Random reflections after a terrible election (1)

It’s taken a few days to recover from the nasty jolt administered by the exit poll on Thursday night, since when things have only got worse. I had planned to write a blog post with profound constructive thoughts about what went so badly wrong and what the Labour party needs to do to begin its recovery, but after absorbing the wisdom of a thousand expert commentators on many hectares of newsprint and in hours of television, I still have no answers to those questions, and conclude that there probably aren’t any. So I just offer some random interim jottings.

* * * * *

Will the weirder of the results (Scottish National Party with 4.7% of the votes and 56 seats, UKIP 12.6% of the votes and just one seat) prompt a general demand for “reform” of the electoral system, abandoning First Past the Post (FPTP) for some form of proportional representation (PR)? UKIP certainly has just cause for complaint, having come third behind the Conservatives and Labour in the national vote. A proportional system would have given the Greens, with 3.8% of the vote, a respectable 25 seats; UKIP’s nearly four million votes should have won them 82, a sobering thought. I hesitate to call UKIP a fascist party: Farage seemed relatively benign as far right party leaders go. But plenty of UKIP members clearly hold fascist views, and as the third biggest party in parliament it could be a magnet for some more sinister, charismatic and dangerous champion. Fascism in Germany was born of recession, distrust of conventional politicians, and a sense of grievance over the country’s treatment by foreigners. Hitler won power through democratic elections. Which is more dangerous, relying on FPTP to deny almost four million voters their due representation in parliament, or changing the system to make them the third biggest party?

* * * * *

I don’t suggest that it accounts for the Tories’ stunning victory, but their campaign does seem to have profited mightily from the constant repetition of the four Mendacious Mantras: (i) “Labour crashed the economy”; (ii) “Britain’s famous recovery from the mess we inherited from Labour is down to brilliant economic management by George Osborne”; (iii) “Ed Miliband is a Marxist weirdo who’s not up to the job of prime minister”; and (iv) “a minority Labour government would be in hock to the illegitimate, anti-UK, secessionist SNP wreckers.” Ed gave the lie to (iii) by performing strongly during the election campaign, but it was probably too late. Labour never succeeded in rebutting the other three lies, not even (i), the most damaging and most obviously false. With the Tory press daily repeating the four Mendacious Mantras as a kind of Greek chorus, getting the rebuttals across would have been hard work. But in an understandable determination to be positive, Labour didn’t really try.

* * * * *

attleeBy winning 50% of the votes in Scotland the SNP has broken all records set by the UK parties since the 1930s. Even at the peak of its election successes in 1945, and especially 1951 (when, contrary to the conventional wisdom, Labour actually won even more votes and a higher proportion of the national vote than in 1945), Mr Attlee’s Labour party never quite managed 50%. Under PR, no UK government since 1945 could have governed alone with an overall majority in the House of Commons. The SNP’s success in virtually sweeping the board in Scotland, winning 56 out of 59 seats, obscures the fact that if 50% of voters voted for the SNP, the other 50% did not. Still, there’s no denying the nationalist surge that has swept Scotland since last year’s independence referendum, inflicting humiliating defeats on the Conservative, Labour and LibDem parties alike, and stirring up hitherto largely dormant English nationalism in the process. How strange that neither of the main UK parties has any vision of a constitutional future for the whole UK that could satisfy legitimate Scottish and English ambitions for self-government, and put relations between the four UK nations, and between them and the UK as a whole, on a durable, democratic footing. No-one will risk espousing the obvious solution, a full UK federation to replace the semi-federation we have now: too radical, too many problems en route (all soluble, actually). Vision is in short supply nowadays. Meanwhile all available energy will be expended on a divisive battle over Europe and on wrapping up the dismantling of the welfare state, virtual privatisation of the NHS, and the binning of the Human Rights Act, to be replaced by a régime making civil rights conditional on performance of “obligations” to the state as defined by Mr Michael Gove. It’s tempting to give up interest in politics. Instead, with Candide, “we should cultivate our garden”.

