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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

A democratic election degenerates into political deal-making Add to ...

What a miserable spectacle is unfolding in Britain, as a party that won 9 per cent of the seats in last week's election holds a behind-the-scenes auction for its support with much bigger, more popular parties.

This often accompanies elections that produce less than a majority for one party, or a hung parliament, as they say in Britain, and would occur frequently if the Liberal Democrats get their wish: a form of proportional representation.

For the Lib Dems, proportional representation is a bottom-line demand for one obvious reason. With a PR system - Lib Dems prefer one called alternative voting - they would often be in the cat bird's seat after an election, determining which of the larger parties would be in power.

It would be classic tail-wags-the-dog politics in which the smaller party throws its weight around, just as the Lib Dems are doing now. And without very much regard to principle either.

The Conservatives won by far the largest number of seats, 306, but still fell shy of a majority. The Tories, who won about six times more seats than the Lib Dems, offered a national referendum on proportional representation. What could be more democratic than that?

A vote of the people on changing the electoral system from first-past-the-post occurred in New Zealand, where change won. Votes were held to change to various proportional representation systems in three Canadian provinces (British Columbia, Ontario and Prince Edward Island), and change lost. Win or lose, the referendums were democratic.

But the Labour Party, desperate to cling to power despite having won only 258 seats, has apparently yielded to the Lib Dem demand that Parliament can change something as fundamental as the voting system without a recourse to the power. With a Labour-Lib Dem government, supported by fringe parties, there might be enough parliamentary votes to change the system, thereby giving the Lib Dems disproportionate power in British politics.

The Lib Dems, who won 23 per cent of the popular vote last week, fear that in a referendum their proportional representation plan would lose, because both Conservative and Labour supporters would largely oppose change. This almost certain knowledge presumably explains why the Conservatives offered a referendum and why the Lib Dems turned to Labour, which will apparently give the small party what it wants.

British voters who cast ballots last Thursday do not yet know what will be the composition of the government. The decision has been removed from the people's hands and placed in those of party negotiators working behind closed doors. A democratic election has thus devolved into private deal-making between the desperate and the opportunistic.

What might emerge from the wheeling and dealing is a shaky Labour-Lib Dem government, propped up by Welsh nationalists and Scottish independence MPs. The result would be a dream for these secessionists too, since they could use their life-or-death power over the government to extract concessions further fragmenting the United Kingdom.

No wonder, watching the British scenario unfold, that Canada's New Democrats are such ardent supporters of proportional representation, although they prefer another model than the one advanced by Britain's Liberal Democrats.

The NDP historically gets 15 per cent of the popular vote, give or take two or three points. Under a proportional representation system, the NDP would call the shots about which other party would form the government, and dictate a certain number of terms.

The NDP was therefore the keenest of the three parties that made an arrangement 18 months ago to oust the Conservatives in a parliamentary vote and take power, a deal that failed.

We can easily imagine that if either of the larger parties ever turned to the NDP to get enough support for a parliamentary majority, the NDP's bottom-line demand would be a change in the electoral system to benefit itself. What we are witnessing in Britain, therefore, is a foretaste of what might some day happen in Canada.

What is unfolding in Britain is within the bounds of parliamentary tradition. If Labour can cobble together enough deals to get a parliamentary majority, and win a vote of confidence, it can keep itself in power despite having lost the election.

And if the price of staying in power is to change the electoral system in a political deal, rather than a national vote, then the people and principle be damned.

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