proprIn ‘all of this has happened before and will happen again’ (British politics edition) we’ve already got people suggesting – apparently seriously – that the way to get a better electoral system is through an electoral pact. It’s one of those ideas that sounds good when you first come up with it, but then falls apart if given any sort of serious analysis, and time spent trying to make it happen is time that could be used much more productively doing just about any other form of campaigning for electoral reform. Trying to put together an electoral pact would require huge amounts of politics as we understand it to go missing, and in the unlikely event such a pact was formed, why would anyone vote for it?

First, agreeing any sort of electoral pact for electoral reform is going to require the agreement of multiple parties with wildly different policies. Even putting aside that just about the only point of agreement between the parties in the pact would be ‘we want electoral reform’, there’s little agreement even amongst committed reformers about what non-FPTP system is best for the UK. The Pro-PR Pact website has one of the most handwaving dismissals of this problem I’ve read:

Which system of proportional representation should the Pact back?

The Electoral Reform Society and the Liberal Democrats support the introduction of the single transferable vote for general elections.

However, as it would be crucial to have Labour in the pact, it might be decided to agree on the system that that party prefers if it demands an alternative choice.

Because I’m sure no one in the Lib Dems, Greens, UKIP, SNP, Plaid Cymru or any of the other parties involved in this pact would have any objection to having the one policy of it dictated by Labour Party fiat, would they?

The proposal is for a pact on a scale not seen in British politics for nearly a hundred years and unlike any National Government or Coalition Coupon election would be formed by an opposition over a single policy that’s not of high interest to most voters. Consider the problems the SDP=Liberal Alliance faced in agreeing the details of policy and who would be standing where, and that was between two parties in broad(ish) agreement. Now imagine that you’re the person who has to tell a Labour candidate they have to stand down in favour of UKIP because of the PR pact.

But, for the purposes of argument, let’s suppose all these and many other problems are somehow overcome and the 2020 election comes around with a clear choice in most constituencies between a Conservative and the local pro-PR candidate. You’re a keen electoral reform campaigner, eager to get your pro-PR candidate elected, even if they are a member of a party you despise. You go out to campaign for them, knock on someone’s door and give them your spiel about how electoral reform is important.

“That’s great.” They reply. “I think we need a new voting system, and I support that. Now, what are you going to do about the local hospital?”

What’s your reply?

Is it “Well, I’d like to do X, but the candidate I’m campaigning for wants to do the exact opposite of that and some of the people they’d be elected with would have completely different views.”? Or maybe “we’re not going to do anything because we believe changing the voting system is more important than any other issue.”? Or perhaps a “ask me that again in six months time when I come back to campaign against the person I just got elected in our first PR election, which we’ve managed to pass through Parliament (including the Lords) remarkably quickly and there’ve been no crises that have required a political response from the Government in that time.”?

Electoral reform is an important issue, but not in the minds of the voters. Any pact for electoral reform would be giving the voters nothing to vote for on what they think are the most important issues. Unless you’ve got evidence (and that’s evidence, not wishful thinking) of how electoral reform is going to be the most salient concern for voters in 2020 any pro-PR pact is going to go down to the same ignominious defeat experienced by every other single issue party in British politics. If you want electoral reform, then you have to campaign for it like any other policy and get a Government elected that wants to achieve it along with other policies, not believe that you can get every other political dispute to willingly suspend itself to allow you to get your favoured policy through.