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The Problem of Party Politics

Cicero has put his name forward to be a Liberal Democrat candidate for Westminster twice. The first was in the Home Counties, where there was little history of success at national level, although within the last few years the Liberal Democrats had had minority control over the local district council.

The second time has been closer to home in Scotland, where there are several local Liberal Democrat MPs, MSPs and effective control over the local authorities.

In both cases party membership was surprisingly low, but there were activists and members determined to make some progress. The particular surprise for me was that the Scottish constituency party was not much larger that in the Home Counties. Being selected the first time was a slightly hit-and-miss affair. For complicated reasons the constituency was almost the last to select a candidate before the 2005 General Election was declared. Therefore there was little expectation that the party could do well in that constituency. That I had been selected by a vote of the members is something that is satisfying, but the fact is that I was only selected by a two vote margin.

The selection in Scotland is still ongoing, but whichever of the candidates is selected, they too will owe their selection to a relatively small number of local party members who come out to vote. For example, fewer than a quarter of those eligible decided to turn out to the hustings- this in a seat where the Liberal Democrats have a very real chance of winning the seat. Perhaps I shouldn't be, but I still find myself shocked by such relative apathy even amongst party members.

I may say that being a Liberal Democrat candidate even in one of the most difficult seats was a great pleasure- it was fun campaigning and I met a brilliant team who worked so hard and so well- no wonder our position in the seat improved so much. We even did more than our share of assisting higher priority seats in the area and still pulled in votes in our home constituency: in fact we turned in one of the most improved results in that part of the country.

Yet to a certain extent, it is the apathy of the initial selection that highlights one of the major problems of the current British constitution. In a large swathe of seats it is not the electorate that chooses the MP- it is the party organization- however small or apathetic. "Safe seats" allow party bigwigs to select the candidate who is pretty much guaranteed to win the seat. In the Home Counties seat the Conservatives have held the seat for nearly two generations- even though sixty percent of the electorate vote anything other than Conservative. Yet whoever has gained the Conservative nomination, no master how lazy- as at least one Tory member certainly was- no matter how inappropriate, they have still got the nod from the local party and the certainty of sitting in the House of Commons.

The Scottish seat that my name has gone forward in, is a marginal seat, but surely all seats should be marginal? This is to say that every MP should surely have to work to achieve election or re-election. Of course a change in the electoral system would help to bring this about, but more and more I think that we should consider the right election system.

In the Scottish Parliament, the unhappy combination of first-past-the-post and list systems, while it has created a more proportional Parliament, has also created a two tier system of MSPs. Furthermore it has actually enhanced the power of political party bigwigs, who decide the order of candidates on the list. Personally I am in favour of an electoral system where voters decide between candidates in order of preference- if necessary between candidates of the same party. The Single Transferable Vote- STV- may be complicated to count, but it is very easy to vote. It will be interesting to see how the elections for Scotland's local authorities go, compared to the Parliamentary elections next year.

I do not know what the likelihood of my being selected for the Scottish seat is, but I am beginning to think that we will need to think very carefully about the future of political parties in their current form. The issue of secret funding schemes that has emerged in the Conservatives and Labour, and the question mark that emerged over the public donation made to the Liberal Democrats reminds us that democratic parties and money can be a poisonous mixture. I do not believe in public funding for political parties, but neither am I comfortable with the way that parties are funded at present- I am not sure what the solution is, but it is going to become more important as we see the cabal of Conservative funders looking to match the power of patronage that Labour has deployed to raise funds for itself.

The growth of single issue campaigns over the past thirty years has further weakened the roots of the parties, which are -almost by definition- coalitions of different priorities. The growth in the number of political parties- Greens, UKIP etc. Reflects a more pluralistic political environment too. Our constitution does not reflect the diversity of opinion in our country.

Those who support the current electoral system suggest that it gives more decisive government. My response is: "why should a party that gets less than 40% of the popular vote get to have 100% of the power?"

I generally think that Clare Short is a rather immature politician, but when someone senior in their party recognizes the problem of our constitution, I am pleased. I think that one of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats, despite their problems continue to attract the support of between one in five and one in four voters, is that people now recognize that the problems that Clare Short talks about only now, we have been talking about for decades.


rk said…
It's funny how many LibDem blogs end up complaining about the electoral system but the other parties don't when in government. First past the post has served us well and I agree with the position that it provides more stable governments. Just look at the comedy of Italy or the coalitions in the thrall of extremists in Israel for arguments against proportional systems.

