Thoughts from the South (Very Long Post - lots of numbers)

Thoughts from the South
Thought No. 2
Liberal Democracy

As the smug iconoclast Voltaire quipped, the Holy Roman Empire "was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire".

I believe during the recent general election campaign I heard a Daily Mail columnist aping Voltaire, saying that the curious thing about the Liberal Democrats is that they "are neither Liberal nor Democratic". Of course the difference between the said columnist and Voltaire is that Voltaire was essentially right. Though my instincts have always been Conservative, I concede that the Liberal Democrats pretty much define themselves by their liberalism and democratic principles. Their commitment to civil liberties marks a clear dividing line with Labour's more authoritarian approach to crime, children... et cetera. The Liberal Democrat party infrastructure is more democratic than either Labour or the Conservatives. It seems they are more or less true to their name.

One of the Liberal policy planks is proportional representation in the House of Commons. Some have accused the Liberal Democrats of pure self-interest in proposing such a system, the argument being that the Liberal Democrats, as the third party, will enjoy constant leverage in the House of Commons. The reason is that under a proportional system it is extremely unlikely for a single party to have more than 50% of the seats in Parliament, as this would require over 50% of the national vote - it is very rare than any party gets such a figure in a multiparty democracy. The largest two parties, presumably Labour and the Conservatives, would never dream of allying with each other, so they would be forced to negotiate with the third party, namely, The Liberal Democrats. Accordingly, while remaining the third party, the Liberal Democrats would have a near-constant influence on the affairs of government, while one of the two larger parties would have no role in government at all. We see this at the moment - the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the first and third parties in a Hung Parliament, have a combined parliamentary majority, shunting the second party, Labour, into opposition. The argument goes that in a proportional electoral system, this hung parliament dynamic would become the norm, and so despite being a proportional system the third party, the Liberal Democrats, would exercise disproportionate influence.

But it is precisely this assumption that the Liberal Democrats would be the third party that I seek to challenge in this post.

To understand the phenomena of the third party we will need to look back a little in history.

Remember the 1900 General Election? Well the Labour party certainly do. It was the first time that the recently formed Labour Party won seats at Westminster. They put forward fifteen candidates, two of whom became MPs. With this momentum, they won 29 seats in 1906, 40 in 1910, 57 in 1918, 142 in 1922, 191 in 1923, 151 in 1924 and in 1929, for the first time, they were the largest party in Parliament with 287 MPs to the Conservatives' 260 and the Liberals' 59.

It is worth noting that in the nineteenth century, there was no such thing as the Labour Party, and the two governing parties had been the Conservatives and the Liberals, descendants of the 'Tories' and 'Whigs' respectively.

What went wrong for the Liberals? That is a long story whose narrative I am unfamiliar with. Suffice to say that by 1945 they were down to 12 seats, and for the next four decades often fell short of double figures.

Their fortunes improved during the Conservative years, and during the Tory victories of 1983, 1987 and 1992 the Liberal share in seats was at around 20.

It wasn't until 1997 that they made a great 'breakthrough' - their number of seats shot up from 20 to 46, almost exclusively at the expense of the Conservatives.

What had happened? Were they suddenly that much more popular than they had been before? In fact, their share of the vote had gone down from 17.8% at the last election to 16.8%. The Liberal Democrats benefited from 'tactical voting'  in which a Labour party supporter who knew his candidate had no chance of winning that seat instead lent his vote to the Liberal Democrats in the hope that this represented the best chance of beating the Conservatives. This happened the other way around in seats where Labour stood the best chance of winning. My own constituency of Hove saw a huge surge in the Labour vote in 1997. This was mostly at the expense of the Conservatives but, tellingly, also at the expense of the Liberal Democrats.

In 2001 the Liberal Democrats increased their number of seats further, from 46 to 52, peaking at 62 seats in 2005.

But the real question is how had the Liberal Democrats crept into a position where they could go from their 1970s trough of six seats to a figure ten times as great?

The answer is not overnight. But the key thing, as this essay will keep reminding you, is that it was the numbers which were more important than the policies. It is true that much of their increased support in 2005 was due to their opposition to the Iraq War and Tuition Fees, and that the seats they gained tended to be in areas with large Muslim populations or a high concentration of students. But there are plenty of seats which do not fit in with either of these demographic descriptors. Seats in Cornwall, Scotland, Hampshire, South London, Scotland. Did they somehow win these seats by accident?

No. They were not won overnight. One of the Libdems current gripes is that "more people would vote for us if they thought there was a chance of us winning in their constituency". This is true - even if I had supported the Liberal Democrats (which I do not) I probably would have voted Labour or Conservative in Hove to make my vote count. But it is precisely in those constituencies where the Liberal Democrats have made your vote count that they enjoy high-levels of support. Once they have a stronghold, it's that much easier for them to get elected, as the whole we can't win here argument flies out the political window.