* * * * *

Will someone please explain to Mr Blair, Lord Mandelson, Mr Straw and Mr Blunkett that it’s time for them to — well, cultivate their gardens, and that they might usefully remember Mr Attlee’s polite advice in a letter to Harold Laski, then Chairman of the Labour Party, in 1946: “I can assure you there is widespread resentment in the Party at your activities and a period of silence on your part would be welcome”?


20 Responses

  1. Tony Hatfield says:

    I’m becoming less anxious about the Tory’s keenness to repeal the HRA. It’s often forgotten that its provisions are well locked into the Scotland Act 1998, and, perhaps more significantly, into the Good Friday Agreement. I’m not sure the Tories, with all the other constitutional  problems on their to-do list will really want to set off what could be a full blown Constitutional crisis.

  2. robin fairlie says:

    My first reaction to the news was to forswear politics for the next five years. I suppose the habits of the last 70 are too strong to break.

    I don’t see how it is possible to support FPTP in the fragmentation of parties – but then I never did support it. Even your argument that it guaranteed strong government by one party which had a mandate from the electorate, has been shot out of the water; the only remaining prop for it is the desire of all decent people to ignore, or ridicule, UKIP. Not sufficient: if enough people want to vote UKIP – whether as an understandable anti-politician gesture, or as a chauvinist dislike of uncontrolled immigration, they must be allowed proper representation. End of. As for your dislike of coalitions and wheeler-dealing in smoke-filled rooms – how does the governance of, say, Germany over the last 70 years of political and economic stability stack up against the record of the UK, constantly veering from pillar to post?

    La Sturgeon is in a tough place. Her approach to this UK election has been impeccable, but she faces four challenges on two fronts: how to keep Salmond in his box; how to retain momentum to and in the Scottish elections in 2016; how to secure maximum devolution from Westminster; how to not call another referendum, which she would lose again – unless, of course, Cameron loses the EU referendum in the UK, in which case all bets are off. But she is a tough cookie: why is it that Scotland continues to produce front-rank politicians when England and Wales have lost the art?

    No one has yet answered the question of what went wrong last week: were six months or more of opinion polls up the creek, or did something – and what was it – happen in the last 24 hours – I have no idea. Does it even matter?

    Analysis of the disaster seems to concentrate on the familiar war between  factions within the Party – which is self-destructive and unhelpful, and also incorrect. It is pointless to argue that Ed was too left-wing, or not left enough. Simply,  he was never the man for the job. The attacks on him were disgraceful, but entirely predictable; he handled them with dignity and integrity, but they damaged him, as was always to be expected. The failure of the campaign was not a matter of left or right, it was a matter of principle and passion, both of which were almost entirely lacking. What sort of country do we (want to) live in? A country of compassion and shared objectives where everyone contributes to the common good, or a country of selfish greed and devil-take-the-hindmost? This fundamental choice was never articulated. If we are not to lose again in 2020, we need to go right back to basics, and ask: WHAT IS THE LABOUR PARTY FOR?? Is it just for advancing the interests of “working  people” – whoever they are – or is it about creating a better, more caring, society?

    I think I will just cultivate my garden – metaphorically at least.

  3. David Campbell says:

    Unlike you to be so defeatist, Brian. Let me prescribe a cure.

    1.   A sleeping pill. Stop agonising over the Conservative victory. They won because they fought a determined and skilful campaign, especially in the English marginals. Your 4 MMs are just as applicable to Labour’s half-baked “pledges” as anything the Conservatives cooked up. In fact, the pledges played out worse, because they were a constant reminder of New Labour’s media manipulation. As I said in my comment of 11 May, in Scotland the Conservatives campaigned on their record, and looked a marginally more positive than Labour or the SNP.

    2.   An antibiotic. This needs to be a strong one, if it is to kill off the hypocrisy that has been talked about austerity. The main parties share an underlying consensus. All agree that the deficit has to be reduced and public expenditure on services and job creation sustained. A good antibiotic may also help you to get real about Labour’s responsibility for the 2010 deficit. Does their record really need to be debated? If so, I’ll prescribe something stronger.


