A proportional response

It’s hard to know where to start on how and why the UK is a sick, failed country that is letting its people down and unfit for purpose.

The incompetent government we currently have, driving a vile, unethical foreign policy and wreaking havoc with a disastrous march towards Brexit? The deep-rooted racism in our country, which is a (literally) bloody legacy of centuries of imperialism, jingoism, ignorance and a bigoted media? The gross inequality? The march towards private sector influence inand ownership of the public sector in England, and to an extent the rest of the UK? The fact that money and land is mainly directed by an elite? The fact that we have, in our House of Lords, the monarchy, the Church of England, the City of London Corporation and much more, a way of running out country that has its roots in the medieval era and has in many ways not changed much since then?

All of those and no doubt a massive pile more are all valid points of criticism, but if we think about changing the country for the better it is, again, hard to know where to start. Which would we fix first? Which cause is more “deserving”? Which change would we sacrifice to make another more feasible? Perhaps the fact that none of these problems have been fixed is precisely because opposition to our tired way of doing things is divided on this, and other, questions.

And yet, to my mind, there is one thing about the UK on which all the other problems balance, like an inverted house of cards. One simple change that we could make that makes it extremely likely that all the other structures of the establishment’s vice-like grip on wealth and power would begin to crumble away.

No, it’s not Scottish independence. Though I’ll come back to that issue a bit later on in this blog post and in a subsequent one. It’s not anything legal, economic or environmental. It’s not even anything more deep-rooted, personal or spiritual either.

House of Commons elections

Instead, the one thing I think could cause a bigger ripple – no, tidal wave – of transformational change in the UK is something phenomenally dull and technical.

It’s how our Members of Parliament in Westminster are elected. It is a most dangerous travesty of justice and democracy in our country, with a horrendous impact on wider civic engagement. In short, our votes are not equal. I blogged after the 2010 General Election with a summary of how much each party’s MPs “cost” in terms of votes, and the figures were even worse in 2015.

In our most recent General Election, it took (according to OpenDemocracy) only 34,000 Conservative votes to get a Conservative MP elected and 40,000 Labour votes to get a Labour MP elected. It was even easier for the SNP, so long the victims of our voting system but now delivering an MP for only 25,000 votes. And as with 2010, the DUP had the cheapest MPs, at only 23,000 votes. Yet to get a Liberal Democrat elected took 300,000 votes, for the Greens it was a million, and for UKIP nearly four million. How is that fair?

I don’t want to turn this post into a lecture about the workings of electoral systems. Instead, I’ll ask you, if you feel you need, to go away and read the Wikipedia entries on First Past The Post (FPTP) which we currently use for the House of Commons and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) which is my favourite system, then come back here when you’re done. Actually, you’ll also get bonus points if you go and read my posts from 2011 about the Alternative Vote, which the UK voted not to introduce in a referendum.

All done? Good stuff.

The Single Transferable Vote

Right, what I want to talk about now is how the UK having the Single Transferable Vote to elect our MPs in the House of Commons would stop (or would have stopped) a huge number of terrible things happening in this country.

The main reason for this is that STV would normally lead to coalitions, and in recent history that would normally have seen the Conservatives locked out of power. And yes, that would have been a good thing.

Think about the 1980s, for example, if it doesn’t bring you out in a cringing, cold sweat. The Conservatives were unchallenged throughout that decade and most of the 1990s not because of any political failure by opponents but because of the inflated representation that FPTP gave them. With geographically concentrated support in the south of England, votes clubbed together to get lots of MPs elected, and far fewer votes than for other parties were wasted on coming second or third in other areas. And that’s the beauty of STV – there really aren’t any wasted votes, as your second or third preferences usually end up being used if your first one isn’t.

And given the likelihood that the SDP/Liberal alliance of the 1980s would have created a coalition with the Labour Party sooner than they would with the Conservatives, that means that Thatcher might not have been Prime Minister for so long, or even at all. Think about that for a minute! The economic and social decay wrought through that decade might (and I stress might) not have happened. The poll tax would probably not have been introduced. The Tories’ obsessing over Europe, which continued to the present day, would have been a sideshow. The House of Lords could have been reformed, replaced or even abolished. And given the policies back then of the SDP, Liberals and Labour, there would have been a Scottish Parliament created in the 1980s. Wow!

And as a more recent example, we wouldn’t have had the current Conservative government. Nor would we have had the previous Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, at least not in quite the same way. A smaller Conservative group in the Commons plus a much larger Liberal Democrat one would have given Clegg significantly stronger bargaining power in the 2010 negotiations, and the shape of any coalition – whoever they’d gone with – would have been different. Yes the LibDems sold out on such a lot. But that wasn’t entirely attributable to weakly held political principles. A major part of it was simply that their muscle wasn’t strong enough.

