Another Sop to our Faux Democracy?

It is noted that on Monday 30th October a debate is taking place in Westminster Hall to discuss whether the voting system in the United Kingdom should be changed to one of proportional representation (PR), as a result of a petition securing the required number of signatures.

At the 2017 general election, the Conservatives picked up 13.6 million votes and 318 seats, whereas the Liberal Democrats picked up 2.3 million votes and just 12 seats in the Commons. Combined, the Greens and Ukip collected more than 1.1 million votes but won just a single MP between them (source).

From that same source we find Darren Hughes, chief executive of the campaign group the Electoral Reform Society stating: After the third election in a row which failed to produce a decisive result, it’s welcome news that electoral reform is back on the agenda. First-past-the-post (FPTP) is failing on its own terms –and June was its third strike. First Past the Post, far from being ‘strong and stable’, is a recipe for volatility and random results. The arguments for fair votes are stronger than ever. Millions of votes were thrown on the electoral scrapheap in June’s election: 68% of ballots had no impact on the result. That’s 22 million votes going to waste. First-past-the-post, far from being ‘strong and stable’, is a recipe for volatility and random results. Just 0.0016% of voters choosing differently would have given the Conservatives a majority, while the election saw a rise in very marginal seats: eleven seats were won by fewer than 100 votes. Contradicting that assertion we have a spokesperson from the Cabinet Office stating: The government is concerned that proportional voting systems would weaken the direct constituency link which is a key feature of our parliamentary system, and under a proportional system the voting process is more complicated for the voter.

Let us briefly consider the arguments for and against FPTP:

For:

  • It provides a clear-cut choice for voters between two main parties.
  • It gives rise to single-party governments.
  • It gives rise to a coherent opposition in the legislature, or it should.
  • It excludes extremist parties from representation in the legislature.
  • It promotes a link between constituents and their representatives
  • It gives a chance for popular independent candidates to be elected.
  • FPTP is praised for being simple to use and understand. A valid vote requires only one mark beside the name or symbol of one candidate. Even if the number of candidates on the ballot paper is large, the count is easy for electoral officials to conduct.

Against:

  • It excludes smaller parties from ‘fair’ representation.
  • It excludes minorities from fair representation. As a rule, under FPTP, parties put up the most broadly acceptable candidate in a particular district so as to avoid alienating the majority of electors.
  • The ‘most broadly acceptable candidate’ syndrome also affects the ability of women to be elected to legislative office because they are often less likely to be selected as candidates by male-dominated party structures.
  • It leaves a large number of wasted votes which do not go towards the election of any candidate.
  • It can cause vote-splitting.
  • FPTP systems are dependent on the drawing of electoral boundaries.

Now the same process for PR:

For:

  • Under the current “first past the post” (FPTP) system, power tends to end up with one party (or, occasionally, a coalition) no matter how small its majority.
  • A more proportional system would give minority parties and independent candidates a better chance of getting into parliament, thus introducing different voices to our national political life.
  • There could be a higher turnout at the polls under PR. A study into New Zealand voting patterns  showed a “modest increase” in turnout after its switch from FPTP to PR.
  • As PR seldom results in one party holding an absolute majority, it requires governments to compromise and build consensus, meaning that – in theory, at least – stable, centrist policies will carry the day.

Against:

  • PR allows extremist parties to gain a foothold in national life. If the UK general election in 2010 had been held under a PR system, Ukip would have been the third-largest party in parliament, with 83 seats instead of one.
  • Under FPTP, MPs serve the constituency they campaign in so are more inclined to tackle important local issues.
  • Neither the trade union reforms Margaret Thatcher pushed through nor Tony Blair’s raft of improvements to public services could have been carried through without a strong governing majority.
  • The coalition governments that PR tends to produce are often weak and indecisive.

If we are to consider democracy per se then there are some points that need making straightaway.