    3.   Electric shock therapy. Could we now please agree at long last that a parliamentary majority does not entitle a party which most the electorate loathes to force its manifesto down their throats? Not a week into the new government yet, and already we’re regretting the Coalition. How right you are to mention the Human Rights Act.  How about the appointment of a Minister for Justice who believes in capital punishment, or for Equality who is against gay marriage? Would a minority Labour government with “progressive”  support have been  more conciliatory? Not on your nelly.

    4.   A pain killer. I enjoyed your elegiac musing on electoral reform. Wasn’t this supposed to be a taboo subject? If that phalanx of SNP MPs has convinced you otherwise, don’t be ashamed. It’s a healthy reaction. FPTP did a good job once, but its sell-by has come up. The issue now is not if but which – which system of PR  is to replace it (not necessarily permanently, Brian. Just until it, too, outlives its usefulness). My preference would be STV, as advocated by the Electoral Reform Society for over a century. Can we trust our politicians to act? Fat chance.

    5. A sleeping pill. Quite right to tell Lord Mandleson & Co to shut up. You left out Alastair Campbell. Perhaps he could be taken to the vet, and given an injection. No need to tell you this, I’m sure, but New Labour is a toxic brand.

  4. Robert says:

    It should not be a real shock that labour lost for god sake Blair beat Hague IDS and Howard, once Cameron got in he decided to bail out,  and get his promises from the USA. bet his medal of honor will look  good when he goes out to parade with the troops, hello boys look at mine.


    But yes of course the Progress  groups should shut up but Blair is the leader of that group, so he is going to fight for his choice, I suspect that right winger Chuka.


    Progress or New labour will be back whether it’s next election or the one after or the one after that we will see..

  5. Jeremy Varcoe says:

    A few random responses.

    1. As a Tory ‘wet’ or Tory-Lite i am naturally pleased, though also surprised, at the outcome. Nevertheless I share some of your misgivings, namely over the EU Referendum and the repeal of the Human Rights Act though I believe this will prove so difficult that the result will be a fudge which will leave things much as now.

    2. As for your “Mendacious Mantras” the UK electorate. which I credit with more common sense than you appear to, would surely not have believed them if obviously false or fallacious. Indeed the threat that a strong SNP group would be able to manipulate a minority Labour government was made several times by Salmond and Sturgeon. In Cornwall we think this deterred numbers of voters from their ‘natural’ Lib Dem stance. More widely Labour’s record since 1950 of economic mismanagement, whether true or false, has such resonance that I doubt whether a tight contest it can easily be put to rest.

    3.I totally disagree with your argument that UKIP is so disreputable – which I largely accept- that they should not be allowed to be the parliamentary force that their level of support would have entitled them to under PR. Their plight, and that of the Lib Dems under FPTP, will surely lead to growing demands for reform. It would be both just and democratic for this to happen but since it would disadvantage both the main parties there will be no early change.

    4. Cameron faces a huge problem over Scotland but perhaps he should call Nico;a sturgeon’s bluff by offering full fiscal autonomy or a much “lighter” alternative form of devolution. NS appears to realise that full autonomy would be a disaster for Scotland unless the oil price picks up very substantially.

    5. It is not for me to speculate on who should be the next leader after the much maligned but still uncharismatic Miliband. Yesterday’s times suggested that the Unions are already sharpening their spears to garner support for a leftist candidate such as Cooper or Burnham. Personally hope they succeed as this would make it even more likely that the Tories will win a third term in 2020. i also commend an article by Jonathan Powell in the same edition even if you are unlikely to agree with what he says.

    5.Finally, i enjoy the thought of you cultivating your garden though i believe you have gardener to do this, which, of course, is only right for a good Socialist!

