Shipwrecking PR on the Rocks of Brexit: Digging in
We finished the first part with a scene which depending on your point of view was charming or nightmarish. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage were in the Downing Street garden giving their first coalition press conference having just won an outright majority under FPTP with around 40% of the vote.
Under PR, note, 40% and even 45% falls short of the majority that guarantees you can take control. Under some systems, votes cast for a party that polls less than 5% are reallocated to the largest party so you could get very close. It’s even quite likely that a coalition getting in the very high forties would be given consent to govern by the opposition parties, providing it wasn’t seen as overly radical.
But without those factors, the opposition parties who hold 55-60% of the seats might have enough cohesion to form a government themselves. Less unity among them and you might be able to command power on an issue by issue basis, often referred to for some historically obscure reason as a confidence and supply arrangement. But try pushing through the worst excesses of your ambitions and you’ll be blocked.
A criticism of PR is that larger parties can stitch up deals with smaller ones (as if such a despicable practice could never occur under FPTP). But small parties learn quickly how life can bite back if they are seen to be the facilitator of policies their supporters would never have voted for in a million years. Its leadership may try to convince itself, during and after, its acts were of the purest and most noble intent or forced upon it under national imperative. Ask Messrs Clegg, Cable, Davey and company how much ice that one cuts, unless of course their priority all along was to pick up their gongs from Buckingham Palace.
Let’s stop here to make one point absolutely clear. FPTP is the reason the populist coalition could come to power. A PR system might have given them 40% or more of the seats in parliament but not an outright majority.
Once in, the coalition turns to establishing itself. It will have an eye to holding on to power as long as possible. There’s a nice long list of liberal-unfriendly stuff it wants to get on with implementing.
It is happy that its base support is ideologically at ease with a strongman approach. Sad to say, a high proportion of the wider public surveyed have expressed an alarming degree of acquiescence with the concept of authoritarianism. To what extent some just toy with the idea is unknown. A justifiably acquired view that liberalism has been weak standing up to predatory capitalism and not interested enough in protecting living standards and well-being in the low-mid range of the income spectrum is one thing. Gleeful anticipation of an assault on human rights, equalities and all the other positive elements of progressive liberalism the populists are bound to target is another.
Interference in the ethics of the financial sector and the modus operandi of the corporate giants is not to be expected. But reform of public services and their administrative functions is low hanging fruit. Let’s recall the Farage campaign slogan ‘Reforming the Westminster Establishment’.
Why then would they not look at the electoral system? Even the jaws of their support base might fall open at the image of an announcement from a high balcony, a row of uniformed military generals stern faced in attendance, saying that the UK was now the world’s newest democratic dictatorship. Improbable, yes but worth a quick note: not long after liberation from the tyranny of the Russian Federation, President Lukashenko of Belarus altered the laws of his country to take powers away from parliament, so that he could determine constitutional aspects like the electoral system. Benign dictatorship with a bit of discipline in evidence on the streets is a package that some folks will buy.
But culturally, at least for now, that would be a hard one to swing in the UK. Better perhaps first to focus on FPTP and see how far a bit of tinkering will take you. Objective: fine tune the system to skew the probabilities of election in favour of populist coalition candidates.
The word ‘gerrymandering’ should spring to mind here. It’s in the right zone but a bit dated. This regime has connections with players in or close to big tech, indeed owing much success to their data harvesting expertise. Self-teaching algorithms enabled a computer to become an IT world chess champion with four hours learning. An FPTP optimisation problem to produce any given output will be child’s play.
Those lax liberal progressives in the centre and on the centre-left will be looking on wondering how they let all this get by them. It won’t be the first time they’ve mused along similar lines – just after the Brexit result for instance – but this time the consequences of their distracted attention have crossed into the chronic-degenerative category. The socialist left, by the way, is even further up the sidelines, edged out of mainstream politics following the examples of Greece and France.
Here’s what went wrong. Just like the Remain effort, too much was taken for granted. They did not get their ear close enough to the ground to be aware of the depth, tenacity and sophistication of the anti-liberal forces lining up to bring them down. Then when they got the message they did not know how to effectively respond. So now they are walled off from everything they aspired to. Isolated from the EU and politically impotent in the UK.
Scotland and Northern Ireland have more control of their own fate and can use escape routes if they choose. If they took them, conformity with populist ideology achieves even greater force in the England-Wales national unit, whatever that gets called. An autocratic leaning English nationalism will favour something purist in tone – Britannia? That will strike an eternal nation of destiny note while you’re shoring up dominance – digitally, administratively, economically.
The prospects for a resurgence of liberalism any time soon start to look enormously slim. The longer out of power, the more the coalition skews FPTP against them step by little step. If you can’t grin and bear it, the only solution might be to move out. This is about as grim as it gets before we move on to part three where we try to lift the scenario near the end with a slightly optimistic twist.