In 2019 Boris Johnson won a large majority in parliament with less than 44% of the vote. There was actually a progressive majority, but that did not translate into a majority in parliament because of our first-past-the-post electoral system.
The Conservatives had one MP for each 38,000 votes, whereas Labour needed 51,000 votes for one MP, and it took 336,000 votes for each Liberal Democrat MP and 866,000 votes for the single Green MP.
First-past-the-post suppressed what was a ‘progressive’ majority and bolstered support for independence in Scotland, where they see the Conservatives imposing hard-right policies in the past 12 years, even though they represent a minority in the UK and an even smaller share of the vote in Scotland.
Proportional representation – a fairer system
There are fairer voting systems such as the Single Transferable Vote, which is used to elect the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Scottish Parliament is also elected with a mixed system that gives better proportional representation.
Historically only smaller parties like the Lib Dems and the Greens have supported proportional representation. However, a few weeks ago the Labour Party Conference voted in favour of proportional representation, though this endorsement is likely to be ignored by Keir Starmer.
Some would argue that first-past-the-post is stifling democracy as it prevents the emergence of alternatives to the two main parties, even when these parties are failing.
With party leaders elected by a small number of unrepresentative party members and with an electoral system conferring a majority in parliament to parties winning just over a third of the vote, there is a greater probability of extreme or unbalanced policies. We have seen a fair bit of this recently with Johnson’s hard Brexit, Liz Truss’s silly budget and Rishi Sunak’s new austerity.
Tactical voting and electoral pacts
Back in 2019, those who wanted parliament to reflect the progressive majority in the electorate argued for tactical voting, but the impact was minimal.
There is a case for a formal electoral pact (at least between Labour and Lib Dems) or for an informal pact such as the one that helped Tony Blair to win a majority in 1997.The Tories fear a progressive alliance, but there may not be any pact at the next general elections, despite the remarkable results in recent by-elections.
Tactical voting has been critical in allowing the Lib-Dems to win three seats from the Conservatives in three by-elections (Chesham and Amersham, North Shropshire and in Tiverton and Honiton) and in allowing Labour to retain their challenged seat in the Batley and Spen by-election.
Currently, support for the Conservatives has collapsed and Labour is predicted to win the election. Labour interest in an electoral pact may be inversely proportional to its probability of winning the elections on its own. However, it could be more than two years to the next general election and the outcome should not be taken for granted.
The North East
What does this mean for the Lib Dems? What are their chances in the North East of England?
The next election is likely to be about the economy, as the UK faces a recession and the biggest fall in living standards, and how to fund our declining public services. The Lib Dems have a good record in this respect and their manifesto in 2019, whilst clearly progressive, was also the most fiscally prudent, in terms of balance between spending and taxing pledges.
An election campaign may give the Lib Dems the media attention that they do not generally get. This year the Lib Dems were the first to call for a windfall tax on oil and gas profits and a winter energy price freeze.
In recent by-elections the Lib Dems have demonstrated a remarkable ability to win in constituencies with sitting Conservative MPs.
To achieve by-election results in normal elections the Lib Dems need to adopt the by-election approach and concentrate their effort on few constituencies where they are the party with a more credible aspiration to win over Conservative votes.
Berwick-upon-Tweed would be a good choice, as this is a constituency where they had their highest share of votes in the North East in 2019 and which has previously repeatedly elected a Lib Dem MP.
The Lib Dems could get good results in other constituencies with Conservative MPs, but Berwick currently seems the best target.