Sunday, March 25, 2007

Is first past the post a core belief of Conservatism?

Over on ConservativeHome: YourPlatform article - Christine Constable: When will Conservatives demonstrate their loyalty to the English?, a comment has been left:

Labour do indeed have a majority of seats in England but less votes cast for them than the Conservatives(2005 election). That's not a mandate to discriminate against the English in my book.
But the Conservative Party has long defended the first past the post voting system. Whilst I have no knowledge about the individual commenter's history on election systems, it would be fundamentally hypocritical to back a system and then rage against consequences of it. Also the Conservatives have never had the largest share of the vote in Wales, have not done so in Scotland for a long time and the last time the largest share of votes in Northern Ireland went to candidates pledged to take the Conservative whip was in 1970. That didn't stop the party governing the entire United Kingdom on many occasions.

But does conservatism ideologically prescribe a preferred voting system? Several years ago when I expressed surprise about the way the Conservative Future elections were done, I was bluntly told "We are Conservatives, we believe in first past the post" by one of the then executive members. It was one of those moments that show how often party youth wings can turn party positions into near orthodox religion. (Another came yesterday when doing some searching on LexisNexis I came across the case of the leaders of Oxford University Conservative Association denouncing advocates of voluntary student unionism as socialists! This was because it wasn't party policy!)

The Conservative Future case was also telling as in practice at the time the chairperson and executive elections weren't carried out by full first past the post, but rather by a limited system of elimination ballots, whereby an initial vote by just the executive members and the area chairpersons would vote, with only the top three candidates for national chairperson and the top ten for the six executive members going to the full membership. The whole system was frankly absurd - since only about twelve to fourteen candidates stood, ordinary CF members were told they weren't trusted to vote from twelve, but had to have the list whittled down to ten for them. (Similarly it was notable to have any more than four chairperson candidates.) With only a few candidates going to be eliminated in the first round, it rapidly turned into a process to try to tactically eliminate rival candidates and factions. (Some of the coverage of the early CF days in the LexisNexis archive suggests that this was always the intention.) It also did nothing to tackle the belief that CF was a clique. And with many candidates escaping elimination by only one or two votes (one candidate is to this day still known as "One Vote" because by only voting for himself he escaped the chop) the poor distribution of ballot papers was often highlighted and thought suspicious. Wisely the elimination round was scrapped in 2004.

Throughout the party there are a lot of places where the supposed absolute Conservative belief in first past the post is distinctly lacking. Let's just take two cases - candidate selection and the election of the party leader.

Candidate selection is not done on a simple first past the post ballot but a series of stages variously involving the selection committee and the full membership, with a series of elimination ballots. For one example, take a look at ConservativeHome Seats & Candidates: James Cleverly set to succeed Bob Neill at GLA, especially the video of the final selection meeting.

The leadership election has gone through several incarnations since 1965, but one of the constant features has been that the eventually elected leader must have at least half the votes cast in the final ballot, again with elimination ballots to reduce the number of candidates (and also in recent years denying the membership a full choice of everyone who stands). If it was a core principle of conservatism that first past the post is the perfect election system then I would have had the chance to vote for either Liam Fox or Kenneth Clarke, as well as for David Cameron or David Davis.

This leads to the age old debates about what voting system should be used for Westminster (and other elections in the UK). Now I'll be honest - there are a lot of people on all sides of the debate on proportional representation who have more than half an eye on the likely results for their own party. But I also think that too often parties' basic philosophies get overlooked. Practically all discussions about voting systems ultimately revolve around the degree of importance given to factors such as individual representation, stable government, simplicity for voters, the ease with which a government can be rejected and so forth. Is it surprising that an individualist party that believes in strong, stable clear-cut government favours a system that delivers this in this country?

Of course what works in one country doesn't necessarily work in others. First past the post has been proposed in referendums a couple of times in the Republic of Ireland but always rejected. Most reckon that if adopted it would permanently entrench a Fianna Fáil majority in the Dáil. In India it has been difficult for a single party or alliance to secure a majority at times, at one point having three elections in as many years. And in some African countries first past the post has reinforced single party government.

In this country for much of our history there has been more than one party that had a realistic chance of winning an overall Commons majority under first past the post. Indeed recent analyses and studies that suggested that it would take something like a 9% Conservative lead just to deprive Labour of a majority and that a Conservative majority may never be won again did lead to a lot of people (myself included) seriously reassessing our views on voting systems. Were we being opportunist? Or were we staying true to the principles of government that can be rejected by the electorate, and merely reconsidering the method of delivery?

