Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 6 December 2009

The case against Tom Harris' case for first-past-the-post

Tom Harris, the leading blogger and Labour MP has done a blogpost today which I feel needs a riposte. I know some people think I bang on about electoral reform too much but today I can honestly say a bigger blogging boy made me do it.

I have quoted his main points along with my thoughts below:

...even those of us who aren’t brainy enough to understand the arguments in favour of ditching first-past-the-post (FPTP) have valid reasons for keeping the system the way it is. And yes, one of those reasons is that it benefits the Labour Party – there, I’ve said it.

(”What?!” I hear you say, spitting your muesli onto your laptop screen. “A Labour MP wants a system that will benefit his party? Outrageous!” Yeah, and the LibDems support STV for entirely altruistic and principled reasons…)

I would not use the word "outrageous" but it hardly a good argument for someone to openly favour an electoral system that disproportionately benefits their own party for that reason. It's a bit more than this though because Tom is MP for Glasgow South which is a pretty safe Labour seat and hence he is personally also a strong beneficiary of the current system.

As for his comment about the Lib Dems not supporting STV for entirely altruistic reasons well I can't speak for the party as a whole but I was in favour of a proportional system for the Commons for many years before I joined the Lib Dems. Indeed it was one of the things that attracted me to the party in the first place. I know that there are certainly plenty of other members of the party for whom electoral reform is a point of principle. There are more than a few within Tom's own parliamentary ranks too.

One of the reasons (but not the only one) I support FPTP is that it enforces the two-party system, and that, as far as I’m concerned, is A Good Thing. FPTP forces the parties to make an effort to be as broad a church as possible and to try to include an impressively wide range of political views within them. That means having a degree of collective discipline, which I know is frowned upon these days. But that’s preferable to having a new party formed every time a party member goes in a huff at every policy decision he disagrees with.

Whilst the parties themselves may have a broad range of opinion within them, what FPTP actually does is make the party leadership focus on the 100,000 or so swing voters in marginal constituencies. These floating voters in those seats are not hugely interested in politics and tend to be part of what is often termed "Middle England". Therefore the parties are trying to crowd in on that territory and the needs and concerns of the millions of people who are not floating voters in marginal seats get sidelined. This is why our politics has become so anodyne and speeches by government ministers or opposition spokespeople are almost interchangeable. Then, of course once a "strong" government is elected with a sizable (and disproportionate) majority, then the concerns of these voters can be actioned because of course their votes will be needed again next time round. So the "broad church" is neutered as whipped vote after whipped vote is pushed through to satisfy this tiny minority. The bigger the parliamentary majority, the easier this is to do. For example in 2005, Labour got 55% of the seats on around 35% of the vote.

FPTP is also the best way of electing governments. Yes, of course general elections are about electing 646 constituency representatives, but it’s also about much more than that. Most people, I think would prefer to know exactly who is going to form the government and which manifesto they should hold them to.
Which brings me to the main point: PR (so not AV, usually) would give the smaller, annoying parties a proportionate number of MPs (which is bad enough) but an entirely disproportionate amount of power in the hung parliaments PR is designed to produce. I’ve seen it happen at Holyrood: the parties stand for election on their own manifestos and then, as soon as the electorate have their say, the leaders go behind closed doors, away from the cameras, and thrash out a deal without any reference whatsoever to the public or to the manifestos they’ve just voted on, bargaining away policy after policy in return for ministerial cars. That is not democracy: it’s the precise opposite.

This presupposes that what the electorate want is a manifesto that only just over a third of the country has voted for pushed through completely unopposed. What on earth is wrong with the idea that there may have to be some compromise? The manifestos of the parties are decided behind closed doors and presented to the electorate as a "take it of leave it" option at the moment. With coalition or minority governments, more interests are taken into account in decision making. That is more democratic, not less.

