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Ignoring the Voters

As David Runciman writes in the London Review of Books (“Notes on the Election”, February 5th), Britain could well be heading, after May 7th, into a constitutional crisis through the general election of that date throwing up a result which would make achieving a stable government look a nearly impossible task. And what happens then? Well what has happened in the past has been a further general election in fairly short order in which the voters are expected to, and often do, plump for the stability option. But the creation of five-year fixed-term parliaments makes it less certain that such a deciding (“rethinking”) poll can be easily held.

As Runciman points out, the old questions themselves are crumbling. Who will Britain choose? Will it endorse Labour or the Tories? But

[t]he continued [and apparently continuing at an even greater pace since this article was written ‑ drb] rise of the SNP makes [Labour success in Scotland] less likely than it appeared even six months ago ... the fact that Labour might end up as the victim of the electoral system in Scotland – past a certain point the SNP would hoover up seats, leaving Labour with the scraps – shows how hard it is any longer to think of this as a general election. There is nothing general about it. National vote swings are a thing of the past. Different parts of the country will be having their own elections – in Scotland, in Northern Ireland, in Wales, perhaps in London, maybe even in Eastern England (Ukip-country} – where the vote swings and subsequent distribution of seats might be completely out of kilter with what is going on elsewhere.

Could all of this mean that Britain is heading towards a point where it might have to consider wholesale electoral reform and a proportional system? Runciman sportingly points out that he wrote in the LRB back in 2004 “that a crisis of legitimacy would follow if Tony Blair were returned to power with a big majority on barely a third of the votes of not much more than half the electorate. That is what happened: he won a majority of 66 on a vote share of 35.2 per cent, meaning that his government retained the enormous powers afforded to the victors by the British parliamentary system despite the fact that if you gathered 100 eligible voters in a room only 22 of them would have voted Labour. Did the other 78 repudiate the result? Hardly. They just shrugged and got on with the low-level grumbling that is the default condition of most modern electorates.”

Runciman’s example of how electoral arithmetic sometimes works out is a striking one. But Labour’s 2004 victory is far from the only example of when a general election result could hardly be deemed to have fairly reflected voters’ wishes. Only three times in the twentieth century did more people vote for the government which assumed power after the election than voted against it (that’s three out of twenty-five elections). It has happened once in the twenty-first century: the current government coalition of Conservative and Liberal Democrat has the votes of close to sixty per cent of the voters (though it may be questioned if a majority of Lib Dem voters wanted them to go into government with the Tories).

It would seem that parliamentary democracy, in practice, is often not very democratic. I doubt, however, if there is much of an appetite for any other kind, but of course those intellectuals who espouse a new, transformative, grass roots, republican democracy are quite free to put their programme before the people and see who bites. At any rate, in Ireland, if we find in spring 2016 that we have elected a government which depends on the smooth working together of Sinn Féin, three or four different kinds of Trotskyists, Tommy Broughan, Stephen Donnelly, Shane Ross, Mattie McGrath, Lucinda Creighton and another dozen or so of mixed hospital candidates, bog-cutting candidates and anti-tax candidates, we will quite possibly be afforded fairly soon the option of thinking again. It appears, rather alarmingly for them, that our British cousins might not be afforded such an opportunity. And with Labour losing its long-held Scottish representation, possibly permanently, surely the long-term prospect is for England to be almost permanently ruled by the Tories, with only perhaps a short “cleansing” interval every twenty years or so of governance by a very Blairist, centrist Labour in coalition with the Lib Dems.

17/2/2015