Saturday, May 08, 2010

Reflections on the election: voting, voting reform and the myth of the progressive majority

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that this election has highlighted the need for voting reform. This case is often put in unambiguous language. Our majoritarian system has been described in various places as, as best, 'outdated', if not 'irrational' - occasionally it is 'crazy' and it is always 'undemocratic'. PR, on the other hand, is 'fair' - so obviously fair that it is often simply described as 'fair votes'. Fair because it is more representative of the General Will, tending to produce coalition governments that represent more than 50% of the electorate.

Now I'm agnostic on the issue but some of the arguments that are being made run the risk of making me a PR infidel.

Why, for example, has this election 'discredited' FPTP more than the last one? In 2005, Blair won an overall majority in the Commons with about the same share of the vote Cameron got this time. And in 1983, the SDP/Liberal Alliance did better than this time - gaining only one percent less of the vote than Labour, yet gaining a tenth of the seats.

While this election also shows the disproportions in representation that can arise with our system, it isn't such an obviously good example. The electorate have spoken and now they are left waiting for the parties to interpret what they've said. Advocates of PR surely can't be unaware that this is a matter of routine in most European elections - with a pattern roughly like the one we're seeing here: the guy who came third gets to decide who comes first. I can't understand how anyone could possibly argue that the case for this is somehow 'unanswerable'.

Part of the enthusiasm for PR re-heats the arguments we became familiar with in the eighties - with all this talk of an anti-Tory majority in the country. This short article in Liberal Conspiracy makes it for a new generation, suggesting that on Thursday a majority of the British people voted 'progressive'.

I dislike the term 'progressive'. If Melanie Phillips can describe herself thus, one wonders if the term has any meaning at all. It doesn't seem to mean much in Hobshouse's hands either, with 'progressive' people being simply those who didn't vote Tory.

I didn't vote 'progressive' on Thursday, I voted Labour. People who voted Lib Dem didn't vote 'progressive' either. I wonder what they thought they were voting for? Even if this unifying abstraction could be applied to Labour and Liberal voters, it just simply isn't realistic to think it is possible for the guy who came third to prop up the guy who came second in order to exclude the guy who came first from power. Those who are arguing this is constitutionally permissible must surely see that it is nevertheless politically unfeasible?

They should have voted Labour. In situations like this - or a council election that ends up NOC - I can't know with whom my favoured candidate might align themselves with - but I can be pretty sure they would never support Conservatives in a coalition. As it happened, my councillor* will not have to do this either because Glasgow is one of the two council in Scotland where Labour can govern without the need to enter alliances with other parties, despite the fact that the elections use STV. And my MP is one of the few in the country who gets more than 50% of the vote.

Advocates of PR suggest people feel disenfranchised by this because it makes voting pointless. But this seems to suggest that the only proper motivation to vote is when you think you can affect the outcome. Instead you vote, first and foremost, to register your approval for a system that is superior to those where no votes are cast.

Beyond that, I vote to indicate my support for my party. My MP didn't need it - having as he already had by that time a substantial pile that far outstripped his nearest competitor. I didn't think this pointless and I certainly didn't feel disenfranchised. Advocates of voting reform should understand this: Glasgow North West is a safe Labour seat not out of some cruel caprice of an unjust voting system but because we the electorate have made it that way.

*There was a council by-election in my ward on Thursday.

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