Leading Article: Feeble leader, failed system speak its name unfair coalition

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The Independent Online
Even if the Great Television Debate never takes place, the wrangling over its terms has been instructive. John Major wants a presidential-style head-to-head, a gladiatorial battle with Tony Blair: Conservative versus Labour. Mr Blair thinks any kind of two-way confrontation would leave him the clear victor. Either way, neither concedes much of a role for the Liberal Democrats nor any role at all for the nationalists. The 1992 votes of seven million people will count for very little.

Such winner-takes-all electioneering merely mirrors the electoral system and in that there is at least hope for the future. This could be the final election fought on the hysterically adversarial and increasingly personalised terms exemplified by Thursday's clash in the Commons. Labour is committed to setting up a commission to investigate alternative electoral systems. It is far from signed up to implementing them, but even die-hard defenders of first-past-the-post systems are beginning to admit that there could be a case for reform to answer.

First-past-the-posters have always conceded the obvious: that no government since the war has had the support of more than 50 per cent of the electorate. Their claim is not that the system is fair; rather, that it encourages strong leadership, discourages extremism (extremist parties have never thrived in Britain's liberal soil, they will say), and, disarmingly, that with all its imperfections, the British way is the least-worst when compared with the observable imperfections of PR systems worldwide. These, say the FPTP-ers, can allow one small party, often a grouping which represents no more than 10-15 per cent of the voters, to switch allegiances between contending larger parties, and therefore determine who governs; governments may come and go, but, goes the argument, the familiar faces remain in the ministerial limo (until they end up in prison). Vote for who they will, the punters find it impossible to eject those they have come to loathe.The argument concludes that naturally nothing of the sort could happen here.

But how does the outgoing government match up to these rather modest claims for first-past-the-post systems? It fails on all counts. Mr Major's dwindling majority has left him steadily weaker throughout the parliament, prey to the hard-line Eurosceptics in his party. Nor has the Prime Minister been able to govern purely by dint of his strength on the Conservative benches. Neither side will admit it, but the United Kingdom has, for at least a year, been governed by an informal alliance between Mr Major and the Ulster Unionists. This pseudo-coalition represents less than 42 per cent of the electorate - in other words we have had a deal between parties, but not one with anything like popular support. The axis has given Mr Major another year in Downing Street at the cost of stalling the Northern Ireland peace process. Hardly strong leadership. Meanwhile a clear, anti-Tory majority remained in opposition.

Worse, the system puts a strait-jacket on debate. On 1 May voters in areas where minor parties are weak effectively face a choice between two very similar platforms. Everyone knows there are divisions over Europe in the Conservative Party (and to a lesser extent in Labour) but neither a strong pro- nor anti-European view will be put to the electorate, except by fringe groupings such as the Referendum Party. Recalcitrant MPs have been generally corralled into line. For historical and structural reasons the real issues will be buried. Yet the shouting, the dissembling and the disagreement with whatever positions opponents take will be greater than ever.

Last week the LSE Public Policy Unit and the Democratic Audit published a paper showing what might have been under different electoral systems in 1992. Under none of the three other systems examined would the Conservatives have had an overall majority. Under one they would have had just six more seats than Labour, with the Liberal Democrats winning a block of 102 seats. Under most outcomes, the party trying to form a government would have had to come to arrangements with other parties. But the deals would have been open, and the essential compromises transparent and the subject of public debate. We might have been spared a good many of the abuses of power of the past five years.