The Nightmare Scenario

In the 1983 Westminster Election, Labour got 27.6% of the vote and 209 seats (32.2%) while the then SDP-Liberal Alliance got 25.4% of the vote and only 20 seats (3.5%). This illustrated the unfairness of Westminster's electoral system more starkly than anything I can remember, and public outcry at such obvious unfairness was probably only averted because both those parties were well behind the Tories who got 42.3% of the vote and 397 seats (61.1%).

The next few weeks will tell us if the recent upsurge in support for the LibDems following last week's debate will fade to black or not. But one thing is clear: even if the LibDems do get the largest share of the popular vote on 6 May, that will certainly not be reflected in the number of seats they win.

Because there are so many local variables it is difficult to be precise, but here are some of the possibilities:

Con ... 33% of vote = 254 seats (39%)
LibDem ... 30% of vote = 101 seats (16%)
Lab ... 28% of vote = 263 seats (36%)

Lab ... 33% of vote = 351 seats (54%)
LibDem ... 30% of vote = 99 seats (15%)
Con ... 28% of vote = 169 seats (26%)

Lab ... 33% of vote = 334 seats (51%)
Con ... 30% of vote = 196 seats (30%)
LibDem ... 28% of vote = 89 seats (14%)

Con ... 33% of vote = 245 seats (38%)
Lab ... 30% of vote = 289 seats (44%)
LibDem ... 28% of vote = 84 seats (13%)

LibDem ... 33% of vote = 127 seats (20%)
Con ... 30% of vote = 215 seats (33%)
Lab ... 28% of vote = 276 seats (42%)

In every case Labour will get many more seats than their share of the vote warrants, so that even if they come third, they will get more seats than the parties ahead of them. Similarly the LibDems will always get less than their share of the vote should entitle them to.

The last result would be the nightmare scenario: the party with most votes comes third by a long way, the party that comes third gets many more seats than the parties above them. If that doesn't persuade people how iniquitous the first-past-the-post voting system is, nothing ever will.


We know that the Tories are against any change to the voting system. And perhaps that's understandable, because their share of seats tends to tally with their share of the vote fairly well. Labour, it goes without saying, will obfuscate the issue. Diane Abbott gave a masterclass in the eighth comment of this post. They talk about electoral reform but nearly all of them will do absolutely nothing to move towards any form of proportional representation for the simple reason that they benefit most from the current unfairness.

As I've mentioned on a number of occasions Labour have had every chance to change the system in their thirteen years in power. They put a commitment to a referendum on changing the voting system to the Commons into their 1997 manifesto ... but failed to honour it. They did not even respond to the Jenkins Commission which they set up to look at and recommend various options.

In other words, Labour said one thing but did something else. As with everything else they do in constitutional terms, experience has taught us that they will move to change things only when they believe it is in their own interests to do so.

And again, even though the commitment to a referendum on the Alternative Vote is in their 2010 manifesto, it doesn't take any great genius to realize it is only there now because they know they are likely to lose even the unfair Commons majority they have held up to now. But we need to remember that, even though the Alternative Vote is one step better than FPTP, it still has no element of proportionality, so Labour will still benefit from it more than any other party.


Like Plaid Cymru and the SNP, the LibDems have long been in favour of proportional representation in the specific form of a Single Transferable Vote in multimember constituencies. But the way the LibDems have worded their manifesto for this election is hardly as clear cut as I would expect it to be. PR has always been their hallmark policy, but it doesn't even get a mention in the opening letter from Nick Clegg and Kirsty Williams, the introduction talks only of "embracing fair votes" and the eventual commitment is put in these rather muted terms:

Liberal Democrats will:

•  Change politics and abolish safe seats by introducing a fair, more proportional voting system for MPs. Our preferred Single Transferable Vote system gives people the choice between candidates as well as parties.

And it has struck me as strange that in interviews over the past few weeks the LibDems have been very reticent to say that electoral reform will be one of their red line issues in any post-election agreement they might make with another party. It has always been a red line issue in the past.

OK, I can understand that when the manifesto was written the LibDems could not have imagined the boost Nick Clegg would get by being invited to take part in what were originally billed as the Prime Ministerial Debates. But they have no excuse not to be strong if these polls turn out to be an anywhere near accurate reflection of what happens on 6 May. For if the electoral system isn't reformed now, while the unfairness of the current system is so obvious to the general public, I think it will be many years before the chance will come again.

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Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Very useful post. Seems spot on on Labour's motivations. In Wales the way the television debates have been done looks, as feared, to be hitting Plaid the hardest and if so, I suppose a Lib-Lab coalition in the Assembly after next year becomes more likely again. Any thoughts on this and what the long-term effect on Plaid will be if the LibDems get close enough to power in London to ensure voting reform, whether AV or STV?

Plaid Panteg said...

"And it has struck me as strange that in interviews over the past few weeks the LibDems have been very reticent to say that electoral reform will be one of their red line issues in any post-election agreement they might make with another party. It has always been a red line issue in the past."

I think, as I blogged about last week, the reason they cannot is tactical.

Given the Tories absolute refusal to budge on electoral reform, if the Lib Dems said now it was a red line issue, it would be tantamount to choosing Labour over the tories by default.

I do think however the Lib Dems credibility will rest on delivering PR, and I cannot see the party members voting through any deal without PR in Westminster.

Anonymous said...

If LibDems do push through electoral reform it could be the end of the LibDems.

