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Tim Bale: PR Man? Why David Cameron might want to think about electoral reform

Tim Bale returned to the UK in 2003 after five years working in New Zealand in order to teach politics at Sussex University.  He specialises in British and comparative party politics.

David Cameron’s first few months at the helm suggest he is far from being ‘all spin and no substance’.  Distracting policies have been ditched, fresh faces introduced, commissions set up - all in order to demonstrate a new determination to fight Labour on the so-called centre ground.

It’s funny to think that before Blackpool some were suggesting the Tories not only needed a new leader but also some kind of ‘Clause Four moment’ in order to truly signal change.  Surely Dave is doing fine without one, right?  In fact, if the post May 5 hyperbole is to be believed, Tony (or should that be Gordon?) may as well hand him the keys to Downing Street right now and save us all the bother.

But perhaps we all need to calm down a little.  Sure, there are signs that Cameron could be the kind of Conservative leader that voters finally feel able to trust.  But the polling still suggests that he has some way to go to emulate Blair in 1994 and convince them that the party he leads has really changed.

Balebox And then there are the electoral technicalities.  Put bluntly, the Tories’ problem may not be simply what they’re trying to sell, but also the rigged market they are trying to sell it into. Their current edge would give them plenty of votes but not enough seats.

How much longer, then, will they go on supporting an electoral system that risks becoming, in effect, a self-denying ordinance?  While few Conservatives would relish the prospect of joining the high-minded moaning of the centre-left chattering classes, the time may have come to think seriously about electoral reform.

A more proportional system, after all, would increase the chance of converting Conservative votes into Conservative seats, as well as meaning that the party - like its continental counterparts - could form governments with around a third of the votes if necessary.   This may be distasteful - especially to those already preparing to trot out the tired ‘Italy and Israel’ critique.  But we may arrive at such a necessity sooner than we think.

The next election may well take us into hung parliament territory with the Conservatives as the biggest party.  Unless a semi-victorious Mr Cameron is prepared to test voters’ patience and precipitate fresh elections, he may have to do a deal with the LibDems, the price of which would presumably include PR.  Better perhaps to go into an election which may very well result in such a scenario having thought through the options in advance and pledged oneself - in apparently principled fashion -  to the one that seems to make the most sense, rather than appear to be dragged kicking and screaming into a cynical stitch-up. 

Just as importantly, pushing PR may not provide David Cameron with a fully-fledged ‘Clause Four moment’ but, given the Tories’ lack of similarly sacred cows, what better, bolder - and smarter - way to show that the party really has changed its tune?  Electoral reform may not be an argument many Conservatives want to have, but it may be worth having - and sooner rather than later.

This is an edited version of ‘PR Man? Cameron’s Conservatives and the symbolic politics of Electoral Reform’, published recently in the Political Quarterly.  Email Tim Bale if you would like a full copy of the PQ piece.


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