How to dish the Whigs

The year was 1867. Lord Palmerston, for decades the dominant figure in British politics, had died in office two years before. His successor was Lord John Russell, almost as old, but as keen on Parliamentary reform as Palmerston had been against it. The great Reform Act of 1832 with its restricted and largely middle-class franchise, though not much more than a generation old, was already looking dated. But Russell's very limited proposal for reform, backed by the increasingly powerful Gladstone, had succeeded only in dividing his party. A new Tory government, led by Lord Derby and Benjamin Disraeli, had come in - and promptly amazed everyone by introducing its own reform package. Not only did this bill go further than the Whig-Liberal proposals the Tories had helped to defeat, but during its passage Disraeli accepted virtually every liberalising amendment offered. Not for the last time, a Tory government had the courage and political flexibility to introduce a reform at which its supposedly more progressive opponents had balked.

Disraeli's concession was both a tactical and strategic masterstroke. When asked why he had accepted reform, he declared that he had done it "to dish the Whigs" - and, no doubt, getting one over on Gladstone was for him a large part of the pleasure. The original limited proposal would have hugely benefited the Liberals - Derby described it as "the extinction of the Conservative Party and of the real Whigs". Although the vastly extended franchise delivered a large Liberal majority in 1868, it also laid the foundations for more than a century of Conservative success. Disraeli sensed that the new era of mass politics was as much an opportunity as a threat, because many of the new voters were instinctive Tories, tradition-minded and patriotic. They were what used to be called the "respectable working classes", and in modern terminology the C2s - the very people, in other words, who put Mrs Thatcher in power and in 1997 swung decisively behind Tony Blair.

It's worth noting the state of British politics on the eve of the 1867 Reform Act. For more than a generation, there had been three-party politics, the main consequence of which had been to shut the Conservatives out of power. A group of "liberal" free traders, followers of Robert Peel, had defected from the Tories in the wake of the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws and aligned themselves with the Whigs. Their leader was Gladstone. Without the extension of the franchise this situation might have persisted. Reform favoured the Tories, long-term, because it broke the anomalous three-party logjam and forced the Whigs, Peelites and Radicals together. The natural political order of two alternating parties was thus able to reassert itself.

Proponents of proportional representation (along with many of its opponents) believe that it would free politics from what they think of as the artificial straightjacket of the two party system. It's certainly true that in formal terms we might end up with more parties - at any rate, more parties with representation at Westminster. The Greens, UKIP, quite possibly the BNP, perhaps the English Democrats or even the Rev George "So Macho" Hargreaves' Christian Party would get their seats. The Conservatives might split into a centrist party and a more right-wing linkage between traditionalist Tories and UKIP. Labour would be reduced to a socialist core. The big losers, paradoxically, would be the Liberal Democrats, the party generally assumed to have most to gain. They would lose their unique selling point of being the protest party, the none-of-the-above party. They could become the excluded middle.

Stable politics is always binary: there is one bloc on the left and another on the right, and public sentiment - at least, sentiment among that part of the public that is made up of floating voters - awards either bloc the right to govern. The precise system of election, while of great interest to psephologists and political obsessives, matters less in the end than human nature, of which the swing of the political pendulum is a manifestation. To some extent Thomas Carlyle had a point when he dismissed reform as "the calling in of new supplies of blockheadism, gullibility and balderdash by way of amending the woes which we have had from our previous supplies of that bad article." Yet there are times when the system cracks, and this may be one of them.

The three party politics of the past 25 years - ever since the defection from Labour of the SDP gang of four - has enabled the Lib Dems to sit somewhere in the middle. By being significantly behind the other two (at any rate in terms of seats), in a system that punishes savagely a third party lacking the geographical gravity of Labour and the Conservatives, they have preserved a certain ambiguity. Neither right nor left, fish nor foul, they have offered something for everyone and a home for disaffected voters from either side. With PR, they would be forced to align themselves more definitively on one side of the political divide. And, looking at the views of their members it's pretty clear where that would be: the centre-left. Once in bed with whatever remained of the Labour party - a union-dominated and socialist hard core - the party would soon suffer by association. When the public wanted a change away from the politics of collectivism and state overspending they would know who not to vote for.

