Monday, March 09, 2009

Against 'First Past the Post'

The need for electoral reform in Britain has never been more pressing.

Last week's essay by Neal Lawson and John Harris in the New Statesman called for a new political framework to go beyond the tired old pick between Labour and Conservative. Even with a devastating financial crisis, they write, "the [big parties' ] underlying analyses are depressingly similar".

After lying dormant for a few years, the debate over electoral reform has been given a new lease of life. The British political system is currently at its most stagnant. Voters are the equivalent of a shopper looking for loo rolls and facing the choice between two brands both uncomfortably scraping your arse like the coarsest of sand paper. There's no alternative, wherever you go, just the same two brands...In a market society, that wouldn't work, would it? You'd be pretty pissed off: "Where are my consumer rights? Where's my free-market society? Where's my choice?"

Come the elections, Britons are given a limited (and distorted) choice of two very similar parties only. Just two. Like some sort of bicephalus communism. You would not select something because you like it, you approve of it, you agree with it. No. You have to go for the least-worst option, like when, in 2005, senior Labour politicians were urging disaffected Labour voters to stick to their party "because otherwise you'll get Michael Howard in". Incidentally, the Tory leader himself complained to the Guardian that people were struggling to detect any real difference in the two parties. "Blair has stolen our clothes", he said, adding that the PM's talent was to "look and sound like a Tory".

Britain is the country where a party with less than thirty per cent of the popular vote can dominate the Parliament with a blanket majority. It happened with the Tories in the 80s and it's been an even more obvious feature under Labour.

For 12 years - that's twelve- Labour MPs, voters, activists and commentators had a massive opportunity to revitalise the British level of democratic participation and press on their own party bosses for electoral reform. But with some sporadic exceptions, little was said and done, and when it was, it was arrogantly scoffed at.

Yes, Tony Blair and his claque would always mouth off empty words about the need to combat apathy and encourage participation. Yet they never intended to make the system more open to popular involvement. To make matters worse, unlike a generation ago, people have now seen Knackered Labour in action for three consecutive terms and with record majorities. Most still remember what the Tories were like in the 80s and 90s. With them being the alternative, it's no wonder a growing number of voters feel disenchanted.

Of course the electoral system is not the only identifiable reason for the country's alarming levels of apathy - epitomised by Bovvered winning the Word of the Year Award in 2006. And yet it doesn’t take much to grasp that if there's a perfect framework designed to dampen down desire to participate, then that's the First Past the Post. You can be as pissed off with the government as you want, or the furthest away possible from the opposition. Tough. In most constituencies, your vote will remain irrelevant.

To define a nation's apathy, no better gauge is there than election turnout figures. The 2001 general elections registered the lowest turnout in history, tallying a miserable 59.4%. In 2005 there was a slight improvement, 61.36%, still very little if you consider the introduction of easier postal voting rules and -particularly - the wave of emotions generated by the Iraq war. Just to give you an idea, the comparatively successful 71.5% turnout recorded at the 1997 elections was already the lowest since World War II.

It's even bleaker when you look at the figures concerning the 18-30 generation: three out of five young people now don’t even bother to head for the polling station. Analysts often cite the fact that more people voted for the final eviction from the Big Brother house than they did at the 2005 elections as the most telling piece of evidence that apathy has now reached the bleakest levels. Although not entirely accurate (no system is there to prevent the same people from casting their Big Brother or Pop Idol vote more than once), any conversation with young Britons of any gender, race or class would be a revelation of staggering disenchantment.

The whole Iraq war controversy is the perfect example of how to deal a lethal blow to people's involvement in the political process. On Saturday 15 February 2003, almost two million people joined what was to be the UK’s biggest ever demonstration. For a country without a tradition of mass protest in the style of France, Germany or Italy, the figures were an even more staggering reminder of the Britons’ mood on the subject. People of all ages and political creed, including those you’d have never imagined could become passionate over current affairs, were suddenly actively raising their voice against the war. Their involvement offered a glimpse of hope against all the talks of apathy and the generation-who-couldn’t-be-bothered.

However, when the Commons voted on the issue in March 2003, the dichotomy between Westminster and the rest of the country was exposed outright. Blair won by a massive majority of 179. The Lib Dems were left as the only group in the parliament to reflect the opinion of the majority, but their unrepresentative numbers made their opposition irrelevant. The dice had been thrown: Britain was sending forces into action without a UN mandate and those who had truly believed that demonstrating en masse on a cold day could make a difference were left to think again.

A system more biased towards a more proportional representation (the options to look at are many) could seriously revitalise the political debate and offer fresh ideas. Britain's need for some political defibrillation paddles has never been more urgent.

Click here to find out more about Make My Vote Count, the campaign for a more representative parliament.


Anonymous said...

Oh yeah, I'm sure the Israelis and the Italians (both with PR systems) can teach us a lesson or two in parliamentary democracy...

What are you on about????

If Britain escaped the horrors of Nazism and Communism, it is probably thanks to the FPTP.

Otherwise I expect you liberals to start moaning that the BNP has snatched a seat pr two...etc...

James Dowden said...

Why look so far afield? Our government works very well here in Wales, and only gets messed up when we have to ask the spuriously-elected fools on the Welsh Affairs Select Committee in Westminster to agree that we can govern ourselves on an issue.

Anonymous said...

The reason why politicians don't like PR is the power it gives to the voters. Go back to 2005 and read the squealing of the central belt (Scotland) stalinists when STV was introduced for local elections. They were right to be afraid since most of the corrupt baronies were voted out and even when they had a majority the 3 other parties had adequate representation which represented the votes cast.

Stan Moss said...

you really do speak a load of rubbish.
What have Israel and Italy got to do with anything?
And that stuff about Nazi...Pathetic.

I suppose it's too complex for your brain cells, but the issue here is that in a constituency where you have Labour at 26%, Tories at 25%, Lib Dems at 20% and all the others, it's simply scandalous that it all amounts to a winner-takes all situation where 74 % of the votes cast are totally useless.

Anonymous said...

Great article.

@thepatriot - have a look at to understand better about the Israeli system and why it is wrong to compare what happens there with what Claude is calling for in this country.

Anonymous said...

- First Past The Post leads to parties elected with minority support that the majority specifically voted against (Poll tax and ID cards spring to mind)

- FPTP encourages parties to fight just over the centre ground, leading to disillusioned core voters. If you look at the Single Transferrable Vote option, it allows parties to be distinctive and encourages internal party debate.

- FPTP encourages gerrymandering and where the boundary is is incredibly important.

- FPTP is only more stable when you have two parties;
FPTP advocates say you know what you're voting for; it gives a clear choice, yet manifesto commitments can be dropped easily; his example is the promise of a referendum on electoral reform.

- STV gives more choice to local people, FPTP and List systems are slaved to party heirarchies equally
Reform would lead to a more representative parliament through electoral choice;