A constitutional upheaval for May 7

Five overnight polls show the Lib Dem surge holding and Labour trailing. There must be an underlying fear that Labour won’t recover if the Clegg bubble subsides. But on a uniform trend the ICM poll in the Guardian reads out like this.

Party % seats
Cons 33 245
Lab 28 275
Lib Dem30 99

So Labour could win the most seats although coming third in share of the vote. That’s first past the post for you.

On this trend a political earthquake is scheduled for the few days after May6. With around 100 Lib Dem seats only a coalition and not a minority government could produce stable government says YouGov boss Peter Kellner. Not necessarily, say others (including me).. With a coalition, we could end up with a deal voted for by absolutely nobody – well out of tune with the new popular will. Declared terms for supporting a minority government would be more honest and transparent.

Which party is better placed to form a government, the party with the most votes or the most seats? It has to be the most seats – governments are in power because of MPs’ votes, even though votes rather than seats lie at the heart of Lib Dem arguments for voting change. But only the realpolitik of MPs’votes – can bring change about.

But the size of voting share gives tremendous moral authority for change along with one other factor: change from the last election . Taking all three factors together, the Conservatives would be a strong position in any of the current variables, having climbed a mountain to get so far. The odds are against Labour.

With the balance of power, the Lib Dems hold the initiative. Negotiations to form a stable government involve much more than a numbers game. Given the public’s low opinion of politics generally and the hopes now riding on Nick Clegg, moral advantage matters greatly. I would say that Tory moral advantage rules out any deal with Labour automatically if they fail to win a majority over Conservatives. Lib Dem supporters could make trouble over this. Unsurprisingly as major Lib Dem policies are much closer to Labour’s, a ComRes poll in the Independent shows them preferring Brown to Cameron by a margin of 15%. Clegg would have to insist that the will of the electors was paramount.

From being an item high on the Lib Dem wish list, electoral reform for the Commons to create a three party system becomes a deal breaker. (Having already won electoral reform from Labour they have no more to gain from them there.)

The Conservatives would have to pay the higher price of abandoning first-past-the post in favour of AV or PR STV, a bitter pill to swallow but one actually in their own interests and which could be combined with their shared aim of a smaller Commons. A referendum Bill on electoral reform wouid be among first business in the new Commons. An elected Lords might be added.

The emergency budget is the other big ticket item. A match could be found between St Vince’s honest austerity and Osborne’s cautious cuts.

Under a Conservative minority government it would be understood that Labour and the Lib Dems could combine to defeat Tory favourites like as a cap on immigration and a referendum on future EU treaties without the government collapsing.

Finally the Conservatives should be required to join the club and concede fixed term parliaments, thus creating stability for up to five years and the prospect of minority or coalition government indefinitely. For good measure the Lib Dems should also insist on the reform of party funding while they’re about it. In any plausible scenario the pressure is great on all parties but especially the Lib Dems. If they dither over setting terms, their bubble could burst as quickly as it popped up. If the negotations drag on, the markets could go crazy. Ideally scenario planning if not actual secret negotiations through proxies, should be well under way now – very deep throat stuff to avoid being rumbled by the media.

In the wake of MPs’ expenses scandal, the British public, who have been more disenchanted with politics than ever due to the expenses scandal, may have suddenly stumbled upon a surprising route to political reform. Unless the Clegg bubble subsides altogether, a new era of politics is almost upon us, whichever party forms the next government.

  • It sure is a new era… but its needed to in my view. Saying that, it could all swing back again, people tend to be fickle. If only we could have a surge in voting for policies other than Policy #1 for most parties here in NI. Aren’t people tired of it yet?

  • abucs

    Assuming these figures are accurate :

    Party % seats
    Cons 33 245
    Lab 28 275
    Lib Dem 30 99

    It is absolutely ludicrous that a Party can receive a little less than a third of the popular vote, yet receive 176 seats less than a Party it outpolled by 2% points.

    That being said, the diverse nature of most Western societies these days are likely to produce co-alition governments into the foreseeable future if proportional voting systems are implemented.

    This can tend to favour unstable politics and side deals above governance and may futher marginalise areas like NI who don’t return any of the big 3 parties from their electorates.

    Is the STV system the better one to look at or something else ?


