Whigs v Tories

By skepticlawyer

Labour may as well not have fronted. If the UK electoral system was fair, this election would be a fight between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Even with its current unfairness, it may still be a fight between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

I wrote that after watching the second Prime Ministerial Debate on Thursday night. Even though my MPhil was due the next day and LaTeX was being stubborn about producing some rather crucial graphs for it, I thought I should record my impressions while they were still fresh. I thought we were witnessing a historic realignment in British politics, that whatever the result on May 6, there will be significant electoral reform (it is almost certain that the LibDems will hold a gun to either Brown or Cameron’s head over proportional representation or preferential voting and perhaps both, what the Brits call ‘the alternative vote’).

I also thought that Labour — having lost (thanks to economic and social shifts) or abandoned (through scrabbling after the middle-England vote) its working-class constituency may well be on the wrong side of an historical ‘Overton Window‘. In other words, its moment in British history is passing, and the country is returning to its political ‘default’: Whigs v Tories.

Now I’ve had the time to ponder the implications of the debate and look carefully at what both polls and betting markets are saying, I’m pleased to note that many other people formed the same view. Here’s one from the Guardian:

If they had hoped the radically changed landscape of British politics would prove a mirage, then both Labour and the Conservatives will be disappointed. Last night’s TV debate – with Nick Clegg repeating the accomplished performance of the week before – means the two largest parties now have to accept that they are in a new kind of contest from now till polling day. Any hope that normal service would be resumed has gone.

While David Cameron may have edged the debate (this seems to be the consensus view, and was also my impression), he only just edged it, and the fact that Nick Clegg continued to perform strongly is very much in his party’s favour. I do think the format punishes the man standing in the middle; last week it was Cameron, this week it was Clegg. Next week it will be Gordon Brown, and if his first two performances are anything to go by, he will be either bypassed or eaten alive by the other two.

What was especially notable were the ding-dong policy differences that emerged between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. These are not differences easily placed on the standard political spectrum, but matter to the majority of Britons. The Liberal Democrats opposed the Iraq War, which is immensely unpopular in this country in a way the Afghanistan war is not. Clegg was able to run with this, arguing with the more verbally nimble Cameron while Brown could only spectate. The Liberal Democrats want to scrap Trident: once again, the argument was between the two younger men while Brown could only look on in horror. It resulted in the comedic spectacle of David Cameron (and it really did sound like he was vomiting hot coals as it came out of his mouth) saying ‘I agree with Gordon’. Clegg, of course, just stood there looking smug. He is a bit smug, but this election has been blown so wide open that the public seem willing to forgive him his smugness. Brown’s response was a feeble witticism comparing Cameron and Clegg to his two boys squabbling at bathtime. Clegg’s put-down was wondrous: ‘it’s a good line in rehearsal, Gordon’, but Brown’s image still raised a genuine laugh, in part because the squabble is between Cameron and Clegg.

In short, Lib Dems and Tories have substantive policy differences in ways that Labour and the Tories do not, the former having lost any real political ‘base’ and so reliant on a gimcrack sort of ‘third-way-ism’. The Lib Dems are not third way in the slightest, but they’re not social democratic, either. A £10,000 tax free threshold? Get rid of Trident and repeal the anti-terror laws? Pro-free trade? Consistent opposition to the Iraq War? Not socialist or left, but not Tory or right, either. On Europe, they could have been arguing with Tory landed interests about the Corn Laws

Of course, the Liberal Democrat surge is coming smack-dab up against the institutionalised unfairness of the British electoral system. Over the last thirteen years, the system has been gerrymandered to favour Labour;

before that, the Tories engaged in some determined gerrymandering of their own. The effect of this — as Murky points out here — is that Labour could win the most seats despite coming third in the popular vote. This nightmare scenario is summarised nicely by Seumas Milne:

If Labour were to continue to trail in third place, the Liberal Democrats could scarcely keep it in power, whether Labour ended up the largest party by a quirk of the electoral system or not. That is the sort of thing that leads to coups d’etat or colour revolutions in other countries.

All that said, as Murky points out, ‘Labour seats tend to be held with small majorities, Conservative with large majorities, and Lib Dem with very large majorities. Once you’ve got more votes than anyone else, an extra vote doesn’t translate to an extra seat.’ 

Labour winning the most seats under this scenario requires them to hold off the Liberal Democrat surge in a large number of seats they hold by a fingernail. Because Britain’s system is first past the post, the LibDems will likely win a decent number of seats off Labour, but they are also just as likely to deliver Labour seats to the Conservatives. For this reason, the betting markets (William Hill, Intrade, Centrebet) all have the Tories winning the most seats, but unable to form government in their own right. Which brings us back to a hung parliament and Clegg holding a gun to Cameron’s head over electoral reform.