And while PR might well ensure that you can keep a particular party out of government, wouldn’t it be better to argue positively for a particular platform rather than rely on shifty electoral calculations to stymie a particular viewpoint? Had PR been introduced in the ’80s or ’90s, Tony Blair would not have had to argue that Labour should change; he would simply have phoned Paddy Ashdown and asked him how many Cabinet seats he wanted. Job done. And it was dashed inconvenient, afer all, having to ditch Clause IV and actually make an effort to engage with the views and aspirations of ordinary people…

That is just not true. If PR had existed in the 90s, Blair would still have wanted to reform his party. Just because a party is unlikely to achieve a majority of seats does not mean that it does not want to increase its vote. It's just that under PR, it will be able to do this without having to focus on a very narrow section of the electorate.

The Tories won more elections than the Left in the 20th century, not because of the electoral system, but because the public voted for them. They voted for them because they preferred Tory policies and politicians to ours. Democracy sucks, doesn’t t? Maybe if Labour had better policies they might have won more elections, yes?

As to the argument that electoral reform improves engagement and turnout, how much higher is turnout in the European elections now compared with the last time we used FPTP?

I don't know the answer to Tom's question about the European elections but the turnout for those has always been relatively low anyway. The more pertinent question is about turnout for national parliamentary elections and on this subject I saw research back in 2007, presented Steve Fisher of Oxford University which used a comparative study of electoral systems data across a number of different countries to show that changing from FPTP to other, more proportional systems does have a positive effect on turnout. What's even more important though is that the research showed that it is the least politically engaged who are disproportionately less likely to vote under FPTP. The gap between voting levels for the least and most politically engaged closes when we move away from FPTP systems (by 16 percentage points!). This demonstrates to me that a move from FPTP would help with the political engagement of the most marginalised in society, an outcome that I suspect Mr Harris would wholeheartedly approve of.

This whole debate reminds me of a story Tony Blair tells when explaining the evolution of his own particular brand of politics. He says when he was a local activist in London, he joined other party members distributing a local Labour newspaper to the residents of a godawful sink estate with huge levels of crime, unemployment and ant-social behaviour. What was the central message of the newspaper to its readers? “Join CND”.

There will always be "more pressing things" to focus on than the electoral system if such a narrow view is taken. This comment from Tom completely fails to take into account how much better all the other issues that people are concerned about could be represented under a proportional system.

AV would, I grudgingly accept, change precious little, but some of its advocates in my party want it simply as a stepping stone to further reform – a halfway house between FPTP and (shudder) STV. They actually see nothing wrong in spending the next ten years arguing about electoral reform, failing to see that such a debate will do precisely nothing to “engage” the electorate. Rather, the public will see it (rightly) as a vanishingly small political elite self-indulgently discussing the number of angels dancing on pinheads.

I hope some of the points I have made above address Tom's concerns about this being a self-indulgent political elite issue. It is fundamentally about how we are represented.

Also, there is by no means a guarantee that if we were to get PR, that the Lib Dems would always be king-maker and hence permanently in a coalition. This has not happened in either Scotland or Wales. Once people got more used to the fact that their votes really counted we would see all sorts of changes in voting patterns. I suspect that both UKIP and the Greens would get much higher vote shares and hence a decent number of MPs and we could end up with a realignment of politics. The point is it would be the people who decide.

What Tom seems to want to to preserve in aspic our current 2 party system when it is clear what the public wants is a more pluralistic system. I blogged back in July how in 1951, 93% of people voted either Labour or Conservative but how by 2005 this combined total was down to less than 68%.

Our current system is no longer fit for purpose.


freedomscaresme said...

First past the post is fail. It only serves those who are the dominant parties in any constituency and not the people. We need to start putting the voter first otherwise we will see a repeat of the disastrous recent history, with more bailouts and more wars. They don't listen because they don't have to.

Arrogance is not borne of belief, it is borne of circumstance.

Constantly Furious said...

"I know some people think I bang on about electoral reform too much".

I got nothin' ....

