ELECTION SPECIAL PART ONE: the Dumb-Ass Debate About the UK’s Dumb-Ass Electoral System


The Economist has a typically arresting image on its cover as the UK goes into the final week of campaigning for its general parliamentary election on May 7. The picture shows a face whose left side is that of Ed Miliband, the Labour Party leader, on a red background, and whose right is David Cameron, his Conservative Party counterpart and the current Prime Minister, on blue. The tag (in Liberal Democrat yellow) is “Britain’s Choice”.

As the newspaper’s editors and almost everybody else of course knows, though this is the choice facing the UK in some tenuous, convoluted sense, it is not the choice facing any particular Briton or Northern Irish person. Cameron is running to be the Member of Parliament for Witney, in Oxfordshire; Miliband for Doncaster North, part of the town in South Yorkshire. No ballot features both of them.

You could be forgiven for not realising that during the campaign. Over its course, the UK public have been treated to an increasingly Presidential-style presentation of the election, with leaders of seven parties – the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg, deputy PM under Cameron; the secessionist Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon; the anti-immigration UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage; the far left Green Party’s Natalie Bennett, and Leanne Wood of Welsh Nationalists Plaid Cymru, (the Northern Irish party leaders, principally Nigel Dodds of the Democratic Unionist Party, and Irish nationalists Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams, had their own locally televised debate), along with Cameron and Miliband – cajoling and debating on television, campaigning all over the country in constituencies in which they are not on the ballot, and generally being covered by media as though they were all competing in one, national, election.

They’re not, of course. They lead parties that are competing in a series of local elections for representatives in Parliament, which then pick the government. It’s just that the UK people have become very comfortable – too comfortable, in my view – with the idea of rigid, homogenous parties being the object of simultaneous electoral selection for the legislative and executive branches of the state.

Party platforms are defended by candidates, whether or not they agree with every line, because to campaign as an independent without party machinery backing is political suicide. Hardly anyone knows who their MP is. A good deal more could probably now tell you who Sturgeon is – she was generally agreed to have won the main TV debates – even if her party is only on roughly one in every 13 ballots. She is on none.

The tragedy of the Commons

But when results are announced, they often make a lot of people perplexed, even angry. Labour generally tends to need a smaller percentage of the national vote to get a majority than the Tories – perhaps by as much as five percentage points. This is because their support is more concentrated in urban areas with unevenly populated historical constituencies, while Conservative support is dispersed all across the rural mainland, though probably neither party will get a majority in this election. On the other hand, were the Cameron v Miliband choice offered directly to UK citizens, the Tory would win in a 20 point landslide.

In 2010, the Liberal Democrats’ share of the national vote went from 22.1% to 23.0%, and yet they actually had a net loss of five seats in the Commons, from 62 to 57. Ben Page, chief executive of pollster Ipsos-Mori, told the BBC that this year they could take as little as 7% of the vote, and yet retain up to 25 seats, while Ukip and the Greens get only one each with as much as 15% and 8% respectively. The SNP are likely to get roughly the same proportion of the vote as the Greens, and yet amazingly could sweep all Scotland’s 59 seats.

This kind of stuff bothers some people, who are really attached to the idea that “democracy is awesome”. So occasionally there’s mass hand-wringing about what to do about it, and a debate about if we should change this electoral system – known by a typically British sporting metaphor as “first-past-the-post” – and if we do, to what. It roughly goes a bit like this:

“On the one hand,” says one concerned citizen, let’s call him Timothy, “having a direct link between a constituent and his or her MP is a good thing – they are our voice at the seat of government since the 13th Century, and I like being able to take up problems with someone I can look in the eye, and who personally tries to get my support.

“On the other, I think the government should represent the views of all the people. Only 36% of voters voted for Cameron’s party, while fully 41% voted against both coalition parties – it’s undemocratic that he has all this concentrated power. Government shouldn’t be able to do such huge things without very broad-based support.”

The lonesome ballad of Little Timmy’s tiny electoral violin

The Lib Dems – long the tiny-violin playing self-pitying victims of this “hideous injustice” – felt so strongly about the problem that they exchanged virtually all their bargaining power in negotiations for potential coalition agreements after the 2010 deadlock for a referendum on replacing FPP with some kind of alternative system. Among other things, they dropped their opposition to state-subsidised tuition fees for higher education, disappointing their student base who long for the good ol’ days of the far more regressive grants system, for instance.

The most well-known alternative to FPP is so-called ‘proportional representation’, such as they have in the chambers in many European countries. This simply divides the available seats up according to their weight in the national electorate. But it falls foul of the “one hand” point detailed above – representatives are party hacks, with no link to a constituency. This further embeds the party system, and makes the state even more remote from the citizenry than it is currently.

The Lib Dems’ AV was an attempt to square the circle. It was a preferential voting system, where voters ranked the candidates, and if no majority was reached, the last placed candidate’s votes were redistributed accordingly, repeatedly if necessary, until there was one. Just in case anyone was going to make the mistake that the Liberal Democrats were interested in making the UK more democratic, they first joined with Labour in blocking the Tories’ efforts to rationalise Parliament into fewer, more equally populated seats.

