10,874,863. That’s the number of votes won by the Conservatives plus their natural allies, the Democratic Unionists. 15,432,296. That’s the combined votes of Labour and the LibDems. (I’ve restricted myself to including the votes of parties that managed to get at least one MP elected.) For the arithmetically challenged, that’s a majority of 4,557,433 votes for a LibDem/Labour alliance. It seems odd to me that Nick Clegg, the great proponent of proportional representation, should thus even as we speak be trying to stitch up a deal with the Tories so that those 4,557,433 votes should be wasted. That is the logic of the enthusiasts of PR, isn’t it? The votes of the unsuccessful backers of the wrong candidates are wasted votes, aren’t they?
Well, apparently not, since Mr Clegg has declared that the only number that matters is the number of seats won, and that because on that basis the Tories are the largest single party, they have some moral right to have the first shot at government. Er, but I thought that the number of seats won was the evil and twisted consequence of our out-dated and demonstrably unfair, not to mention, Victorian, voting system. And that using the number of seats to construct a government leads to all those wasted votes. It seems to me that there’s a deal of confusion here, and a total lack of consistency. On the one hand the LibDems ostensibly have a position that wants every vote to “count”, but which they are too timid to act on. On the other, the Tories’ position is that numbers of votes are irrelevant, and that only the numbers of seats won is important. But they are making dark noises about the “travesty” that would result if the LibDems and Labour were to be able to construct a coalition with other parties to keep the Tories out of power. This is just as inconsistent, since the first-past-the-post system that they so value for its ability (sometimes) to produce clear and stable government makes any parliamentary majority valid if it can be constructed.
Neither the Tories nor the LibDems are sticking to their ideological guns on this. Our system does not give the right of government to the single largest party, but to the party or parties that can command the confidence of the House of Commons. If the Tories really believed this, they would not protest about the possibility that they might be kept out of power. By contrast, if the LibDems really believed that it’s not seats, but numbers of votes, that should count, then they would be trying to help Labour construct a wider coalition that delivers to the 15,432,296 voters what they actually voted for.
But of course, ideology and principle has nothing to do with it. Both the Tories and the LibDems are interested in power, and in trying to calculate a course of action that will most protect their party interest. That’s not wrong in itself, but I’m fed up with both sides wittering on about their commitments to given electoral systems that both of them are actually denying by their actions. This negotiation is about power now, and party advantage in future. Don’t believe the nonsense about “delivering the government the British public voted for last Thursday”. That’s just a moral fig-leaf to cover the parties’ naked ambitions.