    Brian writes: Thanks, Jeremy. To rebut everything that’s wrong with your comment, point by point, would mean repeating myself to an obviously unacceptable degree, so I will content myself with answering just two of them. First, I have not said that UKIP should not have a representation in the house of commons more nearly proportionate to its share of the national vote at this year’s general election — as you will see if you re-read what I wrote. However, I do think that the onus is on the zealots for Proportional Representation to explain the reasons for their belief that arithmetical proportionality between share of seats in the house of commons and share of votes in a general election is somehow more beneficial in its consequences for the governance of the United Kingdom than the different consequences of our present system in which we vote for an electoral college (the house of commons) which in turn chooses and sustains or dismisses a government and holds it to account. But that is an argument for another day on another website. Secondly, it seems to me at best quaint, and at worst an example of Daily Telegraph-think, to accuse an octogenarian socialist of betraying his principles by employing an occasional gardener. Actually it’s even more accurately an example of Daily Mail-think, lower than which it’s surely hard to sink.

  6. Tom Berney says:

    A short comment on PR.  It is interesting that no one seemed too bothered when Scotland regularly sent down about 40 or more Labour MPs, but now there is a kerfuffle because the Scots are SNP.  It is worth noting that STV would barely have affected the outcome in Scotland as most SNP victors  got either over, or not far from, a majority in the first count anyway…

    On simple proportions the LibDems stood in 59 seats in Scotland and lost their deposits in 47 of them (340 in UK).  UKIP lost theirs in 41 Scottish constituencies.  I can’t say that I feel they are hard done by in the representation they get.

  7. David Campbell says:

    Surely not, Tom? STV operates on multi-member constituencies. The outcome would have been broadly proportional. About 30 SNP, 12 Labour, 7 or 8 Conservatives, 3 or 4 LibDems,  and the Greens in with a shout. Scotland would be speaking not with one foghorn voice but a more representative cacophony.

  8. Barry says:

    It is clear that the SNP have representation in the House of Commons not justified by their vote share and this is only caused by the archaic nonsense of First Past The Post. They should have MPs in proportion to their voting strength in the electorate ie NOT 95% representation with just 49.7% of the vote or so.

  9. David Campbell says:

    Exactly, Barry. For a reality check on PR  voting systems, including STV, visit www.electoralreform.org.uk

  10. Barry says:

    I visit the site often. I’ve been signing petitions on various sites on the web calling for proportional representation to be introduced for the House of Commons. I’ve also, unfortunately, had to correct numerous people on different websites who think we have already had a referendum on PR when we only had one on the very different (and non-proportional) Alternative Vote system instead.

  11. Tom Berney says:

    Fair enough David, I was thinking in terms of AV rather than STV.  I prefer systems where you vote for a person rather than a party.  I like the idea of someone having to persuade their constituents to vote for them and then being  accountable to them.  For example, I don’t like the  list system part of Scottish Parliament elections.

  12. Brian says:

    I’m grateful for all these comments, some of which I agree with, others less so.

    It seems to me difficult to argue that the case for FPTP as a system which mostly produces reasonably durable single-party government has just been “shot out of the water” when it has just done exactly that (whether or not we like the reasonably durable, single party government that it has just produced). I repeat: if we had had a proportional electoral system, we would not have had a single-party majority government at any time since the second world war. This would have meant no majority Labour government in 1945 and quite possibly no welfare state and no NHS. After every FPTP election since and including 1945, it has always been possible to point out that more people had voted against the incumbent government than had voted for it. Repeating that now of the Cameron majority government, with the implication that the government lacks a proper mandate, is to question the legitimacy and mandate of every government since 1945. PR is undoubtedly ‘fair’ if one thinks the house of commons ought to reflect accurately the breakdown of party support in the country and that that is the highest good, outweighing every other factor such as whether it tends to produce durable governments that can be held to account for their performance in honouring their promises, or that it enables voters to have a good idea of what they are voting for, neither of which, obviously, is true of PR. Personally I think both those objectives are vastly more important and valuable than having a house of commons which is a perfect mirror image of party support in the country: indeed, I don’t see anything intrinsically desirable about that kind of arithmetical accuracy.

