01 October 2005

What is a coalition government?

The criticism of coalition governments is one of the main arguments of opponents of electoral reform. What they fail to appreciate is that we are already in a coalition government.

Each party contains a coalition of different factions. Our current system - first past the post (FPTP), provides us with a government manifesto decided by a stifled internal party democracy (signified by both Labour and Tory conferences) and voted for by a small minority of the electorate.

PR would solve both these problems by taking away the need to pander to the 250,000 centre ground voters in marginal constituencies, essential for victory under this present perverse system. It is this pandering to 'Middle England' supported by a trivialising media, that encourages restrictions on party democracy and stifles radical debate.

Ah, opponents say, at least the manifestos are on show before the election rather than the horse trading that happens after the election under PR.

This is to misconcieve what people actually vote for and places a mistaken high level of importance for a party to actually carry out all of what their manifestos state. Events will change both voters and governments priorities and there will still be smoke filled horse trading between factions of the party behind closed doors after a FPTP election. Just like coalition governments between different parties that are elected by a majority under PR, these minority FPTP governments have post-election faction fighting that changes and reforms policies.

What people actually vote for is more complex than just a shopping list of policies. Although these are important to signify the direction of the party, people only use these to gauge the values of the party they support. Of course voters are not going to agree with every policy of a single party and they generally go with the party they believe shares their values and maybe has the most important policies they agree with.

FPTP supporters next claim that it is 'easier' to vote off a government they don't like, a government that has perhaps failed to deliver on its manifesto promises. Because only one party is responsible, the voters know who to blame.

In fact the opposite is true. It is PR which gives the voters more options on policy because voters can vote for the manifestos of minority parties. Debate is opened up within government and each party would make it perfectly clear which policy they agreed with and disagreed with. All that PR does is more accurately reflect the electorate's choices. It is called democracy and we shouldn't be afraid of it.

Under FPTP, the majority of voters do not vote for their MP. This ranges from 82% not voting for George Galloway in his constituency to 54% not voting for Gerry Adams. Even if you are lucky enough to live in the 15% of seats that are marginal and actually matter, you need to keep up with the numbers game in your constituency (and most don't) to be able to decide who to vote for. In a recent Guardian survey 13% of Labour supporters admitted to voting tactically for the Lib Dems. With voters having to second guess how people are going to vote it becomes even more difficult. Voters shouldn't have to play this russian roulette to work out who they can vote for. Lets make it simple for the voters and just let them vote for the party they like the best. The only way to do this is to move to PR.

The next claim of opponents of electoral reform is even more ridiculous. That 'just by rearranging coalitions an unpopular government can remain in power'.

What we have to tell ourselves at this point is that our present government has absolute power with just 35% of the vote under our present system. Taking into account the low turnout this is just over 20% of the electorate. How would we Labour supporters feel if it was the Tories ruling with this support?

Under PR, a party can only remain in power if it can agree terms with a big enough coalition to represent more than 50% of the electorate. In fact it is under FPTP that parties can stay in power for long periods despite being desperately unpopular. What our present system does is 'delay' change.

An analogy I thought of the other day was to compare PR to a gas hob and FPTP to an electric one. It is far easier to adjust temperature under a gas hob than an electric one, because under an electric hob there is a delay in reaction. What this means is having to adjust the controls far more regularly and wildly under electric than under gas.

The same is not true for PR, because at each election there are only incremental changes in government rather than large swings (that are unrepresentative), this makes it far easier for long term decisions to be made. The reasons for the UK's sluggish post war performance in its economy and our lack of progress (relative to our PR neighbours) in social protection, health, education, transport infrastructure etc. are because of wild swings in policy that have come about because of big changes in government direction.

For all these reasons we need to move to PR. I have optimism because generally the majority of younger party members realise this need and it is older party members who resist. Also a number of Labour Party big guns have recently signalled their support for PR, Neil Kinnock, Roy Hattersley, Patricia Hewitt, Ken Livingstone, Ruth Kelly. With a number of others stating their support for the Alternative Vote (AV), Peter Hain, Jack Straw, Ed Balls. Losing big supporters like Robin Cook and Mo Mowlem was a blow, but what a fitting legacy it would be to achieve their aim of PR under this government.

This may seem a trivial issue of the chattering classes to some of you. But remember whatever issue you believe in, it is affected by this issue, because it is the very levers of power that are affected. I only hope we realise the need for this chnage before it is too late and FPTP has killed off debate entirely.

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