With our broken voting system, ten million people can apparently vote for a party and get half an MP’s toenail to represent them on the green benches. Or something like that. The combination of shock, rage and grief for anyone outside the Tory Party seems to be finding expression in the demand for electoral reform. And fair point, our system does have its absurd side. There would have been more reason to complain in 1951, when Labour got more votes than the Tories and somehow the Tories clawed their way back to power.
This time, the instrumental logic seems a bit off. With a proportional system, we still would have a right-wing government, a centre-left opposition and a brace of Lib Dems in dole queues. There would just be fewer SNP MPs who want to leave the country, and more Ukip MPs who want the country to leave the rest of the world. It all just sounds a bit ‘we woz robbed.’ In times of crisis, people search for an answer, and the idea that the voting system needs fixing is an attractive one. It’s radical enough to galvanise, and concrete and achievable enough to have hope of fixing within the current system. This is especially true now that there are multiple parties that stand to gain from electoral reform - Scottish Labour, the Greens, Ukip, George Galloway, Paddy Ashdown’s hat, et cetera.
The problem is that it’s bollocks.
Electoral reform won’t fix our problems. There are plenty of other countries that have ‘fairer voting systems’. It hasn’t changed the fact that everywhere in Europe there has been a pro-austerity government of centre-left or centre-right, a surging but unsuccessful radical left and a surging but unsuccessful radical right. The exceptions to that rule are Greece - which has a majoritarian electoral system - and more troubled parts of Europe where the electoral system is currently based on who’s carrying a Russian-made AK47. The only Western government I can think of that has the purest form of proportional representation is the Israeli Knesset, and that hasn’t really made them any fluffier.
The point is, the balance of forces in European politics is caused and will be fixed by factors other than how the votes are counted.
There is a case against electoral reform as well. I’m not saying that it completely outweighs the case for, but it exists. I’m a Green voter, and I like it that the party I support has had to fight street by street to break into the system. In Brighton, where it has now proven it can hold, Caroline Lucas has had to be an incredibly effective MP, the Greens have had to build a strong local party, they’ve had to worry when they’ve screwed up in office (see the bin strike debacle) and they’ve had to build a localised, organised and active mass voter base.
This keeps them grounded and keeps them effective, in a way that would not happen if a surge based on articles read in newspapers or things said in TV debates caused people to vote for an outsider party. We had a delocalised surge like that before. It was led by student voters and called Cleggmania. Look where that got us.
The Greens and the Kippers have been taught a lesson by this election, and that is being a political party relying on anti-establishment sentiment alone makes you neither an effective protest movement nor an effective party of government. If they want to win in future, they will have to go back into their communities and organise hard. They will need to campaign and canvas a lot more regularly than just election time. They will not be able to rely on short-term bounces. Their PPCs will have to be more accountable, and some of them a bit less ridiculous. And both will ultimately be better at their job for it (much as I don’t want Ukip to be good at their job.)
Meanwhile in Scotland, the SNP were able to build a strong grassroots base. Membership surged, organisation surged, and the machine that they constructed almost from the ground up was devastatingly articulated. They got the result that they deserved.
If anything, the last five years has proved that outsiders can win elections - be they Scottish nationalists, xenophobes, yoghurt-weavers or George Galloway. They have proved that you do not need a non-majoritarian system to have coalitions. But there is another reason I’m wary of a proportional system that institutionalises coalitions. It’s that I don’t much trust politicians. We saw the horse-trading and broken promises that happened with the coalition that we’ve just had. Do we really want to fossilise that, and ensure that the policy programme for this country is decided by two or more bunches of politicians over whisky in a Whitehall committee room every single time?
Sure, we may have just elected a majority government of baby-eating bastards. But at least we can be confident that by and large, they’re going to do what they said they would before the election. At least they won’t be able to shove the blame onto whoever they’re working with when the ambulances take eight hours to arrive and are sponsored by confused.com.
That’s the beauty of majoritarian government.
I’m not saying there aren’t good arguments for a long, hard look at the voting system. It’s a debate worth having, and certainly I’m not happy that my vote was ultimately worthless for anything but sending a message because of where I live. That said, where I live, a Cabinet minister with a majority of 12,000 was toppled overnight.
The problem isn’t how this government was elected, it is that they were elected and they’re going to spend the next five years harvesting our organs and selling them to their mates in Canary Wharf. Can we focus on that, rather than regarding STD or whatever it’s called as a magic bullet that will shake up Westminster all on its own? I’m not saying that electoral reform is necessarily bad. I’m saying I couldn’t give that much of a toss.