has most to gain from electoral reform – the Liberal Democrats.

Remember ‘The Project’?

The – possibly apocryphal – plan that was allegedly spearheaded by Peter Mandelson and which, so the story goes, would have led to the development of closer ties between Labour and the Liberal Democrats and maybe even at least a defined centre-left alliance, if not – gasp – the merger of the two parties.

Ever wonder what that might have all been about?

The whole episode is shrouded with rumour and conjecture, but what is known is that Blair, Mandelson and other close associates gave all the appearance of supporting moves toward electoral reform and proportional representation, without ever making it a manifesto commitment, prior to the 1997 election, only to cool very rapidly on the subject, and on collaborative working with the Liberal Democrats on gaining power.

So does this indicate that this apparent enthusiasm for, or openness towards, PR at the time was a mere electoral ruse?

Perhaps… and then perhaps not.

Proportional representation does tend to favour multi-party politics… but if one looks at those countries where PR is in use AND which have a more or less stable democracy (i.e. one disregards countries like Italy, which tend to be rather chaotic) what one finds is that their respective multi-parties systems tend to resolve themselves in line with one of two patterns:

1. A centre-based system dominated by a single large centrist party leading a variable multi-party coalition, or

2. A two-party block system in which power pivots around a single main party occupying the centre-left and centre-right with minor parties arrayed outwards from the two main parties to the political fringes.

A centre-based system is general considered undesirable for obvious reasons – but for seismic shift in the political culture of a country with a centre-based system, the dominant centrist party will remain a permanent fixture and political change is reduced to matters of fine degree depending on which side of political spectrum afford the most advantageous opportunities for coalition at any given time.

A two-party block system offers more scope for political change while remaining relatively stable. Power can shift across the centre from left to right and vice versa and outwards from the centre within each of the blocks according to the distribution of votes across the respective coalitions, while still offering the possibility of strong, decisive leadership/government. Except on rare occasions, such as happened at the last general election in Germany, one of the two blocks will achieve a sufficient degree of electoral ascendancy to become the ruling party at the head of a coalition that favours their side of the political divide, i.e. one gets a centre left government with minor coalition partners from socialist/green parties or one gets a centre-right government with minor coalition partners from nationalist/free market/libertarian parties.

This is pretty much how the German system operates in practice, this being the two-party block system with which most people will be familiar.

This is also what, for the time being at least, rules out an prospect of PR in Westminster elections, because, in the UK, the position of Liberal Democrats within the prevailing political spectrum precludes the development of PR-based system of government based on either of the centre-based or two-party block models.

Britain has the basic foundations necessary for a two-party block system – two large and electorally dominant parties occupying the centre-left and centre-right positions. but is also has a fly in the ointment, the Liberal Democrats, who straddle the political divide as a centrist party but lack the necessary level of electoral support to become the dominant centrist party necessary to form a centre-based system.

To compound matters further, the Liberal Democrats are only a centrist party in so far as their political philosophy rests on a delicate balancing act between political viewpoint that belong, more naturally, on either side of the political divide.

Broadly speaking, what one finds within the Liberal Democrat ‘canon’ are both economic liberals, whose natural inclinations take them towards the right, and social liberals, whose inclination are to the left.

This, together with a more or less established pattern of voting in UK general elections since 1974 – the winning party will typically get around 40% over the popular vote, the second place party 30% and the third party 20%, creates a scenario in which, were PR to be introduced and this pattern remain constant, the outcome would be a system in which the Liberal Democrats would become a permanent minority party in government because neither of the two main parties could take the necessary number of seats to form a government without their support.

This is problematic enough on its own, but then one has to factor in the slightly schizophrenic nature of modern liberalism, which may oscillate between right-wing economic liberalism and left-wing socialism as and when the occasion demand leaving the Liberal Democrats as a party that is seen by both Labour and Conservatives as being neither fish nor fowl and therefore unreliable, and potentially opportunistic, coalition partners.

