First past the post

Our voting system in Britain is a clear disgrace, and will be even more so when the Conservatives have finished – as they have started – gerrymandering it to their advantage even more: boundary changes, ‘reform’ of TU funding, and the like.. The last general election gave them an overall majority of seats in the House of Commons on the basis of a quarter, only, of the electorate, or a third of those who actually voted. The SNP got nearly all the Scottish seats with just over a half of Scottish votes; and UKIP – for whom I have no love, but still – polled about 20%, for only one MP. It doesn’t always happen that way around – sometimes Labour benefits in a similar way; but never before, I think, has the discrepancy between ‘votes’ and ‘power’ been so blatant. This is not democracy. It’s a game, to be won by the party that is better at playing by the rules. And to compound the injustice, the government is now pushing through an extreme programme of legislation which could only, surely, be morally and democratically justified if it had the backing of a true majority in the country. You’d have thought that its weak following might have tempered its ardour. Not a bit of it.

At the root of this, of course, lies our ‘first-past-the-post’ system, by which the person who heads the ballot in each constituency wins everything, even if within that constituency more people vote against him or her: that is, for other candidates on the list. The arguments for this were (1) that the national results coming out of this system were usually roughly representative of the electorate – until now; (2) that it provided strong and  stable government, without quarrelsome coalitions; and (3) that it gave each voter an MP of his or her own, representing his or her immediate geographical area. Candidates are selected locally too, though there is often some central party interference. – I have to say I have always valued that last aspect of the system. It goes back to the very origins of our parliament, when MPs were elected as individuals, to represent their constituents alone. There was no formal ‘party system’ then; which is what of course has complicated things since the later 18th century. I like this: to know that I have my ‘own’ MP, batting for my community, whatever his or her party happens to be. In most constituencies they are familiar local figures, getting to know their constituents, and holding weekly ‘surgeries’ at which they can sort out the latters’ problems. On that level, it works pretty well.

Most proportional representation systems don’t give you that. I’ve seen – and indeed participated in – one of these in Sweden: people voting for a party, whose bosses then use a list of approved candidates to appoint the actual MPs according the proportion of votes the party wins nationally. I would have thought that this distances ordinary people from their governors. Maybe the Swedes don’t need this kind of ‘MP-constituency’ relationship; they have Ombudspeople to sort out the kinds of problems that British voters take along to their MPs’ surgeries. And Sweden has always, historically, had a far more centralised government than Britain. But it makes me uncomfortable. Swedish election posters only feature party leaders – usually rather boringly and uniformly. There’s no human connection. I’d miss not having Diana (my local MP) here to approach if I needed to. On the other hand, it does mean that if Moderaten get 30% of the vote, say, they get 30% of MPs.

There are ways around this. Some countries – Germany and Ireland I think – elect a proportion of their MPs by constituency, but then with some spare candidates of every party on hand to fill the other seats in such a way as to balance out the inequalities. Another idea (my own, though I’m sure others must have thought of it) would be to have larger, multi-member constituencies – I’m thinking of six or eight local MPs each – with votes within those constituencies apportioned proportionally. Either of those systems might give us the best of both worlds.

They would also have other major advantages. New parties could start up more easily, than if they had to jump the highest hurdle right from the start. People would vote for what they believed in, rather than ‘tactically’, as happens now. There would be no such thing as a ‘wasted’ vote. As a result we would be able to see from the composition of the House of Commons what the spread of opinion in the country really was. Yes, there would be continual coalitions, which would require some subtle (and not-so-subtle) bargaining, and would be frustrating to any party ideologically committed to a certain set of policies; but that could be said to be in the nature of democracy. And it would work to temper the extremism of some of those ideologies. There was a hint of that in the last Con-Lib coalition, which enabled the Libs to restrain the Cons to a small degree; as we can appreciate now that the Cons have been set free from their Liberal incubus.

At present we have the extraordinary situation in which an unelected House of Lords is the only body able and prepared to rub down the sharper edges of government legislation in line with public opinion; to the annoyance of the Conservatives, of course, who are now preparing to gerrymander the Lords too. That – the Lords – is another question, to which I may return. For the moment, however, reform of the Commons voting system is clearly essential, as a first step towards making Britain a genuine democracy. (The second step will be to limit party donations; the third to do something about press ownership.)

See  MakeVotesMatter.org.uk on this.

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