This is accomplished one election at a time, one seat at a time. If their support increases from 12% to say, 17%, it's that much more conceivable that they can win 20% next time.. 25% the time after... and so on. Seats where they were third place become seats where they were second place, and seats where they are second place become seats they can win at the next election. So the Liberal Democrats, like the Conservatives or Labour, establish areas where they are no longer seen as the outside party, but the dominant party. In short, while complaining about the electoral system they have been forced to play by its rules.

And this is how they have got into their current position - not only are they the alternative party, but they are the default alternative party. The wasted vote phenomena slips away one seat at a time. While the default expectation of a few decades ago was that the Liberals would barely scrape a dozen seats, we currently see it is the norm that the Liberal Democrats should have around fifty seats.

Of course, they are still underrepresented in a pure votes to seats sense.

CON 10.7 million votes, 307 seats
LAB 8.6 million votes, 258 seats
LIB 6.8 million votes, 57 seats

But the question is (and you will forgive me for not having answered it 5 minutes ago when I first brought it up) - what would happen under a purely proportional system.

For a start, people would be able to vote for whoever they wanted. The traditional two-party politics would no longer be entrenched in our electoral geography. Labour and the Conservatives would no longer enjoy the 'stranglehold' over the political map. They would no longer be able to argue that a vote for any other party is a waste - they would no longer be able to 'play the system', as the system would have changed completely.

But it would have changed for the Liberal Democrats too. I talked earlier about tactical voting, and how in 1997 it benefited the Liberal Democrats as much as it did Labour, and essentially allowed the Liberal Democrats to make an electoral breakthrough which their dwindling vote on its own would not have entitled them to. But under a proportional system, there would no longer be a need for tactical voting. Thus any breakthrough would have to be based completely on popular support and not by the intricacies of the electoral system.

So suddenly the Liberal Democrats current electoral status as the third party would no longer be weighed up by the electoral system. Sure, they could campaign, expand their support base on equal terms with Labour and the Conservatives and perhaps one day become the most popular party in the country.

But then, the same could happen for any of the smaller parties. For once all parties are on equal terms electorally, suddenly any party can gain representation. Sure, a vote for the Liberal Democrats would no longer be a wasted vote. But then, nor would a vote for the Greens, or UKIP, or the BNP, or the English Democrats, or Respect, or the Wessex Regionalists...

Not to mention the Nationalist parties of Wales and Scotland, Plaid Cmyru and the Scottish National Party respectively. And it is to these places that I now turn, as they offer a unique insight into what might happen under a wholly or part-proportional system. Unique, because the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly employ a special system in which you have two votes - one at a constituency level and another at a regional level. The regional seats are weighted in such a way that the overall result is more or less proportional. Thus there are two over all voting figures: votes at constituency level and votes at a regional level.

Comparing the two yields interesting results.

Explore the numbers at your will. The Welsh results are here, here and here. The Scottish results are here, here and here.

I will not show all my working here, but I came up with the following index. It represents the proportion of votes received at the regional level in comparison to votes received at constituency level.

WALES (1999, 2003, 2007)
Party : Regional Index
LAB : 0.93
PC: 0.99
CON: 0.98
LIB: 0.87

SCOTLAND (1999, 2003, 2007)
Party: Regional Index
LAB: 0.87
SNP: 0.93
CON: 0.92
LIB: 0.78

It seems that all the 'main' parties have a lower share of the regional vote than the constituency vote, which essentially means that fifth/sixth parties (Greens, UKIP etc) share of the vote rises in a proportional system... which you would expect. What you might not have expected, but which I did except on starting out this blog post, is that the Lib Dems suffer the most. Given the option to vote for a party they really like rather than just not-voting for a party they don't like (a number of Lib Dem voters are naturally inclined to be anti-Tory or anti-Labour depending on their constituency) then suddenly the Lib Dem support doesn't hold up quite as well.

Sure, you say, that's what happens in Scotland and Wales. But what about England?

Not having a devolved assembly, we have no figures for England as a whole. We do however have the results for the London Assembly, as voted for in 2000, 2004 and 2008.

CON: 0.89
LAB: 0.97
LIB: 0.83
GRN: 1.07

That's the Green Party there. This confirms the notion that minor parties receive more votes in a proportional election than a constituency elections. It also seems to agree with the trend we established from Wales and Scotland - where all other parties are equal, the Liberal Democrats support suffers significantly.

So perhaps if the Liberal Democrat ideal of a purely proportional parliament was ever to come to fruition (which seems very far off) then there is a distinct possibility that their own vote gets overshadowed by the more minor parties. The numbers I have shown you are not definitive proof of anything, and the chances are that a transition to a proportional system would bring about some very profound changes to party politics which we can not necessarily forsee, especially as the idea of permanent coalition negotiations might create a regular state of 'informal alliances' between parties with relatively similar philosophies. Which parties am I talking about? I don't know, because they could be different parties to the ones we are currently used to. Small parties can join together, large parties can split... new forces can come and go (remember Respect in 2005?). Politics would probably be rather more flexible. AND PERHAPS, as I said before, the Liberal Democrats might get into a position where they are seen as a legitimate party of government, a first party. But based on my research so far, I wouldn't put money on it.


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