Since the advent of universal suffrage (at the age of 21) in 1928, only once has either of the main parties secured more than 50% of the popular vote – the Conservatives in 1931, although this resulted in the formation of a ‘National Labour’ government under James Ramsay MacDonald. From 1935 to 1970, Britain had a de facto two party system due to the electoral collapse of the Liberal Party.

Over that period the two main parties took a combined share of the popular vote that never once fell below 90% although neither party was ever able to break the ‘magic’ 50% mark – Labour came closest in 1945 with 49.7% of the popular vote.

And since 1974, give or take Labour’s difficult period during the mid-1980 where there were two ‘third’ parties, the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party, the 40:30:20 split has been the prevailing voting pattern in general elections.

Understand this and one can easily understand what Mandelson’s ‘Project’ was – if it did, indeed, exist.

If one presumes, as Mandelson would have at the time, that the Liberal Democrats were more inclined to social rather than economic liberalism, then a merging of the Liberal Democrats with ‘New’ Labour coupled with electoral reform and the introduction of PR offered the possibility of, at least, a two-party block system in which the Centre-Left would have a clear advantage over the Conservatives, if not even a centre-based system in which the merged Lib-Dem/New Labour ‘party’ occupied the dominant centrist position.

At the time the Conservative Party had little by way of natural coalition partners on the right. There were, and still are, the Unionist parties in Northern Ireland. UKIP was only in its formative stages. Goldsmith’s ‘Referendum Party’ were no more than spoilers and beyond that lay only the lunatic fringes of the BNP and the far right.

By contrast, a merged Centre-Left party formed from the Liberal Democrats and New Labour would conceivably has lost some support to the left through the formation of a breakaway Socialist party but could draw, in addition, on both the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, both of whom are left-wing nationalist parties – remembering that, at the time, such a party would still have had the devolution carrot to dangle in front of the SNP and Plaid Cymru, and the Greens. Oh, and as with the BNP on the far right, the far left (SWP, Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party and the variant Communist Parties – there were several) were not significant enough in terms of support to be a factor.

All told, the political scene in 1997, would have looked ripe for the possibility of establishing a long-lasting, if not near permanent centrist political hegemony provided that a number of key assumptions held valid, the most important of which being that:

a) Liberal Democrat support would move en bloc into the new centrist ‘grouping’, i.e. the majority of Lib Dem supporters were more social than economic liberals, and

b) That this new centrist block would strip a sufficient number of centre-right conservatives out of the Conservative Party to preclude any efforts to move the party back into the centre ground.

That’s the theory – and whether its also what Mandelson was thinking at time is known only to him and those of his close colleagues with whom he may have shared his thoughts.

What this does illustrate, however, is the extent to which the very existence of Liberal Democrats as a distinct political party mitigates against any moves to introduce PR by either of the main parties.

From the standpoint of the Labour Party, the political conditions necessary to introduce PR and establish a centre/centre-left political hegemony existed only while the Conservative Party remained out to the right and operated on broadly Thatcherite terms. Only under those circumstances could a new centrist bloc hope to draw off enough Tory centrists to preclude the Conservatives making a credible move back to the centre – it wouldn’t prevent them trying to make such a move for purely strategic/pragmatic reasons but without a critical mass of in-house centrists, i.e. a definably ‘one nation’ social liberal win, such a move would lack credibility and, almost certainly, fail to persuade the Thatcherite wing that a move to the centre was the right course.

From a Tory standpoint, PR would look attractive only if they could be sure of  pulling off something akin to Mandelson’s alleged ‘Project’ but in the reverse direction – it would need to shift to the centre and absorb the majority of the Liberal Democrats support, while pushing Labour out to the left and, also, stripping away enough of the Blairite wing of the party to preclude Labour credibly moving back to the centre to block the formation of a centre-right led centre-based system. The irony here is that the Tories best chance of pulling off such a move has also come and gone – it would have been possible during the mid 1980s had the Tories had a centrist leader and moved to consolidate the centre ground (and absorb the Liberal/SDP Alliance of the time).