Dingdongalistic said...

I love the way Tom Harris regards AV as a "stepping stone" between FPTP and STV. It's just another single-member system. Admittedly, a far better one than FPTP, but changing the basis of the electoral system from single-member to multi-member would be a far more radical change than changing the basis of each constituency election from FPTP to AV.

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

Your analysis and that of Tom Harris overlooks the fact that the voting system is in fact about electing parties, not people. Ignored therefore is the key point that parties blight politics.

Parties used to be necessary - for parliamentarians' activities used to be unobserved and unrecorded by the electorate and so unless a person was presented with a party label, there was no proper means of telling what they would get up to once elected. Technology has changed all that: the political classes need to get up to date and get some fresh ideas.

Now that parties are not necessary for monitoring purposes, the electorate and the body politic would be better served than they could ever be by gerrymandering of the voting system by instead abolishing parties and electing rather than party placemen resourceful free-thinkers.

Dingdongalistic said...

"Now that parties are not necessary for monitoring purposes, the electorate and the body politic would be better served than they could ever be by gerrymandering of the voting system by instead abolishing parties and electing rather than party placemen resourceful free-thinkers."

Gerrymandering? Are you sure you understand the meaning of the word?

You cannot abolish parties, because parties are alliances. They will exist whether or not they are 'legitimate', simply due to the fact that there will always be a government, therefore there will always be opposition alliances.

Your analysis is ahistorical at best -- parties started out as descriptions for coalitions, sometimes varying on the issue -- for instance, the abolitionists were sometimes labelled as a "party", as were the pro-slave trade MPs, and these alliance lines often crossed over government and opposition dividing lines.

Cardinal Richelieu's mole said...

@ dindongalistic - gerrymandering means arranging a voting system to suit your own party, no? In origin it had to do with geographic division of voting areas.

Alliances are not parties and whilst the former will be needed, the latter are not. Granted there will be a tendency for parties to form from alliances, as you describe, but that does not need to be so.

The key point remains: recalibrating the voting system as described thus far is about electing parties and not about giving the people the sort of representation they could have and would be advantaged by. Given all the running is being made by the political parties, this is not a surprise.Technology does offer the prospect of something different to the past however, rather than substantially more of the same.

Simon Fawthrop said...

He's wrong about Scotland. Salmond is runnig a minority Government and what he is doing is building single coalitions around each issue as it comes up. This is the way Denmark has been run since 1909.

The more I look at it the more I like the idea. Rather than tying parties together for a fixed term. he has been getting near universal support for a lot of his policies by negotiating with all parties and not just one.

The Economist did a piece on this in the 26 Nov issue.

I'm not sure that hindcasting tells us much. Despite what the cynics say I think the British voter is quite savvy. If the voting system is changed they will change the way they vote.

If FPTP really did lead to the end of Clause 4 then at least it had one benefit.

Alex said...

Abolish parties?!

Whatever happened to "freedom of association"?

Dingdongalistic said...

"dindongalistic - gerrymandering means arranging a voting system to suit your own party, no? In origin it had to do with geographic division of voting areas."

Yes, therefore Electoral Reform has nothing to do with Gerrymandering -- it's about changing the basis of elections foremost, geography being secondary (though undeniably still important).

"Alliances are not parties and whilst the former will be needed, the latter are not."

Alliances are how many parties began, and they're how parties essentially operate.

You want to go back to a period when party process was entirely undemocratic, opaque and unaccountable? Fine, but I'd prefer not to, myself.

It's like the ludicrous idea of 'banning whipping'. You can't ban parties, or ban whipping, because they're basic consequences of national politics, and wholly necessary for the establishment of government and opposition.

"The key point remains: recalibrating the voting system as described thus far is about electing parties and not about giving the people the sort of representation they could have and would be advantaged by."

Actually, not all reforms are. AV in particular would solve problems with FPTP elections on an individual level, but do nothing to improve proportionality on the macro.