First-past-post system is weak at many levels


Most countries have improved and modernised the traditional model, writes NOEL WHELAN

THIS WEEKEND Britain is going through an electoral and political wobble which, if not carefully managed, could see the mother of all parliamentary democracies descend into a full-scale constitutional and economic crisis.

Most of the countries which have inherited the British model of government, while retaining the essential feature of having a cabinet from within the parliament, have otherwise improved and modernised the traditional parliamentary system.

Here in Ireland, we have proportional representation. We have replaced the vague powers of the monarchy with a clearly defined and limited role for a directly elected president. More importantly we have set down the rules of our political system in a written constitution approved by a popular referendum. We have also now well-developed processes for post-election inter-party negotiations about government formation.

In Britain, however, they have failed to innovate. They retain the absurd first-past-the-post electoral system. The inherent and undefined powers of the monarch remain. They still have no written constitution. The events of recent days have shown up fundamental weaknesses in their system at several levels.

Television footage of hundreds of would-be voters, and in some places thousands, being locked out as polls closed, was an embarrassment for their electoral commission.

Together with renewed allegations of postal vote fraud, they suggest wholesale electoral maladministration.

The distortion between vote share and seat share obtained by the parties again throws the absurdity of the first-past-the-post electoral system into sharp relief.

Watching the marathon coverage of the election results across five channels overnight Thursday into Friday, there were two moments that stood out.

At about 1am, Peter Hennessy, one of Britain’s leading historians and constitutional experts, popped up with David Dimbleby on BBC1. When asked to address the hung parliament scenario suggested by the exit polls, Hennessy set out calmly and clinically what the constitutional precedents and norms suggested was likely to happen next.

In doing so, Hennessy was summarising the constitutional procedure itemised in his various books and in particular The Hidden Wiring, Unearthing the British Constitution published in 1996. While there is no written constitution in Britain, the applicable procedures have been set down in various guidance notes drawn up on previous such occasions in modern times by the key triumvirate of constitutional advisers; the cabinet secretary, the principal secretary to the monarch and the principal private secretary to the prime minister.

The current cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell told the Westminster justice committee some weeks ago that much of these precedents have recently been brought together in a memorandum to be relied on in the case of a hung parliament.

As Hennessy outlined it early on Friday morning, these constitutional rules meant that Gordon Brown would continue as prime minister. The queen’s power to send for someone else to “kiss hands” and take over as prime minister would only operate if and when Brown either resigned or lost a vote on a confidence issue in parliament. In making the decision whom to call, the queen can seek guidance as to who is likely to have majority support in the House of Commons. Hennessy emphasised that the party leaders should do all possible to avoid embroiling “Her Majesty” in making a politically controversial choice.

The second moment of clarity in a night of confusion was an interview given by the former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown to Bryan Dobson on RTÉ at about 4am. Ashdown spoke of the need for Britain’s politicians not to rush things. They should, he cautioned, take their time in deciding how best to proceed if the results actually threw up a hung parliament.

It has been an extraordinary outcome to what has been an extraordinary British election campaign. So much space and airtime in the British media over the last four weeks was absorbed by coverage of the three leaders’ debates. However, the final outcome bears no relation to the poll data generated in their aftermath. The dramatic Liberal Democrat surge, if it ever really existed, abated as dramatically.

It will be fascinating to see what will happen. The figures favour Cameron not only because he has the largest number of seats but also because, unlike Labour, the Conservatives could put a majority together with only Liberal support.

Of the opening statements in the post-election negotiations made by the three party leaders yesterday at lunchtime, that of Brown was the most impressive. Clegg said Cameron should get the first chance to explore whether he can put a government together and that he was available to talk. Brown said he was the prime minister for now and had important things to do in that role immediately. Brown went on to say that he noted Clegg’s expressed preference for talking firstly to Cameron but that if that doesn’t work he would be available to talk to Clegg.

In Ireland, we have taken up to seven weeks after an election to form a government without the constitutional or economic skies falling in. There is something unnerving about the notion of sleep-deprived adrenaline- charged British party leaders feeling compelled to bring the matter to a head within days.