A bad month for Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party is in the nature of things a good month for Sir Keir Starmer and the Labour Party. And after the massive 34% swing in the North Shropshire byelection a good month for the Liberal Democrats. That said there is no easy path to government opening up for the Leader of the Opposition. He still faces the seemingly impossible task of winning back 125 seats to achieve an overall majority at the next election.
Despite his devastating public questioning of the Prime Minster last Wednesday, the Labour leader got complaints that he had not called for the Prime Minister’s resignation. No killer instinct and all that. In fact Starmer used Prime Minister’s Questions to good effect saying it was up to the Conservative Party to deal with their failed leader, aiming to pin the blame on the Party he will still have to defeat whenever Johnson goes.
In the context of a new and frightening pandemic wave, a prudent reticence shown by the Leader of the Opposition serves the Common Good. Neither does the Labour Party want a new and possibly competent leader of the Conservative Party to have time to win back the voters’ trust before the next election. In any case Conservative MPs themselves will only write the requisite number of letters to the 1922 Committee when they finally conclude Johnson has become a clear-cut electoral liability. For the time being it is Johnson whom Starmer must defeat.
There is a tendency to underestimate Sir Keir Starmer. His legal background has been derided by the Prime Minister. But the diverse skills of a successful, radical QC and a Director of Public Prosecutions heading the 6,000 strong Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales, skills so cavalierly dismissed by Jonson, are transferable to politics: strategic thinking, good judgement, shrewd tactics, self-discipline, getting timing right, projecting integrity and competence, conviction that crime is a Labour Party issue. A certain caution is no bad thing - at the right time.
Under the present First Past The Post system (FPTP) a candidate whom the majority of voters in a constituency reject can still win. Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1983 winning 13 million votes which elected 397 Conservative seats. Labour plus Liberal/SDP alliance won a total of 16 million votes and ended up with 232 seats. FPTP exaggerates the lead of the largest party, a kind of ‘winner’s bonus’, and can hobble third Parties. Or as Professor Curtice puts it: “The problem with first past the post is there is no post”. Any negotiations between the Lib Dems and Labour to address this bias would be affected by the memory of Tony Blair’s pulling back from discussions with Paddy Ashdown on electoral reform once in power. Some form of electoral pact with minority Parties is sometimes discussed but is not the straightforward, common-sense, solution it seems.
Peter Kellner, former president of YouGov, for example, estimates that ‘intelligent tactical voting’ could increase Liberal Democrat seats to c. 50 but could not jointly produce an overall majority for the combined Parties in opposition because of the regional geographical concentrations of their supporters piling up votes in their strongholds. The problem with our present electoral system, according to John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University and go-to expert on elections is that out of the 650 seats in the House of Commons there are only 88 marginal seats – a marginal being defined as neither of the two biggest British Parties having a lead of more than 10% over the other. That means an awful lot of votes unlikely to make any difference. In 1955 there were 166 marginals. Deciding who should be given a clear run in marginal constituencies is the obvious occasion for bitter and protracted local as well as national disputes. And, given the failure of Cameron’s 2011 referendum on voting reform, the Liberal Democrats might be insisting on an actual manifesto pledge to introduce some form of proportional representation.
Though it is often defended on the grounds it produces majority government, under FPTP there is no systematic relationship between votes cast for a Party and the number of seats they obtain. Providing a second choice, the Alternative Voting system (AV) is designed to solve this problem. But as the 2010 election demonstrated, as well as Theresa May’s second term between 2017-2019, when the DUP and SNP gained considerable leverage after her disastrous 2017 election, neither can FPTP be guaranteed to create a functioning majority in Parliament.
Electoral reform has had little appeal to voters though they seem unfazed by the abandonment of FPTP in elections for the Assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as Metro-Mayors. In 2011 David Cameron’s Coalition Government paid the price the Liberal Democrats had extracted in exchange for their entry into coalition: a national referendum on the adoption of AV. The Conservative Party were opposed and a majority of the Labour Party too. The result was 68% against and 32% in favour on a 42% voter turn-out. So our current system remains with 98/100 rural constituencies returning a Tory Member of Parliament whilst 41% of those voting in these constituencies support another Party. Not a very promising outcome for advocates of electoral reform decided by referendum.
Given the magnitude of our overlapping crises and the need for national unity and solidarity, there are arguments for at least exploring the possibility of electoral reform or of coalition government. Yes, the mishandled Liberal Democrat dalliance with Cameron’s Conservatives was a disaster for the former. On the other hand, during the Second World War, holding positions in a coalition government did the Labour Party ably represented in the War Cabinet by Attlee, Bevin, Morrison, Stafford Cripps, no harm at all. Indeed Labour’s presence in government, coupled with their adoption of the Beveridge Report and the aspirations of the British public for a new start, produced an unexpected Labour landslide and an overall majority of 146 seats on 5 July 1945.
In 1945 the Labour Party was led by a clever, competent but modest man of the political Left with personal integrity, trained as a barrister, whose colleagues grumbled about him. Clement Attlee won 393 seats against an eccentric, charismatic, and ruthless opponent whose exaggerated English persona, despite an American mother, had gained him widespread popularity in the national crisis of war. Post-war, the mood changed dramatically. Winston Churchill won only 213 seats.
We should not, of course, draw the wrong lessons from history. The past is another country. We are in a life and death struggle with a virus and with carbon emissions not with the Third Reich. Though Mr. Johnson might enjoy some elements of the comparison. Starmer has a tough road ahead but we shouldn’t discount the possibility of surprises in politics. Sometimes an absence of charisma can come as a blessed relief.
See TheArticle 17/12/2021