Rome was lovely. I left a London that was 6 degrees to arrive into 22 degrees of southern Italian paradise. So the sunshine alone would have made the trip worth it. But I learned a great deal during my brief time in Italy as well. I knew a little about the proposed changes to the electoral system the current government are trying to shove through, but I now have a much greater idea about how terrible the effects could be for Italian democracy. Also, how much of a struggle liberals in Italy have against the two main parties, most of whom are unreformed fascists and/or communists.
So here’s the speech I delivered at Le Cinque Lune on Tuesday. It’s mostly an explanation for an Italian audience about the problems that minority parties in Britain face, but I close on a note about the “Italicium” proposal:
Good afternoon. First of all I would like to thank European Liberal Forum and Movimento Liberali for inviting me here to speak today. Also thanks to Centreforum in London for recommending me and for the good work they continue to do.
The major problem faced by minority parties in the United Kingdom – and by minority I mean here any party which is not one of the big two, the Conservatives or Labour – is that what underpins the two party system is the voting system of choice in Westminster elections, which is First Past the Post. Great Britain is alone in Europe in terms of using this system as opposed to a voting system with some level of proportionality to it. In fact, pure First Past the Post (as opposed to a mixed system) is rarely used outside of countries which were part of the British Empire at some stage, such as Canada and the United States, or faux democracies such as Eritrea.
First Past the Post very effectively limited the United Kingdom to a two party system, with majorities passed between the Conservative and Labour parties, from the end of the Second World War until the 2010 general election. What occurred in 2010 was a break with tradition. There was a hung parliament, in other words neither of the two main parties were able to capture a majority of seats in the House of Commons. This led to the coalition which currently governs the country between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties.
To understand just how much of a change from the norm a coalition government is in Britain, you must understand that this is the first actual coalition, in the continental sense of the term, in the history of the nation. There have been pacts made previously between Labour and the precursor to the Liberal Democrats, the old Liberal party. Most recently in 1977 when Labour had their razor thin majority removed via a by-election and the Liberals offered to not bring the Callaghan government down in return for a few minor concessions. So very low key collaboration between two parties had been seen prior to 2010, but they were always a long way short of formal coalition.
There technically have been coalitions in the UK, but only during the World Wars and they are the exceptions that prove the rule. A coalition was pretty much forced upon Asquith near the start of the First World War. In the Second World War Churchill brought the entire House into the government, basically to effectively stifle opposition in a time of national crisis. So very different than what we have in Britain today with the Con-Lib government, which as I said is unique in British history.
So the Lib Dems, a small party with 57 seats out 650 in parliament, make a breakthrough in 2010. They achieve a level of representation that makes it impossible for a one party government to be formed, a long term aim of the Liberal/Lib Dem parties. So what does this mean not only for the Lib Dems going forward but for all minority parties in Britain? In other words, what does this current parliament in the United Kingdom tell us about minority parties and the challenges they face going forward?
The Liberal Democrats polled 23% nationally in the 2010 general election – which I need to add here, under First Past the Post gave them 9% of the seats. For a comparison, Labour got 29% nationwide, a mere 6 percentage points higher, but ended up with 258 seats – almost five times the representation. So there is a hung parliament and talks take place between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives and the Lib Dems and Labour. A Lib-Lab coalition would not arithmetically speaking have resulted in a majority, but they had to happen because the Lib Dems and Labour were seen as “natural partners”, whereas the Conservatives were not.
The coalition talks lasted four days in total – and keep in mind there were no pre-election discussions on the matter and barely any relationships between members of the different parties established beforehand. So basically, from scratch, the coalition agreement was formed, reached and signed in less than one hundred hours.
