A Conservative Case for Proportional Representation | Ewan Gillings
I would like to prefix this article by stating that I am by no means a fan of democracy. It seems to me that Plato’s analogy of the Ship of State is a fairly accurate one; certainly, there is no evidence that either of the two main parties are anything other than sinking Titanics at the moment. Much like Plato, I find it extraordinary that acceptance of democracy in its current state is so universal; there are few other – if any other – fields in which so many people feel so able to do a job (namely, being a MP) that so few actually have the ability to perform effectively. I don’t think this is surprising to many people – just look at some of our recent MPs (Jarrod O’Mara and Keith Vaz are just two-such examples from the previous Parliament.)
Traditional checks on this universal democratising have also been undermined – the House of Lords, once a proud and noble institution that was able to fully counter the power of the Government, has been reduced to a puppet show of party stooges and slimy elites, each government eagerly shoving in as many yes-men (and yes-women) as they can before they inevitably get booted out of Number 10. The Lords used to be referred to as the ‘Upper House’ – now they can do nothing more than delay government policy for a messy twelve months before it steamrollers its way into law. To borrow from Plato again, we have turned from a nation governed by ‘Philosopher Kings’ into one governed by Parasitic Knaves.
So why, then, – given my obvious scruples with democracy – do I want to see the introduction of Proportional Representation (hereafter ‘PR’)? Is PR not – to return to Plato once again – an ‘Ideal Form’ of democracy? I would contend that, whilst it does seem to be so – as a result of its representative outcome – PR is actually more capable of checking against the criticisms that Plato raised (unknowledgeable voters, partisanship) and well as those he didn’t (domineering parties) than our current system.
It seems that the major gripe that many social conservatives have with the current political climate is that neither of the two main parties represent their views; indeed, both the Conservatives and Labour espouse their own forms of post-modern policy, and rarely do they lock horns on any important issues – especially social ones. Whereas once we had an adversarial system, with entrenched positions and proper debate, we were faced at the last election with the choice between the positions of Liberal A and Liberal B. The only difference of note was the colour scheme that each manifesto came in.
Of course, this is not just the result of poor MPs with little character and even less talent; it is also a necessary position for parties to take in order to perform well at elections. Blair was able to do so well in his electoral victories, particularly the first two, because he dragged his party to the centre on many policies; take, for example, the abandonment of Clause IV. Similarly, David Cameron bent over backwards to liberalise the Tories following his ascension to the Downing Street throne in 2010; it speaks volumes about the nature of ‘the most successful electoral force in the world’ – a success founded on its values and principles – when the proudest moment of its leader over the course of his six years at the helm was the introduction of same-sex marriage.
I will not try and deny that many of the electorate may very well fall into this ‘middling-sort’ of viewpoint; after all, the Conservative and Labour Parties gained over seventy-five per cent of the vote in the last General Election. Include the Liberal Democrats in this figure, and the number jumps up to over eighty-seven per cent.
But I must question how many of these voters marked their ballots in this way because they felt they had little choice but to. I have written previously about the expectant Tories, who presume that voters will return, cap in hand at the eleventh hour, and beg to be allowed back into the liberal abode. If I had chosen to vote at home last December, the furthest “right-wing” candidate would have been a Conservative. My only other options were Labour and Liberal Democrat. No whiff of Brexit Party, no regional parties like the Yorkshire Party or national ones such as the SNP or DUP. No option for interesting, upcoming parties such as the SDP or Libertarian Party. There wasn’t even an Independent candidate on the menu.
I cannot help but feel that many people who voted for one of the big two parties did so because they felt that there was nothing else they could do. There is a genuine discussion to be had about the best way to show dissatisfaction with the current political structures – spoiling ballots, or even not voting at all, for example. But for a certain ilk of voters, this is not something that they would consider; the cultural differences between age groups consistently lead to higher turnout amongst older voters. As everyone knows, older voters are more likely to vote Tory; they are also more likely to hold traditional values, such as their lack of support for the aforementioned implementation of same-sex marriage.
