Whatever you think of the Liberal Democrats’ policies, their equal platform in the debates has been the best thing for democracy in a century. Voter apathy was largely created by the sense that you had to go for one or another frequently undifferentiated parties who, unless you were at the very bottom or the very top of the pile, seemingly offered little in the way of constructive policies to vote positively for.
Two-horse races lead to black-and-white, either/or politics: if you’re not with us, you’re against us. This does not offer the electorate genuine choice, and is one of the reasons for voter disengagement. By giving the Lib Dems an equal billing the television debates have demonstrated that people can respond in unexpected ways if they are given more options, rather than that choice being pre-selected for them.
Exciting though it is, the problem is that under our current electoral system, the projected swing towards the Liberal Democrats is unlikely to translate from increased votes into increased seats. Using the BBC’s interactive election seat calculator shows with sobering clarity just how many votes the Liberal Democrats would need to form a majority. Nick Clegg would have to get something like 40% of the vote to become Prime Minister. Cameron could get there on, roughly, 33%; staggeringly, Labour could just about achieve it in certain circumstances on 30% or so. (The figures have to be rough because there are so many variables; it depends on the number of people who vote ‘Other’ for example.) And there are slim pockets of voting patterns where the LibDems could form a majority on a slightly smaller vote share if the Labour/Conservative vote split in particularly exact ways.
Visit http://news.bbc.co.uk and try it; it’s quite an indictment of how inaccurate and undemocratic our accepted voting system actually is. It didn’t matter too much under two-horse races, and that’s exactly why the two horses didn’t want to change it. It matters now, though. We now have the situation where (for example) Labour could come third in terms of votes, but still form a majority, or the Conservatives could come second to the Liberal Democrats but be way ahead in seats .
Of course, it’s highly possible that projected LibDem swing won’t happen after all. It’s quite possible that once people are in the box on 6 May, and faced with having to put the cross somewhere, their hand will hover optimistically over the yellow box for a moment but caution, a sense of ‘can’t take the risk’, will send them back to plan A, whether that is red or blue. In the final analysis, most people tend to vote tribally. Nick Clegg’s strongest message in the last few days of voting must be, vote for what your reason and intelligence tells you; don’t fall back on tried-and-tested at the last moment.
Whatever happens on 6 May, it indicates that we urgently need electoral reform. If there is a hung parliament, that might happen. If there isn’t, then as things stand the winning party decides whether or not electoral reform happens. The party that would change it, can’t get in to change it because the system favours the opponents.
Say the Conservatives scrape in with a small majority. The LibDems will have a massively increased vote, but they still find themselves only with a maximum of 100 seats with as much as 30% of the vote. The result of that is that the Conservatives say they have the mandate to rule, electoral reform doesn’t happen, and the LibDem voice is put back in its former place. That risks even more voter disengagement, particularly amongst under 25s; if things don’t change even when the people say they want things to change, there will be even more suspicion amongst the young that the establishment is alive and kicking, resistant to change and not interested in what the next generation thinks (however right they might be).
A guess at the most likely outcome: the Conservatives scrape in with a small majority, Brown resigns to be replaced by Milliband D, and the LibDems, whilst securing anything up to 30% vote, will still be muted in Parliament. That’s not much of a prospect for the next five years, unless we can get the first past the post system removed and a properly representational system brought in.