Once the nature of the May 6th poll became clear, Labour figures have keenly reiterated their party’s support for a referendum on electoral reform, seeing this as the means of creating a ‘progressive alliance’ with the LibDems. As Steven Fielding noted back in February on this blog, it was precisely in anticipation of a hung Parliament that led Labour came out in support of the Alternative Vote.
A more proportional electoral formula would certainly provide fairer representation and bring Britain into line with other European democracies. But if – a big if - the LibDems are open to talks, then careful attention must be paid to which of the many alternatives to first-past-the-post should be adopted. The unintended consequences of electoral reform need to be confronted now.
I have noted in previous blogs that the public has consistently placed immigration as the most important electoral issue after the economy. During the campaign however the main parties did their best to park the issue. Our current electoral system allowed them to do this, as it exists on the basis of a two (sometimes three) party cartel.
A more proportional formula could change this cosy set up. First-past-the-post has many faults but it has prevented anti-immigration parties from winning Commons seats. As Matt Goodwin has noted here the BNP has won an increasing number of council and European Parliament seats. So far in 2010, UKIP and BNP together have received 5% of the popular vote, compared to 2.9% in 2005, indicating some rise in support—and these figures are probably suppressed by tactical voting.
But the BNP still remains marginal in terms of the national debate on immigration. However the experience of many other European countries—France, Denmark, the Netherlands, for instance—shows that once installed in a national parliament the ability of parties like the BNP to set the terms of the immigration debate is immeasurably increased. This has had the result of intensifying a particularly negative focus on the place of Muslims within their respective national identities
So, while some Labour and LibDem sympathisers might hope that their two parties can come to some ‘progressive’ agreement based around electoral reform they need to be aware that the consequences may be far from progressive because they might create longer term grounds for the further rise and growing influence of the anti-immigrant right.
Dr Lauren McLaren