Nick Tyrone, formerly of the Electoral Reform Society and the Yes to AV campaign, has revealed his support for the First Past the Post voting system today. This is a pretty courageous move (in the Yes Minister sense) for someone with those associations and who is still a Liberal Democrat, as far as I’m aware.
So naturally I was intrigued to see someone of his stature within the Lib Dem/liberal community resile from electoral reform at a national level. He still supports PR for local government.
I was wondering whether he would make any new arguments for FPTP that I hadn’t already heard. But actually, he hasn’t. I don’t usually make a habit of fisking other people’s writing but on this occasion I have to make an exception.
His argument for retaining FPTP begins like this:
But at Westminster, I actually think First Past the Post has definite advantages. Relevant to the age we live in, it keeps extremism at bay. Some electoral reformers talk endlessly about how the Tories got a majority with only 37% of the vote. Yet, if we’d had a proportional system in place, the most likely government would have been a Tory-UKIP coalition, which would have had just over 50% of the nationwide vote together. I don’t see that as a step up myself, and many centre-left voters who automatically see PR as more progressive should have a long, hard think about DPM Farage.
Immediately there are a lot of problems. First of all, Nick says FPTP “keeps extremism at bay”. That’s a problematic statement both because it begs a question – namely, what constitutes extremism. Plenty of people might think the current government has an extreme agenda on the economy, or on intelligence and surveillance, for instance.
But more troublingly, it takes for granted the notion that the voting system we should use should have an in-built anti-extremism safety mechanism. In other words, we should rig our democracy to reduce the possibility of certain views being fully represented. That is, of course, the opposite of democracy.
Another problem: “the most likely government would have been a Tory-UKIP coalition”. This is based on the vote share those two parties received under FPTP. But you can’t extrapolate from vote shares under FPTP to a PR outcome; voting behaviour could change, possibly dramatically, with moderate parties like the Liberal Democrats likely to benefit from voters’ anti-extremist preferences.
But also this is just another version of “keeping extremism at bay”. A genuine democracy sees the majority view represented. If the majority vote for parties that are considered extreme, then an extremist government is what we should get. I have no desire to see that outcome, but the possibility of its reality is in line with the principles I subscribe to as a democrat. I cannot abandon those principles for political expediency.
Another problem is that PR for Westminster can just sound like sour grapes. For instance, Caroline Lucas always going on about the Westminster voting system being “broken” or some other pejorative term. It feels a bit like, sorry to say, the Greens couldn’t break through under FPTP so now it’s time for a new voting system that will help them do better. Or then she talks about a Labour/Lib Dem/Green alliance. Putting aside the political realities standing in the way of that – if you want a “progressive majority” so badly, why don’t you just join Labour and fight for stuff inside of that party?
This isn’t an argument against PR, but against the Green Party. Unsurprisingly, I have some sympathy with it. I want my party to succeed under whatever voting system we have, and that’s why it’s not sensible to keep banging on about electoral reform as the central political issue facing the UK today (even though, in one sense, it is).
On the other hand, small parties are right to feel aggrieved at their lack of representation in Parliament. UKIP won a lot more votes than the Lib Dems in 2015; they have 1 seat to the Lib Dems’ 8. The Lib Dems won 24% to Labour’s 29% in 2010; they won just a fifth of the seats (57 against 258).
This is a fundamental injustice. It’s not about helping parties “do better”; it’s about recognising that they have broken through by winning votes, and that the system should reflect their success.
Finally, Nick turns to coalition government:
The last coalition may not have been to some tastes, but it was stable and it was effective at getting legislation passed. The Lib Dems thought if coalition could be shown to be functional over the course of a five year parliament, enough people would vote Lib Dem again in order to have another pluralist government. The Lib Dems were wrong about this, as May 2015 showed. And you can go on and on about tuition fees and what you see as the betrayals of the Lib Dems in government – you are only proving my point. The British people, and most pronouncedly in some ways now, those on the Left in Britain, are not prepared to accept coalition government. Given PR is almost guaranteed to produce coalition government in most instances, FPTP is the only way to go at Westminster level until the British public finds itself in love with coalitions (i.e. never).
This is a mis-diagnosis of the Lib Dems’ failure in 2015. The decision to go into coalition obviously lost the party a chunk of its support, but fundamentally our disastrous performance was about loss of trust. To say that that means the British people have rejected the idea of coalition itself is wrong.
The reality is that British voters are anti-government in whatever form it arises. A YouGov poll conducted in April 2015 showed that no form of government had a net positive reputation with voters. Even a Tory majority only scored -3. Moreover, there was some evidence in polling around the election to suggest that voters actually approved of the idea of the Lib Dems mitigating the other parties.
It is, in any case, impossible to extrapolate this kind of conclusion from election results – partly because FPTP itself does not tell us enough about voters’ preferences. Perhaps that is why Nick supported AV, a preferential (but not a proportional) system – because he himself recognised at one time that having the most possible information about what voters wants will create a better democracy.
All he needs to do now is recognise that seats should match votes – and he’ll have completed his journey from darkness to light.
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