The drama of this three-way tug of war has made this election the most exciting for some time. This is all the more remarkable, because beneath the veneer of TV debates and not-so-pithy one liners, the real conflict is over electoral reform, widely acknowledged to be one of the most boring political controversies out there.
It’s not that it is boring because it’s insignificant – it’s a vital issue. Don’t kid yourself, it’s far more significant than a row over $6bn in public spending. It could fundamentally alter the British political landscape for decades. It’s more boring because of the details. Which is presumably why Cameron refuses to go into them, preferring instead to make his point via the intrigue of the “shady back-room deals” that he assures us would result from perennial hung parliaments, the inevitable outcome of PR.
“It is somewhat difficult to decry shady back room deals whilst simultaneously acknowledging that you’ll be making them.”
This strategy is, frankly, disingenuous. Never mind the fact that it is somewhat difficult to decry shady back room deals whilst simultaneously acknowledging that you’ll be making them; it is just plainly inaccurate to suppose that coalition government under PR is necessarily any less effective, open or democratic.
This is why you see Tories talking about Italy, and not Germany. Because Italy’s government was notoriously unstable, corrupt, and indebted under PR, while Germany’s government has been to all accounts rather more stable than Italy’s, and (whisper it) rather more accountable and prosperous than our own.
But there are quite a few good reasons why we shouldn’t assess PR on the Italian case. Italy was dominated by a single party from the end of the Second World War to 1994 – Christian Democrat hegemony over the Cabinet only fell apart as their communist opponents faded into irrelevance after the fall of the USSR. This was a recipe for corruption and bad governance. But nobody thinks that PR would result in one-party preeminence in the UK, so we shouldn’t be too worried.
“Cameron repeatedly bemoaned Germany’s speedier-than-us exit from recession”
On the other hand, Germany has done rather well for itself. It is surprising that Cameron, who has repeatedly bemoaned Germany’s speedier-than-us exit from recession when attempting to score points on the economy should be so apparently oblivious to the political system it stemmed from.
The country has also been stable — most elections have occurred, on schedule, every four years. Near thirty of the last sixty years in Germany were under the leadership of just two Chancellors – hardly the PR House-of-Cards that Cameron wants us to envision.
What’s more, German coalition politics is conducted very openly and democratically. Coalition preferences are declared before the election, in stark opposition to Clegg’s strategy of withholding the information for electoral advantage. After the election, negotiations are conducted publically, and a coalition agreement is signed. The German people know what they are voting for, and by and large they get it. What is interesting about this is that it isn’t even required by the German constitution-the parties do it of their own accord.
“It’s their choice to whip out the cigarillos and turn off the lights”
This is what makes Cameron’s (and to a lesser extent Labour’s) railing against a hung parliament so duplicitous. They say they want the best for the country, and that we must avoid a hung parliament and all it’s associated back-room ills. But they don’t acknowledge that it’s their choice to whip out the cigarillos and turn off the lights – they could perfectly well engage in a more democratic process, as their German counterparts do.
Never mind the dim-wittedness of attacking PR coalition negotiations as undemocratic, in defence of a system that is patently more undemocratic itself.
Which is worse: Secretive negotiations, or a party running the country with the consent of less than 30% of the population, and a lower share of the vote than its competitors? Our current system disregards the opinion of a huge majority of the electorate – it has always been undemocratic, just never so obviously.
There are potential problems with PR. Negotiations can be hidden, or they can be open and democratic. Governments can attempt to reach consensus, or they be inert, squabbling like Gordo’s boys at bath-time. The hypocrisy of the Lab/Con position is that the power to choose would be theirs—so they are either saying that they are either too stupid to design workable reform, or too self-interested to implement it. Neither are attractive qualities in a government.