Three countries, three political dramas, one disturbing themeby Peter Kellner / March 2, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more by Peter Kellner: How Labour could get rid of Corbyn
Here in Britain, both main parties are badly divided: the Conservatives over Europe, Labour over Jeremy Corbyn. It’s not unusual for either to be fractious, but I cannot recall a time when both have been so deeply divided at the same time. Increasingly, voices are heard proposing that they should split. One proposal is that we should have a choice of seven substantial parties: socialists, social democrats, greens, liberals, two centre-right parties (pro- and anti-EU) and far right nationalists. (That’s for England; the choice for Welsh and Scottish voters would be slightly different but no less varied.)
The trouble is that under our present first-past-the-post voting system, that wouldn’t work. New parties, with fairly evenly-spread support, find it far harder than old parties with their strongholds. In 1983, Labour slumped to 28 per cent support but still managed to retain 209 seats. The SDP-Liberal Alliance won almost as many votes, 26 per cent, but far fewer seats, just 23.
OK, say the proponents of kaleidoscope politics, let’s change to a more proportional voting system, to allow a form of multi-party competition that matches the variety of public attitudes. This brings us to the second of our three countries. Ireland has the very system that the most passionate electoral reformers want: the single-transferable vote in multi-member constituencies.
In the past this has worked reasonably well, as long as you don’t look too closely at the pork-barrel character of local competition between candidates from the same party. But this week, Ireland’s political system provides a poor advertisement for electoral reform. The outgoing Fine Gael-Labour coalition has plainly been defeated, but nobody has much idea what will replace it. Both parties are 30 seats or more short of the 80 they need to secure a majority. Neither main party is willing to work with Sinn Fein’s 23 TDs (members of Ireland’s parliament). Some of the 34 independent and minor-party TDs might be up for a coalition deal, but almost all of them would need to agree to a Fine Gale or Fianna Fail-led administration to achieve a stable majority.
Arithmetically, the obvious combination is a grand FG-FF coalition. But FF leaders say they won’t agree to this. Unless the two parties swallow their profound historical differences, we are in for months of instability and very possibly a second general election—when there is no guarantee that the result will be any more conducive to a stable government.
Take Ireland and Britain together, and the dilemma is clear: in a parliamentary democracy we can have either an electoral system that is tilted towards a clear choice of government, or a wide choice of significant political parties, but not a system that guarantees both.
One way out of this dilemma is to elect the executive separately from the legislature—that is, a presidential system. Which brings us to our third country and our third drama. For it now seems that the choice Americans will face this November is Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Not everyone will agree that Trump’s emergence is a perfect advertisement for a mature democracy.
Even if he loses to Clinton, the dramas won’t end. Unless the Senate and congressional elections go very badly for the Republicans, President Clinton will have great difficulty getting any legislation through Congress. The gridlock we have seen under President Obama may well continue.
Two lessons flow from all this. The first is that there is no perfect system for choosing a legislature and/or executive. Each has its advantages and potential drawbacks.
Secondly, and more to the point these days, the common thread to these three dramas is the unpopularity of the traditional political classes, and the growing appetite for outsider politicians and insurgent parties. Maybe in time we in Britain should revisit our party structures and electoral systems. But the bigger and more urgent task in all three countries—and, indeed, many others—is for conventional politicians and traditional parties to reflect on what they have done wrong, change their ways and re-earn the respect that they have plainly lost.
Now read: What did “Super Tuesday” tell us about the Presidential election?