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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Voting Reform

The British national elections in 2010 unfolded and then the ritual recriminations, as the specialists expectations failed to deliver bloodied scalps onto the political altar.  The media blamed both politicians and citizens alike, and the reaction, primarily liberal/left was that at least it was not 'their' fault for the failure of a conclusive outcome.

From the last election in 2005 the Conservative Party increased its share of the seats in the House of Commons from 198 to 306, 36% of the popular vote (up from 32%), but an increase of about 50% in its representation in Westminster.  The Lib Dems (liberal democrats) lost 5 seats, 62 down to 57 or 23% of the national vote (up from 22% ! ) and Labour lost 98 seats (356 down to 258) and retained only 29% of the vote (down from 35%).

The Liberal Democrats wanted electoral reform, and from the results it is easy to understand why, but by making a principled issue of electoral reform to the exclusion of almost anything of credible substance they remained credible, but unelectable. People realistically understood that in a time of national crisis you need a team that can deliver results.  The lib dems had and have much to say about foreign policy, particularly about Israel, and Jews too, immigration and the EU, but when unemployment, economic crisis, poverty and yes, immigration are so fundamental to the electorates concerns about their individual personal futures; when schools, hospitals and crime are rarely absent from peoples awareness the only thing that counted was whether or not the party was going to do something about it. The rest, all that foreign stuff, was (and is) irrelevant, at least until it costs us in ways we can tangibly feel, and more important than that, all that idealistic stuff, became an irritating distraction.

The reaction from political pundits was not that people had voted with intelligence but that people had got it wrong.  As the variables in the political equation multiplied we were told that we got what we had voted for as if we had been slightly unhinged when we had cast our vote.  The main parties reacted with gently articulated contempt for the democratic vote. It was demanded that the incumbent should immediately quit Downing Street. Labour protested that the Conservatives had really not done so very well, and by not receiving an absolute majority they had not received an absolute mandate to govern.  And the lib dems tirelessly complained of their failure to make headway with the British people as if the blame was not theirs to start with.

So we need to begin with a bit of history.  Less than 100 years ago Britain was The Superpower in a similar place to where the USA is today.  It was equally hated, feared and admired across the Globe.  Like all empires, its imperial base was spread far and wide, way past its natural borders and with control radiating out from the center. London first and England second were the epicenter of British global power.  Like all empires, the fall began with dissent from the peripheries and spread in waves that came ever closer to home.  Unlike other empires, the English center still has control of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.  It may be because of a common mother tongue that the last remnants of empire have not been liquidated but what is perhaps not surprising is that even today the cultural, economic and political center remains in London and radiates out from there. Wealth is dispensed, from its capital city and likewise diminishes in concentric circles as we increase in distance from London.

We are living through a period of mediocrity chasing past glories.  If Britain were to adopt a bicameral system of government then the infrastructure is already in place to receive it.  Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have regional assemblies. They should be replaced by state governments.  Adding England and London as separate self-governing entities would complete the National picture.  Finally the national government must ensure the equality of each legally governing entity, put in place regional elections for both London and England, and, replace The House of Lords with a Senate where equal representation to each independent entity is guaranteed and the Prime Minster is the leader of the largest party.

Proportional representation only works as a foil to corruption or chaos when a plurality of interests is able to work together for the common good. Over an extended period of time the chances for this diminish.  A third party becomes little better than a protest vote.

The Israeli example ably proves the reason that proportional representation is a failed system. In Israeli politics it is a means by which dissatisfaction can be bled away without altering the essential power base of the ruling elite.  This is why it is also ineffective, because the energies that are spilled out dissipate potentially violent frustration while imperceptibly dispersing any momentum for change.  Government becomes the art of holding onto power without actually achieving anything of lasting value.

First past the post voting is inherently undemocratic in a three party (or greater) system. Pure proportional representation creates a multiplicity of parties that ultimately destabilizes the institution of democracy.  As is often the case, an imaginative compromise solution is required in order to prevent a failure of the democratic vote.

That no national newspaper could be relied on to put into the public domain an honest discussion of political reform or even, of the advantages of Lib Dem participation in government; and that the press came out against we, The People, in its analysis of the 2010 election results is an indicator of a moral failure in national thinking.  We should ask why.


  1. Nice article. Having experienced AV first hand I would say that it works in Australia only because of Compulsory Voting (CV.) I believe that CV is the reformed electoral system that this country needs and will not get. Failing CV I would suggest that any election result where the first past the post winner received less than 50% of the vote hold another vote the following week with just the top two candidates.

  2. I think you are right but it wouldn't solve the Lib Dem dilemma - Australia had the Country Party aka the National Party of Australia. It was a reactionary, racist political movement and still managed to be the coalition partner in federal and state governments. Certainly up until the 1970's it was riddled with extremists from the Australian League of Rights. The problem with the Lib Dems is that as Karl Radek noted "Fascism is Middle-class Socialism". Populism tends to be a tool of choice for outsiders trying to be insiders. In order to be truly representative there has to be a way to include the minor parties - especially when one of those minor parties consistently receives over 20% of the vote in national elections.