BNP’s Euro success should not shut door on voting reform (9 June 2009)
The two electoral systems most widely discussed for Westminster are both less likely to elect extremists than first-past-the-post
As the dust settles on the county and European election results, one can take stock of what they mean for the parties and politics over the next year and in the long term.
The county elections are probably the more accurate measure of what might happen in the next general election, because they use the same electoral system and the considerations people have in mind when choosing their vote are more similar.
The county results point to the Conservatives being substantially ahead and in a position to win the next general election, although they have less of a margin of comfort than they did last year, when they were 43-23 ahead of Labour in national vote share, rather than this year’s 38-22. While Labour’s vote collapsed, the Conservative vote has been gently drifting downwards.
It is too easy to dismiss the Euro results as a freakish curiosity: while voters perhaps behave oddly in European parliament elections, the results can be consequential and indicative of future trends.
The 1979 European election produced a Conservative landslide, and the campaign was marked by ludicrous Labour infighting, a prelude to the divisions and disaster of the next four years. In 1984 Neil Kinnock proved that Labour was not dead, and in 1989 Labour inflicted Margaret Thatcher’s only defeat in a national election. It was the first pillar of her rule to crumble; a botched reshuffle, the resignation of the chancellor and a stalking-horse challenge followed by the end of the year – and in 1990 she was out.
The 1989 election was also interesting for the 15% of the vote for the Greens, and the Conservative tilt to Euroscepticism. In 1994, John Major did not do quite badly enough to trigger a leadership challenge. In 1999, the Conservatives’ win, and the vote for Ukip, helped take joining the euro off the agenda, and the low turnout and strong vote for smaller parties was a sign of what was to come, confirmed by the fragmentation of the vote and the weak performance by both main parties in 2004.
The 2009 European elections will surely be notable for more than confirmation of existing trends away from the two (or three) principal British political parties.
The pre-eminent fact is the astonishingly low Labour share of the national vote, at 15.8%. Winning at the last general election in 2005, with 36% of the British vote on a 61% turnout, showed that Labour was on thin ice. Euro 2009 may be an important point on a long-term declining trend in Labour’s vote and vote share that has only been briefly interrupted for decades (in 1966, 1997, and arguably 1992).
The working-class vote is decreasing and becoming less unionised, less cohesive, less loyal to a party and less inclined to turn out.
New Labour found a new, but fickle, group of voters to add to the declining existing Labour electorate, but accelerated the alienation of the old core vote. Now the New and Old Labour electorates are bleeding away at the same time and the remnant of Labour stands cruelly exposed, unable even to win a plurality in Wales.
It seems a particularly severe case of the malaise that has afflicted the centre-left in other EU countries, including France and Germany (although Spain’s socialist government did not do too badly against a poor economic backdrop). However, the saving grace for the left of British politics is that the Conservatives are winning by default rather than because of a surge in their own support.
The 2009 elections present a possible future for British politics in which the Conservatives enjoy a huge parliamentary majority with only 35-40% support from the voters and a progressive vote divided between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Greens, plus a more rightwing fringe vote split between Ukip and smaller parties, such as the English Democrats and the BNP.
This is, after all, what happened in a number of places last Thursday – including the former Labour county of Staffordshire, where the party is now fourth placed in seats, its three councillors outnumbered by four Lib Dems and four Ukip politicians, not to mention 49 Conservatives.
Labour is probably protected from such an extreme wipe-out at Westminster level because it has a number of very safe urban seats, which would withstand even huge swings, and the party’s Euro vote seemed to hold up a little better in some of these areas than it did in the counties.
The short-term reaction in some Labour circles, driven by an understandable dislike of the BNP, has been that the European results should end discussion of electoral reform for Westminster.
This would be a very short sighted approach. For a start, the systems most widely discussed for Westminster – namely the Alternative Vote (AV), and AV with a small proportional top-up as recommended by the Jenkins commission (AV+) – are both less likely to elect extremists than the present first-past-the-post system.
Other more proportional systems, such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV), create incentives for parties to campaign everywhere and not neglect areas; electors who feel ignored are vulnerable to the appeal of extremists.
It is notable that although there was disenchantment with the governments and traditional parties in Ireland and Malta, which use STV, in the European elections, the reaction did not produce a swing to extremism.
However, a longer term perspective would suggest that the next centre-left government after a Tory victory in 2010 might well not be a single-party Labour majority (and if it is, it might be based on a share of the vote too small to qualify as popular consent).
Electoral reform is more important than ever for the future of the centre-left in British politics because the progressive side will probably never again be marshalled behind a party as it was behind Labour in 1995-2003. Labour’s future needs to be plural and coalition-building, and electoral reform is a key part of that future.