Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

Article

Britain´s new era of coalitions
Corriere della Sera - May 9th 2010

Britain’s electoral system has been widely envied for its ability to produce decisive outcomes and stable governments. But on May 6th our “first past the post” system, with the candidate gaining the most votes winning outright in every constituency, failed us for the first time since 1974. We will now have to do what other European countries find perfectly normal, to wait for several days before knowing whether David Cameron’s Conservative Party will succeed in reaching agreement with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats and thus be able to form a government. Most of all, though, we will now have to do some rather serious thinking about whether our electoral system has outlived its usefulness.

            The problem is that a first-past-the-post system produces a decisive winner only when there is a bipolar, two party system, as in Britain under Labour and the Conservatives, or America with the Democrats and the Republicans. Our party structure is no longer bipolar. On May 6th, the Conservatives “won” the election, but with only 36% of the vote, which was not enough to gain them an absolute majority in Parliament: they needed at least 326 seats, but with a few results still outstanding were projected to achieve only 305. Labour fell badly, to a projected 255 seats on 29% of the vote; the Liberal Democrats did disappointingly, when compared with their hopes during the “Cleggmania” of the campaign TV debates, achieving only 61 seats on 23% of the vote.

            That outcome is manifestly unfair: with nearly one-quarter of the votes, the Lib Dems received less than one-tenth of the seats. Few in Britain worry much about that unfairness, however, unless they are Lib Dem supporters: we are a pragmatic people, especially where politics are concerned. But the wider point is that even this unfair outcome has failed to produce a clear majority government. This fragmentation of the bipolar vote has been made worse by a sensible policy pursued by Labour since 1997: the devolution of power to regional parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, along with a very small amount of fiscal federalism, which has strengthened regional parties in the national Parliament too.

            The immediate task is to form a government. David Cameron, the Conservative leader, has been prudent in offering comprehensive talks with the Liberal Democrats, of (he says) a very open nature, to try to reach agreement. The key policy issues will be how to reduce Britain’s £160 billion national budget deficit in a way that succeeds in convincing financial markets that we are not another Greece; and how to tighten regulation of the financial sector in a way that convinces the public that rich bankers have not escaped the consequences of their misdeeds.

Those issues, important and serious though they are, will actually be relatively easy to reach an agreement on, at least for a government programme covering the next one or two years. Both parties know that public spending must be cut, taxes must be raised, and banking must be constrained. That is why the sell-off of sterling and of British government bonds on the immediate news of the electoral outcome is likely to be shortlived. The much harder topic will be electoral reform.

            This will be harder, first of all, because many Conservatives believe the electoral system should not be changed and because virtually all Liberal Democrats believe passionately that it must be. But it will be harder, secondly, because when electoral systems are changed the political fight swiftly moves from issues of principle and fairness to issues of hard party advantage. Our very British talent in reaching pragmatic compromises will be severely tested.

            My prediction would come in two parts. The main, immediate prediction is that Mr Cameron will attempt to achieve a governing agreement with the Liberal Democrats by settling upon a process for reviewing the electoral system—probably an all-party panel, or a “Royal Commission”, followed by a referendum—in the hope that this will delay the issue for long enough that before any conclusion is reached he can call a new general election and hope to win an absolute majority.

The second prediction is that if Britain does become serious about electoral reform, it will opt for a system that is an adaptation of our current one, not a complete innovation. Such a system would retain single-member constituencies, for the British value highly the apparent close relationship between MPs and their constituents, but would adapt the voting system in such a way as to make the outcome a bit fairer: probably a system of counting “second preferences”, as in Ireland. This would be a pragmatic compromise, but it would make certain that Britain must in future expect to be governed by coalitions. Our aim would be to make them fairly stable coalitions among three main parties, as in Germany, rather than the fragmented, multi-party coalitions that have been so typical in Italy. But once you change the system, you cannot be sure of the outcome.

Britain’s electoral system has been widely envied for its ability to produce decisive outcomes and stable governments. But on May 6th our “first past the post” system, with the candidate gaining the most votes winning outright in every constituency, failed us for the first time since 1974. We will now have to do what other European countries find perfectly normal, to wait for several days before knowing whether David Cameron’s Conservative Party will succeed in reaching agreement with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats and thus be able to form a government. Most of all, though, we will now have to do some rather serious thinking about whether our electoral system has outlived its usefulness.

            The problem is that a first-past-the-post system produces a decisive winner only when there is a bipolar, two party system, as in Britain under Labour and the Conservatives, or America with the Democrats and the Republicans. Our party structure is no longer bipolar. On May 6th, the Conservatives “won” the election, but with only 36% of the vote, which was not enough to gain them an absolute majority in Parliament: they needed at least 326 seats, but with a few results still outstanding were projected to achieve only 305. Labour fell badly, to a projected 255 seats on 29% of the vote; the Liberal Democrats did disappointingly, when compared with their hopes during the “Cleggmania” of the campaign TV debates, achieving only 61 seats on 23% of the vote.

            That outcome is manifestly unfair: with nearly one-quarter of the votes, the Lib Dems received less than one-tenth of the seats. Few in Britain worry much about that unfairness, however, unless they are Lib Dem supporters: we are a pragmatic people, especially where politics are concerned. But the wider point is that even this unfair outcome has failed to produce a clear majority government. This fragmentation of the bipolar vote has been made worse by a sensible policy pursued by Labour since 1997: the devolution of power to regional parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, along with a very small amount of fiscal federalism, which has strengthened regional parties in the national Parliament too.

            The immediate task is to form a government. David Cameron, the Conservative leader, has been prudent in offering comprehensive talks with the Liberal Democrats, of (he says) a very open nature, to try to reach agreement. The key policy issues will be how to reduce Britain’s £160 billion national budget deficit in a way that succeeds in convincing financial markets that we are not another Greece; and how to tighten regulation of the financial sector in a way that convinces the public that rich bankers have not escaped the consequences of their misdeeds.

Those issues, important and serious though they are, will actually be relatively easy to reach an agreement on, at least for a government programme covering the next one or two years. Both parties know that public spending must be cut, taxes must be raised, and banking must be constrained. That is why the sell-off of sterling and of British government bonds on the immediate news of the electoral outcome is likely to be shortlived. The much harder topic will be electoral reform.

            This will be harder, first of all, because many Conservatives believe the electoral system should not be changed and because virtually all Liberal Democrats believe passionately that it must be. But it will be harder, secondly, because when electoral systems are changed the political fight swiftly moves from issues of principle and fairness to issues of hard party advantage. Our very British talent in reaching pragmatic compromises will be severely tested.

            My prediction would come in two parts. The main, immediate prediction is that Mr Cameron will attempt to achieve a governing agreement with the Liberal Democrats by settling upon a process for reviewing the electoral system—probably an all-party panel, or a “Royal Commission”, followed by a referendum—in the hope that this will delay the issue for long enough that before any conclusion is reached he can call a new general election and hope to win an absolute majority.

The second prediction is that if Britain does become serious about electoral reform, it will opt for a system that is an adaptation of our current one, not a complete innovation. Such a system would retain single-member constituencies, for the British value highly the apparent close relationship between MPs and their constituents, but would adapt the voting system in such a way as to make the outcome a bit fairer: probably a system of counting “second preferences”, as in Ireland. This would be a pragmatic compromise, but it would make certain that Britain must in future expect to be governed by coalitions. Our aim would be to make them fairly stable coalitions among three main parties, as in Germany, rather than the fragmented, multi-party coalitions that have been so typical in Italy. But once you change the system, you cannot be sure of the outcome.


END.



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