    I didn’t say that we should deliberately use FPTP to prevent a semi-fascist UKIP becoming the third largest party in parliament, which would be the result of a PR election. I asked which would be the more dangerous: denying nearly four million voters the representation in parliament to which their numbers entitled them, or changing the voting system so that UKIP would be the third biggest party in what would invariably be a hung parliament, and therefore almost always in a position to perform the king-maker role hitherto played by the LibDems when they were the third biggest party. No-one has attempted to answer that question.

    I continue to hold that no-one knows, at this stage anyway, why Labour lost so badly. Many clever people have rushed in to assert, without any evidence that I have been able to identify, that it was because Labour was insufficiently Blairite (the magisterial verdict of today’s FT editorial), or because of some fundamental flaw in Ed Miliband (no-one has been able to say what flaw), or because to win an election any party has to pander to the interests of “business” (the corner shop? Shell and BP? British Gas? the local MOT and car service station garage?) whereas Labour’s campaign either was, or was perceived as, “anti-business” (does an analysis of the Labour manifesto bear that out? no, in fact it doesn’t, but never mind, perception is all, and the media determine perception more than the manifestos). I ventured to suggest that the four Mendacious Mantras listed in my post seem to have influenced many voters despite their demonstrable falsehood: some comments here seem to have dismissed the four MMs as irrelevant, or no longer worth discussion, or never worth discussion or refutation even during the campaign. I find that view puzzling.

    Lastly, I’m equally puzzled by the suggestion that there’s no point in trying to find out why all the polls, and all the commentators who relied on them, got the principal result so utterly and confidently wrong. The opinion polls, which have almost always been reasonably good predictors and accurate producers of periodic snap-shots in the past, have an important role in helping voters to decide how to vote. One friend of mine is already regretting his vote for his Conservative candidate, cast in the firm belief that there was no danger of a Conservative majority government unconstrained by a LibDem coalition partner and therefore free to commit such malignant follies as holding an EU referendum, repealing the Human Rights Act and reducing the incomes of the poor, the weak and the unluckiest in our society by another £12 billion a year fior the next two years or longer. Without reliable polls, we can’t attach much weight to the analyses and judgements of the wiser media commentators. We really do need to know why they all got it wrong — if they did (IOW, whether their polls were actually accurate but failed to detect a last-minute swing on polling day itself).

    And that’s all, folks — for now, anyway. A new post will no doubt materialise when I have something to say that isn’t already being said all over the media, whether true, sensible, generous and perceptive, or none of the above. Meanwhile we have to live with what promises to be the harshest, most reactionary and mean-spirited, most incompetent, most ideologically driven, most divisive and most dangerous government of the lifetimes of any of us — and that covers quite a long time!

  13. Barry says:

    Germany has done well with governments elected by PR and their system (which I believe we designed and forced them to have ironically!) : http://en.wikipedia.org/wik/Electoral_system_of_Germany People who are opposed to PR nearly always bring-up the subject of Israel and yes that is a good example of how, sometimes, PR can be bad but they have religious parties and a very pure system of PR and you only have to obtain 2% or so of the national vote (The entire Israeli state is treated as one constituency) so that enables many parties to enter the Israeli parliament and helps to fragment the political system whereas Germany has a threashold of 5% of the national vote and 3 directly-elected Bundestag seats. I don’t think many people in Britain would argue for the Israeli version of PR.


    I think that many times the faults of a country’s democracy can be put down to the inherent character of a country’s people rather than the electoral system used ie Israelis over Germans (I hope I don’t sound racist there) I believe we are more like Germans than Israelis.


    This system is interesting: http://www.dprvoting.org

  14. David Campbell says:

    Tom/Barry, I agree entirely about list systems and AV. That is why I put down a marker for STV. It combines the constituency framework we all approve with a far better choice over the individual (repeat, individual) whom the voter wants to elect.

    Brian, I cannot agree that FPTP has been good for the UK. Far from providing stability, the regular changes of policy it facilitates have been a prime cause of our decline. For proof, look at the inefficiency of our public services and our incoherent infrastructure. For me, the attraction of PR is that it would be more stable over the long term (and not, incidentally, that it would provide “a perfect image of party support in the country”). As for your suggestion that FPTP gave us the Welfare State, why do countries with PR have as good or better systems than ours? In any case, wasn’t the groundwork on the UK’s version done by the wartime coalition?