And of course there are parts of the country where first past the post has historically worked against the Conservatives - most notably Wales and Scotland, where it has taken the additional member system top-up lists to deliver anything more than a micro parliamentary party in each of the devolved parliaments. When they have the power to do so, will the Welsh Conservatives/Ceidwadwyr Cymreig or the Scottish Conservatives change the system to one that would entrench permanent Labour control?

With a lot speculating about a hung House of Commons, with the prospect of the Liberal Democrats making electoral reform their blackmail for allowing government to function smoothly, to say nothing of the recent Commons vote for an all-elected House of Lords, the issue of proportional representation won't go away. Ever more Conservatives will be forced to work out whether their support for first past the post is rooted in principles or in mere party advantage.


Mustafa Arif said...

I think there are five types of people who support FPTP:

(1) Those who genuinely believe in strong, stable government, at the expense of free-er democratic expression.

(2) Those who are insufficiently mentally developed to be capable of comprehending a different voting system.

(3) Those who think the general unwashed masses in the electorate are insufficiently mentally developed to be capable of comprehending a different voting system.

(4) Those who resist change for the sake of resisting change.

(5) Those who see that they benefit from it and so choose to ignore their principles.

All of the above are charges that could be levelled at various Conservatives. The second characterisation, however, seems to apply to a disproportionate number of CF branches. The sort likely to come up with that ridiculous anecdote you gave about equating voluntary student unionism to socialism.

Gavin Ayling said...

You fundamentally miss the point comparing the failure of the Conservatives to gain a majority in Wales and Scotland with its inability to rule England.

England has no national assembly and, if it did, it is most likely it would be PR like Scotland and Wales. I am as wary as is reasonable of extrapolating FPTP results to PR but I would strongly expect Conservatives to have more seats in England than Labour or Lib Dems were it down to PR.

The Tories need to recognise that the 1998 devolution settlement unbalanced the Union and the failure to recognise this by the Unionist party is bad for the English and Scottish especially.

Neil Craig said...

Taking your point about Scotland back a few years - the Thatcher era entrenched the north south divide in Britain in that the vast majority of Tory seats were south of the Wash & Labour vice versa. This, quite correctly, left Scotland & the north feeling disenreachised since so few of the people they elected had any power. It certainly fueled Scottish nationalism. If you actually look at the Scots Labour vote it is only about 3% higher than in the country as a whole, though the Tories take little of the rest.

By its nature FTPT enhances geographical divisions. For example the Liberals not only take far more electors to get an MP than the Tory & Labour parties, but also than the SNP, because the latter are geographically concentrated. I think that is a bad thing if you want a country at peace with itself.

Janice Small said...

For those of you who are interested in electoral reform log onto:

The Welsh Conservative party has recognised the benefits that electoral reform has brought them and are even thinking of incorporating this into their manifesto. The Scottish party, whilst pragmatic about the benefits of reform, still think FPTP is the best system but are looking to maximise the STV vote in the local elections.

The English are the ones who are denied representative government. As you rightly point out, since devolition there has been electoral reform in NI, Wales, Scotland, London and the EU elections. Why not England?

Janice Small
Conservative Action for Electoral Reform - CAER

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

As I've been away this week I'll try to run through the points now:

Mustafa: I think you're generally right but overlooking a belief in direct community representation (and the case for a single voice for an area - look for instance at the local objections to partitioning the Isle of Wight in successive Boundary Commission reviews) as well as a dislike of coalitions carrying forward to potential electoral coalitions that would spring up, if only at the transfer/second round stage. That said, comparitively little time in the debate in electoral systems is spent debating alternative models for single member constituencies so the points don't get highlighted much.

Gavin: I disagree on the point about the comparison, as the complaint often made is not that Conservatives would have won an English Parliament, but that the fact that more votes were cast for the Conservatives in England somehow in and of itself makes Labour rule of England "invalid". Under the voting system that is the way things work, especially as the differential turnout benefits Labour - but safe seats may well yield votes to close the gap given a different voting system and a greater effort by Labour to get its core vote out. I have long agreed that the current devolution settlement is unbalanced and needs rectifying one way or another, and have made that case on this blog several times.

Mustafa Arif said...

Tim, I didn't mention "a belief in direct community representation" partly because it is possible to have non-FPTP electoral systems that respect this, but perhaps mainly because I must confess to accepting it as a given!

BTW I think you are right to raise the issue. I'm not keen on PR because it devalues the constituency link. A debate now means we have time to sensibly consider electoral reform options.

Manfarang said...

During the late 1970s there was a Conservative group for Fair Votes.


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