Such are the vagaries of political fate that both main parties have had the opportunity to establish a centrist hegemony slanted towards their preferred political direction only to fail to capitalise on the chance when it came. The Tories chance passed them by because of simple bad timing, the opportunity arose at a time when, in terms of leadership and ideology, it was least capable of capitalising on the political conditions around it. In Labour’s case things are perhaps a little more complex, not least as the lingering antipathies of the SDP’s split would have been a factor, but one suspects strongly that the key barriers to such a move rested in the same agreements that elevated Blair to the party leadership – left to his own devices he could have pulled it off but never had quite the level of support necessary within the party to overcome internal resistance to such a move. Labour never did come to love Mandelson, and without that ‘The Project’ was never a realistic proposition.

With both main parties crowding the centre-ground there is now no question of PR becoming a vehicle for the establishment of a centre-based multi-party system with a dominant, hegemonic, centrist party, which leaves the Liberal Democrats in the invidious position of being the both the greatest prospective beneficiary of PR and its greatest obstacle, as neither the Conservative or Labour Parties will accept a position in which power can only be attained by making the Liberal Democrats a permanent fixture in government, leaving them both as hostages to fortune.

This is the paradox of electoral reform in the UK. Denied the possibility of establishing a lasting electoral superiority by becoming the dominant centrist party in a centre-based system, the only outcome that would bring both the Conservative and Labour Parties behind a move to PR for Westminster elections would be if this would lead to the establishment of a German-style two-party block system with each occupying their respective centre-right and centre-left positions, much as the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats do in Germany.  And to arrive at such a position, a necessary precondition would be the complete demise of the Liberal Democrats, together with a more or less 50-50 split in Liberal Democrat support between economic liberals – who’d go to the Tories – and social liberals – who move to Labour.

Under present conditions, it would take a seismic and unprecedented shift in the UK’s political landscape for the Liberal Democrats to ever become a serious party of government and achieve their objective of proportional representation for the Westminster parliament.

How seismic? Try either an outright Lib Dem election victory and mass defections of centrists from both the Conservative and Labour Parties leading to a centre-based system or the complete collapse of one of these two parties, allowing the Lib Dems to shift into either the centre-right or centre-left position in two party block system. A ‘three-handed’ system is never going to happen nor will either of the main parties surrender to a Liberal Democratic hegemony by default, which means that even a hung parliament will not deliver PR because, much as is the case in Scotland with the SNP’s efforts to hold a referendum on Independence, neither of the main parties will willingly acquiesce to a commitment to introduce PR at Westminster simply to cement a ruling coalition as such a move, for all it may appear expedient in the short term, would run contrary to their interests in the long run.

Make no mistake here, no matter what any party might say in the run in to the next election, a hung parliament does not mean the introduction of PR, it means minority government and political instability.

There, like it or not, is the reality of electoral reform as it stands today. If you want PR and a multi-party democracy then, first, you must kill off the Liberal Democrats and consign the party to the dustbin of political history. Nothing less will do.

10 thoughts on “Hello PR? Goodbye Liberal Democrats… for good.

  1. I broadly agree – and we can add this to the list of reasons why Polly Toynbee is wrong. She habitually refers to the Tory opposition to PR as proof that they are the “stupid party” – claiming that they could only benefit from its introduction. In reality, of course, there’s a reasonable chance that it could fuck them for a generation.

  2. What Toynbee persists in seeing, even as it vanishes over the horizon, is the potential centre-left hegemony that existed 10 years ago.

    I should add that the window of opportunity for that was relatively small. 1997/8 certainly, after that things get a bit more uncertain – no later than 2002 when it began to become apparent that Iraq was brewing.

  3. Unity: This is a very long post of yours that basically argues two incorrect assumptions about PR.

    1. That voters will not quickly change their party allegiance and that.
    2. The Lib Dems therefore will be permanently in government.

