Time has come to re-examine first-past-the-post elections
June 2010 Neil McKenty
Before the recent British election, there were three party leaders. After the election there were three party losers.
Labour leader Gordon Brown lost his government partly because he didn’t have a Clegg to stand on.
Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg lost seats when all the polls said he would gain them. Conservative leader David Cameron lost a majority when the pundits said he should have won the election easily.
Although it is true the Tory leader has half the prime minister’s job, shared with Clegg, I would suggest that Cameron was the biggest loser. Facing a tired, dispirited Labour government that had been in power for 13 years and was headed by the unpopular and befuddled Brown, Cameron should have won in a walk. He came about 20 seats short of a majority.
This forced Cameron and the Tories to go to the Lib–Dems begging for their support. The analogy is not perfect, but can you imagine Stephen Harper, hat in hand, asking for the support of the NDP? Neither can I.
And make no mistake about it: The Tories have paid a high price for the Lib-Dems’ support. The more extreme or ideological parts of the Tory program will have to be tempered, in the interest of cabinet unity, by the more pragmatic and progressive influence of the Liberal Democrats.
For example, though the strongly euro-sceptical William Hague is the new foreign secretary, the fight with Brussels he was spoiling for before the election will have to be postponed. The government cannot do anything that Clegg, a strong pro-European who is Cameron’s deputy prime minister, cannot defend to his own backbenchers.
Any cuts in public services ordered by the new chancellor, George Osborne, will have to be such as can be defended by his Liberal Democrat rival and critic in opposition, Vince Cable, who also joins cabinet. The people most likely to be upset by this are on the right of the Tory party, for whom compromise of ideological principle is a very high price to pay for office.
Perhaps the Labour Party chose the better part by not pushing for a coalition with Clegg. Now Labour can recharge its batteries under a new leader, probably David Milliband, ready to pounce if and when the Cameron-Clegg government falls apart, as I predict it will in the next year or so over any number of issues, including deficit financing and the reform of the voting system.
In the run-up to the election, there was no more vexatious issue dividing the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats than voting reform. The Lib-Dems wanted it at all costs because, among other things, it would improve the chances of a third party winning more seats in a general election. Consider that in the recent elections the Lib-Dems got 23 per cent of the vote, but only nine per cent of the seats. The Tories did not want to touch reform with a barge pole because they argued rightly that it would militate against strong governments and condemn them to minority status forever. But it is the Tories who have had to put water in their wine. The government will apparently offer voters a referendum on a system of voting in general elections to replace the traditional first past the post, which is the system we have in Canada.
“Can you imagine Stephen Harper, hat in hand, asking for the support of the NDP? Neither can I.”
But the referendum that will be voted on in Britain is not for proportional representation as such.
(In Canada, three provinces have had referenda on proportional representation and all three have rejected it.)
The alternative vote is the system used by the House of Representatives in Australia. It works this way: The system allows voters to list their candidates in order of preference. Using the Canadian system, this would mean that if you liked the Conservative Party, you could vote for its candidate alone or you could vote for the Conservative as a first preference and then, say, the NDP.
If a candidate got 50 per cent of the vote or more, he or she would win. If not, the votes of the candidate who finished last would be redistributed, until a candidate got 50 per cent of first, second, or third preferences.
Discussing this method in the Globe and Mail, Jeffrey Simpson says it has four advantages. First, alternative vote gives voters something other than a black or white choice. Second, it moves a little toward matching total votes cast for a party with seats won. Third, it means that all MPs can say they received at least half the preferences, instead of in our system, in which many MPs garner fewer than half the votes. Fourth, it still usually produces a majority parliament (despite the fears of the British Tories).
Is it time for Canadians to look at Australia and Britain and modify our first-past-the-post system, which so distorts the relationship between votes cast and seats won?