One of the most puzzling features of the current unstoppable wave of political punditry that is flooding all channels and outlets at the moment (including this one of course) is the peculiar propensity of commentators to feel qualified to extrapolate from the election results the Manifest Will of Britain. “The people have voted for change”, “The people have told Gordon Brown that he has got to go” , “The people are saying that they don’t really trust any one party”, “The people have said that they want Parliament reformed, the tea room in the House of Commons redecorated, new carpeting in the women’s lavatory of the House of Lords and a vegetarian option in the canteen.” What fevered branch of electoral hermeneutics allows any such interpretations on the basis of the summing of millions of individual’s single votes I cannot imagine. It is possible that people do want real change, but a single cross next to a single name is no way to deduce it.
We only get one vote, one cross to put next to one name. If you put your cross next to Victoria Tory’s name you declare that want her to be your MP, representing you constituency, although it is perhaps also permissible to assume that you are up for her party and her party’s leader winning an overall majority in the Commons in Westminster as well. If the cross is next to Fabian Labour’s name or Libby Dem’s one might be justified in assuming the same there too. There really is almost nothing more nuanced or sophisticated that one can infer from our recent general election except to say that that of the 68% who voted there weren’t enough who wanted Conservatives to win to allow Cameron to claim first prize, and even fewer who wanted to vote for candidates from the other parties. One could deduce a huge amount more if voters were allowed to express their preferences in an intelligent way that reflected how they really feel and think. The Electoral Reform Society is a good place to go for information as to how precisely such a form of voting could be implemented, as it is all round much of the civilised world. My friends at Vote For A Change have also been campaigning for the same thing. Proportional Representation is the prize that many of us hope this “confusing” election will deliver. But there is an obstacle. An obstacle so huge that I cannot see it being overcome.
Here is the situation as I read it.
- David Cameron’s Conservative Party elders and backbenchers will never allow him to seal a pact with Clegg that guarantees electoral reform in the shape of proportional representation.
- Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrat Party elders and backbenchers will never allow him to seal a pact with Cameron that that does not guarantee electoral reform in the shape of proportional representation.
- Cameron will spring an obvious trap by saying, “We’ll see. We’ll look into it. You can have concessions on schools and hospitals.” Children who want an ice cream know that when their parents say “We’ll see, but you can have a banana” it means no ice cream. The Lib Dem and PR pressure groups are perfectly aware of that too. Any talk of “an independent enquiry … a Royal Commission … a committee to look into it” will be treated for what it is. Fudge.
It comes down to this: the Conservatives believe that under a PR system they will never achieve full supremacy in the country again. This would mark a sharp reverse in their ambitions. Their manifesto commitment to a 10% reduction in MPs and a consequent redraft of constituency borders would necessarily gerrymander massively in their interest, all but guaranteeing Tory power for the foreseeable future. The idea that they will for one moment countenance PR reform that will see them reduced, as they would interpret it, to the role of Euro-style hedgers, compromisers and pragmatic consensus inclusionists is more than a bitter pill, it is a suicide pill and Cameron knows that he could never induce the party to swallow it.