Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Tories, PR and short memories

People have short memories. Everyone is correctly pointing out that most Tories currently harbour a visceral hatred of the idea of changing the voting system, and a great attachment to first-past-the-post.

They are also implying that "it was ever thus". This is not so. The last time there was a big groundswell of support for proportional representation, in the 1970s, most of that support (other than from the Liberals, of course) was coming from the Conservatives, including some quite leading ones who had been in Ted Heath's government of 1970 to 1974. There was also a phenomenon jokingly known as "Moggism-Levinism", after then Times editor William Rees-Mogg and his star columnist Bernard Levin, both of whom banged on endlessly in the mid-1970s about the need for PR "in the national interest" -- this of course when the Times was still a respectable, non-Murdoch paper.

Indeed, I remember many on the left in those days describing PR as a sinister right-wing plot whose real purpose, in their view, was to keep Labour out of power. I was an elected member of the Council of the Electoral Reform Society for much of that decade, and although we did have some maverick Labour Party members on board, a greater number of Tories were in evidence. In truth, it was an issue that cut right across party lines. It was only when Mrs Thatcher's extremist far-right clique hijacked the Tory party that this changed.

It is funny to see party tribalists on both Tory and Labour sides now rushing to the defence of first-past-the-post. Their arguments generally purport to be altruistic but in fact they are usually calculating party advantage. The Tories who oppose PR claim that only FPTP preserves what they claim is the essential constituency link, but probably their real reason is that Tories always represent only a minority of voters (this was true even at the time of the Thatcher "landslide" in 1979) and, under PR, the country's natural anti-Tory majority would always find expression in terms of seats, as it has mostly not done under the present system.

Peter Kellner in Rise of small parties shackles the big beasts pointed out on Sunday that the political landscape has gradually changed over the years and it is now quite likely that even if the system remains unchanged we are going to end up with hung parliaments in future:

Last week’s inconclusive outcome may be the first of many, even if first-past-the-post survives.

The reason is that the Labour and Conservative parties no longer dominate politics as they once did. In 1951, only nine MPs did not take the Labour or Tory whip; in 1970 the number was 12. By 1979 the number had climbed to 27, but the 70-seat Conservative lead over Labour delivered Margaret Thatcher a 43-seat overall majority.

Last week even a 70-seat lead would have been insufficient. As well as the 57-seat contingent of Liberal Democrats, 28 MPs will represent eight smaller parties. To secure an overall majority of just two, the Tories would have needed 86 more MPs than Labour.

(...) One of Cameron’s problems is that his looks like such an English party. There will be 298 Tory and 235 non-Tory MPs in England; but the rest of the UK returned just nine Tories compared with 108 non-Tory MPs.

To which the Tories could counter: those lopsided figures are exaggerated by first-past-the-post. They secured the support of one Scot in six. A proportional system could have added another nine MPs to accompany the solitary figure of David Mundell.

There is an even bigger reason for Conservatives to dislike first-past-the-post. Had Thursday’s voting figures been reversed, with Labour winning 36% of the vote and the Tories taking 29%, Labour would have enjoyed an overall majority of nearly 70. Even after the latest boundary changes, which in effect gave the Tories 12 extra seats, Britain’s political geography remains tilted against the party.

Yet the Tories are fiercely attached to the system that causes them such anguish.(...)

This being so, perhaps more Tories might start changing their minds about this. Michael Portillo, as so often, is already ahead of the curve. He said on telly the other day that he was beginning to see the advantages of a more proportional system.

1 comment:

Neil Harding said...

Hi PZT, I got carried away with my response to this, it is a bit long, so it is posted here.