Main parties are already coalitions

Thursday, 23rd June


‘So come up with one realistic system of proportional representation and how a parliamentary election would work’

• I WAS a surprised that my modest critique of proportional representation as a means of electing our MPs (Letters, June 2) had such a reaction.

It is, of course, possible to endlessly debate how we should be governed.

Should Britain’s administrations be revolutionised?

Would Scots be happier if they were independent?

Would Ireland be better off if it was united, or Wales also became an independent state?

Perhaps the English should have their own regional governments, while some in London think they deserve more powers.

For me, going out to meet people when I campaign, these seem minor issues, abstract, and of little real relevance to people’s lives.

When I see a flat with damp running down the walls, I am furious. That families have to live crammed into a couple of rooms, without anywhere for children to study or for their parents to have any privacy, really makes me angry. So does the hardship of living without enough to eat or unable to heat a home.

So why discuss proportional representation?

Perhaps because I come from South Africa, a country that was deeply riven by divisions. Sadly, despite the end of apartheid which I fought for over 30 years, it still is. I have seen how easily societies can be torn apart during my years of reporting in Africa.

I also remember going to New York and seeing in the front of a bookshop a table piled high with just two books: One was titled something on the lines of: “How to talk to a liberal” and the other “Can one be polite to a conservative?” The gap was obvious, the loathing visceral.

It got me thinking. British politics has been vicious at times since I arrived in the late 1970s. I have not forgotten the bitter battles over abortion, or the miners’ strike.

But I have also seen how people come together and rally round when times are tough, as they did during the Covid pandemic.

There are many reasons for this but one of them is our political system. It has many imperfections, but – rather like a worn coat – it has often been patched and mended and somehow seems to work.

The two main political parties are both coalitions. Like all coalitions the parties can become fractious, as we see in the current deep Tory rifts over Boris Johnson’s leadership.

But the parties hold within them these different perspectives and allow these debates and discussions to take place in the moderating confines of a single organisation. Views are heard, and controversies aired, within the rules of each of the major parties.

Think for a moment what a parliament would look like if we had PR and each of these tendencies had their own representatives inside Westminster.

Given parliamentary space they too would be given the legitimacy that comes from being an MP and would gain air time on the mainstream media that they currently seldom reach.

We only have to look to the United States to see where this leads. As Hillary Clinton recently argued: “We are standing on the precipice of losing our democracy.” This is a very high price to pay for electoral reform.

Let’s stop comparing the current flawed reality with some mythical, undefined, future. If its proponents wish to persist with PR then I issue the same challenge that I did when I wrote my initial letter: come up with one realistic system.

Give us an indication of what kind of parties are likely to be elected to parliament and how the election would work. Most importantly, provide an estimate how many MPs each party is likely to have.

And let the readers of your paper know what you think would be a legitimate threshold of support each MP would have to gain to win a seat.

Then the real debate can begin.


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