Monday, 3 May 2010
The Clarion Call for First Past the Post
The Tories are campaigning for “choice” and “change” while Labour claim to want a “future fair for all” and yet both cling to a voting system that restricts choice to a minimum and entrenches unfairness, reported Richard Moore in the Independent on Sunday.
Mr Moore goes on to explain that in 1928 women got the vote at the same age as men and we had to all intents and purposes universal suffrage. Since then there have been 20 General Elections. In three of these: May 1929, October 1951 and February 1974 the party with the second largest number of votes got more seats than the party with the largest number of votes. In three others: February 1950, October 1964 and October 1974 the parliamentary majority of the winner was in single figures. In 1931 there was a National Government led by Ramsay MacDonald, who until two months earlier had been Labour PM, but with the Tories and Liberals had now formed a coalition despite the fact that Stanley Baldwin’s Tories had won an outright majority of seats in the election. So in a third of these 20 elections the first past the post system had not produced a decisive majority for a single party or the strong government which are claimed to be its chief merits. 2010 looks likely to add to that tally.
So what exactly are the chief merits of strong government? A large majority encourages arrogance and complacency. As is evidenced by the Labour landslide in 1997. The last time that PR was on the cards as even Tony Blair had not the confidence before the election to predict a landslide. And who could blame him after the “oh yea” moment from Neil Kinnock in 1993. To that end it was seriously mooted that Paddy Ashdown would have a seat in Cabinet and that PR would be a real option. That was all quickly ditched when the landslide materialised and the Tories were wiped out. This election hubris is quickly spent in the first or second term of a powerful government when a large part of its reform agenda is actually complete.
Then one or more of three things happen: the swollen ranks of government supporters realise how many of them will lose their jobs/seats on quite a small loss of votes and so the agenda switches to holding on to power rather than governing. The government flails around to extend in any way possible its reform agenda usually with disastrous results; the poll tax and railway privatisation spring to mind. And worst of all it begins to run out of talent and searches around for what it can get: I think people will agree that Harriet Harman, Lord Mandelson and Alistair Campbell come into this category among others. All this is made so much worse by an incompetent or ineffective opposition, Labour from 1979-1994 and the Tories from 1997-2010.
In the end panic prevails as we see in the hectic disorganisation of the current Labour Party a trend that I well remember from the mid 90’s infecting John Major's Tories just as much.
So there you are the clarion call for first past the post? Does it work? I don’t think so.