Sunday, May 9, 2010

Whatever happened to our liberal dream?

So, after all the talk of a path-breaking election, a new dawn for the liberal democrats, independents and small parties, what we get is the opposite. Despite a seat gained by the Green Party, independents and small parties have gone from three to two seats. Nationalist parties have remained much the same.
And the result looks like a terrible disappointment for the Liberal Democrats, losing five seats - almost 10% of their total. Their share of the vote went up by a meagre 1%, meaning they were more than usually screwed by the electoral system. But a significant jump in LibDem votes would have made a good jumping off point for reform.

To round off the disappointment, the combined total of Labour and LibDem MPs is 11 short of a majority. Even with Plaid Cymru and SNP votes, a coalition would still be two short.

So the LibDems are left trying to come to an agreement with the Conservatives, and not from a position of strength. A failure to agree a workable coalition would itself be a big setback for LibDem dreams of proportional representation, which almost always requires coalition governments. David Cameron needs to offer enough for the Liberal Democrat Party to vote in favour and to stop the party from sabotaging the coalition at some point in the future, and forcing a new election (not that this would necessarily be bad for the Tories). (Apparently LibDem agreement to a coalition would require 75% of the votes of MPs and 75% of the Federal Executive, or 2/3 of Voting Representatives.)

We'll find out soon enough what Cameron has offered, so there's not much point speculating. While the Conservative Party and the LibDems can certainly find common ground, it's unlikely that the Conservative Party would accept any major electoral reform though. (In the short-run it almost certainly means a solid Labour-LibDem majority.) Of course, the LibDems have been messed around on electoral reform before, after their electoral pacts with Labour. Labour haven't even managed to properly reform the House of Lords.

A House of Lords mainly elected by PR (or some alternative voting system) might be acceptable to the Conservatives, but could be a poison pill for the Liberal Democrats, stalling any further reform. Having both an upper and lower chamber selected in the same fashion is not a very good idea, so to get a reformed Commons would mean making another change to the Lords.

An all-party commission on electoral reform, along with a binding agreement to follow its recommendations, may be the best the Lib Dems can hope for. That commission may be hard-pressed to report before the next election (on the basis that the next election could be quite soon).

Failing that, what concessions could Cameron make to entice the Liberal Democrats without offering any significant electoral reform? That could be interesting to see; the Liberal Democrats getting their way on lots of other issues, but not on electoral reform.

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