I was there, sitting in the next but one back row at the Assembly Rooms in Llandudno, on 18 September, 1981, on that momentous day, when the leader of the Liberal party, David Steel, told us to “go back to [our] constituencies and prepare for government”.
Electoral pacts: breaking the mould
We were about to ‘break the mould’. The signs were right. The two alliance parties, the Liberals and the newly formed Social Democratic Party (SDP), were ahead in the polls. The Tories under Mrs Thatcher were at a low ebb with three million unemployed, and halfway through their programme of de-nationalising the state industries and privatising them.
Labour under Michael Foot was split, most deciding to turn left and leave the European Economic Community. They were the first Brexit party, but the ‘gang of four’ former cabinet ministers, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and David Owen, rebelled.
They were pro-Europe, pro-mixed economy and pro-modernisation. They started the SDP, along the lines of their European counterparts. Since they had much in common with us Liberals, or so it seemed, we entered an alliance with them to overthrow the two-party, tribal, first-past-the-post mockery of a democratic system. ‘One More Heave!’
What went wrong? There were several reasons, none complicated.
The constituencies were divided between the two parties with little fuss, but large differences in style. Liberals were into community politics: house meetings and bring-and-buys. Our former candidate had been a local GP, who polled a respectable 20.7 percent in 1974. When we were handed over to the SDP, their tougher, more professional, hotshot barrister candidate polled 22.1 percent in 1983, an improvement, but not enough to win the seat.
The Falklands factor
A bizarre incident in post-imperial history intervened. In April 1982, Argentine forces invaded the Falklands Islands, a British Dependent Territory since 1833. In a ten-week mini-war, a British taskforce repelled their attacks and a truce, not a treaty, was reached in June.
The statistics made sombre reading. The population of British descent amounted to 2800 souls. More than 900 soldiers were killed in the process, Argentine and British, and three civilians. The cost of the war, at a time of national debt, was £700m. But Thatcher’s credit as a strong leader soared and restored her government’s rating by 10 percent in the polls.
When the next general election was called in June 1983, the Conservatives won with a substantial majority, receiving 42.4 percent of the vote. Labour came second with 27.6 percent, and the alliance parties came third, narrowly, with 25.4 percent. But the numbers of the MPs bore little resemblance to the parties’ share of the vote. The Tories won 397 seats, Labour 209 and the alliance a mere 23 (17 for Liberals, six for the SDP).
The case for PR
No starker case for proportional representation (PR) could have been made, but it was equally clear that the two major parties were unlikely to propose any change to the electoral system, when it was not in their interest to do so. The alliance suffered because its vote was spread across the country, not concentrated in particular seats. It would have benefitted from the single transferrable vote system, as in the Republic of Ireland, with party lists representing larger constituencies. It might even have formed a minority government.
Meanwhile, the pact between the alliance parties came under strain. David Owen replaced Jenkins as the leader of the SDP, more right wing, more authoritarian, and I for one was reluctant to support someone who as the Labour Foreign Secretary sought a British knighthood for the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceauşescu.
By the mid-1980s, the standing of the alliance in the polls was little better than Liberals might have achieved on their own. With each defeat, their enemies grew stronger, the monetarists, jingoists, little Englanders. In the 1987 general election, the alliance’s share of the vote slipped, another seat was lost and the joint leadership was split over key questions.
It was time to start a new party, the LibDems, under a new leader, Paddy Ashdown. It was a pragmatic decision, not a philosophical one. Divisions remained.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
It was sad to see how those who shared similar principles were scattered across the Commons, restrained by party discipline from speaking their minds. Edward Heath sulked. The miners’ strike in 1985 broke Harold Macmillan’s heart “to see what is happening in the country today!” He compared the policy of privatisation to “selling off the family silver”.
Neil Kinnock, who succeeded Foot as Labour leader, took on the Militant Tendency within his party. The major parties were both split over Europe and how to handle the economy. In the midst of this confusion, the single-mindedness of Thatcher seemed like leadership, although, as Macmillan suggested, it might be “leading in the wrong direction”. He supported Thatcher nonetheless.
And if we’d had PR?
Would PR have made any difference? It is tempting to speculate. During the 1990s, the beneficiaries might have been the right-wing parties, the National Front and UKIP, with some gains for the Greens and independents.
Much depended on the chosen method. What was the final aim? Was it to secure a fairer distribution of seats among the political parties, each of which had to secure a certain percentage of the popular vote? Or should it be designed to reflect the ebbs and flows of public opinion, which can now more accurately be measured through the internet than the polling booth?
I can understand the popular scepticism with PR. I have stood on too many doorsteps to be told that Liberals are seeking the backdoor into power. I can understand the impatience with coalitions, where nobody gets what they want. I appreciate the longing for leadership and to be reliably instructed where we are going in a confusing world.
One nightmare would be to have a well-organised and financed establishment party, facing a disorganised opposition of little parties, filled with Galloway lookalikes. We require a better-informed public debate, not a more quarrelsome one.
The first aim of PR should be to ensure that all votes are respected, and not thrown into the shredders, because they do not reflect the majority opinion in that particular district. But I doubt whether we can reach this utopian outcome until we construct a less confrontational method of running our affairs.
More in common
The most potent force in campaigning is still a visceral dislike for the other side. This is playground politics. We may be able, however, to detach those areas where there is general agreement from those where there are major differences of opinion, and to concentrate our battles where they matter most.
Can we construct a ‘liberal alliance’, which falls short of a pact between the parties and does not require proportional representation to bring it into existence?