Saturday, 9 May 2015

The Morning After the Night Before

    So, Britain has voted, and unexpectedly elected a Conservative government with a wafer-thin majority. The Liberal Democrats have been reduced to the point of nearly fitting in a taxi again, and Labour has been all but wiped out in Scotland by the SNP.
    I spent all Thursday night in front of the TV. Watching the results come in and seeing Liberal Democrats and Labour MPs falling like ninepins, Conservatives winning in marginal seats, sometimes to their obvious surprise. Fascinating stuff to a news junkie like me, one of the most exciting elections of my lifetime. By the time I fell into bed at about half past eight all the predictions had been confounded and David Cameron was only waiting for the last few seats to see how narrow his majority would turn out.
    In my safe seat constituency the Conservative was elected with an increased majority thanks to the Lib Dem collapse. As I have explained before I am a tactical voter with the intention of ensuring as small a majority as possible for whoever is elected so while I did my bit it is only a matter of small personal satisfaction that by voting for the nearest challenger I reduced her majority by two.
    There are understandably a lot of long faces on the left of British politics. I join them in that I don't think this is the best outcome, but I don't join them in that I think it could have been a huge amount worse. It is true that David Cameron has an outright majority, but unlike his days under the coalition he will now have to fight for every vote. John Major, who had nearly twice Cameron's majority, once described his rebellious back-benchers as "bastards" for confounding his every move, and this will be Cameron's daily reality. As the inevitable by-elections erode the Conservative majority they will find themselves with very little room for manoeuvre. There are tales of James Calaghan's administration wheeling in MPs to vote in hospital beds, we're likely to see that repeated as desperation sets in.
    So no, the Conservatives won't have the freedom to enact some of their more barmy ideology any more than they or the Lib Dems did under the coalition. I'm sure they will do things that will cause consternation on the left, but every Conservative MP whose seat is in any way precarious will now have an eye towards how his or her record will be examined at the next election.
    If this election did anything, it highlighted the unfairness inherent  in the First Past the Post election system. Under FPTP the SNP have over 50 MPs from a fraction of the popular vote that the Liberal Democrats had with 8 seats, or UKIP and the Greens had with 1 seat each. We've got a Government elected by a minority of the people, and Opposition benches filled with MPs elected by a tiny percentage of the people. We will never get proportional representation from a FPTP elected government because, well, turkeys don't vote for Christmas, but FPTP has never looked more unrepresentative.
    Of course, PR would have delivered a significant number of UKIP members from Thursday's polling, making today's government likely to be a Conservative minority government propped up by UKIP on a vote-by-vote basis. One of the nightmare scenarios bandied about before the election. But I suspect under PR the result would have been significantly different, because FPTP encourages the protest vote. People in FPTP safe seats who know their vote is meaningless vote to send a message rather than to elect someone. Under a PR system since few votes are meaningless it is probable that this lack of a protest vote would have produced a significant difference in second and third-placed parties.
    So here we are, with (thanks to David Cameron's Parliament Act) a fixed five more years of Conservative government on a wafer-thin majority. It's going to be a bumpy ride.


  1. You make a very good point about PR, Jenny, for which I thank you. I have credited FPTP with protecting us from the likes of UKIP (that I detest with passion) but had never considered the 'protest vote' effect. An irony of the election result is that, as by-elections and rebellious back-benchers erode their majority, David Cameron and his crew will need to be far more careful to moderate their policies than hitherto.

  2. I would also expect the knives to be out for any back-benchers with skeletons in their cupboards. Remembering all the damage that was done to the Major government by all those dodgy brown envelopes, and they had twice the majority.