    It is our present system that maintains the Lib Dems and the 40:30:20 scenario, since the Lib Dems are the dustbin protest party for dissaffected Labour and Tory voters under this system. Most disaffected voters are locked in to vote Lib Dem to ge any chance of their vote influencing results because change is so glacial under first-past-the-post – seats have to carefully targeted over many elections for minor parties to be represented. Under PR, parties can arrive on the scene quicker because any change in votes is quickly rewarded with seats. We quickly would have Greens, UKIP and Socialist parties established and the Lib Dems ironically would be destroyed by PR – they would shrink to a rump as Labour and Tory disaffected voters would be able to choose parties they really want to vote for and know their votes will count. The Lib Dems would taste power maybe for only one PR election and would shrink to a rump compared to their present size after that.

    This is what actually happened in practise when New Zealand moved from a Westminster electoral system to PR. It is the perfect example.

    The third centrist (Lib Dem like) party in NZ politics was the Alliance who got around 20% of the vote under FPTP with both the two large parties the Nationalists (Tories) and Labour oscillating between low 40% and low 30% – just like in the UK with the usual perverse results – the party with less votes won a couple of times and 35% giving a massive majority of seats to one party while giving few seats to the third party despite polling over 20%.

    With the change to PR – the Alliance party collapsed and Labour has been in power in coalition with Greens and Socialists ever since 1999. Labour have won 3 consecutive elections, increasing their vote share each time (compare that to our lost 4.5m votes under FPTP) – with turnout at 81% in NZ and urban turnout increasing the most.

    If you want to talk about third centrist parties being permanently in power then look to how the FPTP system in Canada has produced exactly that – with 16 elections that have taken place in Canada since 1957, eight have produced majority government and eight have produced parliaments with no overall majority. The average lifespan of a minority government is about 18 months, and the Conservative party’s position in parliament in 2006 is weaker than any of these predecessor governments. The chances are that a reluctant Canadian electorate will have to go back to the polls before the end of 2007.

    Now that the Lib Dems have entrenched themselves with over 60 seats we could be heading the same way as Canada – the chances of successive hung parliaments and Lib Dems permanently being kingmakers looks likely.

  4. Neil:

    We differ here only in the sense that I’m not making assumptions, merely outlining an actually existing situation.

    You’re entirely correct in pointing to New Zealand as an example of a country that took a leap of faith into PR and very quickly resolved itself into a two-block system.

    That could, indeed, happen in this country were we to take the same leap of faith – but for the two main parties it is a leap of faith and one that neither have shown clear signs of being willing to take.

    It all comes down to a question of risk.

    Is either main party willing to jump into and risk the possibility that the New Zealand scenario doesn’t pan out – leaving the LDs straddling the centre and holding the balance of power – or do they take the view that its necessary to kill off the LDs first before making the jump.

    What I argue is that, currently, its the latter view that holds sway, which effectively rules out PR for the time-being.

  5. Unity.

    I think you are right that a hung parliament will not bring PR. It has to be one of the main parties that decide to implement it (just like in NZ)- and only Labour have shown any inclination. A hung parliament will probably make it less likely we get PR because there will be less PR friendly Labour MPs. Canada have had 8 hung parliaments in the last 50 years but still the two main parties cling to FPTP. We could be heading the same way or Labour could decide that they should be a party that supports democracy.

    You talk of a ‘leap of faith’ and ‘risk’ but I really don’t see any evidence that the Lib Dems will maintain their position at 20% under PR. The opposite is surely the case – they are bound to lose votes to Socialists and Greens etc. Generally the main centre-left parties (i.e. Labour) strengthen their position under PR. Some people vote Tory just to get ‘a change’ as they know under FPTP we only have two choices of Government. The Lib Dems are established now under this system as the main protest vote party that gives any possibility that your protest vote will count – if you really want to see their demise then PR is actually the best way to STOP them being continual kingmakers. The point is, coalition government under PR is very different to a hung parliament under FPTP where there is permanently three parties with the Lib Dems the power brokers. The real ‘risk’ is if we DON’T change the system.