A return to the world of Whigs and Tories may be a good thing. People forget that the great social shifts that made the world we have now were presided over and debated by Whigs and Tories: abolition, free trade, women’s suffrage, the Reform Bills, women’s property rights, income tax, pensions. Yes, pensions: they were introduced by the last Liberal Prime Minister, David Lloyd George

We are, as they say, living in interesting times.

[DISCLOSURE: the author is a member of the Oxford Conservative Association].

[Also published at Online Opinion]


  1. Posted April 25, 2010 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    If I were reforming the British electoral system, I would import the exhaustive preferential ballot and compulsory voting and leave it at that.

    England has the fused executive, and so the lower house works better if it can unambiguously form a government after each election. Single-member electorates pretty much guarantee this outcome.

    If you have fully separated branches of government, then proportional electorates in the legislative branch are probably acceptable, even desirable.

    But in the lower house? It’s a recipe for executive instability. Too much sovereign risk.

  2. Posted April 25, 2010 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    Pedantic but important questions:

    When you use the word “gerrymandered” do you mean the Labour government has deliberately redrawn electoral boundaries to unfairly advantage itself?

    Or do you mean the Conservatives have been disadvantaged by having much of their vote locked up in ultra-safe seats?

  3. Posted April 25, 2010 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    The consensus over here seems to be that the gerrymandering is deliberate, but not just by Labour; the Tories did it when they were in power, too. The LibDems are always the losers in any redistribution, hence the rather shrill demands (although justified) for electoral reform.

  4. Peter Patton
    Posted April 26, 2010 at 10:11 am | Permalink


    One of the great myths/lies about the 20th century is that it was socialists who gave us the welfare state. This is of course utter nonsense. In fact, it was liberals and conservatives who – as you say – built social welfare. Even the iconic Beveridge Report was a product of liberals and conservatives that was opposed and rejected by Labour.

    It’s amazing how quickly historical facts can be completely inverted in even as little as one generation.

  5. Labor Outsider
    Posted April 26, 2010 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    “The Lib Dems are not third way in the slightest, but they’re not social democratic, either. A £10,000 tax free threshold? Get rid of Trident and repeal the anti-terror laws? Pro-free trade? Consistent opposition to the Iraq War? Not socialist or left, but not Tory or right, either.”

    I think you are over-egging things a little here. For a start, none of those policies are inconsistent with social democracy and again, the emphasis in their manifesto on fairness is a strong pointer to their sympathy with social democratic views.

    Second, if you are arguing that we might shift to a world in which conservatives face off against liberals, then where does the leftish vote go? At the moment the lib-dems straddle both liberalism and social democracy while Labor’s broad church includes third wayers, social democrats and still a number of socialists. If the lib-dems were to displace Labor as the opposition to the Tories that would itself create opportunities, depending on how they pitched themselves.

    Also, the lib-dems are partially benefiting from an anti-establishment movement. That hides the fact that in terms of policy detail, the electorate still has more sympathy for both Labor and Conservative policy positions than Lib-Dem positions.

    I agree that UK politics is in a state of flux. But it is still a little early to be predicting the end of Labor a force.

  6. Posted April 26, 2010 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think it’s the end of Labour as a force, but they may finish up the third party for quite a long time (hey, the LibDems have been the third party for 80 years, but they stuck around).

    I cannot imagine any social democratic party coming up with the LibDem tax policies. In fact, I’m struggling to imagine the Conservatives (at least in the UK) coming up with similar tax policies. I realise the right in Europe has done stuff like vouchers in schools (Sweden) or income splitting (France), but that’s those strange Continentals… policies like that are still just a bit daring for us Brits.

  7. Labor Outsider
    Posted April 26, 2010 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    Hmmm….don’t think you have convinced me that their policies on tax are inconsistent with social democratic principles (those principles being far more elastic than just those policies supported by current social democratic parties)….

    [ADMIN: fixed!]

  8. Posted April 26, 2010 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    They may not be inconsistent with social democratic principles, but I’m struggling to imagine any real social democratic party implementing them. Social democrats these days are such incurable regulators and micromanagers, and you need a big state for that.

  9. TerjeP (say Taya)
    Posted April 30, 2010 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    I doubt anybody is going to appoint me to tinker with the British electoral system but given the chance I’d do a little more than just introduce preferencial voting. I’d like to see the members of the upper house appointed for quite lengthy terms via a system of sortition. This would weaken party patronage and ensure more thoughtful indifference to popularism. Ironically this would however make the house of lords more common than the house of commons.

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