Saturday, May 08, 2010

Conservative Party hypocrisy: who has the "moral right" to govern?

Today, the Times has run its lead editorial making the case for the Conservative Party's "moral right" to form the next government (see here). This "moral right" has been raised by several Conservative MPs and the Times endorsed the Conservatives in the recent general election.

What is this "moral right"? The paper argues here:

"[. . .] It is David Cameron, not Mr Brown, who now has the moral right to govern the country. The general election has put the Conservative Party first in terms of both votes and seats. The Conservatives won two million more votes than Labour. Yet Mr Cameron lacks the constitutional right to govern outright, having fallen short of an overall majority. [. . .]

Note the emphasis on Cameron winning more votes, even many more votes as providing the foundation for this "moral right" to lead the next government. These extra votes (noted twice) have given rise in this case to the most seats held by a party and together (and not apart) this provides the "moral right" in question. Note also that this is a right not simply because a peculiar first-past-the-post system has determined party x will have y seats. Instead, the case seems largely dependent upon the Tories winning more votes. The message is clear: the Conservatives won more votes and, thus, have the more secure mandate to govern.

One need not become a legal positivist to know that this "moral right" is rather different from the "legal right" (or simply put the legal reality). The rules of the British election game is that the Prime Minister is in office until s/he resigns. Until this happens, it is the Prime Minister who has the right to form the next government if s/he can build a sufficiently large coalition. This other message is clear: Conservative Party supporters claiming this "moral right" (e.g., that Cameron, not Brown, should have first go at forming the next government) wish to depart from the legal procedure.

How genuine is this position? Compare the following statistics on percentage of the vote secured versus seats won:

(a) Conservatives: 36% - 302 seats
(b) Labour: 29% - 256 seats
(c) Liberal Democrats: 23% - 56 seats

Thus, the Liberal Democrats have won 6% less of the popular vote than Labour, but emerge with 200 fewer seats. The unfairness in share of the vote versus seats won is genuinely striking.

Conclusion: if the Conservatives claim a "moral right" to govern based upon their vote share, then surely the Liberal Democrats have a similar "moral right" to greater representation in Parliament. If legitimacy and mandates come in the form of votes, then the more votes a party secures the greater its representatives. Conservatives cannot claim a "moral right" to govern based upon the size of its votes and then deny the "moral right" of Liberal Democrat supporters to greater Parliamentary representation.

It is high time there was electoral reform in the UK. If the Conservatives are serious about taking power and serving in the national interest (and if the Liberal Democrats want to join a coalition with the Conservatives that would not alienate its electoral base), then some alternative to first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting must be agreed and introduced. The ball is in David Cameron's court.

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