Wednesday 2 June 2010

Saying no to ‘Reform’

To begin with I should make my own position clear: I’m totally opposed to any kind of electoral ‘reform.’ To be more exact, I’m opposed to the proposals to change the way we elect members of Parliament in England from our present ‘first past the post’ method to some form of proportional representation.

The first past the post system is clear and simple, one that has served us reasonably well over the years, enabling strong governments to emerge with a definite mandate. For those who may not be familiar with how it works, those who live in countries that do have a system of proportional representation, for electoral purposes Britain is divided into a number of Parliamentary constituencies. In electoral contests the person who takes a majority of votes is the winner, no matter if the vote she or he attracts is less than that of all of the others combined. Although we have slightly lost the point in modern politics, people are voting for an individual, not a party, and that individual maintains a close relationship with the local constituency, representing all of the people, not just those who voted for her or him.

It’s unfair, the opponents say. It favours the ruling party, which can command an absolute majority in Parliament though it may not have a commanding lead in the total number of votes cast across the country. It’s an argument put most forcefully in England by the Liberal Democrats, who consistently come second or third in most of the constituency contests but still attract a reasonably high percentage of the national vote when all of the constituency results are combined.

In the wake of our recent Parliamentary election all sorts of specious arguments have been put forward, arguments assuming a consensus on our supposedly ‘broken politics.’ First past the post is outmoded, the cry goes up, the era of two party politics is over. There is no doubt at all in my mind that this is all so much tosh.

Minority or coalition government is unusual in this country but we have been here in the past and I dare say we will be back here in the future. Our politics are by no means ‘broken’ simply because the Liberal Democrats think it unfair that they don’t have enough seats, or the United Kingdom Independence Party or the British National Party think it unfair because they have no seats at all, although they do in the European Parliament, that toy town assembly which does operate a system of proportional representation.

There is a very good piece in the recent issue of Standpoint by William Norton on the whole question of voting ‘reform’ (Out of proportion.) The essential point that he makes is that to say first past the post is “unfair” because Party A, receiving x per cent of the national vote, does not receive x per cent of MPs already presupposes that “fairness” is the same as proportional representation. But rival electoral systems represent rival and alternative definitions of fairness.

He gives the example of Dr Richard Taylor, who in the general elections of 2001 and 2005 was elected Member of Parliament for Wyre Forest as in independent heading a campaign to save Kidderminster Hospital. Enough people in the constituency felt strongly enough about this to overturn party loyalties and the established political machine. In other words, he was elected by local people voting for a local candidate on the basis of a local issue. But people across the nation, people who do not live in Wyre Forest, clearly have no interest whatsoever in Kidderminster Hospital. So, in the great pool of proportional representation, Dr Taylor’s vote would have been infinitesimal. He would never have been elected, which, as Norton rightly says, would have been savagely unfair to the people of Wyre Forest. They would have been drowned in a sea of ‘fairness.’

Proportional representation, you see, is fair to parties, not people. It means that the electorate would forever be fodder for party machines. It means that, since coalition is inevitable because no party would ever achieve an absolute majority of the votes cast, manifestos would be either fraudulent, in that the programme could not be implemented in its entirety, or that they would serve as the opening gambit in the inevitable post-election horse trading. Politicians who talk about our ‘broken’ politics or our ‘outmoded’ electoral system (so outmoded that it’s used by some sixty countries) are peddling a message of hypocritical self-interest. They care more about themselves and their sectional advantage than they do about real fairness.


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  3. Yes, there certainly needs to be some serious thinking about this.

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  5. Hi Ana,
    In Indonesia we experienced the opposite situation
    From 1955 until 1999 we adopted the proportional system. After the democratic reform in 1998, efforts were made to change to a district system which is basically similar to your present system. We started the new system in 2004, improve it in 2009. Although still not perfect but it is better than the proportional system.

  6. Adam, I never touch 'umble pie, no matter what the flavour. :-)

    Harry, thanks. That's interesting, a perspective from someone who knows what PR is like in practice.

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  8. Although your point about PR is wonderful, in that I agree with it and I am right, I'm cant agree with your defence of the constituancy.

    I live in a constuancy called Stalybridge and Hyde, and that is where I vote.
    I shop, socialise and get(well dont get, but am assigned) medical care in a neighbouring constituancy, Ashton something or other.
    My Mechanic is in a third constituancy, Oldham something
    And I work 25 miles away in a fourth constituancy.

    Is where I sleep a better way of assigning my vote than where I work, or where I buy food?

    Is assigning votes by geography any better than assigning votes by age?
    It would be logisticaly more complex to vote based on the month and year of your birth, 11/84 if anyone cares, but I dont see why that would give results that are any less fair than counting votes based on arbitrary lines drawn on a map.
    We could go further and have homosexual east asian women born between 1967 and 1969 electing their own MP.
    No doubt the counting office would be a nightmare, but I dont see why its a worse system than the current one.
    That Proportional Representation is a bad system does not mean that FPTP Geographic Constituancies is the best system, even if its better.

  9. "People are voting for an individual, not a party, and that individual maintains a close relationship with the local constituency, representing all of the people, not just those who voted for her or him."

    This is the theory. In reality, almost all of us, perhaps 90-95%, vote on the basis of which party or party leader they support. The local MP is increasingly irrelevant. Many, if not most, voters could not name their MP, or even the constituency they live in.

    Modern voters demand more choices, and a multi-party system has evolved in spite of a voting system meant to accommodate only two choices. As a result, most of us are "represented" by somebody we voted against, and most MPs "represent" mostly people who voted against them.

    In reality, most of us live in safe ridings and know who will get elected in our constituency before the votes are cast, whether we vote for that person or vote for someone else or don't bother to vote at all.

    As for whether the current system has "served us well", studies show that countries with proportional voting have much greater levels of voter satisfaction with politics, politicians, and political parties. Perhaps that's because they also tend to have lower inflation, lower unemployment, and better social programs.

  10. Adam, My guess is that if PR does happen it will be bent so that parties such as UKIP will not benefit from it.

  11. Ana, I agree. But for reasons already explained to Adam.

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  13. Thanks, guys.

    Dominic, you make a reasonable case, though I still think that our constituency-based system still works reasonably well. One has more invested, I would argue, in the place one happens to live.

    Wayne, yes, I agree, most people do vote in practice for a party rather than an individual. But the point is, surely, if there is an issue of sufficient local importance people can return to first principles, as they did in Wyre Forest. Besides there are good local MPs and bad. People at least have an option of removing the bad rather having political parties make this decision for them.

    If there is a combination of words that automatically induces in me a sense of wry amusement it has to be ‘studies show.’ What studies; whose studies; what sample? I expect that if the cases under consideration operated a first past the post system ‘studies would show’ the same low levels of inflation and high levels of employment. Or are you suggesting a direct correlation between poor economic performance and more adversarial political systems? Perhaps ‘studies would show’ that no political disagreement whatsoever is the best solution, total quietism or technocratic dictatorship.

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  15. OC, I'm as much against 'fairness', as defined by PR, as I am against 'reform.' :-)

  16. I'm not against reform but agianst bad reform. I prefer the First Past the Post way simply because it is clear and simple and allows more transparency in case of political manoeuvring.

  17. Rehan, I agree.

    OC, because I prefer clarity and stability; I would prefer to keep the Nazi Party out of Parliament.