  15. Brian says:

    Brian writes in reply to David:  Thank you again, David. But I’m far from convinced.  Periodic changes of single-party majority government have generally been beneficial for Britain, especially during the long post-war (and indeed much earlier) period in which Conservative governments generally accepted as faits accomplis the reforms instituted by their Labour or Liberal predecessors and provided relatively quiet spells for them to bed in.  You write as if there have been changes of government every five years or so, whereas in practice there have usually been long spells in government for each of the two main parties.  Almost every change of government has been followed by at least two consecutive terms in office for the new winner and often more than two.   I can think of no evidence that this has caused or even been associated with Britain’s “decline”, itself a highly questionable word:  Britain’s decline as a colonial power has been offset by extraordinary economic and social progress in absolute if not relative terms.  Others may well have made even greater progress in some areas but (a) often from a lower base, and (b) arguably in spite of their electoral systems, not because of them.

    I agree that PR and constant coalitions have coincided with reasonable stability of government in Germany (give or take the occasional Bader-Meinhof Gang, the Red Army Faction, and left-wing German terrorism of the 1970s), but in many ways the two countries are too different for comparison to be useful.  For obvious reasons of history recent politics in Germany have on the whole been conciliatory and consensual, permitting periodic Grand Coalitions and other counter-intuitive alliances, because by and large there have not been huge ideological differences between German parties of the moderate left and those of the moderate right.  The UK political tradition, by contrast, has always been fiercely antagonistic, like our adversarial judicial system, our tradition of formal debating, even our newspapers.  I would argue that most voters in general elections want their favourite party to win outright and not be forced into constant compromises and concessions to a coalition partner, generally leading to near-paralysis and inimical to radical reform (look at the way coalition in-fighting has prevented reform of the electoral system, the house of lords and constituency boundaries).  Some LibDem voters have no doubt hoped for hung parliaments and unavoidable coalitions, but that has in most cases been because in recent years coalitions have been the only hope for LibDems to take part in government. 

    Nor do I follow your argument that over the long term PR would ensure more stable government than FPTP has done. The opposite seems to me much likelier.  Unless the minimum percentage of votes for parliamentary representation is set pretty high, like the 5% in Germany (which of course reduces the proportionality of the result), PR favours both a multiplicity of parties, big and especially small, forming different combinations of government every time the kaleidoscope is shaken, and also formal fragmentation of existing parties.  I don’t see that as anything like the stability which FPTP has actually produced in Britain over the years, and which believe it or not is widely envied in other countries.

    I would dispute your claim that countries with PR have as good as or better social security systems than ours, whose centrepiece is the NHS — singled out by survey after survey as the best health system in the world, one of the cheapest per head yet also probably the most effective — anyway until the late and unlamented coalition government thought fit to “reform” it by selling off its potentially lucrative elements to the Tories’ private sector friends.  And the idea that the NHS was really the brainchild of the wartime coalition government is surely not serious.  It was opposed tooth and nail by the Tories at every stage.  Other parts of the welfare state as created by the post-war Attlee governments drew on the proposals of the (Liberal) Lord Beveridge in his report of 1941-2, some of which went back to Lloyd George’s and Asquith’s even earlier reforms, but these too were opposed by the Tories until they became part of the established system. After 1945 the Liberals were hardly a factor in the creation of the welfare state, with fewer than 2 per cent of the seats in the Labour-dominated House.  I think you will have a hard task trying to show that the welfare state was not the fruit of a single-party majority government produced by FPTP.

