The great strength of the first past the post system, we are told, is that it produces strong, single-party majority governments. In 2010, however, this piece of conventional wisdom failed to hold. The optimistic response to this fact would be to hope that the result of the 2010 election was an anomaly, much like the hung parliament of February 1974, and that future elections under first past the post can be expected to deliver single party majority governments. However, this view is difficult to sustain for two reasons.
The first is the increasing number of seats won by third parties. In 1951, only 9 MPs were neither Conservative nor Labour. Yet by February 1974, this had increased to 35, and by the 2010 general election the number of MPs from third parties had reached 85. As a result, to get a working majority a party must now win roughly 100 or more seats than its nearest competitor, a feat achieved in fewer than half of the elections since 1945. The second reason is that there has been a steady fall in the number of marginal seats over the last 60 years. In 1955, there were 166 seats that would shift from one party to another on a swing of 5% of the vote. Today, that number is just 83. This means that in order to win the 100 more seats than its nearest competitor required for a working majority, a party needs to win a much larger share of the vote than in the past, thus making another hung parliament highly likely.
With this in mind, the Conservative Party is left with few attractive strategies after 2015. A minority government would probably be too weak to implement the ongoing austerity programme and inspire confidence in the markets, and it would also jeopardise the rest of an impressively radical agenda. One alternative that is mooted without exception when a party looks like it may not win an election is to appeal to the core vote. Such a move would be foolish for a number of reasons. As well as running the risk of re-toxification, there has also been a long term decline in the number of people in
Britain who strongly identify with
a single party, which means that an appeal to the core is an appeal to an ever
shrinking set of voters. It would also make it impossible for the Liberal
Democrats to serve in a coalition with the Conservatives in the event of
another hung parliament.
Instead of either of the above options, the Conservatives would do well to embrace coalition politics, and attempt to formulate a platform that can win the backing of the Liberal Democrats. Perhaps the most alluring aspect this course offers is that it is the best chance the Conservative Party has of staying in power beyond 2015. However, it should not be viewed merely as a shallow strategy to remain in government. The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives share enough common values and goals to back a programme beyond 2015 that is both visionary and deliverable. Below, I have indicated three areas that could form the core of such a programme.
The first is the economy. The 2004 Orange Book gave voice to a strand of Liberal Democrat thought at one with the Conservatives in believing economic liberalism to offer the best hope of increasing wealth, and thus of fulfilling the liberal social aims of reducing poverty and improving poor living conditions. Indeed, the Coalition’s raison d’être is the deficit reduction programme, and even if the government’s goal of eliminating the structural deficit by 2015 is achieved, state spending will still account for roughly 40% of GDP, which is too high for many orange bookers. The Orange Book also called for a simpler and fairer tax system by lowering taxes, especially for low and middle earners, and removing many allowances and reliefs, which tend to give excess benefits to the wealthy. With many of the contributors to the Orange Book holding senior posts in the Coalition, an economic program that combined a smaller role for the state with tax cuts for low and middle earners, as well as a substantial increase in the personal allowance, could enjoy the support of Liberal Democrats and Conservatives alike.
The most pressing public policy challenge after the economy and public finances is reform of the public services. Here, too, the Orange Book reveals a broad area of common ground between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Indeed, when it comes to public service reform the Liberal Democrats have proved themselves to be more radical in thinking, and more effective in implementation. For example, the Orange Book included a proposal by David Laws to replace the NHS with a system based on individual insurance, as well as a proposal to privatise the Royal Mail, which has almost been carried through in government by
Orange Book contributor, Ed Davey. Similarly, individual choice has always
been core value of liberalism. Thus expanding policies aimed at greater
competition and a plurality of providers in the public sector could win the
backing of the Liberal Democrats, especially where this can be shown to drive
social mobility and equality of opportunity. To pick one example, introduction
of for-profit provision in education would create the required incentive to
expand non-state provision of education beyond a few small middle class pockets
where self-motivated parents have set up free schools, thus benefiting children
from more deprived backgrounds. As long-time advocates of localism and
decentralisation, Liberal Democrats may not be as hostile to such reforms as
many suspect, providing proper mechanisms of accountability and transparency
were in place. Thus, increasing choice in public services through competition,
localism and a greater variety of providers could be a radical and achievable
part of a program that built on the reforms of the 2010-2015 Parliament.
Finally, the Conservative Party should be more open to constitutional reform. For one, constitutional reform is a definitional issue for the Liberal Democrats. Their hopes for reform of the voting system have already been confounded, and if reform of the House of Lords goes the same way, they may question the value of perpetuating the coalition altogether. Of more importance, however, is that the constitutional reform can and should complement the Conservative agenda of individual empowerment. New Labour’s constitution reforms were a bold attempt to rejuvenate
system, yet devolution, elected mayors and Lords reform merely redistributed
power to more political elites, while the Human Rights Act empowered judicial
elites. As Vernon Bogdanor puts it in his The
New British Constitution, power has been redistributed sideways but not
downwards to individuals.
Despite Nick Clegg promising “the biggest shake-up of our democracy since 1832”, the Coalition has so far been timid in picking up where Labour left off. The coalition held Britain’s second nationwide referendum, yet the choices the were strictly limited before they were put to the electorate; the coalition plans to introduce the power for constituents to recall their MPs, yet the draft bill puts prohibitive limits on when the power can be invoked. In 1918, a Conservative-Liberal coalition recast British democracy by passing the Representation of the People Act 1918 – a bolder and more audacious second-term coalition could leave an equally large impact by introducing a much greater degree of direct and participatory democracy.
To conclude, the current state of the electoral system means that hung parliaments are to be a fixture of British politics for the time being. If it wants to remain in government, the Conservative Party has little choice but to embrace this fact by prolonging the coalition beyond 2015. To do this, it should focus on developing and expanding on policy in the areas of shared value and mutual interest with the Liberal Democrats that I have highlighted above: the economy, public service reform and constitutional reform