  • Rather than 68%, or  22 million, votes going to waste it could be argued that 100% of votes went to waste because they could not effect any change in policies with which they disagreed.
  • The government may be concerned that proportional voting systems would weaken the direct constituency link which is a key feature of our parliamentary system; but while there my be a direct constituency link, each voter in any constituency has no direct control over those they have elected.
  • Why should any voting system give a clear choice between two main parties; this, in effect, precludes the opportunity of a member of the electorate voting for a third alternative.
  • If only it were possible to have a coherent opposition (or government for that matter) because all that is provided currently is an interminable argument about the benefits of capitalism vs state provision – and vice-versa.
  • Why should any ‘extremist’ party be excluded from having its voice heard in the legislature? How would those currently condemning what they call ‘extremism’ feel were, tomorrow, they had another group telling them their views were extremist and consequently they should not have votes cast for them?
  • Elected members may represent defined areas of cities or towns; but more importantly, as politics has become a career, if those employees of the people wish to keep their jobs then it is their party they must put above their constituents and consequently vote as their party whip demands.
  • Forget ‘regional fiefdoms’; let us consider what may be termed ‘constituency fiefdoms’ where an  MP has represented one constituency for a decade or two, or more. Those  MPs secured the seat because they were put forward by the political party for whom they stood and were chosen as a prospective candidate by an .extremely  small coterie of those elected to vote.
  • MPs may well have been elected despite 75 per cent of their constituency voting against them, but then governments have been elected when 65% approx, or more, have not voted for them, or have abstained.
  • There could well be a higher turnout at the polls under PR; unfortunately quoting just one study does not an ideal voting system make.
  • PR may well result in not one party holding an absolute majority and it may well require the largest party to compromise and build consensus and it may well mean that – in theory, at least – stable, centrist policies will carry the day. Unfortunately for the electorate such ‘deals’ only happen once they have voted – and over which which they have no voice – witness the 2010 coalition ‘stitch-up’.
  • So Ukip may well have gained 83 seats on the basis of ‘xenophobia and nationalism’ – if a member of the electorate ‘feels’ for his/her country of birth, should their voice be denied?
  • We are led to believe that under FPTP, MPs serve the constituency they campaign in so are more inclined to tackle important local issues. This is a fallacy; remember that any MP who, ‘taking the government’shilling’ and thus becoming part of the payroll vote (ie, accepting office as a PPS or any higher stage up to Secretary of Sate) is duty bound to to support government policy. That is a fact; in which case how can they tackle important local issues if the problem raised contravenes government policy?
  • It is said that  coalition governments, that PR tends to produce, are often weak and indecisive; meaning that an ‘iron fist’ (under our current system of democratised dictatorship) cannot be exercised. Never mind the opposition, just where is the ability of the people, on a day-to-day basis, of being the opposition?

The debate on Monday is meaningless – it is being conducted by those who have said iron-grip on the democratic status quo talking amongst themselves and for what purpose other than to complete a process which is a sop to the electorate. Witness the Coalition Agreement of 2010(Our Programme for Government) which stated (page 26):

We will ensure that any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be eligible for formal
debate in Parliament. The petition with the most signatures will enable members of the

public to table a bill eligible to be voted on in Parliament.

Nowhere was it stated that any binding vote of MPs would be held and nowhere was it stated that were the MPs to vote against said petition that it would still become law. This sop is similar to that of the promise to allow the recall of MPs by their constituents (page 26) which stated:

We will bring forward early legislation to introduce a power of recall, allowing voters
to force a by-election where an MP is found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing and

having had a petition calling for a by-election signed by 10% of his or her constituents.

Once again, nowhere was it stated that said recall would require the consent of a panel of MPs, which is what the Bill, when published and voted through, actually required.

Earlier I used the phrase ‘iron fist’, one which is exercised by any political party forming a government in order to ensure, through their MPs being ‘whipped’, their legislative programme is passed. Two examples of this have already been mentioned from the Coalition programme for 2010/2015.

Recently I came across a description used by someone about someone else; and it was said that (excuse the language) he/she was a total ‘head-fart’; meaning that they spoke at great length, the content of which invariably was total crap, while leaving a whiff of something not very nice afterwards.

On the basis that the standard of our politicians sinks ever more lower with each passing election, they are prime candidates for the term used in the preceding paragraph.

 

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