So what happened to the Lib Dems in the aftermath of this coalition being formed? For a start, the party’s poll rating collapsed almost instantly. As I said, in the election the Lib Dems polled 23%. A month after the coalition was formed it was down to 13/14 percent. A month after that between 10 and 11 percent, which is where it has stayed, roughly speaking, since. To give you some idea, if the poll ratings stayed where they were going into 2015, so in other words if the Liberal Democrats polled ten percent in the next general election, they would be reduced from the current 57 seats to around 15 or 20. So there is huge awareness that the party’s poll ratings must improve. The question, of course, is how to do this.
There are huge obstacles to overcome, even if the party wishes to simply get back to its 2010 level of support. One of the big difficulties the Lib Dems have always faced but took on a new dimension what the present government was formed was the British media and its partisan nature. In Britain, the print media tends to be party specific. So you have the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Daily Express that tend to favour the Conservative Party. Then you have the Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, the Mirror who tend to favour Labour. Then you have the Sun who goes between the two depending on who News International and Rupert Murdoch think will win the next general election.
So after the government is formed in May 2010, you have the left wing press who are trying to put across the narrative that the Liberal Democrats have betrayed their values and “sold out” by going into government with the Tories. They are described constantly as “enablers” of the Conservative agenda, which the Lib Dems are meanwhile trying to fight against constantly by saying that no, they are blocking a lot of harmful Conservative policies. But this doesn’t cut through, as I say, because of the party specific nature of the British media.
At the same time as the left wing press are pillorying the Lib Dems for being too right wing, you have the right wing press saying that the Lib Dems are blocking “true Conservative policies” and that if they weren’t in government then the Prime Minister could get on with what needs to be done with the country, which of course is to return Britain to “true Conservative values”. Examples of this would be the Conservative desire to have an In/Out referendum on Britain’s continuing membership of the European Union. On something like that, the right wing press will constantly be saying that it is the Lib Dems who are trying to “deny voters the right to a referendum”, while the left wing press will give the Lib Dems no credit at all for helping to keep the country in Europe.
One of the big reasons that the Lib Dems stated they wanted to form the coalition with the Conservatives at the outset, and what was particularly attractive to the membership of the party, was the fact that the Lib Dems had secured a referendum on a change to the voting system from the Conservatives. This was the Alternative Vote Referendum, which was held on May 5th, 2011.
Having a nationwide referendum in Britain is a very, very rare occurrence. In fact, the AV referendum was only the second one ever held in the history of the nation. The only other one was in 1975, when Britain voted to stay in the European Economic Community. The AV referendum resulted in a heavy loss for the proponents of change, with the No side winning by a margin of 68 to 32.
The AV referendum is a very instructive case if you are looking to talk about the difficulties faced by minority parties in Britain, because all of the elements are there: the two main parties hating each other but having an interest in maintaining the status quo and so joining forces in very strange ways to make sure the change did not happen, the left/right media problem, and the smaller parties not really working in their own interests a lot of the time.
Even the fact that it was AV that was offered as the system of choice was a sort of microcosm of the minority party problem. Labour had voiced support for AV prior to the 2010 election and the Conservatives said in the coalition talks that they would not agree to a PR system. So the Lib Dems thought because of Labour saying they liked AV in 2009 that that meant that they would throw their full weight behind the Yes campaign in 2010/2011. This didn’t happen. Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, vocally supported the Yes side but it wasn’t whipped internally and Labour MPs were left to “make up their own minds” about it – most of them openly supported the No campaign.
This made strategic sense as the way that the electoral system functions at present is very good for the Labour party. There is an inbuilt bias in the way that the boundaries for the constituencies are drawn up at the moment towards Labour, as a for instance. This means they require much less of a national swing in order to get a majority. If you look at the national vote share received by Thatcher in 1979 and then Blair in 1997 they were both very similar: 44% for Thatcher, 43% for Blair. And yet the Conservatives had a 44 seat majority in 1979 versus a 177 seat majority for Blair in 1997. So when you look at the figures, it becomes obvious why Labour were mostly against any change.