    One advantage of proportional representation though may be that Parties cannot play narrow ideological politics instead of listening to the electorate. They know now with a bit of spin and goodluck that they will get back into power soon enough and so don’t critically look at representing their electorates.

    I’m not saying all big parties are useless, just that if you are big and useless, you are somewhat protected as part of the political scene under some voting system arrangements because of high barriers to entry for new parties. Thus there is not a strong incentive to change. The alternative systems though may lead to too much change (and choice) and thus unstable government. ????????

  • abucs

    I guess 2 futher questions which may or may not be related are :

    1. What is the voting system for the UK to acheive best governance and

    2. What is the voting system the UK could implement that would best favour NI ?

    A further, somewhat radical rant – should we look at all NI Parties at Westminster working together for the best interests of Northern Ireland ?

    It would be only 18 seats but that seems a whole lot better than what happens at the moment.

    Perhaps the different Parties can specialise in making different Party relationships – The SDLP with Labour, the UU with the Conservatives, perhaps SF with the British nationalists and the DUP with the Lib dems.

    That way, no matter who is in power, the NI parties can leverage their contacts and ideas to lobby the Government of the day on interests specifically for NI and produce a maximum of votes to that Government in exchange.

    Perhaps with a foot in all camps the NI parties can position themselves as power breakers or at least be in a position to more fully recognise where deals can be made and use that to the advantage of NI.

    Of course SF may either have to drop its absenteism or arrange for other Parties to vote for them in Proxy if they are needed – perhaps the DUP wouldn’t mind doing that :o)

    OK, perhaps the SDLP or the other nationalists.

    And the DUP would have to focus a little more on “British mainland” politics.

    We could all go back to dis-agreeing with eachother in the Assembly but at least the Westminster angle would be working for NI as best it can with only 18 seats.

    OK, rant over.

  • abucs

    correction – “power brokers” not “power breakers”.

  • aquifer

    Nick Clegg should insist on Alternative Vote before even talking to the others. Labour have stiffed the Lib Dems once already on constitutional reform, he should not go back for seconds.

  • Henry94

    Why not go for real reform rather than just changing the electoral system. Why not term limits to address the biggest threat to democracy which is the rise of the political class.

  • What is being ignored by those looking at the straight vote split is that spacious lawns and shrubberies vote at higher percentages than high-rise inner cities. Crudely, constituencies with the lowest turnouts return for Labour, those with the highest are Tory/LibDem marginals. On that basis, we might expect 2010 to generate high voter turnout.

    Yet, if the essential fault of FPTP is that national share of the vote should more equally match seats won, that means:

    * places like Winchester get two seats,
    * while a similar sized electorate in inner-city Liverpool gets one; and
    * on the basis of population, whether registered to vote or not, the imbalance greater still.

    So, as one who could not vote other than Labour, I’m cheering for a LibDem surge, and the subsequent reform of the voting system.

    For the record, there was a Speaker’s Conference whose Report was the basis of the 1918 Representation of the People Act. That gets into the histories because it enfranchised British women for the first time (albeit at age 29). The Report also unanimously recommended STV in multi-member boroughs and AV elsewhere. The proposal got lost:

    * because Lloyd George was ambivalent, and the key Commons vote was lost by a majority of eight;
    * because the Lords then voted for PR, with the Commons voting for AV;
    * PR was then adopted only for the seven university seats; and
    * after the Khaki Election, all MPs lost interest in the subject.

    Subsequent Labour manifestos consistently endorsed electoral reform, if one looked hard enough.

    One last point: Brian Walker @ 11:13 PM says what I have been thinking: there is no need for a formal coalition in a hung parliament.

    What will happen, on present form, on 7th May is that Gordon Brown will remain PM until a vote of confidence (or a previous Labour revolt) removes him. An “agreed programme” of “critical support” for a minority government will emerge from two or more parties. Item One will be a refined economic policy, which should have marginalia in the fine Italian hand of Saint Vince (though LibDems will want to keep a healthy distance from toxic fall-out). If the agreement is between Labour and LibDem, PR and fixed parliaments should be a given.

    And, as I have said before, the Great Britsh People may find they quite like that dispensation. Meanwhile “Dave” will go back to the family business, and have ample opportunity on the backbenches to earn squillions in the City