We have PR of some sort in Wales and Scotland and they're still the 4th party. I can't think of any European state which has three large blocs of left, centre and right. All states tend to gravitate towards two blocs of left and right - Germany, France, Spain, Italy etc. You then have more radical parties on the right and left and and (depending on the state) a 'nationalist' block. Would the LibDems, if they get into power (coalition with the Tories has to be the only option I believe) change their minds on PR and hope they can now out Labour from the Left-centre ground shifting Labour to a German-type 'Die Linke' party?

If PR is delivered then the next UK election could see the LibDems becoming more like to smaller German Liberal, the FPD. In many constiuencies they are the 'not the other parties' vote. Once people have the freedom of PR they don't tend to vote LibDem at all.

PR would be good news for Wales as it will give people across Wales a good reason to vote positively and that would include voting Plaid.

I can't understand the Tories are against PR. Merkel, Sarkozy, Berlusconi, Aznar, Balkenende in the Netherlands etc are all right wing leaders.


Illtyd Luke said...

Good points macsen, the lib dems already are an FDP style party, they have tacked to the left to suit the times. The idea of them becoming like Germany's Die Linke is simply impossible, the lib dems are liberals not socialist, have no organic links to the working class and are suspicious towards trade unions at best.

Illtyd Luke said...

Sorry I misread your post, Labour are equally incapable of doing a Die Linke, and their marriage to centre-right Market forces is in fact identical to the situation with the SPD. It would be more reasonable to expect a Plaid/welsh labour accomodation on the left as Ron Davies once foresaw, but that too won't happen because the requirement for an openly national party is going to be unavoidable for at least another two decades.

MH said...

The first comment was removed because it was from a very angry person who was spewing hatred and abuse, in Spanish, against the Catalans. Not just Catalans who want independence, but all Catalans. S/he'd read what I had written before in support of Catalan independence, but evidently couldn't think of a coherent argument.


I'll start with Marcus (Plaid Panteg). Yes, I'd agree with your analysis. If the Tories won't budge on electoral reform it would leave the LibDems in an awkward position. But to me it's a no-brainer. The choice for them would be either to share power with the Tories for a few years, with Vince Cable perhaps as Chancellor, or do something that would give them, and every other party, fair representation in every future parliament. One sniff of real power might be enough to see all their principles fly out of the window.

And yet the Tories are nothing if not pragmatic. You don't survive as the longest running political party without changing what you believe in to suit each new century. If the choice is between being in opposition for five years or being in power with the LibDems, they might well do the unthinkable. After all, no government will decide on a new voting system. It will have to be confirmed in a referendum. The Tories might well concede the referendum in the belief that they will be able to persuade people to reject any change.


Another possibility is that the LibDems could do a deal with the Tories on the economy (something they seem to be in closer agreement with the Tories on than anything else) together with getting rid of the more draconian elements of Labour's surveillance state. The second would be good.

But that need not preclude the opposition proposing a bill on electoral reform on a free vote basis, which the LibDems as well as Plaid and the SNP would support. This approach would mean that we still get a referendum, even though we have a Tory/LibDem government.


As to the effects, that would depend entirely on what form of system we choose. People have mentioned Germany, but it has a party list system, in essence the additional member part of our elections to the Assembly. However if we choose STV, it will lead to a greater variety of parties being able to stand, as well as a greater choice of candidates within parties.

The problem is how to get STV onto the list of options that could be voted on in a referendum. If the LibDems do a deal with Labour, Labour will want AV and nothing else ... because any degree of proportionality will take away the some of the unfair advantage the current system gives them.

Do we go back to the Jenkins recommendations? Or do we take the view that what Jenkins recommended was already a compromise designed to make it acceptable to the Labour party ... even though it still didn't prove acceptable to the Labour party?


I would like to see a multiple choice:

1. Single Transferable Vote in multimember constituencies (Plaid, SNP and LibDem)
2. Alternative Vote in SMCs plus an additional member system (Jenkins)
3. Alternative Vote in single member constituencies (Labour)
4. Status quo (Tory)

... listing the order of preference with a transferable vote, of course!

And even within those options there is still plenty of variation. AV+ might be acceptable if the additional members constituted 40% or more of the total number of MPs. Jenkins' compromise was for it to be only 15-20%. But even the Welsh Assembly's 33% additional members isn't enough to compensate for the inherent bias of FPTP. If we go for STV, a lot will depend on the size of the constituencies. We have six-member constituencies in Northern Ireland, and that seems about right to me, though I see no reason why all constituencies should be the same size.

Anonymous said...

MH - good post.

LibDems, if they get into coalition, will go for a coalition with the Tories. I just can't see Clegg turning around on 7 May and saying Gordon Brown is still PM.

In that respect, I wouldn't be surprised if the LD backed down from their PR stance and decide that they may be able to bury Labour, or force them into a Die Linke type party, back sticking with FPTP.

Having witnessed the full strength of British nationalism through the British debate and other comments on blogs and by LibDem/Lab/Tory candidates, none of them will give a PR choice which accurately reflect people's views. That'd be bad news for UKIP, Greens (and yes, BNP) but it would undermine Plaid and the SNP which, as British nationalists, is their biggest enemy.

So, Tory-LibDem government, watered down PR, or PR referendum which will be lost; vote on Europe of some sort (which will be won i.e. against Europe).

Only plus point is that Labour may move on with going for Assembly referendum which we should be able to win. But I guess LD with new taste of power in Westminster won't want to see happen.

Question is, will Cameron call LibDem's bluff, and go for English Votes for English Measures or call it 'English Parliament'.


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