In fact, the change from First Past the Post to AV actually favoured the Conservatives in many ways more than Labour, but they had an inbuilt cultural aversion to changing the voting system and so were against it pretty much from the start. They informed the Lib Dems when the coalition agreement was being written up that they would openly campaign against the change, which is precisely what occurred.
In terms of media coverage of the AV campaign, left and right came together, just like the machines of the Labour and Conservative parties, to effectively make sure the change did not occur. The media line, across the political divide, was this whole referendum is silly, it’s stupid, it’s boring; no one wants it. This was very effective in shutting down the debate, as you can imagine.
The last problem the AV campaign had was that minority parties other than the Lib Dems – the Greens and UKIP, for instance – were not very helpful in trying to win the referendum and treated it, strangely, as a very low priority. The Greens were blasé about it, using media slots meant for AV to talk about their other issues, while UKIP were never quite sure about it all. As a minority party, AV or another preferential system seems the only way they will ever get a seat in Westminster. On the other hand, as a far right party they felt instinctively resistant to change.
So now that the AV referendum has been lost, it has effectively shut down debate on electoral reform in the UK, at least for the national elections. People say, “The public voted against that in that boring referendum, so that’s it”. And given all this, what does the future hold for minority parties in the UK? Particularly when a change to the voting system won’t be happening any time soon?
The problem for the Lib Dems and indeed for any party that could get itself into the position of the Lib Dems inside of the First Past the Post system, in other words holding between 40 and 70 seats and hoping for a hung parliament and a chance to be in a coalition, is the following:
1. The British public does not as a general rule like coalitions, mostly due to their extreme rarity, so when you already have a partisan media that is acting directly in the interests of the two main parties, neither of whom want more coalitions as it is in both of their interests to preserve the two party duopoly, it becomes an easy button to press, making people dislike the smaller party in any coalition.
2. The party in question is bound to lose some of its defining identity. When you are positioned as the Lib Dems are as the party that will act as a sanity check on whichever of the two big parties manage to get the most seats, it becomes harder and harder to present a platform of policies and principles that are distinctly your own as it becomes clear in your very pitch to the electorate that you are no longer even pretending to seek a majority.
3. But in a strange way, you have to become more pure at the same time. Before the coalition, the Lib Dems could to some extent, face both ways. Although the party campaigns for proportional representation, it has grown very used to having to contest elections under First Past the Post. So before 2010, the Lib Dems could say if you don’t want the Conservatives in this constituency, vote Lib Dem as we are the only party who can keep them out. Or vice versa. Going forward, it becomes much more difficult to do that.
But I close on the positive note – the two party system in Great Britain is breaking down whether the media or the two main parties like it or not. The collapse of the Lib Dems in the polls during this parliament has not really seen sustained support for either of the two parties return to sort of 1950’s territory, where they got between them 95/96% of the vote, as was largely expected to happen. No, the vote, strangely, has gone mostly to UKIP, who got 3% nationally at the 2010 election and have polled anywhere between 10 and 18 percent during this parliament. So the future will be interesting because we could see all sorts of strange things happen under First Past The Post in what is now, essentially, a four or even five party system. Many MPs will end up with their seats pretty much by accident, with the splits in the votes just going their way. How the public reacts when this happens – and how the political media reacts as well – will be interesting. What if Labour get less vote share than the Conservatives but more seats and end up going into coalition with the Lib Dems? What will the right wing media say about the voting system then? Or if UKIP gets 15% of the national vote – and ends up without a single seat.
As a postscript, I would like to add here my apprehension at what is happening in Italy with this proposed Italicium Bill. It seems to me that the electoral system being proposed brings with it the worst elements of majoritarian and proportional systems. You have no constituency link, one of the few saving graces of First Past the Post, but also no real proportionality. It seems as if the government is trying to create a two party system within what is nominally a PR structure. So I would like to voice my support for any efforts made to stop this change to the Italian electoral system from taking place.