Weak government can never address fundamental issues.
FPTP will always result in weak government when more than two well supported parties contest a general election. In the UK 2017 general election, we had seven parties that polled more than half a million votes, despite the unusual conditions surrounding it. In 2010, there were five parties that passed this figure and, in 2015, seven again.
Even with the extraordinary polarisation of opinion that characterised the 2017 election and the consequential sucking away of support from smaller parties, there were still seven political parties with over 500,000 votes, yet, of course, with wildly varying levels of eventual representation.
When the voting system denies people representation, a contradictory set of circumstances prevails. The 2017 results created a hung parliament, with the governing party dependent on a very small party for survival (the DUP, who got nowhere near half a million votes) and, as a result, the government is visibly weak in all respects. The governments of 2010 and 2015 also suffered from this same problem to differing degrees and, whilst this weakness was material, it wasn’t immediately obvious.
The 2015 general election delivered a small Conservative majority in parliamentary seats yet with only about 20% of support in the nation. They achieved 36.8% of the votes cast and 24.4% of those who registered to vote. Ironically, the hung parliament of 2017 delivered national support of around 27%, with 42.4% of the votes cast and 29.2% of those registered to vote.
Typically, an estimation of the numbers of people who were eligible to vote but failed to register takes a couple of points off the lower figure, hence around 22% and 27% of overall support respectively for the 2015 and 2017 elections.
Applying the same criteria to the 2010 coalition government would have given them around 36.5% of overall support; a significant increase.
Overall support may well be a better indicator of the relative strengths of governments than the number of seats won:
- 2010, higher overall support, lasted 5 years, made significant changes, reduced deficit etc and won two referendums.
- 2015, very low overall support, lasted 2 years, lost a referendum, a prime minister and a chancellor and achieved very little.
- 2017, still low support but much higher than 2015 and suffering a loss of majority. Could last longer than the 2015 government but will be unable to even implement basic manifesto commitments.
Support in the country is a factor and here’s why.
Just because people don’t vote doesn’t mean that they don’t care. It also doesn’t mean that they don’t have political opinions, nor does it mean that they won’t air them, but in ways that aren’t easily measurable, even though they may be very effective. These opinions will be expressed on social media, in the pub, at a football match, at home and at work, and will add to a collective opposition that influences the attitude of society, as a whole.
There are multiple conduits through which feelings, denied expression in our electoral mechanism, will find their way into the public domain, and they can be sufficiently destabilising to cause governments difficulty and may be sufficiently strong to cause them to fall. The unexpected support that the Labour party received in the 2017 general election, may well have been the only way that many could express opposition to the Conservative government’s program. Not so much support for Labour, perhaps, maybe just registering opposition to the Conservatives.
The argument is, that FPTP produces weak governments and coalitions produce stronger ones because the broad support for the governing coalition is much higher than, even a HoC majority of a single party. It follows, therefore, that we should seek an electoral process that maximises overall support which is then, more likely to provide better government.
Higher overall support, by its very nature, will also provide the parliamentary majority necessary to implement a governmental program. Just having the majority of seats, or a cobbled together majority with very small parties, as is the case now, only provides the illusion of authority. FPTP will, in a multi-party state, always deliver governments with low overall support, thereby subverting their legislative ambitions. The idea that it is only the parliamentary majority that counts only sees a part of the picture.
The lack of overall support means that governments are unable to do the things they should do, and instead only attempt the things they think they can get through.
As a nation we can do better.
We have many socio-economic issues that, instead of being placed on a sustainable foundation, are constantly tinkered with. It’s probably not an absence of ideas, but an absence of political ability that prevents the necessary action being taken. A minority government attempting radical and far reaching change does attract massive opposition, often politically driven, and with the delicately balanced and highly polarised political situation we now have, such risks are usually seen as being too great to take. However, with a government that has much higher overall support, the scope for opposition is a) smaller and b) not able to derail necessary changes so easily.
Fairer voting will include the views of people not catered for in FTPT elections. When their votes count, more will engage, and the result will be a broader reflection of how people feel. Coalition is an inevitable consequence of taking on board the desires of many more people, but it is likely, as opposed to 2010, to be a coalition of the similarly minded, and will lead to a government that has a chance of addressing the structural changes we need, whilst moderating the tendency to cater to one’s financial backers.
We are all aware that the Conservatives receive a great deal of money from big business and the Labour Party from trade unions. Big business doesn’t worry unduly about the quality of life for working people and neither do trades unions. The former, are primarily concerned with a legislative framework that benefits their business and the latter, by definition, cater for ‘members only’, with little consideration for working people in general. Governments tied to their paymasters aren’t going to do what’s right, only what pays.
- High on the list for substantial reform and the creation of a sustainable model would be national healthcare, for too long just a political football.
- The provision of affordable housing and the significant reduction in immigration needed to realise this aim.
- A national transportation strategy and a longer-term energy policy.
- Education and higher education.
Almost every sector needs substantial revision but that doesn’t happen because weak governments, have as a priority, their own self-interest.
Better government, coalition government, is more likely to produce stability and the progressive improvement in the welfare of our citizens, as opposed to the repeated swinging from one ideology to another every few years. As such it is a powerful argument for voting reform. If more people become engaged in the electoral system and more people vote for the ideas they want, a coalition government with a broader and bigger overall support base is more likely to ensue.
It is an argument well worth making.