It is now official; after the May 6th 2010 general election, and five days of detailed negotiations, the UK now has a Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government. The key aspects of the deal include the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, as Deputy Prime Minister, four more Liberal Democrat MPs with Ministerial posts in the new Cabinet, and broad agreement on a range of policy areas. This is the first coalition government in Britain in sixty-five years.
Does this represent a historic water-shed transformation of the British political system? Clearly the sign of two leaders standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the first press conference in the No 10 Rose Garden symbolizes a change in how things are usually done in British government. The leadership love-fest all looks very kumbaya. Skeptics point out, however, that there are serious challenges facing the new arrangement, not least the difficulties facing the British economy, with record levels of unemployment and a massive deficit which needs addressing. In foreign policy, there is Afghanistan. The parties are unexpected bedfellows, not least because the Lib Dems are far more progressive than the Labour party, and on numerous issues their election platform was diametrically opposed to Conservative policies, not least on the EU. It is unclear whether the coalition can last, even for the five years of government.
But will the new politics be a temporary arrangement, a short-term marriage of convenience arising unexpectedly from the close election result, or a longer-term decisive break with one-party majoritarian government?
The key issue determining this issue will be the pledge on electoral reform. The agreement between the parties is a pledge for a referendum on the Alternative Vote, where the MPs will be free to campaign for or against this issue. Now the real tragedy here is that the referendum should have been called for whether there should be any electoral reform. Period. As in New Zealand. Deciding in advance that there can only be one system on the table for debate will divide the reform camp, will limit the options which should be under debate, and which, if passed, will still not produce a more proportional electoral system. The fact is that the Alternative Vote is a majoritarian system; it maintains single member districts and requires any candidate to achieve a majority of votes to be elected. Voters express preferential votes, ranking parties in priority. If no candidates achieve 50% of the vote in the constituency, then the 2nd choice preferences from the candidate with the smallest share of the vote are redistributed until one candidate does achieve a simple majority. This is equivalent to the 2nd Ballot or runoff election, but without the need for two successive elections. Will this benefit small parties? Those in the center, such as the Lib Dems, are often the 2nd choice party for many supporters of the major party. As such the LibDems will probably benefit from 2nd choice redistributions. BUT they will still discriminate against smaller parties with geographically dispersed support, such as the Greens and the BNP.
It is unclear whether the public would vote 'yes' in favor of abandoning First-Past-the-Post (Single Member Plurality) system. The polls cannot be trusted since British public opinion currently remains soft on this issue and the answers are highly dependent upon the way that the question is framed. But the public has become more familiar with many other types of electoral system in the UK – whether the AMS system in Scotland and Wales, PR list in European elections, and other systems used in Northern Ireland and London contests. There may be enough of a plurality to favor getting rid of the transparent unfairness of the old system. Does this mean that the British public would favor AV? That is far less clear indeed. Breaking up the referendum question into two (do we want to change? If so, which system do you favor) would have been far wiser.
Nevertheless if passed – and this is a big if – AV would institutionalize coalition power-sharing agreements at Westminster. We would be back to the form of politics which was more characteristic of the inter-war era. Its been a long time coming. The British electorate has been shifting away from two party politics since the early 1970s. Despite this, British institutions and FPTP have frozen the old Labour and Conservative oligarchy in place at Westminster for decades. Now, at last, it appears as though party politics at Westminster may -- at last -- be catching up with the public.