Britvote ’10: anyone and anything

It’s almost as if Britain is more afraid of a ’hanging’ than it is of having Random Niceguy MP take power

On the eve of the most exciting British general election in decades, it turns out to be surprisingly hard for a foreign observer to pin down precisely what sort of government might emerge from the maelstrom of a hung parliament. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has ostentatiously been keeping his negotiating options open. The one thing resembling a categorical condition he has advanced is that he will not cooperate to keep Labour in power under current PM Gordon Brown if Labour finishes third in vote share.

Clegg hasn’t, however, ruled out a Brownless Lib-Lab pact (or a Lib-Con one). It almost seems to me, after much striving for information in the best transatlantic newspapers, that the British press is superstitiously avoiding any attention to the fact that the next PM may be some compromise figure not now currently at the head of any party.

This is, frankly, a little weird. So much is being made in the UK of the traumatic, obstructive effects of a “hung parliament”, even though Canada has learned to accept a chronically “hung” House of Commons. We weathered the recent economic storm rather nicely with a minority in charge and no immediate prospect of that changing. Canada, however, has not yet been in a position in which a Prime Minister might be chosen from a totally unbounded, undefinable set of individuals. I believe that is how Britain stands today. The next PM could conceivably be David Miliband or Jack Straw or Bob the Builder.

It’s almost as if Britain is more afraid of a “hanging” than it is of having Random Niceguy MP take power as a direct consequence. Britain faces tough fiscal choices after years of majority Labour rule, and its financial markets are often said to desire a “clear election outcome” above all. Though it is hard to see how one would distinguish that from simply preferring Conservative power, since the Conservatives the only party that has been within reach of a majority within the last couple of years. As an amateur who occasionally looks at bond yields and exchange rates with near-bovine incomprehension, it has also been hard for me to find solid evidence of the markets actually fearing a divided House.

What strikes me is that the Governor of the Bank of England is said to have observed privately (like the Sovereign, he is not supposed to shoot his mouth off publicly) that any party forced to take sole responsibility for the imminent tax hikes and spending cuts would be accepting a “poisoned chalice”. Assuming that this is correct—a lot depends on the mix of policy choices and the way in which they’re framed, and if you don’t believe me you can ask Ralph Klein—then wouldn’t a coalition be helpful in diluting this poison? Hell, if Britain’s in that much trouble, maybe the political elite should be thinking outside the box about a short-lived, Lib-Lab-Con Government of National Cruelty that executes a list of unpopular, unspeakably savage fiscal measures, disbands, and agrees never again to speak of its sordid ménage à trois.

And what of electoral reform? This is often regarded as a sine qua non for Lib-Dem support, but as Doug Saunders observes today in the Globe, Nick Clegg has been slightly more forceful about saying non to the Tories, who are unapologetic backers of the first-past-the-post system even though Labour has been the prime beneficiary in recent times. To the degree that Clegg and his small caucus demand a veto over the identity of a Labour PM, they might have less leverage left over in negotiations with Labour for more proportional representation and MP recall.

The official Lib Dem plank on electoral reform is brief and vague. The party has lobbied in the past for a single transferable vote with multi-member ridings; Labour’s manifesto contains official support for the “alternative vote”, or what amounts to single-member STV. But in another somewhat underreported development, Clegg is said to have come out in March for a mixed system of the only sort that can satisfy hardcore “proportionality” purists: using Labour’s single-member STV in individual ridings, with extra MPs chosen on a regional basis from ordered party slates to polish off the proportional-ness of the national result.

In other words, most or all of the major paradoxes of proportional representation may soon be on display here:

1) PR is in the interest of small marginal and fringe parties. As a party like the Lib Dems grows more popular, and approaches the vote-share band within which the logic of a less-proportional system may work in its favour, its vested interest in the imagined cosmic justice of PR diminishes.

2) The democratic logic of PR requires that it be passed by voter referendum, which makes it easy for parties that are in power or close to power under less-proportional representation to thwart it. (This is something else we know about here in Canada.) PR proponents have a multitude of schemes to offer, making it hard for any one particular scheme to win a referendum; and the more truly proportional any scheme is, the less easy it is to explain to voters.

3) All voting systems involve ethical tradeoffs. A more proportional election scheme must inevitably involve less geographic fine-grainedness; that’s what you get with large multi-member ridings. And a fully proportional election scheme requires the use of ordered party slates, and the election of deputies who are answerable to no geographic base, no particular group of voters, at all.

The Lib Dem position on election reform almost seems to tack on a 3b) here, since the party is also in favour of voter recall of MPs. How can, say, multi-member constituencies be reconciled with such a thing? By design, STV in ridings with x members would produce some members with support from only about 1/x of the riding’s voters. Giving minority and fringe candidates the benefit of proportionality implies that you’re ultimately letting some of them in, somehow. But as soon as Udolpho Hilter of the Kill-the-Immigrants Party is sworn in with one-sixth or one-eighth of a regional vote, wouldn’t he be vulnerable to recall by the overwhelming majority of the region that doesn’t want him? And don’t you then need to have a by-election for the vacated single seat, inevitably re-introducing national-scale disproportionality to your precious perfect wedding cake of democracy?