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2 July 2022

Would electoral reform end Tory rule forever?

A deal between Labour and the Lib Dems to change the voting system looks attractive, but don’t assume the left would always prevail.

By Jonn Elledge

Is this it? Could the first-past-the-post electoral system, which large chunks of the liberal left have long consoled themselves is the root cause of this country’s upsetting tendency to vote for the likes of Boris Johnson, really going the way of the dinosaurs?

It could happen. According to the Daily Mirror’s Kevin Maguire, electoral reform without a referendum would be “the price” of Lib Dem support for a minority Labour government. “Keir Starmer is unlikely to secure an overall majority,” he writes in his New Statesman column on 29 June, “so the Con-Dem coalition veteran Ed Davey’s current thinking is to demand a fairer voting system instead of short-term ministerial posts, red boxes and cars.” In other words, the next election could bring a Labour minority government, propped up by Lib Dem confidence and supply; the one after that could be fought on an entirely different electoral system. 

From one point of view – the point of view that believes the most important thing British politics could do is to Stop the Conservative Party – all this is, superficially, pretty attractive. Of the 77 years which have passed since the war, the Tories have been in government for 47; they’ve been in office, one way or another, for 65 of the last 100 years. Yet the party has rarely won much above 40 per cent of the vote, and managed a clear majority only once, in 1931, an extremely weird election in all sorts of ways (short version: economic crisis, national government). Throw in the modern Conservative Party’s obvious inability to represent anyone under the age of 60, and the idea of smashing up the system and going for some form of proportional representation instead starts to look pretty appealing. 

It suggests, too, that the Liberal Democrats might have learned the painful lessons of the coalition. Nick Clegg’s approach of placing Lib Dem ministers in every department of government meant a lot of the trappings of office and a lot of press attention. It resulted, though, in few actual achievements beyond joint culpability for austerity and losing five-sixths of his seats. 

The party’s current leader, Ed Davey, shared in both the highs and the lows of the coalition years (getting a cabinet seat as energy and climate change secretary; losing his seat to a Tory), so it’s little wonder he doesn’t want to repeat them. Going for confidence and supply, in exchange for one, totemic Lib Dem policy achievement, seems a good way to avoid humiliating outcomes such as, say, finding yourself repeatedly arguing that, even though you just whipped your MPs to triple the price of something, you still support making it free.

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As to concerns that changing the electoral system without a referendum would be undemocratic: meh. Referenda are awful, they’ve not historically been seen as necessary to change the British constitution, and the last attempt to use one for electoral reform (to change FPTP to the Alternative Vote, in 2011 – another Lib Dem non-achievement) didn’t work. Just do it. Yes, the Tories will whinge, but they’d do the same, so ignore them.

Where this plan falls down, though, is in the “OK, what next?” department. For one thing, there are a lot of possible definitions of the phrase “fair voting system”: we have no idea what might be on the table, let alone what results it might produce. For another, you can’t just assume that vote shares achieved under FPTP carry over to another electoral system. Last week’s by-elections, which saw a massive swing to the Lib Dems in one part of the country at the exact same moment as a hefty swing to Labour in another, were a reminder that the reasons behind people’s voting choices are a lot more complicated than putting a cross next to the party they most want in government.

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And so, looking down the last century of elections, adding up the non-Tory vote share and assuming the left would reign forever more is a bit silly. (Which party was it the Lib Dems went into coalition with again?) So, come to that, is assuming the current party system would even survive the shift. The Labour Party’s great nemesis has always been “another faction of the Labour Party”; the Tories are less factional, though not, it’s seemed these last few years, that much less. Even the Lib Dems are filled with groups that hate each other, and the only reason no one’s ever noticed is that no one pays attention to the Lib Dems. Would any big-tent party survive a voting system that no longer forced socialists and social democrats, conservatives and right-wing radicals, to share a space?

Against all that, though, Britain has spent a long time researching what a voting system that grants a prime minister almost infinite political power based on 40 per cent of the vote does, and we can all see the results. Done carefully, electoral reform could produce a fairer voting system, in which the parties of government actually had to negotiate with their opponents, rather than simply pretend that their voters don’t exist. And really – could it make things any worse?

[See also: The informal Labour-Lib Dem alliance could doom the Tories]