And this, by the way, is a slight sidetrack to say that the LibDems’ biggest mistake was getting agreement with the Conservatives that there should be a referendum on changing the Commons’ voting system to the Alternative Vote. They should have gone for STV without a referendum or refused to enter into a coalition. I remember LIbDem leader Nick Clegg defending this lack of hard line at the time by saying that the LibDems were not the Electoral Reform Society, they were not a single issue party and they wanted to implement changes in the economy as well as in the way we were governed.

The appalling weakness of that argument, however, was that it failed to recognise that the way we are governed totally underpins everything else. Change some economic policies, and they can be changed back later. Change the way we elect the House of Commons to something properly proportional, however, and you ensure no single party can ever dominate and rule unchecked again.

Slight sidetrack over.

The 2015 election result was the final case in point I want to focus on. In terms of reflecting the will of the people it was a travesty of justice. As I write above, a million and a half people voted Green (or, to be correct, one of the three Green parties operating in the UK), and around four million voted UKIP, and both parties got only one MP for their efforts. Yet under a strictly proportional system. they should have received around 20 and 80 each – at least if using the List PR method (which is great for proportionality, if not for local representation).

The Conservatives might have been outflanked by a coalition of the centre and left, and certainly could not have governed alone. Yes, they could have governed in a coalition with UKIP, though firstly it feels like they have done anyway, given the fact they’ve delivered UKIP’s key policy, and secondly I’ve long believed that proportional representation actually smokes out and destroys extremist parties by subjecting them to the responsibility and scrutiny they crave but generally crumble under the weight of when they get it.

So, in short, STV would lead to better, fairer and, crucially, more accountable government. There are grounds for criticising STV however, and I want to finish this post by addressing just two of them.

Coalitions

Firstly, critics of STV say that it delivers coalition government. To which I say that one of the strengths of it is that it delivers coalition governments. What’s wrong with coalitions? Well, the main problem with coalitions is that if you’re a Conservative they would in the UK tend to lock you out of power. And we can’t have that!

But seriously, coalitions are good and necessary, precisely because the people of the UK are, in effect, a coalition. We are not all binary. We do not split neatly into a choice between one political option and another. We are a patchwork of different colours and shades of grey. Therefore a government made up of two or three parties actually reflects the way we vote and the things we want a whole lot more accurately.

Coalitions may not last as long as single-party dictatorships, but that’s hardly a problem. Coalitions work, they can be voted out, and parties end up having to depend on each other and the electorate, rather than on their own artificially inflated support.

The local link

Normally, STV works with constituencies of three, four or five members. This is bad, we’re told, because it loses the local link.

Let’s think about that for a moment; the local link, in a national parliament. Why on earth would you need local representation? You have local government to give you that! The national parliament is about responding to the needs of the whole country. Yes of course, you can’t fill that parliament unless you have people expressing views, and there must be a link between those views and the people elected to represent them (which is why I would not be a fan of the national List system).

But something made up of three, four or five Westminster constituencies is hardly beyond the local. It’s still going to be reflecting an area which is, in England at least, smaller than most counties or big cities. Meanwhile in Scotland my constituency, for instance, would comfortably merge with its two Highland neighbours and maybe Moray. You’d get five or six members in a North East of Scotland seat. Glasgow might be one single constituency. You get the idea.

My constituency is already a vast area, taking in urban, rural, coastal and mountain areas, from the big smoke of Inverness to small villages miles from municipal facilities. If that is a feasible locus for representation, then the Highlands as a whole is no more or less workable. Perhaps the island constituencies could plead a special case to stay as they are, but in the vast majority of the country it is perfectly possible for neighbouring areas to be represented together without the key issues and dynamics being lost.

And this leads to another benefit – diversity of representation. With FPTP, the winner takes all. With STV, those coming second or third still can add up to some modest representation. So in my imagined Highland STV seat, the SNP might only have won a couple of seats, and maybe one or two other parties might have got a seat each. And it’s interesting to note that actually STV would have reduced the SNP’s representation, unusually bloated as it is since 2015.

Surely that’s a good thing? For instance, if you hate the SNP in my seat or most others in Scotland, and let’s imagine a good half of those who didn’t vote for them probably do, then you’re stuffed if you need to engage with your extremely unlikeable MP. If you’re in a slightly larger, more regional seat, however, chances are that the two or three biggest parties all have seats and therefore nearly everyone will view at least one of their four or five MPs as bearable enough to seek help from. In that sense, then, the link between MPs and constituents actually has the potential to be even stronger than it is under FPTP.