    At the end of the day – you either believe in democracy or you don’t. PR is the next step in establishing democracy – it took a long time for all adults to get the vote – now we need to fight to get ‘equal votes’.

  6. The Lib Dems are established now under this system as the main protest vote party that gives any possibility that your protest vote will count – if you really want to see their demise then PR is actually the best way to STOP them being continual kingmakers.

    That’s the point I’m making Neil.

    I’m neither arguing for or against PR here, merely playing Devil’s Advocate by pointing out the possibility, if not likelihood, that PR would effectively kill off the Lib Dems.

    The sticking point is that there is no guarantee that that would happen immediately with the introduction of PR. It could go that way, or it could take a couple of elections for the new system to resolve itself into a relatively stable two-party block.

    For either of the main two parties to make the jump, they have to calculating beyond the next election/parliament and playing the long game – which is rather at odds with the general objective of politics, which is to gain political power.

    In one sense, the extent to which the LDs have clearly associated themselves with PR constitutes a confounding factor – one suspects that some on our side who might consider PR an option are held back by the fear that by taking that road we might be seen to be vindicating a position most closely associated with the LDs and validating their position in the present political system – affording them far more regard and value than they actually merit.

    Part of the problem over the last 30 years or so has been the one-sided nature of politics. So far as public perception is concerned, we’ve had, but for Major – strong governments and weak opposition. Of the two main parties, one has always lacked public credibility as well as being perceived to be away from the centre ground.

    On that basis, the best prospect for PR – assuming the LDs don’t commit suicide in the mean time – would be following a closely contested election in which the two main parties are broadly matched in terms of public credibility and fight from their respective centre-left and centre-right positions. In that scenario, there might enough of a squeeze on the LD vote to push it back down to the kind of level it was at in the mid 1950s – below 10%.

    Were that to happen then it might create sufficient momentum on our side – and enough belief that the LDs would vanish – to push forward on PR. It won’t happen on the Tory side because it just not in their interests

  7. Unity,

    As interesting as your analysis of the state of the political spectrum is, i think it is fundamentally flawed for a whole number of reasons.

    Firstly, you keep coming back to this idea that there simply Must always be a left-right hegemony on power. Increasingly, throughout the country, the main barrier to support for the Lib Dems is not our ideology, or even our leader, but the mere calculation by your average Tom, Dick and Harry that a vote for the Lib Dems is a wasted vote.

    Secondly, it seems to be evident that left-wing economics is being, and already has been quite considerably, discredited by the failures of state planning, nationalisation and suchlike.

    Similarly, socially authoritarian policies traditionally associated with the right are being, and already have been fairly considerably, discredited in the eyes of a public not willing to tolerate unequal rights, bad schools and suchlike.

    I am not suggesting that this should lead the average voter to therefore stick with the centre ground, but rather encourage you to perhaps view the left-right spectrum in slightly different terms to those which you have done for the purposes of this article.

    To further illustrate what i mean exactly, i suggest you take a look at this excellent website, which re-draws the political spectrum so that it is in a far more accurate and flexible form:


  8. Leo:

    You appear to assume that all there is to left-wing economics is the state-socialist command economy model – this is far from being the case, which is why, for example, one finds growing support on the left for idea like citizen’s basic income.

    There are considerable portions of Marx’s analytical work on capitalism which remain valid, and are acknowledged as such even by right-wing economists. Its only his proposed solutions to the structural instabilities of the capitalist system which can be considered to have been discredited, and even then only within finite limits. Marx’s theories stem from an underlying assumption that communism would arise out of class conflict within an industrial society, which has never happened – to date all ‘successful’ – in the sense of taking power – communist revolutions have occurred in societies that were based on what was primarily an agrarian/peasant economy.

    Equally you appear to assume that social authoritarianism is somehow separate and distinct from prevailing economic conditions – this, again, is far from being the case.

