Tories open to electoral reform?

Today’s Guardian notes that Conservative leader David Cameron has left the door open to a possible post-election deal with the Liberal Democrats.

This must have been quite hard for Cameron to swallow, as daily he warns of grave danger from a parliament with no majority party. But the reality is that his party’s fortunes will have to turn substantially in the less than two weeks that remain of this campaign if he is to govern at the head of a majority.

Cameron did not rule out including electoral reform as part of any such inter-party deal, although he reiterated his preference for FPTP:

I want us to keep the current system that enables you to throw a government out of office. That is my view.

That’s a view that is well past its sell-by date, given that this campaign has developed into one in which Labour might well retain a share of power due to the electoral system’s failure to replace a “defeated” incumbent, even if it drops 6-8 percentage points in the polls from where it was in 2005. Sometimes FPTP simply fails on its own terms, and this election looks set to become an iconic case of systemic failure: the second largest party in votes could be a distant third in seats, while it is still very possible that Labour could be a fairly poor third in votes yet have the most seats.

Cameron’s preferred institutional reform of late is one that would mandate an election within six months of any PM change that resulted from something other than an election.

6 thoughts on “Tories open to electoral reform?

  1. Dominant parties pledge electoral reform much more often than they deliver it.

    This occurs because in most circumstances, it’s not in the long-run interest of historically dominant parties to move to PR. Reneging on a reform pledge makes it difficult to gain or retain a government in a “hung” parliament,
    but provided they are focused on anything other than the short term, such parties are better off waiting out another election, when they might regain a majority.

    Of course, this strategy breaks down when the dominance of such parties falters consistently, such as in Canada since 1987 (when the historically also-ran NDP first led federal polls, similar to today’s Lib-Dems). This consistency has yet to be seen in the UK outside of this election, which makes Cameron’s pledge seem very premature. The likelihood of a Conservative majority after a couple years of some minority or coalition gov’t seems more likely than a Conservative majority under a PR system.

    In Canada, despite the obvious fact that the historically dominant Liberal Party has been in decline for 40 years, making majorities ever less likely, pre-election coalitions in Canada are still rejected out of hand. This is unlikely to remain so much longer, but it is a huge contrast to Cameron’s announcement.

    Arguably, Canadian parties have been far too slow to recognize the tectonic political shifts that ended their two party system, while Cameron has been far too fast.

  2. I agree with your general take on this, Ross. I would add that Cameron’s statement was far short of a “pledge.” Maybe more of a hedge.

  3. It seems to me that after a week-and-a-half of waiting for the Liberal Democratic “surge” to fade away (which hasn’t happened so far), the Conservatives are now slowly coming to terms with the fact that they have a nationwide three-way race in their hands, in which the Liberal Democrats may emerge as the kingmakers – in no small measure because their beloved first-past-the-post electoral system is simply not working to their advantage. At any rate, it’s very unfamiliar territory for them (at least at the national level), and they’re basically feeling their way around.

    That said, I suspect that most Tories are still of the view that sooner or later the electoral system will work to their advantage – even if that were not to be the case this time around. As such, I find it very hard to imagine electoral reform making any significant headway under a Conservative-led minority government; more likely, such a government would seek an early election the moment it believed it could secure an overall majority under the existing system.

  4. “historically dominant parties … are better off waiting out another election, when they might regain a majority … provided they are focused on anything other than the short term”

    Acoording to this line of thinking, isn’t it more probable in a hung parliament that Lab or Con tolerate the other in a minority government until a next election in old FPTP-style in stead of talking (or forcing the other one to talk) with Lib-Dem with their PR-ideas?

  5. Bancki: A Con-Lab coalition (excluding times of national emergency) would be an admission that there’s a serious third option, which could further legitimize the LibDem vote. The dominant parties would probably prefer to treat the LibDems as an insignificant nuisance: Maybe they’ll need a confidence and supply agreement, but they can reason that it’s nothing that hasn’t been done with the NI parties in the past, and that like those past agreements, it’s only temporary.

    The psychological and PR aspects of boxing out the LibDems are as important as the parliamentary calculus.

  6. Vasi: I think you’re ringt on ‘We treat LibDem like NI parties in the past’.

    I didn’t consider a formal Lab-Con-coalition; I was only tinking of the choice the Canadian Liberals had to make lately: a coalition with the eternal third party or tolerate a minority government of their FPTP-opponents.

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