With the Lib Dem leadership resigned to not getting proportional representation, and the Labour party hesitant even to back AV, supporters of PR have understandably directed their guns at these two ‘progressive’ parties for failing to back progress. This is logical and necessary. But it lets the Conservative Party – the biggest road-block to voting reform in the UK – conveniently off the hook. What should be asked, loud and clear, is why are supposedly modern Conservatives defending the First Past the Post-system (FPTP) when it flies in the face of at least four core Tory values:
1) Choice. Tories, we are told, believe in choice. The most fundamental choice we have as citizens is who should govern us. Yet FPTP effectively limits that choice to a crude one between two old parties who agree on many significant matters. By relentlessly squeezing smaller parties, and often forcing voters to vote against their most feared option rather than in favour of what they do believe in, the choice becomes a very limited and really rather negative one. Conservatives are against real choice in politics.
2) Competition. If competition is healthy and roots out sloppiness, waste and corruption, then our political system could surely do with some more of it. FPTP creates huge numbers of ‘safe seats’ where MPs can sit for years effectively unchallenged and do very little while they claim for duck houses and moats. Voter apathy is entirely rational in ‘safe seats’, as is party apathy - why should they spend money and campaign in places where the result is a foregone conclusion? Under PR every vote counts and every seat is therefore 'a marginal'. But Tories do not want that.
3) Limits to state power. Tories say they hate large over-powerful government. Yet the ability to deliver ‘strong government’ is usually their main argument in favour of FPTP (despite the current situation where they claim to lead a strong coalition). FPTP usually allows representatives of a minority of the voters to capture all the levers of state power at once. Unchecked power, the small state ideologues know, inevitably corrupts and society, becomes vulnerable to meddling and ‘radical reforms’ from executives with huge majorities. PR on the other hand creates natural checks and balances on political power as policy usually has to be built on consensus and compromise – or at least dialogue - rather than the ideological zeal of a small coterie of people that happen to run one of the big parties when it ‘wins’ power. But Tories prefer big government (if not a big state).
4) Private initiative/entrepreneurial spirit. Again, supposedly key Tory values. Yet the current system which they are defending throttles any attempt at starting up new parties, stifling virtually any rational potential political entrepreneur. With FPTP the Tories are shoring up the huge barriers of entry to the current political duopoly in the UK. The knock on effect of political monopolies is lost innovation since new industries usually require political support for take-off. Politics in the UK is consequently as slow to react to new demands and ideas as an East German state enterprise. Germany, which by contrast has PR (we gave it to them, incidentally), now has 270.000 people employed in the renewable technology industry. This can in no small part be traced back to when a new political voice (The German Greens) made it into parliament 27 years ago. In government they pushed a new agenda that facilitated the growth of a renewable energy industry. They are now reaping the fruits of that not just in terms of environmental impact but in terms of jobs and exports. In the UK we had to wait until last May for a single Green MP to get elected. If we want to be first movers in innovation, we need political innovation to be easier.
If we also take values such as ‘fairness’, which David Cameron has hailed as a Tory value, then PR becomes even more compelling for a Tory. But fairness is the weakest of slogans, and even without it proportional representation clearly ought to be a natural Tory policy.
So why is PR so hated amongst Tories then? Perhaps because pursuing one’s self-interest is also a core Conservative virtue. Apparently, when push comes to shove, it trumps of all the above.