What next for the debate on electoral reform?

Posted orginally on the Academy of Government blog >>

Juliet Swann, authority on electoral systems; gender, politics and public policy; with wide experience in campaign, rights and reform organisations / @muteswann

The June 2017 election results show that a few voters are deciding for the many, and political party discussions and decisions behind closed doors mean even those few are not fully informed about their choices and the implications of their vote. We should be insisting on proportional representation and forenotice of coalition ‘red lines’ before the next General Election.

So here we are, it’s June 2017 and we’re back in a ‘coalition of chaos’ – literally, because neither of the two parties involved in coalition discussions were even remotely challenged to propose what they might or might not give or take in a negotiation if there were a minority government. Why?

Initially, because the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system and its advocates will tell us that its  heart is ‘certainty’ – the reliability that one party will win.

Secondly because all the polls suggested a Conservative majority that could only be threatened by a ‘progressive pact’, the idea of which was used or dismissed by every party to promote their ideal of winning. (Which when you’re the SNP or the Lib Dems in a Westminster election is ridiculous).

So no-one discussed their red lines, the policies they might be prepared to discuss if considering a partnership or even a confidence and supply arrangement. No-one set apart the policies they would never give up as opposed to the ones they might sacrifice.

And yet, twice now in three elections the voters have delivered a minority government that had to form a coalition.

Why does that matter?

Because without that distinction, without that conversation, we, the electorate have no idea what we’re actually voting for. We’ve realised we have multiple choices, but our political parties aren’t giving us the chance to make an informed choice beyond ‘we will win’.

In a PR system, parties know they might have to bargain to get power. They might have to compromise, to debate, to argue their corner to win policy change. Instead our parties put up a manifesto they know they probably won’t be able to deliver, especially our smaller parties. We all vote based on their promises, and then they might deliver some of it, or not.

This election has proved this beyond any other. If you thought the Lib Dems going back on their tuition pledge was a big deal, welcome to the Conservative / DUP coalition negotiations.

We have no idea what the Tory red lines are. And we have no idea what Labour might give up. Or indeed what the SNP might compromise. Because they all claimed to be in it to win it, and none of them would EVER chat to any other. Oh please, give over. We’re not stupid, we know you’ll succumb to an offer of power if it’s put in front of you.

Which brings us to the issue of whether voting for one party tacitly lets another win. There’s been some descriptions of Scotland ‘allowing’ Theresa May to stay at Downing Street as without those 13 MPs the Conservatives would have had even less of a majority. Which is mathematically correct. But even if one assumes the second placed candidate took the place of the Conservative winner, and gives the SNP all 13 of the Conservative seats in Scotland, Theresa May still has more seats than anyone else, so she would still have first dibs at forming a government. And in any case, there’s no way of knowing what the electorate might do or have done differently on a different day, or what might have happened if fewer people voted, or if more people voted.

We can never extrapolate the results of an election into a different voting system, or indeed into a scenario where ‘if only the voters had known X, Y or Z’. To try and do so is a fool’s errand. That’s the point of elections, they are a snapshot of what those who can be bothered voting choose to do with their vote within the system they are voting in. In Scotland we have usually been quite canny with our choices – understanding for example that the SNP will never form a government at Westminster so they never won more than half a dozen seats until the anti-indyref result rebellion of 2015, despite their success at Holyrood.

And if, as it seems, we have entered an era where the main parties can expect to all receive around 40% of the vote (the SNP received around this percentage in Scotland), then it becomes a question of how individual constituencies perform that can shift power. Which gives voters in those seats a disproportionate say in how the country is governed. Which is another reason that moving to a more proportional system wouldn’t just provide for a better informed voter going into the polling booth, but would also ensure that voter had an equal say in the future government of the country.

What’s more, those voters would have a clear idea of the red lines each party would seek to uphold in any coalition negotiations. Rather than dealing with surprise partnerships and unpredicted deals.

Scientia potentia est ‘Knowledge is power’

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