Coalition is a good thing.
During the ‘This Week’ TV programme (2nd November 2017), Michael Portillo introduced a novel argument against PR. He asserted that it was responsible for the Israeli government’s rather inflexible approach to the Palestinian problem, the creation of new settlements and the obstruction of progress towards a political solution. The argument suggested that because, under PR systems, everyone and his dog gets a say, it has led, and would lead in the UK, to very small and possibly extreme parties holding the balance of power, leading to more extreme positions being taken by the governing party than they otherwise would.
In the Israeli election, they use a nationally proportional system, which is not generally considered to be a preferred option for the UK but, even under that system, Michael Portillo’s observations don’t really hold true. The Likud party won the most votes and 30 seats (UK equivalent 163 seats) and formed a coalition with four other parties none of whom achieved less than six seats, (UK equivalent 33 seats). It is unconvincing to argue that coalition partners with the UK equivalent of 54, 41,38 and 33 seats represent minority extreme views. In the Israeli example, the coalition is broad and the parties in the coalition all have significant support. In the UK the opposite is true. The tail, DUP (292,316 votes), is currently and vigorously wagging the Conservative dog (13,636,690 votes).
As it happens, we have a clear example of minority party pressure over the Irish border question. The DUP don’t want an Irish border so, despite there being a range of options to resolve this which support the Brexit decision, the Prime Minister has submitted to their complicating demands because of the unstable electoral position our voting system has created.
However, Michael Portillo raised a very important point, even though his rather poor example tends to show the opposite of his intention. He used the Israeli example to support the assertion that proportional voting systems are more likely to give small and extreme parties the whip hand scenario. The Israeli coalition is made up of parties with substantial support whereas the UK system of FPTP has produced a coalition which is exactly the one sided, ‘tail wagging the dog’, scenario he was decrying.
The reality is that FPTP is far more likely to create this sort of situation and more likely also to polarise voting intentions. That has led directly to the weak governmental position we are now in.
What Michael Portillo really meant was that FPTP is best for the Conservative party and, ironically, also the Labour party as it ensures the polarisation of voting intention, brings into play extreme views, affords very small parties the whip hand and perpetuates the likelihood of continued two-party dominance in UK politics, which is exactly what they want.
Our voting system will ensure that one day, maybe the next election or perhaps a later one, the Labour party will win again. We will once again take a step backwards, there will be another financial meltdown, the only option for salvation will be presented as the Conservative party and Labour will be in opposition for another generation or two until people, once again, forget how economically infantile they are.
This passing the parcel suits them because it ensures that UK governance is shared between diametrically opposing ideologies and they get to share the power periodically, with the longer periods being Conservative. It was paused for a period of time whilst ‘New Labour’ (a Conservative light approach) temporarily acted with financial probity before reverting to the norm. The country and its people, who regularly suffer these contradictory approaches, never get to know what it feels like to continually progress.
Ironically, had this been a truly proportional system as used in Israel, the DUP would have achieved six seats and the UK results would have looked a bit like this:
Liberal Democrat 48
Labour & Co-operative 27
Scottish National Party 20
UK Independence Party 12
Democratic Unionist Party 6
Sinn fein 5
Plaid Cyrmu 3
Social Democratic & Labour Party 2
Ulster Unionist Party 2
However, there is a ‘but’, and it’s a huge ‘but’. Were the electoral rules to have been different then people’s voting behaviour would also have changed, potentially dramatically. The above results would have been very different. You can play around, though, with the likely coalition options.
A powerful and well supported argument against FPTP, kindly provided by Michael Portillo, is that it is more likely to hand undue influence to parties with little support, that by their very nature are likely to be either extreme, or nationally focussed as opposed to UK focussed. That applies more so in the UK because of the coalition of countries we have as FPTP affords much higher than proportional representation to Scotland, Wales and, of course, Northern Ireland.
When voters know their votes are more likely to count, when they can truly vote for the party, the person and the ideas they want to support, they are likely to do so in far greater numbers than they do now. In the 2017 general election, standing as a UKIP candidate, I was often told by my supporters that their vote was being ‘lent’ to the Conservative Party because they had promised Brexit and because they were in pole position to deliver on that promise. Despite that, and the fact that UKIP failed to put up candidates in all constituencies, the party still got just under 600,000 votes, ironically twice as many as the DUP. Some people will keep the faith which is why parties with no hope of winning under FPTP still get some support.
However, when the rules change, that faith will be kept by many more people.
An implied requirement, in Michael Portillo’s analysis, is the establishment of a substantial level of support before being eligible to enter the legislature. We are talking about setting the bar high enough to weed out the nasty extremist views that might otherwise gain enough support, in PR type systems, to have a parliamentary voice. FPTP does this too well. The bar is so high that most people’s votes are either wasted or unsuccessful. The result is a governing party with little real support from the populace. I’ll elaborate on this aspect in the next article.
The concept, though, of a lower bar than FPTP but higher than the total number of votes divided by the total number of seats, is important and necessary if we wish to keep the direct link between a geographical area (constituency) and directly elected representatives. It is interesting to note that the system I designed, and the one which I hope UKIP will present in the mix for evaluation, F2PTP does this admirably. It’s also worth noting that most of the arguments against a more proportional system, aired in the parliamentary debate recently, were directly aimed at deficiencies in the existing group of PR systems and their complex compromises. These arguments are targeted at PR design compromises to which F2PTP is totally immune.
The thrust of this argument, therefore, is that proportional systems are less likely to create ‘tail wagging dog’ scenarios than FPTP, as is clearly the case in the current parliament. The evidence is that the broader base of views will be sufficiently large to ensure that majority will is exercised properly and not hijacked by vested interest groups. That is a very powerful message to present to the people.