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Party matters

Jan 30, 2013

Lib Dems get their revenge on electoral reform

Britain's Liberal Democrats succeed last night in frustrating a Conservative move for electoral reform – as a measure of revenge for last year's defeat over the House of Lords, but also due to their own self-interest.

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Yet another measure of electoral reform came to grief overnight in Britain, with the Liberal Democrats voting against their Conservative coalition partners to defeat moves to bring in fairer electoral boundaries prior to the next election. Instead the reform, which will also reduce the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600, will happen in 2018 or later.

This was a piece of tit for tat by the Lib Dems, who had been shafted by the Conservatives last year over House of Lords reform. As I put it at the time, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg “obviously decided that, despite Cameron’s modernising image, the Conservatives will never really be a reformist party and they need to be treated accordingly.”

It’s sad to see this one go down. Britain’s current electoral boundaries leave a lot to be desired. According to an analysis in the Guardian (not a pro-Tory source), the Conservatives would need a lead of 4.1% over Labour to remain the largest party in the Commons. The difference in voter strength between the smallest and largest electorates will be more than 20,000.

But one can understand Clegg’s position. He’s already bleeding badly in the polls from being seen as a doormat; if the Tory backbench are allowed to decide with impunity which bits of the coalition agreement they can ignore, things would only get worse.

And the big problem with the current arrangements is not the built-in advantage Labour has over the Tories, but the way in which the major parties are favored at the expense of everyone else – principally, of course, the Lib Dems.

Here’s the table I used to make the point last year, showing the last three election results for the three largest parties:





% of votes




% of seats





% of votes




% of seats




Liberal Democrats

% of votes




% of seats




The key fact about the 2010 election was that Labour and the Liberal Democrats had a majority of the vote between them, but the system denied them a majority of seats. Were it not for that distortion, Nick Clegg would have been in a position to demand genuine electoral reform, not just the half-measures the Conservatives have served up.

That also suggests that Clegg’s move this week was about self-interest as well as revenge. Although the redrawing of boundaries would in a sense have made the system fairer, it would also have increased the Conservatives’ chance of winning a majority in their own right, even without improving on their 2010 vote. That in turn would put paid to any thought of further reform.

To maintain any influence, the Liberal Democrats need to keep the other two parties roughly at parity – and if that means taking advantage of the existing unfair boundaries to give Labour a leg-up, so be it. On the other hand, if current poll results are still holding up by the time 2015 rolls around, it will be Labour that looks most likely to win an absolute majority and the Lib Dems will be battling to win more than a handful of seats.

Last night’s vote also showed, incidentally, just how hard it is to put together a majority in the current House of Commons without the Tories – a task that the Lib Dems briefly thought of attempting prior to striking the current coalition agreement. The vote was 334 to 292, with the majority consisting of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, the two main Northern Ireland parties, the sole Greens MP, four Tory defectors and George Galloway.

Just imagine trying to keep that lot together to achieve anything constructive.

Charles Richardson — Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson

Editor of The World is not Enough

Charles Richardson has contributed to Crikey since 2002, and was a ministerial adviser in the Kennett government and a former editorial manager at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney.

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