That said I'm posting because I've got a compromise idea for PR and party funding. How about after each election each party gets one pound for every vote it received. No longer would a vote ever be called a wasted vote no matter what the expected outcome of the local seat. Over time you might find that many safe seats become less so as people feel empowered to vote on principal rather than tactically or not at all.
Anonymous said…
Oh, rk...true, first-past-the-post system has brought us so much more stability compared to the more democratic PR system, but remember how stable one-party Iraq was too... If we compromise freedom for stability, why not just toss it all in and go the whole lot for Pinochet, Franco and amigos... said…
Where have you been since the late 1980s?

Many people in the Labour party want constitutional reform. The Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform has support at all levels of the party. The left inside and outside the Labour party was critical in enabling Charter 88 to fly.

I certainly joined the Labour party in part due to its moves in relation to PR in the early 1990s. (I've often been frustrated and sometimes disappointed - but its the Labour party that has introduced PR in Scotland, Wales, London and Euro elections.)
Cicero said…
i have no quarrel with Labour memebers who now support PR, but your statements are not really accurate. If you read any account of the Scottish Constitutional convention you will see that Malclm Bruce, the then Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats had to push very hard indeed to get PR included. When a union leader told Donald Dewar that "I will not have Malcolm Bruce hold a gun to our heads", Dewar replied, "well he is holding a gun to our heads, and its loaded".

As for Charter 88- since the inspiration was Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, you will understand that I have followed it closely- but the need for such independent groups was beacuse large numbers of Labour MPs did NOT support electoral and constitutional reform, which is why PR has not been a Labour policy.
If you genuinely beleive in the need for constituional changes, including PR, they is a party that has supported this for decades- the Liberal Democrats said…
I know the Liberal Democrats - I used to be a Young Liberal!

"PR has not been a Labour policy" -yet there have been more concrete moves towards PR in the last nine years under a Labour government than ever before - inspite of the opposition from constitutional conservatives.

PR supporters should continue to work in the Labour party as it achieves more than decades of Liberal lobbying.
Cicero said…
The trouble with staying in the Labour Party is that you then have to commit to the rest of the policies that they put forward, including the Snooping state, ID cards and of course the triumph that is Iraq.

"Liberal lobbying" has now at least got somewhere, and as we gain more power, the need to make pacts with the devil disappears. I, for one, prefer to retain at least some political integrity- and I hope that the implementation of PR will remove once and for all the need for the moral compromise that you suggest that you have made.
RK said…
In response to where have I been ...

I've been living in a country with a Labour majority for about a decade and the only places they've introduced PR is where they have a massive built in Labour majority and have little to lose.

I'd also like to respond to anonymous. Where did I say stable government = one part state = compromise of freedom? First past the post does not compromise freedom for stability. No system is perfect by FPTP is hardly one party state. I think you’ve got a little carried away with that one.

What FPTP does is exaggerate the influence of the larger parties at the expense of the smaller. It’s a dictatorship of the majority view where sometimes a party with less than 50% of the vote has a working majority. Full PR systems provide a better reflection of votes into seats but in the coalition building game these small parties wield a disproportionate influence, a dictatorship of the minorities. Generally this means inaction and instability, oh and it also breaks the link between parliamentarians and constituents. Half way solutions have half the benefits but also have half the drawbacks.
Anonymous said…
rk - you are wrong in so many ways ...

Multi member STV does not break the link; in many ways it improves the link because constituents are likely to ahve an MP with whom they identify.

Furthermore, it encourages parties to state their coalition position before the election, not after, as FPTP would.
rk said…

STV is the best compromise position but I still think it weakens the link. There may well be an MP (from the several) that an individual will identify with but because the constituency will be much much bigger the MP identifies less with the individual voter / local issue simply because there are more of them to deal with. Having several people responsible for something (the STV MPs) allows them to shift the blame, factor in the fact that the government and one or more opposition party and who takes the blame? For example a campaign against a local hospital closure will not affect all the STV MPs in the way it would a FPTP MP. For a start a much smaller propotion of potential voters will be affected. End result a local single issue campaign under STV is less influential than under FPTP. An MP who can ignore a local campaign is not one likely to be in touch with the concerns of his half million plus constituents.

I don’t see why parties pre-positioning themselves on coalitions is a good or a bad thing, simply a consequence of coalitions being more likely. Also parties would only admit to things that didn’t damage their electoral chances. I doubt any party would admit to going into coalition with the BNP or SWP but you could imagine a PR situation in the UK where they did.


I may be wrong in many ways but I'll only learn if you point out my mistakes. Until you convince me otherwise I'll just have to carry on.

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