So why, then, do these people – who don’t agree with the party they vote for on such issues as this – continue to support them? The fact is that many do not have another option. The rise of the UKIP is probably the best recent example of a party more representative of this class of voter; but even their success was marginal when one analyses it objectively. UKIP won two by-elections, and only one constituency at the 2015 General Election; this, despite the fact they secured nearly four million votes. Is it any surprise, then, that their support base should drop in the face of such (comparative) failure?
One cannot help but wonder what the effect would have been if UKIP’s 2015 vote share of 12.6 per cent was reflected in the number of MPs that they sent to Westminster. Their eighty-two MPs would have had a sizeable impact in the running of government, particularly in relation to the EU referendum and implementation of Brexit. It seems highly likely, for example, that the May administration would not have been able to faff around in the same way that it did if there was a distinctive, external electoral force keeping them in check.
It is difficult to know exactly how many social conservatives there are in the United Kingdom nowadays; certainly, it is a minority. But even if an overtly soc-con party was only able to emulate the performance of UKIP in 2015, this would still result in a sizeable cohort of Westminster representation. And I believe many others would flock to such a party. Take my personal constituency dilemma that I mentioned earlier; all those right-of-centre voters who felt obliged to vote Tory because ‘it was the best a bad lot’ would be able to vote for a party that actually represented them.
And unlike UKIP in 2015, a PR system would mean that their votes would actually be reflected in the subsequent parliament. Many are put off voting for smaller parties at the moment because they know in their hearts that they are incredibly unlikely to win seats. This is why polling always shows a swell back to Labour and Conservative in the final few days before an election, as people begrudgingly return to the only option that can realistically win their seat – despite the numerous grievances that they might have with the party. With PR, we can give people real options at elections, with parties that will be guaranteed representation if they are voted for, rather than having to hope that they can beat all the other parties in the constituency.
I would like now to do something that may be considered fairly risky for social conservative – criticise Peter Hitchens. Whilst I agree with the man on many fronts, I cannot support him on his ideas of how to sort out the quagmire that we currently find ourselves in. His suggestion of not turning out to vote in order to affect turnout to the point where governments have no mandate is unfeasible – turnout has been declining, it is true, but it still stood at over sixty-seven per cent. In fact, only one seat in one election (Liverpool Riverside in 2001) in the last one hundred years has seen a turnout of less than thirty-five per cent. Hitchens also fails to suggest what turnout would be acceptable to undermine elections – less than fifty per cent? Twenty? The Police and Crime Commissioner election of 2012 saw a turnout of just over fifteen per cent – yet despite the derision the election received as a result of its perceived uselessness (more over the position of Commissioner than the turnout itself), the results still stood.
My main point here is that, even if people stopped voting (and the fact is that many do not want to stop, they simply want a party that represents them), the government does not care about how many people form the electoral majority that seems them get in to power. Yes, their candidates may want a sizeable majority on a large turnout, but the fact is that this gives them no more power than a MP who wins by one vote on a turnout of forty (or, indeed, four) per cent.
I would contend that for social conservatism to remain relevant and prevalent in our society, it needs to make a break through at the executive level. Under First Past the Post (hereafter ‘FPTP’), this will not happen – at least not in any meaningful or sizeable quantity. By introducing a PR system we can not only encourage a greater political awareness amongst the masses – many of whom will actually be able to have a meaningful vote in an election for the first time in their lives – but we can also build a parliament that is truly representative of the views of British people. It would also bring about the fall – or, at least, the severe decline – of the two main parties, who for too long have enjoyed hegemonic dominance on the back of system that benefits them, and not the electorate.
My final comment on this topic is a question to fellow social conservatives who may be casting a scornful eye on the ideas in this piece. I am sure that, at some point throughout this diatribe, the criticism of majority government will have been raised. It is true, I will concede, that FPTP does produce more majority governments. However, if the majority governments that it produces are invariably Conservative of Labour, then why would a social conservative support a majority of liberalness? In the struggle against the slow march of liberalism, even electoral reform must be an option at our disposal.