The postcode lottery General Election

So, the General Election.  “The people have spoken,” Paddy Ashdown surmised.  “We just don’t know what they said yet.”

The headlines are, it seems:

  • little change in Scotland: no seats change hands, but the SNP overtake the LibDems in vote share
  • some minor parties make a breakthrough (eg Alliance and the Greens), while others get a trouncing (Respect, BNP, UKIP and others)
  • The Tories have come first in votes, Labour are second, and the LibDems an unfair distant third
  • Gordon Brown’s resigning as Labour leader and Prime Minister in due course
  • and above all, we have a hung parliament, with negotiations now underway about coalition government

It seems our options for government are now:

  1. A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.  This will either involve a decent form of PR being offered by the Tories, which is highly unlikely, or the LibDems accepting AV (which will split the party and be electoral suicide).  More on PR later on.  Either way, it won’t last.
  2. A Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition.  This will be insufficient for a majority, and hugely dependent on parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  English voters will not tolerate the squeeze on its spending that would come with the financial demands from the three other nations.  This option would  amplify both the Scottish independence debate and the democratic deficit experienced by England, consideration of which the Unionist parties will not countenance.  Either way, it won’t last.
  3. A Conservative minority government.  Not only will this struggle to win key votes, but the disenfranchisement in Scotland will be voluminous.  It is the most likely of the three outcomes, but it won’t last either.

My prediction is another election within a year.  What system we vote with is very much up in the air.  It seems like government is in paralysis, and you can appreciate the way this is encapsulated in the brilliant cartoon above in the Daily Telegraph.

But the doom-mongers need not fear – government is still continuing, quietly, steadily and with dignity, while negotiations to create a new government are completed.  And this isn’t parties stitching things up behind the scenes, nor is it the Liberal Democrats exerting undue influence.  It’s parties talking to each other; sharing common ground and identifying differences; working with each other to see what compromises and manifesto “pick and mix” is possible – something which our parties should be doing all the time, election time or not, and something which is commonplace in nearly every other mature democracy.  It is quite normal and quite acceptable that one big party should get most of the say and one or more smaller parties get a small but important say too.  Critics of coalitions are effectively demanding elected totalitarianism, and we need not look further than the last three decades of politics in the UK to discover that the effect of unchecked government is devastating.

Nor is the current empasse a terrifying warning of the chaos we will face if we get proportional representation.  We don’t have it at the moment and are coping fine with coalition negotiations.  If we have PR then parties will be forced to get used to daily cooperation, working out deals often on a vote-by-vote basis, meaning parties will be so much more experienced at post-election negotiations.

What, however, is the main outcome of the election is the continuing glaring inequity in our electoral system, where parties can get wildly disproportionate shares of the seats compared to their shares of the votes.  A simple way to look at it is the full election results on the BBC News website.

Divide each party’s number of votes by their number of seats, and you see how many votes it takes to get an MP elected in each party.  On this figures, it “costs” just under 35,000 votes to get a Conservative seat, and around 33,000 to get a Labour MP elected.  Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat seats “cost” 120,000 votes, and Green seats an astonishing 285,000 votes.  You thought that in a democracy everyone’s vote counted equally?  Not with First Past The Post: if you’re a Liberal Democrat or Green voter then you’re penalised because your comrades are spread thinly across the country, casting mostly wasted votes.

It’s not just a case of comparing the big party’s disproportionate gains with the smaller parties’ corresponding losses, either.  Minority parties get wildly different treatment, too.  As I mentioned above, 285,000 Green votes gets you one MP, but over three times as many UKIP votes and nearly twice as many BNP votes renders nothing (an arithmetical and technical imbalance, regardless of your views of the BNP).  Meanwhile, the Alliance Party soar home with one MP that cost only 42,000 votes, while the DUP’s MPs are the cheapest in the House at a mere 21,000 votes each.

How can you really describe a system as fair, equitable or democratic, when your vote could be over ten times more powerful depending on where you live and who you choose to vote for?  We have, it seems, a postcode lottery for an electoral system.

Something must be done to improve our electoral system, and the Alternative Vote system being offered by Labour and Conservative negotiators to the Liberal Democrats is woefully inadequate, and akin to offering a sticking plaster to a man with a broken leg.  Assuming independence for Scotland is not around the corner, the best system for Westminster elections is the Single Transferable Vote.  Watch this space for an explanation and defence of STV in the face of other options such as AV or the status quo.

But before I sign off, consider this final thought: surely the best, most stable coalition for this country is between two parties who are resistant to constitutional reform, sceptical of deeper cooperation with the European Union, right of centre on their economics, and aligned on a great deal of other policies (largely through nicking them from each other).  In short, they’re the closest-matched pairing among the big Westminster parties.

Those parties are, yes you’ve guessed it, Labour and Conservative.  Of course, the MPs and supporters would be apoplectic at the prospect, and it will certainly never happen due to their utterly delusional fantasies about how different they are.  Which is a relief, as it would be the worst government we could ever imagine…

2 thoughts on “The postcode lottery General Election

  1. A good post Simon, but sadly already out of date – as you were putting the final touches to your prose, the ink was drying on Nick Clegg’s signature, on his ‘deal with the devil’.

    Not sure if its the sympathy vote, but the party/ group who have come out best since Thursday night, is Labour, and Gordon in particular – they have taken the most decisive action, and also shown some humility.

    I agree with you that the ‘coalition’ is unlikely to last long (history tells us they never do in peace-time), nor is David Cameron – there are mutterings internally that if he can’t win this election outright, when could he win an election? I also think that the biggest winners out of this, will actually be the Labour party, who, at the next election and with a new leader, will likely gallop to a majority as dissafected Tory and Liberal voters (smarting as a result of the inevitable spending cuts) move across in their droves.

    Also agree with you about the similarities between the 2 main parties, from a policy perspective, which speaks volumes about people who vote by tradition rather than decision, and which actually makes the ‘personality’ of the leader even more important – personally I’d prefer anyone else to be in No 10 (alright, almost anyone else) than an old Etonian, along with a group of his school chums. At least sons of the manse are, by definition, ‘good eggs’. Douglas Alexander for Labour leader?

  2. Thanks Ben.

    Sadly, however, the Labour government was neither decisive nor humble, so it’s hard to swallow them trying to be so now. Neither was it many things it claimed to be, eg left-of-centre, or “progressive”.

    For instance, they weren’t decisive on things like constitutional reform – it looks already like the new coalition is going to go further on Commons elections and democratising the Lords than Labout managed in its 13 years. That’s not to defend the Tories as major reformers, far from it, but to illustrate that a Con/LibDem deal embarassingly shows up Labour for the constitutional sluggards that they are.

    As for humble, they showed no humility when found wrong on the 10% tax rate or on the Iraq war, cash for peerages, or on a whole host of other issues. One speech from a defeated man does not not undo over a decade of arrogance.

    In terms of the coalition, I predicted above that a coalition wouldn’t last. I wonder if I might backtrack now, because the Conservatives have sort of placated the LibDems: while AV will not be enough by itself to placate the party’s grassroots, the prospect of a wholly or mainly elected Lords (rumour has it, by PR) just about redeems the deal, I reckon.

    With reference to your last paragraph, I wonder who Labour will elect; but doubt that given what Labour stands for that they will be any more “progressive” or left-of-centre than this current coalition. With any of the usual suspects in charge, such as David Milliband, Labour is unlikely to regain its soul, and time will soon illustrate that the LibDems’ game of hardball on political reform has showed Labourup as a vacuous, lifeless movement on that front.

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