Tuesday 19 September 2023

Considering second choices


One of the problems of the oft-vaunted ‘progressive alliance’ is the difficulty in defining what a ‘progressive’ actually is. For most of those promoting the idea, it seems to be more-or-less equivalent to ‘anti-Tory’; but being anti one thing isn’t at all the same thing as having a common platform or a shared set of values. Another of the problems is that it runs up against the tribalistic inclinations of many politicians, especially those in the Labour Party who believe that any sort of electoral alliance involves, in essence, other parties standing aside for Labour. A third problem is that it involves clearly identifying which anti-Tory party is best-placed to beat the Tories in any particular seat, communicating that effectively to the electorate, and persuading them to vote for that party in order to defeat the Tories.

That last issue is currently playing out in the seat abandoned by Nadine Dorries after she was foolish enough to believe that a promise made by Boris Johnson might actually be honoured. The parties and pollsters are busily trying to profile the electors in the seat to decide whether the constituency is more akin to those seats snatched by the Lib Dems over the past year or so or to those snatched by Labour – in both cases with stunning swings unlikely to be repeated in a general election. A poll commissioned by the Labour Party shows the race as being neck-and-neck between themselves and the Tories (quelle surprise), and I have no doubt that the Lib Dems are, as usual, distributing tens of thousands of leaflets containing dodgy bar charts demonstrating why ‘Labour can’t win here’. The result, according to Labour, is that there is a danger of the Tories sneaking through the middle – their vote could collapse compared with last time, but without voters lining up behind just one of the other two challenging parties, their residual support could end up being still high enough for the party to retain the seat.

It's also clear that both Labour and the Lib Dens are getting ready to blame the other for such an outcome. For once, and despite their presumed use of dubious statistics in support of their campaign, the Lib Dems are marginally on the higher moral ground here. They have consistently supported a system of proportional representation which would allow voters to express a second choice rather than just a first. If, as both parties seem to believe, the supporters of both parties really do see the other as preferable to the Tories, then the electors would easily settle the question as to which was best-placed to defeat the Tories, albeit that that would not become clear until after the votes were cast and counted. The Labour leadership, however, remain firmly wedded to the idea of ‘first-past-the-post’ elections, a position which effectively means that they would prefer a Tory victory to an outcome which more fully expresses the views of the electorate.

Fortunately, not all of Labour’s leaders share that approach, however. Here in Wales, the government has published more detail on its proposals to move to a much more representative electoral system. Much of the criticism of the changes has concentrated on the fact that they are proposing ‘closed’ lists, under which people can only vote for a party rather than the individuals. It’s a reasonable point, although it’s the system that has been used quite happily for the Senedd list seats and for electing MEPs for some years.  It also skates over the fact that the extent to which people vote for individuals rather than a party in the first place is greatly exaggerated, both by politicians themselves who want to claim some sort of personal mandate, and by media outlets who want to portray politics as being primarily about the careers of individuals. To me, the bigger criticism by far is that the system revolves entirely around first choice votes; voters casting a vote for a party which doesn’t achieve enough votes to win a seat in a constituency have their votes effectively excluded from affecting the outcome at all. If they knew that, in the event of the party for which they cast their first vote failing to achieve any representation on the basis of first choice votes, their second choice vote would be counted, that would encourage more people to see their votes as having a relevance, as well as producing a result more reflective of public opinion. Whilst the proposals are a huge step forward from where we are, it’s a missed opportunity to do the job properly. As ever, established parties really don’t want other parties gaining any sort of toehold.

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