The other day, David Cameron made one of his lie-filled speeches about AV, and inadvertently blurted out a truth.
No, not the truth that he thinks that you and I are too stupid to understand numbering candidates rather than dabbing a big X next to their name, although that particular vote of confidence in the intelligence of the British population is duly noted. This accidental truth was when he said “First Past The Post has served us well over the years”. He’s right: First Past The Post has served the Conservatives really, really well over the past 60 years. In fact, it has given us plenty of Conservative governments we didn’t want and couldn’t throw out.
There have been 18 general elections since the Second World War. In the majority of those elections, the Conservatives came out on top, never once with more than half of the people supporting them. In 1951, Labour won 48.8% of the vote to the Tories’ 48%. But Labour got 295 seats, the Tories 321. Labour would be out of power for 13 years and the Tories would be seen – and see themselves – as the “natural party of government” for the rest of the 20th century.
For reasons I can’t quite fathom, history records that Mrs Thatcher won a landslide in 1979. She didn’t. If Jim Callaghan had gone to the polls six months earlier, Labour would probably have been returned; Labour was not as unpopular in the late 1970s as the media now recalls. Mrs Thatcher won 43.9% of the vote in 1979 and this gave her a working majority. In the next four years, she blundered through the economy, basically destroying it. Unemployment hit 5 million – a plan her economic advisers had decided upon, not an accidental consequence of her callousness.
She went to the polls in 1983 buoyed by the Falklands War but still unpopular generally. Her share of the vote fell to 42.4% and she got a landslide majority. This landslide was the one that sold off our electricity and water to foreign buyers. She got an unstoppable majority, which gave her dictatorial powers, when 57.6% of the country voted for other parties. She would be in power until 1990, the Tories would be in government until 1997, all from what 42.4% of the vote could do. The post-war settlement, the agreement that the state would work to care for its citizens in return for their hard work, was torn up on the say-so of 42.4% of the population.
First Past The Post really served the Tories well there; but it destroyed my country and ill-served the British people. The next time someone tries to tell you that Mrs Thatcher’s reforms had the support of the vast majority of us, remind them that 42.4% is a minority.
Recently, senior Liberal Democrats seem to be regaining their sense of decency. They have publicly opposed some of the more terribly right-wing things the government is trying to do. And good on them: in other countries with a coalition system, minority partners often go on television to complain about what the other half of the government is doing; this includes cabinet ministers. Here, the LibDems have been silent for too long.
Those senior LibDems have made a very good point: this country is actually a left-of-centre country. It doesn’t feel like it, but it truly is. Put it this way: since the Second World War, the Conservatives have polled more votes than Labour and the Liberal Democrats just once – in 1955 they got 49.7% of the votes to the Left’s 49.1%. Imagine that. Imagine the second half of the 20th century effectively without the Conservatives. Imagine no Stop-Go in the 1950s. Imagine no Three Day Week in the 1970s. Imagine no Thatcherism in the 1980s. Imagine no selling off of British Rail in the 1990s.
Imagine a 20th century where the only Tory Prime Ministers were Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan, both briefly.
AV wouldn’t quite give us that, and it’s wrong to choose a voting system based on the likely outcomes being more to your liking, but still: imagine a 21st century without the Conservatives. We could get nearer to it, if we vote Yes on Thursday.