And imagine, from that, the knock on effect for political engagement generally. If the national parliament is seen to be reflective of the will of the people, how much more productive will it be for people to call on their MPs to take action on things than now? Community or activist groups opposed by and ignored by their local MP will finally find a voice among another of their four or five representatives. There will truly be a plurality and diversity in our political debate, and it will be one where ordinary people need not merely protest from outside the sphere of influence, but one where they can have a meaningful impact. That is something I find enormously encouraging and exciting.

Conclusion

In an era of seemingly entrenched and irreconcilable political disagreements, it’s nice to remember that, in fact, things don’t work quite so simply. There are, as I have said, a diversity of views and degrees of agreement. There is middle ground. There is fuzziness. There is compromise. And yes, there is uncertainty. And our electoral system, and the shape of our national parliament, should surely reflect that.

The problem is, however, STV is never going to happen in the House of Commons. Conservative turkeys will not vote for Christmas. The House of Lords will certainly not do so either. There might be some degree of hope if all the opposition parties were united behind it, but the Labour Party has made no noises in that direction. Jeremy Corbyn, for all his admirable, principled views on major political matters, has said – to my knowledge – little or nothing about the Commons’ voting system, and it appears not to be among his key campaigns.

In any case Labour ruled for over a decade until 2010 and it did nothing about it. That was because, of course, FPTP gave Labour a thumping majority like it gave one to the Tories before that. Labour turkeys won’t vote for Christmas either, and despite the prospect of locking the Tories out of power they simply couldn’t abide having to work with others to do so. Let’s not forget Ed Miliband in the 2015 TV debates famously choosing a Tory government over the prospect of collaboration with the SNP.

So that’s where we find ourselves. The one thing above all that could trigger an enormous positive revolution in the way our country is governed and the way our citizens are engaged… is simply not going to happen, now or at any remotely conceivable time in the future.

For all the UK’s numerous faults, it is the lack of any prospect of STV, much more than any other issue or problem, however severe, that makes the country unreformable. And that is why Scotland must leave it.

And that in turn is why I’ll be blogging about Scottish independence in my next post.

4 thoughts on “A proportional response

  1. STV is a pain in the arse. Trying to campaign with it involves endless mathematical permutations, tension between candidates, and voters don’t understand the business of allocating 2nd & 3rd preferences in any event. I assume you don’t have much involvement in the current LG campaign, or you wouldn’t be writing so blithely about it.

  2. Hi Kininvie, thanks for your comment.

    STV only invokes endless mathematical permutations and tensions if you allow it to. Your job as a campaigner (I get the impression that’s what you are from your comment – apologies if not) is exactly the same as before: to persuade people to vote for your party or candidate. People can make their own mind up about transfers.

    And yes people can choose second and third preferences (if they wish. It’s not compulsory) because we do it all the time in life. Our top five films in order, or food, or songs, or whatever. And voters are increasingly getting used to STV here for councils, trade unions etc, as they are in other countries already. Indeed, I bet most people could probably name their second or third favourite political parties already even in non-STV contests (how else would we manage tactical voting or London mayoral elections?).

    If it’s a pain in the arse for parties, that’s not really a consideration when it is about empowering voters. I wonder if STV’s shifting of power from parties to voters is part of why you don’t like it.

  3. This is a really sad read. Was it George Washington who first warned the destructive effects of hyper-partisanship?

    It’s actually very very scary that (seemingly) intelligent people put such effort into perpetuating it. A “sick” country with “deep-rooted racism” – really? You genuinely feel your country is “unfit for purpose”?

    Ironically, it’s just these kinds of lazy hyperbolae that have turned people, who used to be able to disagree, to polarised, divided sets of angry, hate-filled people the world over. That’s what really makes a country “unfit for purpose”.

    I promise you, where you live – assuming you live in the UK – is really not such a bad place to be. And I’d be open to understanding where you feel is so much better.

    Less of the hate brother! Please!

  4. Hi George, yes I genuinely do think that our country is sick – the levels of inequality and power discord are extraordinary and growing, and yes I do believe that we have deep-rooted racism because centuries of imperialism and recent years of xenophobia testify to that. We have had people killed on the streets over the EU referendum, for crying out loud.

    Yes where I live is not a bad place in the global sense. I’m privileged to have relative peace and prosperity. Yet much of that is at the cost of our contribution to global disharmony elsewhere, and the fact that such a rich and incredible part of the world as these islands could end up being so disappointing is precisely the let down. The UK could be so much better, yet it isn’t.

    Though all that has nothing to with the Single Transferable Vote. Or actually, as I argue in the post, it sort of does…

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