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.