A Conservative case for proportional

This has been something of a referendum-heavy Parliament by British standards. Like standing armies and civil codes of law, referenda are some of those things we on this blessed isle have generally left to Europeans – despots from Napoleon to Hitler used them to cement their legitimacy but we had no need for such things, such was the strength of common law and the liberties of every freeborn Englishman.

Attitudes have been slowly changing and, perhaps because we’re becoming ‘more European’ or perhaps because we feel less free these days, referenda have been growing in popularity amongst the political class at least.

The AV referendum may have been a complete disaster both for turnout and for anyone hoping for electoral reform but pressure from the parliamentary Conservative party, the public and excellent campaigns like The People’s Pledge have been enough to commit David Cameron to a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union in 2017. And, for Scots, there will be a referendum on membership of the United Kingdom next year.

While I am by no means an opponent of referenda – indeed I greatly admire the Swiss system of direct democracy – one has to be careful about holding them. One of the reasons is that they effectively shut down discussion of a subject for a generation. That is, of course, generally the point of them but this can have unintended consequences.

Consider again the AV referendum, for example. The cynic in me sometimes wonders whether the whole thing wasn’t something of a set up to eliminate any further discussion of electoral reform of any kind for the next 20 years. The alternative vote is, after all, an incredibly stupid system, somehow managing to be less representative than first past the post (FPTP) and more unstable than proportional representation (PR) – without any of their virtues.

But, discussion or no discussion, it’s not going to stop me harping on about the virtues of Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) – which has served Germany well since the beginning of the Federal Republic in 1949 with a stable system combining both party list and constituency MPs.

I will not pretend to have any idea how this system works because, to be honest, you would probably have an easier time trying to explain advanced quantum theory. What I do know is this: it is the best true converter of votes into seats and it could very well renew peoples’ confidence in their vote.

Everybody knows at general elections there are millions of votes wasted. Tory votes in inner cities, Labour votes in the country and Lib Dem votes practically everywhere. In many constituencies you only have a choice between red, blue and gold, regardless of whether you actually agree with any of them. Many people in safe seats simply don’t see the point in voting at all if they oppose the sitting MP.

And who cannot sympathise with the 7,780,949 people – over a quarter of the electorate – who voted for the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 only to be rewarded with a meagre 23 MPs? This was only an 11-seat improvement on the Liberals’ 1945 result, when they polled only 9%. Such an outcome is a mockery of democracy.

Many argue that a truly proportionate voting system would create perpetual instability and a lack of any clear, decisive direction in policy. To be sure, PR systems in Belgium and Israel have wreaked electoral havoc for as long as they have been in use. Both countries, however, use the D’Hondt party list system rather than MMP and, in their own separate ways, are not entirely ‘normal’ countries.

The story is very different in Germany. In the Bundestag, 299 deputies are elected by the Sainte-Laguë party list system and 299 by FPTP. Since the first elections in 1949, this has produced a surprisingly stable pattern of government.

From 1949-66 the Christian Democrats formed coalitions with the classical liberal Free Democrats (FDP). From 1969-82 the FDP instead backed the Social Democrats (SPD) and, from 1983-98, the see-saw returned to Christian Democrat/FDP government. Gerhard Schröder made history by leading the first ever SPD/Green coalition between 1998 and 2005, but last year’s elections brought back the familiar Christian Democrat/FDP partnership.

In fact, the so-called ‘grand coalitions’ between Christian Democrats and the SPD, which are forced into being after a hung parliament, have only happened twice in seventy years – in 1966 and 2005. Not a bad record.

So what advantages could this bring to Britian? The last seventy years of British politics, and the last thirty in particular, have tended towards long blocks of large-majority, one-party government. And let me be frank here: this has been wrecking our country.

Many Tories use Thatcher’s glorious reign as an example of why FPTP must be saved – such herculean vision, determination and grit may not have been possible under STV, after all. But what they are forgetting is that the Thatcherite project, glorious as it was, only really came into being to mop up the almighty mess Labour had plunged this country into in 1945.

Labour’s enormous landslide after the war meant Attlee was able to charge ahead with his socialist programme of nationalisation despite the fact 50.3% of the country voted against it. Given their opposition to nationalisation and union power, there is no way the Liberals would have consented to the full Attlee programme under a proportionally elected Parliament.

It took thirty years, two Tory landslides and 18 years of one-party rule to reverse the rot, though this in itself ended up creating almost as many problems as it solved. Not least of these were the sudden and massive levels of unemployment in the north and, of course, New Labour – which proceeded to repeat the cycle all over again over the next 13 years.

Conservatives need not fear proportional representation. Two years’ experience of coalition government has not prevented the party from enacting radical changes to education, welfare and the NHS, nor has it meant abandoning the party’s approach to the economy.

Furthermore, a more proportional system may encourage more clear-cut philosophical identities among the main parties, as in Germany – dynamiting the perpetual groan amongst apathetic voters that ‘they’re all the same’. It might not be the most pressing concern for the country in the present economic climate but, once the recovery comes, we need to have a serious debate about what kind of parliament we wish to elect.