Wednesday, May 28, 2008

On voting systems and the far-right

In response to Mike Ion's post about the best way to confront the BNP, Chris Dillow makes the following argument:
"The fact is that our electoral system gives Labour little incentive to fight the far-right, or listen to its core supporters.

Labour will not lose the next election because of the rise of the BNP in places like Stoke (Mike's example). It makes no difference if Labour's 10,000 majorities in Stoke's constituencies are cut by thousands because of the BNP or abstainers. What will cost Labour the election is the loss of places like Worcester or Oxford West. And although abstentions or BNP votes by white working class voters in those areas could be a problem, they are less a danger than middle-income floating voters swinging to the Tories. It was his grasp of this fact that helped Blair win three elections.

So, could it be that ignoring its core support - and the rise in the BNP this threatens - is one of the prices we must pay for our first-past-the-post system?"
Oh dear, oh dear. I'm inclined to apologise in advance for the tone of this response because electoral systems is part of the Modern Studies syllabus and while I'm a fan of our Chris, I'm really struggling to avoid going into default sarcasmo-teacher mode here - which is what I would be doing if one of my senior pupils submitted an essay with an evidence-free bullshit argument like this.

Every pupil knows - or at least the ones that attend my classes do - that PR facilitates the representation of minorities that tend to be penalized in a majoritarian voting system. All very well and good if these minority parties are cuddly ones like those Greens who want you to put windmills on your roof. But we hope that they would also be able to grasp that the representation of minorities isn't an unalloyed benefit if the minorities in question happen to be vicious bastards like the BNP.

We would then go on to make an international comparison. I don't concern myself with English local government on the grounds that a) we're not English b) it's not in the syllabus c) it's boring - and compare national legislatures instead. We can confine ourselves to this point: with the exception of Germany, which has banned explicitly neo-Nazi parties for obvious historical reasons, there is only one other European country that has no representatives from fascist parties in its national legislature. That country is Britain. We could congratulate ourselves for a national character that proscribes this - but I take the view that FPTP might just have something to do with it. No Greens - but no fascists either: that may be the price we pay for our majoritarian system. If so, it's one well-worth paying.

But too much is claimed for voting systems anyway and a lot of crap - historical and contemporary - is written about them as a consequence. Weimar? Don't get me started. PR produces greater economic growth? It shouldn't have taken the rise of China before this was filed under 'bullshit'. Increases voter turnout? See all these jounos and bloggers who pontificate about the international situation - have they heard of a small province at the north of Britain called Scotland? Evidence past and present would tend to suggest not. PR is 'fairer'? It's a coincidence that parties tend to argue that the system that is 'fair' just so happens to benefit them, is it? Gimme a fucking break. Actually, there is an exception to this: one party in Scotland opposed both devolution and the PR system Holyrood adopted - despite the fact that they clearly benefited - and this would be the Scottish Tories. But don't give them too much credit for this because they seem to have changed their minds recently. Funny that.

In this vein, I need to qualify the above observations about far-right representation. There's another country in Europe that doesn't have this in its national legislature and it is Scotland. Will this be enough to ditch this nonsense about voting systems? Greater variables are at play. We have PR yet no BNP. Amongst the reasons for this is because the BNP are, despite their name, a fundamentally English phenomenon. But what if this were not so - ditch PR? No, no - ask yourself: what do you want your voting system to do - then leave it at that. There are other ways of dealing with the far-right and here I find myself in disagreement with Mike Ion as well as Chris. Address the problems of the working class because it is a matter of good policy, of justice, but fuck the BNP. Hasn't history taught us that fascists have moveable grievances that take on a momentum of their own and have little connection with their supposed original 'causes'?

Here I find my liberalism stretches only so far as to give them enough rope to hang themselves. Should this fail they should be crushed without pity. You can complain that this is undemocratic and illiberal if you like but understand this: remembering that the concept of 'enemies of the state' has sinister precedents shouldn't blind us to the fact that the state does indeed have enemies - and that history teaches us liberty folds when it has delegitimized the means by which it must defend itself. Or to understate it another way: one should be parsimonious with the freedom we allow those who would extend it to no-one but themselves.

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