Not Democracy

John Lanchester · That was a downer

Well that was a downer.

It’s a good thing that the Labour party didn’t suffer a generational wipe-out of the sort which seemed possible a couple of months ago. But the prospect of real structural change seems remote today, as the parties jostle and try to find a way of stitching up the Lib Dems with a referendum on electoral reform that they are sure to lose. It’s a paradox of our shitty system that the disappointing Lib Dem share of seats (on an increased share of the vote) ends up with them having more power than they’ve had in many decades.

As for that system:

Labour in 2005: 35.2 per cent, 355 seats, majority of 66.
Tories in 2010: 36.2 per cent, about 308 seats, minority of 34.

The Tories have done a full point better than Labour did in 2005 but the difference in the outcome is about 100 seats worse. Speaking as a lifelong non-Tory, this seems indefensible to me and I don’t understand why they don’t make more of a fuss about it. And now they’ll all go off somewhere and stich up a deal, with aides murmuring into mobiles while the party leaders keep going on adrenaline, caffeine, and the knowledge that the bond markets will want an arrangement in place by Monday. So much for our our decisive, bracingly unfair first-past-the post system. Whatever democracy is supposed to feel like, it’s not like this.


  • 7 May 2010 at 4:55pm
    alex says:
    Don't feel sorry for the Tories, but for Liberal Democrats plus 'others'. They have 35% of the vote against Conservatives 36%. But seats won are 85 and 306 respectively.

    • 8 May 2010 at 10:25pm
      alex says: @ alex
      If you analyse the percentage of seats won against votes received, you can see why the Tories don't feel miffed, in fact they have made considerable progress this time:
      1997: Lab 1.47, Con 0.82, Others 0.70, Lib 0.42
      2001: Lab 1.55, Con 0.79, Others 0.45, Lib 0.43
      2005: Lab 1.49, Con 0.91, Others 0.69, Lib 0.41
      2010: Lab 1.37, Con 1.30, Others 0.40, Lib 0.38
      (Data: Wikipedia; Calculation: me)

  • 7 May 2010 at 5:59pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    John Lanchester, do you know Cameron & Clegg? I thought Cameron's speech offering the Libs a deal didn't sound very positive, but then I second guessed that he was being more effusive to Clegg on the telephone and perhaps the announcement was meant to sound convincing to the right-wing of his own party. How is he going to be able to form a government without being nice to the Libdems? But what do I know.

  • 7 May 2010 at 6:54pm
    BernadetteJodH says:
    Nick Clegg is in favour of moving towards proportional representation or in other words more towards the Dutch electoral system. Dutch parliamentary history is one endless succession of hung parliaments. For a long time, this fact didn’t pose any problem at all. Parties simply arranged themselves into a coalition, often consisting of two or three parties.
    The Dutch equivalent of the Lib Dems is D66 (Democrats 1966). I am not a supporter of D66 but I do like the limited constituency model this party advocates. They aim to bring the politicians closer to the man in the street.
    From: Arnold Jansen op de Haar’s blog: How Dutch is Nick Clegg?

    • 8 May 2010 at 11:36am
      Badger says: @ BernadetteJodH
      I can't see what is wrong with importing the French system for National Assembly (legislative) elections to bring our much-needed electoral reform... except, of course, that it couldn't be sold in this country as "French". It maintains the constituency link, but the second round run-off between the two best placed candidates (assuming a candidate doesn't get 50% or more of votes in the first round) means voters make a positive choice of their representative at Westminster. Comments?

    • 8 May 2010 at 11:50am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ BernadetteJodH
      There is nothing particularly Dutch about PR, most democratic countries use it nowadays. Here is the Wikipedia list of countries that use it "at a national level".

      If the Dutch have problematic hung parliaments it's not an inherent consequence of PR. We have PR in Norway, we always have coalitions, it takes a couple of days to sort out the make up of the government, it's NO PROBLEM.

      Britain has a hung parliament already. What's PR got to do with it?

  • 7 May 2010 at 7:09pm
    IanGFraser says:
    Indefensible if you're counting noses. But FPTP counts communities. However vain an ideal that may sound, it makes sense this time -- the Tories have the most noses, but no big cities. Without the cities (or Scotland) they're not representative enough...unless, like all those other democracies, you count people as though they were only individual preferences. There IS such a thing as society?

  • 7 May 2010 at 7:22pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    And another thing: why do they have to wear ties that are red blue and orange? Why not hats?

    • 8 May 2010 at 8:19am
      Geoff Roberts says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      What colours would you prefer?

    • 8 May 2010 at 11:29am
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Geoff Roberts
      I would prefer patterned ties, but if they feel the electorate are so stupid they might forget who's who unless the leaders wear the correct colours, then I'd suggest doing what Cameron's and Brown's wives do: Gordon Brown should wear a bright-red suit and Cameron should wear a bright-blue suit. Or, at least, hats. I'm not sure Clegg could carry off a yellow suit, it's a difficult colour to wear.

    • 8 May 2010 at 1:24pm
      Geoff Roberts says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      Sooo, it all comes down to suits does it?

    • 8 May 2010 at 6:07pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ Geoff Roberts
      Brown wears Savile Row suits. I'm sure they could run him up a red one.

  • 8 May 2010 at 8:19am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    It sounds as if you could have made a small pile by betting on a hung parliament with those results. I don't bet because even thinking about it automatically leads to a loss. The concensus seems to be that Clegg is Little Red Riding Hood outside Grandma's cottage. If he falls for that Commission on reform offer, he deserves to get swallowed up by the big bad wolf. Enjoyed your comments, John - and your work on the financial crisis - could you help us all out by explaining what's going to happen next?

  • 8 May 2010 at 11:43am
    ober says:
    Yes, our electoral system is a scandal. More scandalous still is that there are so many Labour politicians who identify themselves as "progressive" yet did nothing about it when they had the chance. now the chance is gone: there is no prospect of a viable reforming Lib-Lab-other coalition on current parliamentary arithmetic.

    It would be good if the opposition parties could work together to try and agree a reform agenda. LRB, could you do an article on the Scottish Constitutional Convention and all the work that went into producing a consensus on devolution? Maybe there are some lessons there.

  • 3 December 2010 at 2:14am
    al loomis says:
    of course it's not democracy, it's parliamentary monarchy, you never noticed?

    the establishment of every western society loves to talk about democracy, on the view that people like you will imagine this is as good as it gets.

    democracy is better, if switzerland is any guide, but i suspect you have to grow up in a mountain village to make it work.

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