Tuesday, 2 June 2015

How the Conservatives Could Back Electoral Reform

Looking at the last few months you might be forgiven for thinking that the whole idea of electoral reform is off the agenda for the duration of this parliament. Against most sober predictions the Conservative party achieved a majority, despite an enormous popular vote for UKIP and a surge for the SNP in Scotland. In the normal run of things, this would make the Conservatives staunch supporters of our 'first past the post' voting system and the apparently stable (Tory) government it produced. However this is far from the normal run of things for a very important reason: The narrative of the half century is one of terminal decline for the main parties.

If you go back to 1931 Stanley Baldwin commanded a majority of 470 MPs, with some 55% of the popular vote. In 1966 the two main parties still commanded some 89.9% of the vote. Even as recently as 1997 when the Conservatives slumped to 165 seats, Tony Blair's Labour Party had a thumping 418, with over 43% of the votes cast. However by 2015 Cameron won with just a 36.9% share of the vote, barely an increase on 2010. The combined total commanded by the two main parties was down to just 67%. So while the Tory slump in 1997 was offset to some degree by the strength of Labour, the current slump of Labour is not offset by a healthy Tory majority, nor even by a Lib Dem protest vote which punished Labour in previous elections.

Instead what we have seen is the rise of the SNP decimating both major parties in Scotland, and the rise of UKIP playing havoc with predictions south of the border, taking away variously from Labour, the Tories. Even the Greens got one MP, and over 1.5 million votes across the country. From a situation where to all intents and purposes the whole country chose between two main parties, we had a crowded seven way leadership debate ahead of the 2015 general election with every party represented gaining seats in parliament.

What all this shows is that the main parties are in a terminal electoral decline, yet the parties that are replacing them don't really seem to have government as their main objective. The nationalist parties of Wales and Scotland have no real ambitions beyond their borders, UKIP and the Greens both retain a strong focus on their core issues but struggle to appeal to a broader audience anywhere, which explains why despite large shares of the popular vote they each ended up with only one MP.

Sooner or later the situation anticipated before the last election will come to pass - that none of the traditional parties will be able to form a majority government. At this point coalitions will become the norm.

This is the point at which the Conservatives need to look at who are their potential coalition partners. The Lib Dems with whom they teamed up in 2010 are all but gone, and unlikely to repeat the mistake of joining a coalition with the Tories again for a long time. The nationalists and the Labour party despise the Tories, and the small number of MPs from Northern Ireland are not numerous enough to be king makers.

Any sort of government of the right will need to bring on board the massive UKIP vote to beat what will otherwise be an perpetual left wing coalition of Labour, Lib Dem, Nationalist and Green MPs voting for ever greater spending.

UKIP can win votes which will never be Tory, and if you take the very simplistic view of adding the Tory and UKIP share of the vote in 2015 it comes to over 15 million - better than John Major's extraordinarily high victory in 1992, or any election victory since. This demonstrates clearly that there is a strong appetite for a party committed to smaller government and the other values shared by both UKIP and the Tories. However the divergence is too great for one party to appeal to both sets of voters.

In short, the Tories need potential allies who share common goals but don't have the toxicity of the Tory brand. Some form of proportional representation can give them this entirely at the expense of their opponents.

It can only be a matter of time until this simple arithmetic dawn's on the Conservative leadership and the case for electoral reform becomes hard to ignore.