There's opportunity as well as danger for the Lib Dems in this, of course. My guess is that most would sooner or later line up with the Blairites in a new centre-left party, leaving the socialist Left to what remains of Labour. Yet it's hard to see such a party ever being in coalition with the Conservatives. They would have an opportunity for power, as part of a left-of-centre bloc, but they wouldn't in normal circumstances hold the balance of power. There might also be room for a liberal, small-state party (a Clegg party, perhaps) which would generally dress to the right. The voters, meanwhile, would once again be faced with the perennial choice between left and right, progressive and conservative.

The sense that Labour and the Lib Dems are natural partners has led both dreamers on the Left and pessimists on the Right to imagine that a proportional voting system would enshrine permanent centre-left government. Or at any rate, as Peter Mandelson (according to Peter Oborne yesterday) thinks, "keep the Tories out of power for a generation." This has not, though, been the experience of Germany or Spain. Nor of Scotland. In most cases, PR leads to changes of government at least as regularly as under a two-party system with first past the post. And for the same reason: it presents the voters with a clear choice, for or against the government.

I agree with Jackart that the prime justification for any voting system has to be its ability to throw out an unpopular government. But it seems perverse to be saying so at a time when the system of first past the post could well fail that basic test, and in the most spectacular way possible by awarding the party with the fewest votes the largest number of seats. This, of course, is largely a result of the absurd distribution of seats, currently so unbalanced that a casual observer might think it had been gerrymandered by the government. But even with a fairer distribution FPTP would still be struggling to cope with the current situation, just as the 1832 system struggled to cope with the unusual political geometry that followed the Conservative split of 1846.

Three party politics is inherently unstable and anomalous. Whenever it occurs - in the years after 1846, in the 1920s, and again today - what it indicates is flux, a two-party system in turmoil. It is a transitional phase during the rise of one party and the eclipse of another. At such times, politics is (in the technical sense) chaotic - which is why elections can produce bizarre results. But the system invariably settles into a new equilibrium, which may last several decades before it, too, breaks down.

The only real advantage of PR over FPTP is that it can cope more easily with these periods of political transformation. That flexibility, though, can be a drawback: fringe parties can emerge from nowhere and storm the citadels of power. A British Geert Wilders would get nowhere under first past the post. To get into a position to threaten the balance of the system, as the Lib Dems currently find themseleves, requires years of patient groundwork. That's why this realignment is happening in 2010 and not in 1983. However frustrating this may seem to those laying the groundwork, it does at least prevent the lunatics taking over the asylum.

Let's assume, though, that the present electoral system can no longer contain its own contradictions. Change may be inevitable. If the election produces a hung Parliament, change will be inevitable, and even a Conservative victory may only postpone it. What, then, is the best approach for David Cameron to take? Were he to cling stubbornly (or as a matter of high principle) to a system that already disadvantages his party, the result might be a Liberal-Labour deal that is even worse, such as Gordon Brown's favoured solution of Alternative Vote. That really could lead to "the extinction of the Conservative party" - even of democracy itself. Under AV, Labour would have achieved larger majorities in 1997, 2001 and even in 2005 when the party obtained a mere 36% of the popular vote. AV institutionalises the anomaly of three-party politics. It would lock the Liberal Democrats out of power as well. If any system is capable of producing sempiternal left-wing government, it is AV.

Alternatively, David Cameron could learn the lesson of 1867. By embracing the inevitable and cutting a deal with the Lib Dems going beyond what Gordon Brown is offering them, he would be in a position to seize the initiative and shape the new electoral system. He would be able, for example, to insist on a system that preserved some sort of constituency link which many voters rightly value. Like Disraeli, he would be well-placed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by a system that would neutralise the advantages that Labour, with its dependence on a concentrated geographical block vote, currently enjoy. Gordon Brown - or whoever succeeded him - would be outmanoeuvred and left looking out-of-date. They would, to coin a phrase, have been dished. An opportune embrace of PR would be squarely in that conservative tradition, best summed up in Giuseppe di Lampedusa's famous phrase: "For things to stay the same, everything will have to change."


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