Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Proportional Representation Petition


I’ve decided to take to the soapbox because of a petition that’s running: ‘To make votes matter, adopt Proportional Representation for UK General Elections’. If it gets 100,000 signatures, it will be considered for debate in Parliament and “petitions which reach 100,000 signatures are almost always debated.” It’s reached 90% of that with less than a month to go, after being pushed by Make Votes Matter (it was started by Tim Ivorson, one of their team), the Electoral Reform Society, Compass and Unlock Democracy among others, including some of the smaller parties whose voice can be more or less ignored under FPTP.

(There’s also an early day motion on the voting system for general elections.)

Since the petition reached 10,000 signatures quite some time ago, it has already received a government response. That weaselly, perfunctory response alone is, in my view, justification for taking it forward for parliamentary debate.
Our FPTP voting system makes Parliament unrepresentative. One party got 37% of the vote and 51% of seats, while 3 parties got 24% of the vote but share 1.5% of seats. FPTP violates the democratic principle of majority rule and causes problems like costly policy reversals.

The government response completely fails to address any of this. The Tories didn’t so much win a general election as come out of it as the highest-scoring losers: the majority is not in control. 24% of the vote being downgraded to 1.5% of seats is bad enough: who knows what share of the vote those smaller parties would have if the electoral system didn’t punish voters by making sure that in many constituencies their genuine preferences can have no effect whatsoever on the result? No response unless you count this:
First Past The Post (FPTP) is a robust method of electing MPs.

Robust, eh? Well, what does that mean precisely? If it means ‘strong’, who gives a crap? Is it fair? Is it democratic?
The UK has never had a say on PR. As David Cameron himself said, the AV Referendum was on a system that is often less proportional than FPTP, so the rejection of AV could not possibly be a rejection of PR. In fact, so few voters wanted either system on offer that the turnout was just 42%.
A referendum on changing the voting system was held in 2011 and the public voted overwhelmingly in favour of keeping the FPTP system.
At the voting system referendum in May 2011, electors were asked whether the Alternative Vote system (AV) should be used instead of the First Past the Post system for electing members of the House of Commons. The referendum produced a clear result with over 13 million voters rejecting the option for change to move away from the First Past the Post system, compared to over 6 million voters who voted for change.

67.90% of just 42% (so 28.51%) is overwhelming apparently. We can at the least say that this is debatable. And I think we can say that responding to an assertion with a bland counter-assertion of this kind shows a distinct lack of class/literacy. Of course, the only thing rejected was a specific voting system, one which isn’t proportional, the subject of this petition - making this a pretty fucking disingenuous response.
The Government’s manifesto made a commitment to respect the will of the British people as expressed in the 2011 UK Parliamentary elections voting system referendum and keep the First Past the Post system for elections to the House of Commons. The Government, therefore, has no plans to change the voting system for elections to the House of Commons.

And in the absence of any real argument that the 2011 was decisive, or indeed actually had anything to do with PR - the subject of the petition, let’s not forget - this amounts to so much waffle, the “will of the British people” not so much exalted as cheapened.
There are tried and tested PR systems that keep the constituency link. They would make every vote matter equally, rather than allowing a minority of swing voters in a few marginal seats to pick the government.
The Government is concerned that proportional voting systems would weaken the direct constituency link which is a key feature of our Parliamentary system.

Assertion meets bland counter-assertion again. Pathetic. Other key features of our parliamentary system are tactical voting or wasted votes, safe seats where parties know they don’t need to try and under-representation of parties with significant national support: it wants looking at, not veneration. Besides, constituency boundaries are administrative - there’s nothing sacrosanct about them - so if there’s a case for more intelligent local representation (there is), I think we can afford to hear it.
Under a proportional system the voting process is more complicated for the voter.

In the case of STV, for example, you rank your candidates in order of preference. Are you too stupid to do that? Me neither, but the government is perfectly happy to patronise us like this. If you think a significant number of other people are too stupid to do that, I would suggest you are underestimating the intelligence of the public. It can be hard to place much faith in the intelligence of the public, granted, but putting names in order - really?
The Government’s view is that the First Past the Post voting system is the best system for elections to the House of Commons. The system is well established and understood by voters and provides a clear link between constituents and their representatives in Parliament. More often than not, it results in a government with a working majority in Parliament making decisive government possible.

This is all they can find to say in favour of FPTP? Also pathetic. Well established just means we’ve always done it that way, which is a stupid reason to carry on with anything that might be improved upon. Well understood and clear constituency link are at least points in its favour at least, but it’s a little underwhelming if you consider all the problems that it causes. The wording of the petition right at the starts attempts to summarise the many flaws of FPTP, and this is no response at all in light of that.

Is mostly providing a working majority a good criterion for an electoral system? Dictatorships result in working majorities with even greater regularity. Should we try one of them? You know, for the most direct democracy possible?

It was my intention to add some of my own thoughts about the need for PR and the merits of the system favoured by the Electoral Reform Society, but with less than a month before the petition ends, it’s probably best to publish this criticism of the response now and write the rest later.

Tim Ivorson already wrote his own response to the government response to his petition at the end of January.