A numbers game

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.

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7 thoughts on “A numbers game

  1. Whilst I agree that the Lib Dems are more naturally aligned with Labour than Conservative I don’t think adding the numbers together in this way is valid at all.

    In addition, even with the news coming through now – Liberals talking to Labour – the only stable coalition is with the Conservatives. I can’t see how a deficit reduction plan can be put into place when LibLab would require the cooperation of national parties with only their parochial interests at heart.

  2. From the perspective of a proponent of FPTP you are absolutely right. I’m merely pointing out that it’s ironic that Nick Clegg, who doesn’t support FPTP, doesn’t seem to be pursuing his own logic either.

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention My slightly cynical take on the LibDem/Tory negotiations: -- Topsy.com

  4. Labour seem to view the LibDem’s as a turbocharger to help them out when they haven’t won in their own right. We are a separate party, and I think politically we would have been mad to have gone to Labour first to form a coalition under the current voting system where we had relatively few seats in parliament, where the electorate had fairly clearly rejected Labour (if not wholeheartedly endorsed the Conservatives), and where the ability to form a majority government with Labour is highly marginal.

    Under proportional representation we could probably have gone directly to Labour because we would have had a large practical mandate in parliament in terms of seats. As it stands now I don’t think the electorate is ready to accept the idea that we have a mandate proportional to our total vote. And to be honest it’s rather wacky to suggest that LibDem’s should act as if we’re operating under PR whilst everyone else, including reality has just had a first-past-the-post election.

    • Labour may feel the LibDems are a turbocharger (lovely metaphor!), but I don’t think I’ve suggested it!

      My post is a little tongue-in-cheek, but I do think this situation is an object lesson in how quickly the possibility of power crowds out long-held principle. If the LibDems had been more interested in principle than power, they could have either declined to negotiate at all, or made the case that in their view it is indeed the number of votes that count and that the result in terms of seats won is a distortion. The latter position could have then led either to a determined attempt to secure a “progressive” coalition, or at least a “take-it-or-leave-it” position with the Tories that simply said either take your minority government chances, or accept PR as the price for a coalition with us.

      Because your party feared that such a robust stand on principle would leave them rejected and with no power, they seem prepared to sacrifice everything, even PR, to get that power. Of course this post was written before Gordon Brown set the cat among the pigeons. I assume that was necessary because Nick Clegg was intransigent. One might have wished that he had shown as much commitment to PR as he has to toppling Brown. Well, one might if one was an advocate of PR, which of course I’m not!

  5. I think you’ll find that the LibDem’s commitment to electoral reform is very deeply held and isn’t being crowded out, but we’ve waited nearly 40 years for it already. If we think that waiting another 5 years for it will provide a better chance then I think that’s what we’ll do – I expanded on this in my blog post: http://bit.ly/aICxZz

    …and to continue our comments on being overtaken by events, I understand the Tories have offered a referendum on alternative vote! I’m beginning to think that Nick Clegg is a seriously impressive negotiator.

    • Indeed they have. If you’re right, and this is the playing out of Nick Clegg’s negotiating strategy, then Machiavelli himself would be proud! :)

      Not sure that such skills exactly endear him though, and if this is the “new” politics, it seems even more clandestine than the old!

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