Achieving Political Fission

Ian Birrell in the Guardian (Monday 27th September 2014) ponders whether a Conservative split may be the catharsis the party needs, concluding:

Yet what really binds the many decent and tolerant conservatives to those misanthropes filled with fear and rage against modernity?


To be “conservative” implies an element of holding on to the past – because it has to be better than an uncertain future. Too often this can overpower any search for change for the better.

Two problems stoke this fear.

(1) Losing office and influence – which means “letting the damned socialists and communists in” (or possibly worse the “pinkos” – just as bad but superficially more attractive). The argument goes “all conservatives must stick together” – draw the wagons into a circle and fight off anyone who does not agree. The problem is this ignores what is going on outside the circle. Consequently what dominates is the majority view within the circle and if this differs too much from the majority view in the country, you end up out of office anyway. This is what Labour found in the 1980s.

(2) Loss of purity. Government if it is not about a pragmatic response to the current state of the world can become very ideological, which to me is rather frightening – but to a party hack is probably invigorating. Arguably political parties and government should not be allowed near each other.

So what is to be done – given that politically like-minded people will always coalesce and seek office? The clue has to be in the “like-minded” and the solution has to be in two changes to the political environment – one of structure and one of perception.

Structural Change. Faced with the UKIP insurgency causing a “split in the conservative family” and the very real danger of split votes “letting Labour in the back door”, surely some Conservatives must be looking for an alternative voting system that prevents this – and lets the “true conservative will of the people” show through?

If only returning officers were empowered to join split votes back together! If only voters could express a series of preferences as to how they wanted their single votes to be transferred so as to elect people who were representative of the will of the people!

Perceptual Change. Most voters vote under the impression that they are “electing a government” – and then feel peeved “we did not vote for this lot”. In fact outside of a presidential system (Lord preserve us!) we vote for representatives and in our indirect democracy the government is decided by the balance of representatives that assemble in the House of Commons after an election.

Because we think that we are voting for Prime Ministers many are outraged by the mere idea of coalitions – where the largest minority is denied the absolute power to which it believes it has a right. I find the idea that “the winner should win” even if the “winning party” has only, say 37% of the vote (Wilson in February 1974) – and possibly fewer votes than the main “opposition party” (Heath in 1974) – very strange. But it is a consequence of “Presidential” thinking.

In a Parliamentary System, an election should be seen as some form of massive melting pot of ideas with lots of discussion resulting in the election of a set of representatives who are broadly representative of most shades of opinion in the country (and within parties). If we the electorate have succeeded in electing a truly representative body, we should then be content to see it determine the Government and the Programme of that Government. That is the principle behind indirect democracy and I fear that consent for this approach is breaking down and fuelling a more divisive approach to Government.

Until we see this change in perception and abandon the idea that “we elect governments”, coalitions will always be an offence to many. This “offence” will inhibit the acceptance of a voting system that permits individual electors to express genuine preferences between differing candidates and see the diversity of those preferences reflected in our parliament. (Because such a voting system will be more likely to lead to coalition governments.) Until we get such a system the old parties (which are actually squabbling coalitions in themselves) will continue to cling together for fear of splits and loss of “purity”.

With a voting system that permits diversity of views, factions within the old parties could become honest free-standing parties, and the consequent (pragmatic) coalitions will not be bound to a single (ideological) political party in the country.

But it will never happen …

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