    Within Neoliberalism, social policy is driven by the same underlying ideological assumptions as economic policy – in effect the core assumption is that economic liberty and social liberty are broadly synonymous and function within the basic parameters of the Hayekian model.

    What many Neoliberals neglected to consider was that the social consequences of such a model has already been predicted around 350 years ago by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, although Nozick’s ‘nightwatchman state’ is not that far short of Hobbes and could be argued to be a constitutionalist Leviathan.

    To discredit social authoritarianism is, therefore, to discredit the underlying economic system from which it stems, which a primary reason why most left-wing anarchists consider anarcho-capitialist to be a bunch of greedy arseholes and not really anarchists at all.

    As for political compass – been there, done it, and you’ll find me somewhere out around the Dalai Lama and Gandhi.

    The two-axis model is improvement on the simple left-right model but does have the slight drawback of suggesting that economic and social axes are somewhat less inter-related than is really the case.

    Of course, if you really want to bake you noodle with an idea, try mulling over the suggestion that, while no single economic/social ideology provides a perfect solution, a best-possible solution may lie in using Berlin’s ‘two liberties’ and ‘value pluralism’ as a means of mediating a reconciliation between the economic theories of Marx and Hayek…

    …I should say that this may not only be possible, but may well explain why Citiizens Basic Income has support from both left and right, because its one of the key tools that makes such a reconciliation possible.

  9. great debate,

    Leo – what is the prevailing LD ideology ?

    with regard to Keynesian economics and planning etc what do you think New labour is ?

    Its not the cuckoo often portrayed but stems from labours revisionist tradition from Crosland onwards. Post the IMF crisis in the mid 70’s this was what the battle was about. The wing in the Labour party that was arguing for state planning etc reached its peak in the early 80’s and Kinnock onwards has been about movng away from that.

    Its a distinction between means and ends.

    With regard to social authoritarianism and economics I’d say a pertinent example of Unity’s point above is the ban on smoking – we cannot afford the costs,
    It is cheaper to restrict peoples opportunity to smoke. The savings in public health costs are massive.
    The Wanless report showed the’ limits’ of what the NHS can afford . that is why current initiatives in health are often around encouraging (and compelling) us to look after our own health. the ‘libertarian’ dream of ‘its my body i can do what i want is still there but conflicts with eveybody elses ability to pay for the consequences.

    Why the reclassification of cannabis ?- largely because it was a huge drain on the criminal justice system ,likewise other illegal drugs (note how often the most vocal calls for drug liberalisation come from senior police officers).

  10. Unity,

    I’m certainly not by any means saying that Marx’s analysis of capitalism is invalid. Far from it. I was simply suggesting that the recommendations and predictions he made as a result were considerably flawed.

    “Within Neoliberalism, social policy is driven by the same underlying ideological assumptions as economic policy – in effect the core assumption is that economic liberty and social liberty are broadly synonymous and function within the basic parameters of the Hayekian model.”

    I’d disagree with the notion that the two – social and economic policy – are somehow as tightly linked as you suggest. Thatcher is the classic example of someone who was committed simultaneously to considerable economic liberty, but was still heavily socially authoritarian.

    As far as your suggestion regarding Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty” goes, i too can say “been there, done that.” It seems to me fairly reasonable to define parties and ideologies in terms of how inclined they are towards positive or negative liberty. Yet personally i think there’s very little point in one without the other.

    What good is freedom of oppurtunity if someone else decides which oppurtunities you take? Similarly, what good is being free from coercion when you can do nothing for yourself?

    I think Hobbes’ view that a strong central government can somehow know what is in the best long-term interests of each of its citzens is a gross underestimation of the a) intelligence and b) desire for personal autonomy that resides deep inside most individuals.

    The person who knows what’s in the best interests of any given individual is invariably that individual, and no other. Any other way seems, to me, to lead to a dependency which does not serve the development or interests of the individual.

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