Lib-Dems Should Consider Tory Proposal, But be Wary
News now that the Liberal-Democrats have two offers from those courting them to form a coalition, and both involve a referendum on electoral reform. In brief:
- The Tories offer a referendum on Alternative Voting, basically the smallest step up from FPTP you could get. Not really proportional but better nothing.
- Important question (reply in comments if you know the answer): did the Tories say what percentage would be needed for the referendum to pass? The only acceptable answer is 50%. If they are trying to say 60% is needed, just look to Canada for the results, then this offer should be rejected out of hand.
- Meanwhile, Labour offers
- the resignation of Gordon Brown after a new leader is selected, who would become prime minister
- a bill to implement Alternative Vote without a referendum
- further study about better electoral reforms and a referendum on their implementation
From a democratic reform perspective, both these offers are exciting. The Tory one is safer, doesn’t risk angering conservative voters too much and probably gets the Lib-Dems more influence in government than they’ve ever had before. I cannot imagine Canada’s own NDP turning down such an offer, assuming there are also cabinet seats involved. The drawback of this is that the Tory MPs will be allowed to campaign against the referendum and history shows that a population given a choice between a new voting system and the status quo where full negative attacks are allowed and little unbiased public education is done, usually fail. That is exactly what happened in Ontario and BC and very different from the successful referendums in New Zealand and elsewhere which were much less partisan and involved many choices.
So, for electoral reform the Labour offer seems better. They get a real improvement for free, possibly angering many people that they weren’t consulted about the change first. And further, they get an ongoing conversation about further improvements. Perhaps one way to soften critics would be that the eventual referendum, several years hence, on further reforms would also include the option of returning to FPTP. This would be unlikely to succeed but give people the option to really be heard if enough people really don’t want change.
Of course, another problem with this path, and why I suspect the Lib-Dems won’t go for it, is that its much less certain. The Lib-Lab coalition would still not have a majority in the house and so would need to court other, smaller parties. This could work, especially since electoral reform can only benefit them, not harm them, but it may mean further deals will be needed. Since the largest voting bloc did vote Tory this time around, that adds up to a lot of unhappy people getting a very progressive, left-leaning government even though the most concentrated voting bloc wanted the opposite direction. The essential point is however, that this large bloc do not constitute the majority of the electorate and so do not have the right to determine the country’s direction if the varied masses of a larger number of voters can actually agree to come to a coalition. That is how democracy should work, and it is exactly the kind of situation that FPTP makes difficult.
When similar situations have faced Canada we have skipped this entire discussion, the PM has resigned and everyone quickly agreed that obviously the party with the most seats should be anointed government even though they cannot be guaranteed to hold the confidence of the house. It is a credit to British politics and the British population that this discussion can happen in a sensible, rational manner without crazed accusations of thwarting democracy being thrown around…at least not immediately. The Tories do show signs of preparing such an attack of the Lib-Dems have the audacity to take the more risky route, stick to their principles and make a deal with Labour.
The reformer in me sincerely hopes they do just this since the payoff will be so much greater if it all works out. But if they choose the safer route and go with the Tories I would support them. And I would encourage all progressives and reformers to support them to get the Tories to call their bluff and have that referendum. They clearly are making this offer betting that they can convince voters through negative campaigning and fear tactics to say no to what is admittedly not a very good electoral reform option. But it would be a vast improvement over FPTP and if it won by a large majority it would clear the way to further reforms in future. I hope that if the Lib-Dems take this path they get all the support they need and the period of hand wriging and what-if dreaming is shortlived.