Thursday, 12 August 2010

Once Upon a Time in Canada – When FPTP goes Wrong

Canada has remarkably similar politics to our own, with a House of Commons elected by first past the post, a PM, an un-elected Senate appointed by the PM, some Queen called Elizabeth, a weekly 'Question Period' and so on. Historically Canadian politics had three major parties, the socialist New Democratic Party (NDP), the eternal third party in the Canadian system, the Progressive Conservatives (or 'Tories'), and the usually dominant centrist Liberal Party. The Liberals were the dominant party, but in 1984 the Tories won a whopping landslide, partially on the back of promises of constitutional reform that would give autonomy to the French-speaking nationalist-minded province of Quebec. That constitutional reform failed (twice) and as a result a new party called the Bloc Quebecois (BQ) was formed. In its first election in 1993 the BQ received 13.5% of the vote in its first election but this was enough to gain 54 seats as that vote was concentrated just in the 75 Quebec seats. A divided opposition meant that the Liberals were able to hold onto government but the merger of the major right-wing parties into the Conservative Party led to a hung parliament in 2004, and a Liberal minority government. Canada went to the polls again in 2006 and were left with a hung parliament yet again, which caused the Tories to form a minority government, a fresh election in 2008 left yet another Tory minority in power. In fact, for the foreseeable future it is almost impossible to see Canada governed by anything but minorities as the BQ hovers around the 10% mark in popularity, but as it campaigns in only one province this is enough to guarantee it around 1/6th of the seats. No one wants to be seen to work with the BQ too closely, as the party is separatist, and therefore wants to see the end of Canada – a position that is seen as close to treasonous by many Canadians. The NDP would like to form a coalition with the Liberals, but so far they have not gained enough seats to do this, a further problem for the NDP and Liberals lies in the Green Party, which doesn't hold any seats but which got almost 7% of the vote at the 2008 election. In order for the Liberals or the PCs to form a majority government they do not just need to beat each other, but the combined weight of the NDP and BQ as well, and in the Liberals case, stop votes draining to the Greens. As the NDP usually gets around 20-30 seats, the Liberals or Conservatives need to beat each other by around 80 seats (Parliament currently has 308 seats), an extremely difficult task. Canadian minority government is unstable and usually relies on opposition parties not wanting to force an election, yet fresh elections are almost constantly being threatened, and the fact that between 2004 and 2008 Canada had three elections should demonstrate something. The BC is also uniquely powerful, often able to hold the government to ransom, despite achieving the smallest vote percentage of four parliamentary parties.

There are parallels here to the UK. While the nationalist movements in the UK do not perform well enough to provide a bloc as powerful as the BQ does, there is an increasing bloc of MPs not affiliated to either the Conservative or Labour Party. At the recent election 85 MPs were elected for the Lib Dems or other parties. This makes hung parliaments increasingly likely. While I personally would make an educated guess that the next election will result in a majority for one party or the other, the amount of votes and seats for the main two parties has been declining for fifty years now, and is unlikely to end permanently. In the long-term it is likely that we will see our own election results increasingly mirror Canada's. Our problem is however a different one – Canada's parliament has four parties and two independents, and there is a fifth party that looks likely to pick up seats at some stage. The UK parliament has 10 parties, and 1 independent, or six parties if one ignores Northern Ireland. Most of these, however, are tiny, for example the Green Party has just 1 MP. Plaid Cymru has 3. This means that if hung parliaments do become more common, as is likely, we may one day get a government dependent upon micro-parties, who would hold disproportionate influence on microscopic vote percentages. This is not a route to stable government. Therefore the Lib Dems become all the more important.

The Canadian example is fascinating because if proportional representation was introduced the seats for the BQ would be reduced as it gains disproportionate seats because its vote is extraordinarily regionalised. Yet the NDP wins 15-20% of the vote and wins half the seats. Were PR to be introduced, the NDP would form a much larger bloc, capable of providing a worthy ally to the Liberals. In the UK, a hung parliament advantages one party – the Lib Dems. In a sense the Lib Dems would be better advantaged by constant hung parliaments under FPTP than by PR. As the only third party with a reasonably sized bloc of MPs they are the only one who can provide a large enough majority to guarantee stable government. Therefore both Labour and Conservatives are dependent on them, in a hung parliament, to reach government. Like the BQ, they have the capability to make or break governments and we can see this from the negotiations process in May. If hung parliaments come to be a regular occurrence in British political life it would perversely weaken the Liberal Democrats to introduce PR by meaning that new parties would have the chance to enter parliament and form blocs large enough to act as potential partners to Labour and the Conservatives. In so doing PR would remove the potential for governments dependent upon micro-parties and for the Lib Dems to find themselves in permanent government, switching coalition partners as they see fit, both of which I believe are undesirable. For precisely these reasons I expect that if hung parliaments do become a norm in British political life it will not be long before all parties agree with the need for PR. The Canadian example is important because it demonstrates that one of the key arguments for FPTP – stable, single party governance – is a myth and contingent upon political conditions. Given the right conditions FPTP can also provide instability, and were PR introduced into Canada the result would likely be a more stable form of politics. This may be the situation that Britain eventually ends up with too; indeed it is the likely one if trends continue to unravel as they have.

Of course, I may yet be proved wrong in my analysis of the wider trends, and who knows what the future will bring, but my feeling is that Canada provides a warning to us all on the dangers of how first past the post may one day go wrong.


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