What did for AV was the complexity of the decision process. While ranking candidates is a simple enough idea, ranking-candidates-conditional-on-the-whole-population’s-rankings-weighted-in-reverse-order-of-first-preferences is not, and people were loathe to have elections decided in favour of the candidates deemed not quite good enough by the voters of the Socialist Worker or Monster Raving Loony parties. People worried that it would be more open to manipulation by so-called “tactical” voters (although no voting system is immune from that alleged problem). After a similar method was employed to comical effect in the Labour Party leadership contest, and Miliband emerged as leader rather than his more photogenic brother David (to the sound of many a savvy Labour Party affiliate slapping palm to face), it was clear it would lose the referendum. And it did.

So here we are again, with FPP deciding the make up of a government that almost everyone will hate, and many will regard as illegitimate precisely because of the way it was picked. But…there is an alternative alternative. Let’s go back to our confused citizen, Timothy, who has now regressed a bit, in the face of all this having-to-deal-with-politicians stuff.

“I want a local MP, and a national government. Aww shucks, Mr Welles, if only there were a way to have both,” says Little Timmy, staring glumly at his electoral card. Well, gee-whizz, Timmy, how about this:

Just. Elect. The. Two. Things. Separately.

You go to vote, and on the ballot is one box for who should head the government, and one box for who should represent you in its legislative chamber. So simple, and yet so fucking obvious. It’s what France does. And the US. For instance.

And yet this option doesn’t figure in the debate. At all. Whenever I talk to other Brits about this, I end up banging my head against the table because they can’t seem to understand the concept.

“You mean, my MP could be anyone, but he’d have to vote along with the Whip of whichever party his constituency voted for for the executive?”

No, Timmy. Just two separate votes.

“You mean, the party that wins government is obliged to fill Parliament with members according to the share of the votes each party got in the Parliamentary vote, like proportional representation?”

No, Timmy. Just two separate votes.

“But I only want one election, not two!”

Fine, Timmy. We could do it all on one ballot. You fuckwit.

Power and accountability

Little Timmy’s older brother, Big Jim, who holds a 2:2 in sociology from the University of Aberystwyth, pipes up: “But if the Prime Minister isn’t picked by Parliament, he or she may not have the backing of a majority in the Commons. This means it will be hard to ‘get things done’,” he says.

This is true, as far as it goes. However, I regard it as a good thing. When the executive branch has unfettered control over the legislative branch, it can “get things done” almost at will. And when government “gets things done”, I buy canned goods and hide in my bunker in Montana.

Indeed, when UK governments’ own party members vote against them it’s news. It’s even news if a UK government allows their party’s members a “free vote”! If this is your idea of how to structure the state, then why bother with a Parliament at all? Hitler could “get things done” as much as he liked, after all.

In a liberal society, government is not supposed to “get things done”. It’s supposed to get a small number of the right things done. This should mainly be focused on the provision of public goods, like defence, the impartial rule of law, and maybe a minimum standard of living. But at any rate, if you’re a democrat, government action should only be taken when there is a broad enough consensus on it.

Government will still be able to “get things done”, just if it is able to rally some majority of MPs behind it, rather than one static, permanent one. It’s just that this majority would change with each bit of legislation, and that this would be the norm rather than the exception.

It would mean pro-business Labour MPs  could vote with liberal Tories to cut overly burdensome taxes and regulations. Backbench Tory old Englanders could vote with Greens to preserve the environment. Old school trade unionists could vote with their natural Ukip bedfellows on immigration. The rigid party politics would melt into the aether, and a more fluid, inclusive one take its place.

Shut it down

All government is ultimately backed by force of violence. It is a terrible but necessary thing, and needs to be held accountable to the citizenry. The founding fathers of the US understood this, and so in the time honoured phrase “separated the powers” of government. Separation of powers is a much more powerful mechanism for accountability than a single election of a de facto dictatorship every five years.

In the US, if you want to vote for a Democrat for President, a Republican for your local Representative, and an independent for Senate, there’s nothing to stop you. (Ok, so the President is actually selected through the indirect electoral college process, which can differ from the popular vote, and there’s the problem of faithless electors. The point is the decision of the voter about the executive is distinct from their decision about their local legislative representative.)

Often there are different party majorities in the two houses of Congress. Sometimes both houses have majorities for the opponents of the President’s party. There is a long and distinguished history of strong independent candidates, at least in the Senate. Presidents have to work to “get things done”, by convincing the other representatives of the citizenry. And why stop there? Many states directly elect many other individual executive offices, like Attorney General, and even the fabled Dog Catcher. We could elect a Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer and a Labour Health Secretary.

“Oh come on,” says Big Jim, “What about the ‘Shutdown’ in 2013? Surely that shows that a Parliamentary executive is better than a Presidential one?”

Americans are, in general, pretty sceptical of what government can achieve, and so Federal law requires it to have time limits on all its funding. Sometimes that funding is not renewed, and there is no legal basis to pay the people running some of its operations. So they go home and the government “shuts down”. There have been 18 Federal government shutdowns, all since 1976, and most recently in 2013.

Amazing as it may seem to Europeans and Brits who think government is just awesome, this is a feature, not a bug. The US constitution is designed to limit the powers governments can hold, and require them to face the representatives of the people periodically, and check those powers are still what they want. If there isn’t broad enough based support – and remember, all forms of collective choice are flawed – then it errs on the side of not forcing the view of the government on the minority. Which is exactly what Little Timmy wanted, if you remember.


One thought on “ELECTION SPECIAL PART ONE: the Dumb-Ass Debate About the UK’s Dumb-Ass Electoral System

  1. Pingback: ELECTION POST-MORTEM: the Most Boring Massive Surprise Ever | capitalismwithasmileyface

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s