    All that said, I accept that the distortions produced by FPTP at last week’s UK election are so immense that at some stage a review is going to be necessary.  My own view is that this should not be done in isolation from a much more wide-ranging constitutional convention looking at all aspects of the UK’s constitutional future. I would expect such a convention, if it was allowed to draw on extensive objective research and analysis, to conclude that various forms of PR would be appropriate for the parliaments of all four of the UK’s future internally self-governing nations, while FPTP should continue in elections to the federal lower house at Westminster whose responsibilities would be huigely reduced, principally to foreign affairs and defence, with a different system for elections to the new federal Senate replacing the present houe of lords.  But that raises a host of other issues going far beyond the subject of this post.  No more mission creep, please!

  16. robin fairlie says:

    I can see no great point in arguing over what the consequences (statistical or political) of this or that form of PR might have entailed over the post-War period in the UK (although my sympathies are more with David than Brian on this issue). The only important debate – as Brian accepts in his final para – is how we should react now and for the foreseeable future  to a wholly changed political landscape.

    I am astonished by Brian’s assertion that “most voters in general elections want their favourite party to win outright and not be forced into constant compromises and concessions to a coalition partner” – especially after having quoted a friend who avowedly voted Tory in 2015 in the expectation of having a coalition government: were there no others?

    To answer the question whether it is more “dangerous” (I would prefer “unacceptable”) to continue a system that denies representation to 4 million UKIP voters, or to accept the arrival of UKIP as the third largest party in Westminster: I would suggest that the former is completely untenable. In any event the long-term consequences that Brian foresees are improbable: most UKIP voters do not wish, or expect, their party to “win outright” – they are, entirely understandably, protest voters against two unelectable behemoths, and, in a sensible system would be unlikely, I suggest, to flourish to anything like a 4 million extent.

    What is surely intolerable is not just the disenfranchisement of UKIP voters, but the extinction (in Westminster terms) of the three other major UK parties in Scotland.

    On the main point, Brian is surely right: what is now essential is the establishment of a UK-wide commission on the entire constitutional issue – not just a revised voting system, but a potentially-stable United Kingdom based on federal principles.

    Brian writes: Thank you. I am replying privately to this comment to clear up two or three misunderstandings that seem to have crept into it but which are not of general interest.

  17. David Campbell says:


    FPTP has already done away with Scotland’s long and honourable tradition of conservatism. Now Labour is about to be consigned to the bin, along with what little is left of Gladstonian liberalism. To see this happen while the political elite dismisses the case for reform  is deeply depressing (and predictable). Those whom he Gods wish to destroy . . .

    Looking to the future, I put STV higher on the agenda than a constitutional convention. The one is achievable and the other isn’t. Even if we could get as far as setting up a convention, it would be most unlikely to deliver anything. Pragmatic muddle is our usual way forward, and has much to be said for it.

    As for the Labour Party, McCluskey is right. It should return to looking after the interests of working men and women.

  18. Barry says:

    I like Germany’s system: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electoral_system_of_Germany or New Zealand’s :http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electoral_system_of_New_Zealand



    I have recently discoved this system: http://www.dprvoting.org which is called Direct Party and Representative voting. This could be the simplest way to reform our voting system and as it uses single-member seats instead of multi-member ones may gain support from those who like the simplicity of single-member seats whilst being proportional at the national level.

