A critique of thw UKs electoral system as proposd by the Labour Party’s Plant Commission

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There are four main theories for the evaluation of classifying party systems, each use differing criteria and it is important to understand what any change in an electoral system would do to the classification of the UK’s party system. At present the UK has a pluralist simple majoritarian system but disquiet at their third election defeat in 1987 led the Labour Party to commission Professor Plant to evaluate which of the many electoral systems would democratically work best in the UK. Professor Plant considered pluralist, majoritarian and proportional systems of representation.

His main recommendations are as follows; i) Supplementary Vote for the House of Commons; ii) An elected second chamber by the regional list system; iii) European elections to have a regional list system; iv) Fixed term for Parliament of 4 years; v) Political parties to be registered; vi) Opposition to compulsory voting. There has been much debate over the consequences of various electoral systems. Duverger suggests what is seen as the institutional view that pluralist systems produce stable two party politics and proportional representative systems produce unstable multi-party systems.

His views however are open to much criticism when comparing party systems. In the UK Duverger’s theory cannot explain the Lib/Lab pacts of the 1974/79 Labour Government. Instability has also been seen it Northern Ireland where religious and territorial conflict have continued despite a pluralist system. It can however be said that a majority of pluralist systems over time will be stable although stability in this sense is seen as a strong governing body and not a democratic process of debate for the best outcome.

Proportional does not always create unstable governments, Germany has had some form of multi-party politics since the second world war but is seen as probably Europe’s most stable political country. The other extreme is Israel’s list system where “… the dogmatic tail wags the secular dog… ” suggesting a politically unstable and week government where minorities control the make up of coalitions. This form of voting, the list system, is seen as the least democratic form of electoral system.

To counter this argument Rokkan takes the sociological view that electoral systems are consequences of history and thus each system has developed to meet the needs of the state. The supplementary vote that Plant suggests for the Commons is similar to the alternative vote but instead of listing all preferences only the first two choices are available. The result of the 1992 election would therefore look similar to this: Under the supplementary vote no party would have an overall majority.

This being the case Robert Dahl’s thesis would place the UK into a multi-party state but it cannot be defined if this system would disturb party cohesion. The closest analogy is the Lib/Lab pact of 1976-78 where cohesion was low but both Labour and the Liberals have progressed as parties since then. Dahl suggests that low party cohesion in multi party systems creates unstable governments and this may be correct but if there were to be a change in electoral systems and low party cohesion the pragmatic parties would simply adapt as suggested by Rokkan.

Jean Blondel however differs in his classification of party systems, again he uses the number of parties but also includes the strength of their support. According to Blondel the UK would be classified as a two and a half party state, not a two party state because the main parties do not control 90% of the vote unlike America. Even after the change to the supplementary vote we would still have two main parties and a minor party presence. Goivanni Sartori defines yet another criteria for party systems and again uses the number of parties but links this to the ideological distance between the major parties.

As an approach to party classification Sartori’s theory makes little or no reference to electoral systems and thus any change in electoral systems would not affect his definition of the UK’s party system. Gordon Smith’s theory differs from other criteria in that he uses the governing and social cohesion of the state. Whereas the UK would be classified as a majoritarian system, high social and governing cohesion, a coalition government may lower that social cohesion thus the UK would become a more diffused party system. This of course depends on a coalition government becoming weak which in comparative terms hasn’t happened in Germany.

It would therefore seem that electoral reform for the Commons would have little impact for the party system except that the likelihood of coalition governments may be greater. The affect of this in the UK is impossible to predict with any certainty as comparisons are hard to make with other countries as evidence is contradictory. There may be a suggestion that an increase in tactical voting could swing either way, perpetuating two party government or always producing hung Parliaments and as the system is not in use else where then comparisons are difficult.

The outcome of an election is based on the victories in marginal seats, it is suggested that at any one election only 30% of seats are likely to change hands. Conservatives and Labour MP’s will always talk of safe seats where their majority is over 50%, so what happens in marginal seats has great importance. If, according to Plant, only the best two go forward then minor parties with national support, the Liberals but especially the Green party, could still lose out in that there are no prizes for third place and people would become less inclined to vote for parties with no chance of winning.

Regional minority parties would remain as their vote is concentrated into constituencies. The main question is what would happen to the Liberals who came second in around 300 constituencies, their seats won in areas of dense regional support but they also carry a large national support. There is no evidence that voters would list a second preference every time especially if the only other party had a chance of winning. The UK has never warmed to a coalition government and because of this the Liberals may loose votes to the two main parties with a better the devil you know principle much like at present.

It would therefore seem that the supplementary vote is not dissimilar to first past the post, its only real asset is a feeling of greater representation and a minor probability of a hung Parliament. Plant’s other proposal is an elected second chamber. This would probably be the most significant change to the party system of any of his recommendations. The Lords at present have powers only to delay bills for one Parliamentary session and no power over the delay of monetary bills.

An elected second chamber would need to redefine its role in that, by convention, it doesn’t oppose government bills if in their manifesto. It would have to convert from a mainly scrutinising role into a mainly legislative role. This is a major problem as, if the second chamber were to amend, defeat or otherwise any legislation coming from the Commons the question of who has the higher authority is bound to surface. There are many different scenarios in which this could happen.

If a majority government in the Commons were defeated by a coalition in the second chamber this would seem to pose a problem but if a Conservative government were to be defeated by a Conservative party in the second chamber arguments over which party has control are inevitable. This could lead to a split and instead of parties working together we would have double the number of parties we have now. It is however unlikely that a majority could be formed in the second chamber as the list system would tend to produce a hung second chamber.

It is probable however that the second chamber would be subordinate to the Commons as candidates are elected from the top of a list which would be packed with sympathetic party members which could somewhat discredit their independence and produce little more than a rubber stamping form of scrutiny. Plant’s other proposals for elections to a European Parliament by way of a regional list system would have no effect on the party system as at present the European Parliament has little power over legislation.

This would however change if the European Parliament were to gain such powers. If this were the case then the party system as we know it would, dependant on the amount of legislative control, decline into little more than a local authority. We would then face the spectre of a huge multi party assembly with political alignments on ideological grounds. Although the system of elections would differ from country to country the outcome would be similar to elections under the list system in that a broad range of parties would hold seats.

Fixed term Parliaments could in the short term change the party system but only until pragmatic governments had learnt to master their importance. Although difficult to prove it can be suggested that a party in power can manufacture the right economic climate to maximise their standing in the country. On reflection of past elections this may not be true, Mrs Thatcher’s election success of 1983 came at a time when economic factors were against her but she still managed to regain power.

Counter to this is the argument that the khaki factor actually won the election for her. The Labour Prime Minister Callaghan was blamed for the electoral defeat in 1979 after the winter of discontent when he failed to go to the country in mid 1978. It is therefore a double edged sword, much more important is the political message parties put across. In conclusion it seems as if much of the Plant report would do little to change the party system in this country. The ideas are not radical, except possibly reform of the second chamber.

Electoral reform could lead to hung Parliaments but the 1992 election result along with others would suggest this is also possible under first past the post. His report offers little to the political debate on democracy and contains varying degrees of bias which will consign it to little more than socialist rhetoric against the possibility of loosing another election. Electoral reform seems destined to “… remain on the intellectual in not the political agenda… “

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