The Nation, 31 May 2010

The cover story is an article about the new UK government, a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.  Like a column elsewhere in the issue, this article focuses on the differences in policy that have in the past separated the Conservative Party (aka “the Tories”) from the Liberal Democrats.  Also like that column, it leaves unmentioned what seems to me the most noteworthy similarity between these two parties: neither has any chance of winning a majority in the House of Commons in any future election.  The campaign just passed presented the Conservative Party with the most favorable circumstances imaginable.  They were the chief opposition to a Labour government that had been in power for 13 years; the economy was in recession; Britain was involved in an unpopular war in Afghanistan; and the prime minister was Gordon Brown, who at times seemed to be deliberately trying to make it impossible for voters to support him.  If, even with all those advantages combined, the Tories still failed to reach the 326 seat mark, then we can take it as settled once and for all that no possible conditions will ever allow them to form a government on their own. 

For their part, the Liberal Democrats have spent decades clamoring for Britain to adopt a system of proportional representation.  Though the pieces on the Tory-Liberal Democratic coalition in this issue focus on the supposedly incongruous nature of the coupling, it is clear that the adoption of such a system is now vital to the interest of the Conservative Party.  First-past-the-post electoral systems generally give rise to competition between two major parties.  These parties alternate in power.  If the UK retains its first-past-the-post system of parliamentary representation, it will be only a matter of time before it returns to a situation in which two major parties contend for the majority in the House of Commons.  The Conservative Party cannot contend for that majority; therefore, if the current system survives, the Tories will perish.  While the Tories can never again be a majority party, they might very well hold on to their status as one of the biggest minority parties.

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