Those who support electoral reform seem to think that the public is crying out for a change in the way we vote; even outside Lib Dem circles. A survey in the Sunday Times today suggests that 62 per cent of people want a more proportionate system of voting (against 13 per cent who don’t).
I’m suspicious about that poll and would love to see how the question was phrased. I also think Michael Gove hit the nail on the head when he told today’s Andrew Marr Show that Thursday’s result proved one major advantage of first-past-the-post; people could throw out those MPs tarnished by the expenses scandal (eg Jacqui Smith). That would be harder to do under many PR/AV systems*.
The old argument against proportional representation or a hybrid model is that it gives more voice to the most minor parties. Would its proponents really be so happy to see the British National Party get seats in the Commons? That, presumably, would be the outcome given that the BNP picked up 562,000 votes last week – up from 192,000 in 2005 (although it’s not entirely straightforward; see the update below).
In a theoretical PR system that could be 13 seats. But the system would probably be skewed to stop the very smallest parties getting equal representation; for example the 5 per cent threshold used by the London assembly. That didn’t stop the BNP getting a seat there, however.
Once the BNP did have a cluster of bigots within the Commons their grouping would have disproportionate influence in any hung Parliament situation, which would happen more frequently. “Imagine if they were the kingmakers,” says one Labour insider opposed to electoral reform.
Perhaps a bigger concern though is the potential for Britain’s new TV debates to take a far right figure from public zero to hero in a matter of minutes.
Imagine, for a minute, a future fascist-type party – maybe 10 years down the line – with a young, charismatic leader (ie not Nick Griffin’s BNP) who could smoothly play the immigration/flog ‘em, hang ‘em card. Remember: people liked Clegg but didn’t like his policies; because they were too liberal.
The counter-argument is that no far right party in Britain has ever reached the level of popularity Britain to even merit a place on the podium. That doesn’t mean it cannot ever happen. I’m not the only person with worries about this; several cerebral politicians have told me the same thing.
* Alex points out that you can have an “open list” system where people can pick exactly who they are voting for within parties – offering more choice to voters from within and between parties.
The excellent Al Jahom blog has produced evidence showing that the average BNP vote in each constituency has barely risen.
Except that the party felt able to only field 119 candidates in 2005. This time it’s 338 – in a variety of constituencies far beyond the usual deprived white working class enclaves. Shouldn’t that also be acknowledged?
Labour blogger Tom Harris makes the impassioned case for keeping the status quo, for all its flaws.