As we wait for a Prime Minister, do we want electoral reform?

As we wait for a Prime Minister, do we want electoral reform? May 9, 2010

Gordon Brown has been described in some papers this morning as a “ranting squatter.” Ironically, our first past the post system, designed as it is to give us a clear winner, has failed for the first time in 30 years to do just that. In so doing, it gives us a clear insight into what would happen if we do change to PR. In fact in countries with PR this kind of delay in forming a government is just normal. Indeed, most countries at least have some transitional time. We are very unusual in that this is actually the first time in the last thirty years that we have not appointed the government within 24 hours of the election. The delay somehow seems unBritish.

While apparently 2/3rds of people think Brown should just leave office immediately, the truth is he is quite right to stay as a “caretaker Prime Minister” until such time as as new government can form. It is imperative that at all times someone is in charge. We are just not used to having a prime minister who we know is almost certainly about to leave office. Our political system is brutal. Our leader remains leader until defeat or resignation leads usually to an immediate replacement. It does mean that our leaders do not have a chance to “wind down.” Nor do they just retire with dignity, usually.

Ironically, our first past the post system may have just signed it’s own death warrant. By failing to deliver a clear result on this occasion, it is possible Cameron may be forced to make some changes. But what changes would work for us?

One of our problems is that we have a parliamentary system morphing into a presidential one. Many of us feel indignant that Brown never won an election as Prime Minister. But, our system elects representatives in much the same way as senators in the USA. Imagine if the senators of the leading party had to elect one of their members as the USA president. Our familiarity with the current system obscures its strangeness.

Perhaps what the UK needs is a direct election to the office of prime minister. Cameron would have clearly won that election on this occasion. Then we could have a clearer distinction between the executive and the parliament. In practice a strong prime minister with a good majority rules the UK like a president. If he was elected himself, and could appoint his own cabinet, who did not have to be parliament members, but still he had to get legislation approved by a house which might well not have a majority in his favor, would there be a better check and balance than currently? In fact, at the moment our PM can appoint outsiders to his cabinet, he just has to make them a Lord first. If we are going to move to some kind of elected upper house, surely we want the PM to still be free to appoint the best candidates to ministerial briefs irrespective of whether they have been elected?

Perhaps then the term of office of the PM could be limited alongside the government. No PM in recent history has managed more than 10 years, so maybe that should be the absolute limit, with parliaments lasting 5 years. If so, perhaps it could be harder for them to be replaced in the meantime than currently, though a vote of no confidence should surerly still fire them. Camerons idea that any new PM must call an election in six months is a good one.

So far, I haven’t really addressed the issue of PR. On the plus side, at least some form of PR makes every vote count. In all my years of voting I have always voted in a constiuency which is so-called “safe”. Thus, it has always felt as though my vote did not matter. The future of our country is always currently decided in a few swing seats.

But pure PR would give seats to extreme parties like the BNP who won 1% of the vote this time. It would also never deliver a decisive majority for one party to rule. Our current system provides for long term balance by allowing each of the two major parties a chance to have their own way for a while. PR would lead to coalition government every time and a multiplication of smaller parties. It would lead to stability by blocking anyone from ever being truly radical in their political decisions.

In balance, I don’t think I want to see the end of strong government in the UK. I do want to see some change, however. Maybe there is some way of making the vote more relevant for all. It also has to become more fair. It is wrong that our system is baised against both the Conservatives and LibDems. The truth is that had Labour polled the same percentage of votes in this election they would have had a clear majority. Equalizing the size of constituencies should help a bit, but maybe there is an alternative system that can make things fairer than they currently are, but still deliver strong government. Perhaps we will come up with a very British compromise. No doubt these kind of thoughts area very much on the minds of our political leaders as they negotiate this morning.

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