Thursday, March 16, 2006


Why PR is good for everyone (except Labour)

Last week, all-round good guy Dave Cameron launched The Tory Campaign To Win Back The Cities (where they have been thorougly trounced each of the last three elections), in an attempt to undo his party's apparent annihilation in Britain's metropolitan areas. It turns out that he needn't be wasting his time - the Conservative Party's baffling disappearance from the cities has a fairly simple explanation. They never left.

In 2005, more than 1.1 million people voted Conservative in English cities outside of London, but returned a paltry 5 MPs.

For those that haven't read the article linked above, it's well worth a look - ideally, read it and then try to convince a Conservative-supporting friend that proportional representation, not boundry changes or slick rebranding excercises, is the only way out of the quagmire of negative electoral equity that they find themselves in. And for those who have read it, here's another argument to add to the arsenal: PR is not just for Westminster.

To make my point, I thought it would be worth applying the PR argument to the 2004 local elections in Sheffield. These are the results as they were under first-past-the-post:

Party Votes Seats
Labour 164115 (38.28%) 44 (52.38%)
Liberal Democrat 147049 (34.30%) 37 (44.05%)
Conservative 75900 (17.70%) 2 (2.38%)
Green 30824 (7.19%) 1 (1.19%)
Others 10833 (2.53%) 0

Besides revealing that, on a mere 38% of the vote, Labour has no mandate to govern Sheffield either, the results also show that 75,900 votes were cast for the Conservatives in 2004 but returned just two councillors. That's 37,950 votes needed to elect a single councillor, as opposed to 3,729 for Labour and 3,974 for the Lib Dems. A moderate swing in Dore and Totley could have thrown the Tories off the council altogether, despite gaining nearly 18% of the vote.

For contrast, compare the seats allocated from a Mixed Member Proportional system with a 5% threshold for list seat allocation:

Party Seats
Labour 33 (39.29%)
Liberal Democrat 30 (35.71%)
Conservative 15 (17.86%)
Green 6 (7.14%)
Others 0

Switching to a fairer system would propel the Tories from being a fringe party in the area to holding a strong third place, and the balance of power on the City Council to boot.

This is a scenario that could well be repeated across the country, at a stroke returning the Tories to a position of relevance in metropolitan areas from which they have apparently vanished. This is what Mr. Cameron stands to gain from PR - his party will once again have a genuine say in how our cities are governed, especially if he follows through with his promise to re-enfranchise local government. There will be no need to suck the life out of local Labour administrations as the Tories did in the 1980's and 90's - those administrations will no longer exist.

As for a proportionally-represented English Parliament to solve that pesky West Lothian question - well, given that more people voted for the Tories than Labour in England in 2005, I don't understand why they're not jumping at the opportunity. Perhaps being a Conservative means not changing things even after they've stopped working - if so, then I think this argument exemplifies why I'm not one.

It's high time for some senior figures in the Conservative Party to wake up and realise that

a) The electoral system is broken, and
b) The Liberal Democrats will not willingly roll over and join the two-party system as did much of the old Liberal Party

and that PR is the only way for them to avoid becoming an anachronism represented only in the rural South of England. Surely someone genuinely high-profile within the Tory party will come to this realisation before long: I keep hoping it will be someone like Ken Clarke, but sadly he's not a convert yet.

A huge opportunity presents itself to reform our governance at all representational levels in the UK: a new constitutional settlement for the 21st century that benefits the Lib Dems, the Tories and the country all at the same time. If Mr. Cameron wants to present his credentials as a reformer, he should make sure that not only is his party representative of this country, but that government is representative of this country. To pinch from Aaron Sorkin, "I think the right place to start is to say, fair is fair. This is who we are. These are our numbers."

If Mr. Cameron knows what he's doing, he will be leading this movement by 2009.


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