  19. Brian says:

    Brian replies to Barry’s comment: Australia has been described as an electoral system seminar, with many of the States and the Capital Territory using different systems from one another, the Federal House of Representatives another again and the Federal Senate yet another. The ‘Direct Party and Representative voting system’ that you have discovered is certainly ingenious and in terms of what the individual voter has to do in the polling booth, reasonably simple. But the idea of Tory MPs having only 0.77 of a vote each in the house of commons while the sole Green MP, the admirable Caroline Lucas, would have 5.5 votes, while perfectly logical in theory, would I think strike most ordinary people as preposterous, and the requirement for the parties to agree before a vote on whether it should qualify as a ‘party vote’ (with MPs casting multiple votes or fractions of a vote) or an independent vote, with MPs casting one vote each as now, looks both impossibly difficult and also open to abuse. It would also involve two different classes of MP: those elected for their constituencies and with varying numbers or fractions of votes each, and MPs added on to represent parties that had received a significant number of votes nation-wide but which had not won in any constituency. These add-ons would differ from all other MPs in that they would not represent any constituency and would presumably be chosen by the party machines, or else on the basis that the party’s candidate who had won the greatest number of votes in his or her constituency would be awarded a seat despite not having won the seat he/she had contested, meaning that the relevant constituency would in effect have two MPs. The head reels.
    All this is however a classic case of cart before horse. It’s akin to drawing up fancy plans for reforming the house of lords before deciding where a federal second chamber should fit into our post-devolution semi-federal system, whether it should be in some sense a states’ house, as in most existing federations, and what functions and powers it should possess — as well as whether the voting system for electing it should be the same as or different from that for electing the federal lower house (house of commons, house of representatives or whatever), and if so, why.
    When our leaders finally see the light and draw a road map to the consultations, Royal Commissions, constitutional conventions, referendums and parliamentary resolutions leading to a new federal constituion for the UK and its four nations, decisions will need to be made at the various appropriate levels on a host of issues, including (among many others) which six (at least) electoral systems are to be used for each of the six legislative chambers (the four parliaments of the four nations plus the two federal chambers). It’s amusing to discuss the various options now, but decisions must await far greater decisions on the overall shape of a new constitution and the distribution of powers as between the two tiers. By the same token, decisions on “devolution” of powers to selected English cities and regions, on which Mr Osborne seems to be hell-bent (presumably to pre-empt rising demands for an English parliament), ought to be made by an English parliament, when we have one, and certainly not by a parliament of Scots, Welshpersons and Irishpersons — nor by English MPs elected to legislate for the whole UK, not for England alone. Let’s design the house first, and only then decide on the size and make of the cooker for the kitchen.

  20. David Campbell says:

    Brian, Your road map to constitutional reform proves the complexity of the exercise. What are we to do meanwhile? Live in the old house with the plumbing blocked, the electrical wiring hazardous and several steps missing on the stairs? Or tackle these problems straight away? To use your own analogy, of course we can put a new kitchen in. It’s what most householders do every decade or so.

    You mention the diversity of Australia’s electoral systems without asking the more interesting question of which of these, if any, would suit the UK. Let’s take an example nearer home. Scotland is a deeply divided nation and has been for centuries. Highlands against Lowlands, Catholic against Protestant, rich against poor, east against west, you name it. These voices are all valuable and all need to be heard. What have we got?

    1)   Westminster. FPTP. This year’s bizarre outcome is only the latest in a string of dysfunctional results. The dead hand of Labour hegemony is replaced by the SNP’s. My comment of 16 May suggest what a balanced result would have looked like. The system has become so monstrously unfair  it provides a reason for independence.

    2)   Europe. PR, based on party lists. Introduced by Jack Straw because PR was mandatory and lists gave political parties the best chance of dominating the outcome. At the last European elections I was so disgusted to think who my vote was likely elect that I left the polling booth without voting.

    3)   Holyrood. The Additional Member System (taken from the German system, Barry). Immensely liberating. At last Scotland has a forum in which a wide range of political parties are represented in proportion to the support they enjoy. But of course the added members (who ensure proportionality) come from party lists. See 2 above. When I served in Berlin the disillusion of the electorate with their lack of influence over these lists led to the ousting of a ruling party which seemed very bit as secure as Labour in Scotland. Scotland can live with the system for now – it is a huge advance on FPTP – but we need to watch the politicians like hawks.

    4) Local government. STV. Remains to be seen if the electorate will take this system to their hearts. The political parties dislike it, because it is the voter rather than the party who decides who gets elected. After the last local election I had a bruising discussion with the Provost of East Lothian who complained of being only just elected, having coming top in the first count but without enough votes to go straight through. I had to point out that if a majority of voters wanted anyone but him, he was lucky to get in.

    I advocate STV because it is much, much the fairest system. Perfectly straightforward (“as simple as one, two three,” as they say in N Ireland), with a strong geographical identity and very few wasted votes.

    There is no excuse, Brian, for delay.

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