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Entries in Proportional Representation (2)

Saturday
Jun202009

Broken Britain

Sections of the UK's right-wing media have been running a rather odious campaign for a while now, called 'Broken Britain', which selectively highlights examples of moral or social failures, and, you guessed it, places the blame for them squarely on the so-called British nanny state. 'Britain's broken society' was a soundbite used very cleverly (if cynically) by David Cameron to group together things that people generally don't like - teenage pregnancies, knife crime, obesity and so on - and present them as the result of left-wing policies. It's a shrewd PR tactic, and the press have run with it, but it's got little to do with reality.

And the reality is this: Britain doesn't have a left-wing government. Or even an elected left-wing political party. In fact, in Westminster, there hasn't really been a sniff of Leftyness in years. Both the main parties have been trying to out-do each other on how right-wing they can be, endorsing or initiating privatisation after privatisation; dodgy tax cuts; talking down of the Human Rights act; clampdowns on asylum seekers; taxpayer-funded posters with crosshairs on poor people (read benefit thieves); a hang-'em-and flog 'em approach to crime. The Lib Dems have been a bit more restrained, but they too propose a low-tax state and public services which are essentially run by (and arguably for) big business. These are the kinds of policies which the press has campaigned tirelessly - and successfully - for, so, to misquote the paper, if Britain is broken, it's arguably The Press What Broke It.

There is one thing in Britain though which is unquestionably broken, and has been for years: its democracy. The way that MPs are elected is shockingly undemocratic - under Britain's First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system, MPs - incredibly - do not need to get a majority of votes to get elected.
 

Under FPTP, the candidate with the biggest chunk of the vote gets the seat. Say I was standing for election in Britain for the Chris Singleton Party (I doubt you'd elect me), against two other candidates. If I win 40% of the votes, and my opponents get 30% each, I still win the seat, despite 60% of the electorate voting against me. This is crazy, and, when repeated all over the country, leads to a parliament which doesn't remotely reflect the votes cast. A good example of this is Thatcher's 1983 landslide - the Tories won 42% of the vote and ended up with 61% of the seats. Labour did something similar in 1997, winning 43% of the vote and getting 63% of the seats.

Looking at the 1997 example more closely, here's what the UK voted for:

Labour: 43%
Tory: 31%
Lib Dem: 17%
Others: 9%

...and here's what it got, in terms of parliament seats:

Labour: 63%
Tory: 25%
Lib Dem: 7%
Others: 5%

This is basically electoral fraud: a massive con job where every general election that takes place in the UK is effectively stolen. It may be the voting system that is defrauding the electorate - as opposed to say, a dodgy dictator - but by preserving this wickedly unfair system, the politicians at Westminster are doing something far more sinister than fiddling their expenses: they are disenfranchising millions of people.

The alternative to FPTP is proportional representation, and it's something that Britain needs above all the other measures which are being touted as ways of cleaning up politics. Sadly it seems years away. Our PM-in-waiting, David Cameron - knowing that the current unfair electoral system provides the only way he'd get a Conservative majority - has already come out against introducing proportional representation. Brown has hinted at some reform, but his position is so weak that anything he proposes in this area is likely to be seen as an attempt to get out of his current jam by 'fixing' the next election.

But until a fair voting system is introduced, Britain is going to continue to be a basket-case democracy, where your vote doesn't count unless you live in a marginal seat, and where shows like the X-Factor generate more votes than elections. Virtually no other modern European democracy uses First Past The Post, and if British politicians are serious about reforming politics, this reform has got to start with the most fundamental aspect of democracy: making votes count.

Visit http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/ and http://www.makemyvotecount.org.uk to support the campaign for a fair voting system. You can also join the little 'Fair votes' Facebook group that I've set up at http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2398924840

Tuesday
Jul172007

The one thing Gordon Brown should do

We've got a new prime minister, so it's time to get political. Ish.

There's been a lot of noise on the blogosphere - and elsewhere - about what Gordon Brown should do now that he's prime minister. I've read an interesting mix of instructions, from the hang 'em and flog 'em brigade, calling for the removal of immigrants from the UK, to anti-war protestors calling for the removal of troops from Iraq. Depends whether you're on the Sky News or the Guardian website respectively.

A lot of people have extensive 'to-do' lists for Gordon - and admittedly, I have a quite a long wishlist myself - but if I met him, I'd ask him to do just one thing. And it's something which should transcend political divides; a political reform that, if they hold democracy dear, no left-winger or right-winger should be afraid of. I would ask Mr Brown to introduce a fair voting system, in place of the first-past-the-post voting system which is currently used in the UK.

In the UK voting system, an MP is elected to represent a constituency if they get a higher number of votes than any of their opponents in that constituency. This is not the same as winning a majority of votes. For example, a candidate could win a seat if she got 10,000 votes and her two opponents got 9,500 and 8,000 votes. In spite of the fact that far more people effectively voted against the winning candidate than for her, she would still win.

This may seem unfair at a constituency level, but it leads to incredible distortion at a national level. As an example of this, consider the 1983 and 2007 elections, which led to large majorities for the Tories and Labour respectively.

1983 Election*
The 1983 election saw a massive Tory landslide - they got 397 parlimentary seats compared to Labour's 209 - and a 'mandate' for Thatcher to carry out her revolution. But she only won 42% of the vote: 58% of the UK population did not want her party in office. But the Tories' 42% share of the vote resulted in them winning 61% of the seats in parliament. Is this fair?

1997 Election*
Labour's 1997 landslide is just as dubious. Their remarkable 418 seats in parliament and their historic majority was on the basis of winning 43% of the vote.

Although in both elections it was clear that the parties that ended up in government won the largest 'chunk' of the vote, they did not win the popular vote outright and ended up with majorities which, on the basis of votes cast, they did not at deserve.

In fact, since 1945, no party that has entered Government has won a majority of the votes (i.e., more than 50%). Labour came close in 1951, with 49.4% - and actually lost the election.

The 'strong government' argument
The main argument that I've heard being made in favour of the first-past-the-post voting system is that it produces 'strong' governments, as opposed to fragile coalitions that are prone to collapse. That may or may not be the case - but it's irrelevant. A strong government that effectively was not elected is not preferable to a coalition that was, regardless of its perceived 'strength' or coherence. In any event, my home country, Ireland would disprove that particular notion, with one party, Fianna Fail, having been in power for most of the past 25 years under a proportional representation system, in coalition with various minor parties.

If it's good enough for them...
The answer to all this is obviously to switch to a voting system where the number of seats a party receives broadly corresponds to the number of people voting for them. This doesn't mean doing away with constituencies or local MPs - it just means switching to proportional representation. And besides, if PR is good enough for elections in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland - surely it's good enough for UK general elections?

More information
Make Votes Count - http://www.makemyvotecount.org.uk/about.html
Electoral Reform Society - http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/

* Statistics from House of Commons Research Paper 03/59: UK Election Statistics 1945-2003