There are two strong arguments that will be made for keeping the FPTP system and denying a further referendum on electoral reform:
- That FPTP, despite its idiosyncrasies, is most likely to provide majority and therefore strong, decisive government.
- The British people roundly rejected proportional representation by a 2 – 1 majority in 2011. This is, therefore, not a question that should be asked again so soon after such a resounding ‘no’.
Any attempts to re-generate this issue will have to effectively counter these two powerful arguments and this article is a way to do that. Firstly, I will describe arguments that will severely mitigate the emotional attractiveness of (1); and negate the practicalities of (2). The remainder of the argument will focus on how to bring this about and a further referendum should be called before the general election of 2020. The approach is new, the alternative is also new and both these factors will play a major role in forcing a second referendum. The timing and effort is all important. The quite ludicrous anomalies of the 2015 general election remain a powerful motivator for change but, would the results of the 2020 election to be less dramatically unfair to millions of voters the 2015 election may be painted as simply a freak occurrence and the ace created from this highly unfair distribution of representation may be demoted to a Jack.
When we talk about strong government we mean the ability to drive through manifesto commitments. Although we also want meaningful opposition they alone should not be able to frustrate the will of the government as elected by the people.
The problem is that the desirability of such strong government, as described, is an illusion supported by the repeated failures of this government and the last to implement manifesto commitments. The reason for this is not the existence of a parliamentary majority but an absence of the people’s mandate. The Conservative government elected in 2015 had a majority of 12. It achieved that with just under 37% of support from people who voted, 24.4% of those registered to vote and even less if one includes those eligible to vote but who failed to register.
The result has been a strong/weak/unrepresentative government attempting to drive a manifesto supported by substantially less than a quarter of the population. The current government’s problems stem from this lack of a real mandate which has been replaced by an artificial one only generated by an unrepresentative electoral system. The result is the weakest form of governance influenced more by favour and expediency than the interests of the nation and her peoples.
Democracy isn’t just about voting. In fact, it isn’t about voting at all as any electoral system is just the mechanics by which a democratic form of governance is achieved. Democracy can be more accurately described as ‘government by consent’ whereby the authority of such a government is derived directly from those over whom it seeks to govern. When the mechanism used to achieve this fails, the resulting government lacks that authority and the associated implicit consent of the people and our current Conservative government has just this problem. Even after such a mandate has been achieved government still has to operate within the concept of general consensus, something not well understood by some cultures, hence the failure of the Egyptian experiment some years ago.
This governance by consent has to maintain such consent so, within any functional democratic system the people must also be given a periodic opportunity to confirm, modify or remove such consent from the governing body and to make alternative selections.
It’s the fundamentals of democracy that have to be retained not the mechanics of achieving that and should any particular set of the mechanics fail to ensure truly representative government, with the mandate, the authority and the consent of the majority it has to be changed.
The current conservative government is pandering to a minority opinion and it is unsurprising, therefore, that they run into serious opposition in designing and implementing meaningful change.
The argument that FPTP creates majority, therefore, strong government is untrue. In reality it creates weak government that has far too much opposition from those who do not support it. Even when official opposition is impotent and has lost its way the people make their voices heard through other means. Opportunistic politicians and Lords will use such weakness to disrupt which, in turn, may force changes so that the democratic nature of democracy returns to ‘democratic government’.
This strong/weak/unrepresentative arrangement also encourages ‘short-termism’. The perceived need to obtain a majority next time round colours thinking and severely inhibits long term or strategic policies.
Let me explain by example.
So many of our problems as a nation are entirely due to short term thinking designed to coincide with the election cycle. Energy, for example, should have a 30 to 40-year plan. It is in our long term interest to reduce dependency on oil for reasons far stronger than dubious climate arguments. The air will be cleaner, oil will run out eventually, we won’t continue to artificially enrich states that sponsor terrorism, we could be energy self-sufficient and independent of world influences. A strategic program to encourage new and efficient forms of renewable energy production could include the use of existing fossil resources, in the interim, which may engender less current opposition because the end game is clear. How enlightening it would be to describe our energy creation systems of 40 years in the future and have a plan to get there.
FPTP doesn’t create strong government so we need a system that does.
We Already Said NO
In 2011 we had a referendum on the Alternative Vote PR system which was met with a resounding ‘no thanks’. What on earth would be the point of having another one? Well, there wouldn’t be one but, what if we were to be asking a quite different question?
Much has changed since 2011 and the anti-Clegg vote that transpired. It didn’t take long for the British public to go off the Liberal Democrats. They had tasted something nasty with the tuition fees scandal and by 2011 anything Clegg wanted we didn’t. This shift of sentiment was expressed with devastating effect in the 2015 general election which, it appears, only the Liberal Democrats failed to see coming. There were other reasons for the defeat of AV. Like most conventional PR systems its incomprehensible to most people. PR systems typically remove the direct constituency connection (if in part only for some systems) between a candidate and their electors. It shifts even more power away from the electorate towards parties. Independents generally have less chance. STV, for example takes several pages of explanation to outline how it works and needs a computer to decide who’s won. Complex gerrymandering around first and second preference votes means that some people get two votes and others only one when nobody actually has a real second preference. To make these systems concoct a winner the ‘second preference’ is artificially manufactured by the geeky systems with a breath-taking disregard for reality or simplicity.
So, what if people were presented with a system that significantly widened representation, kept a direct link between all candidates and their constituencies, was easy to explain and with clear results after just one count, enhanced the prospects of independents, made every vote count for a full parliamentary term and met all the desirable criteria better than any other system? Is that the same question we were asked in 2011, perhaps not?
The 2011 referendum was an exercise in self-interest and was seen as such. The next referendum will be about democracy and consent with no favour to any particular vested interests. The sense of injustice brought about by the 2015 general election is palpable. Almost everyone is in agreement that something should change. That is a much more robust starting point.
A Better System
How to Achieve the Next Referendum
- The 2011 AV referendum was begrudgingly conceded to cement the coalition agreement and keep, by and large, the Liberal Democrats on side.
- The 2016 EU referendum was begrudgingly conceded because the Conservatives feared a swathe of Conservative voters switching their votes and supporting UKIP.
The next referendum on how we elect our leaders is, therefore, most likely to be achieved by applying exactly the same kind of pressure.
The main parties, Labour and Conservative, are both opposed to a representative electoral system for quite understandable reasons of self-interest. They will argue that this has already been decided but, as explained this argument is flawed. They will also use, what they think will be the killer blow, that FPTP provides strong government, which has also been successfully overturned earlier in this article. A further likelihood is that the sense of unfairness, against all those who voted UKIP, will be seen as in need of redress. The British are staunch opponents of injustice and the sense of it generated by our out-of-date and dysfunctional electoral system was and is palpable, drawing in even those who are not committed UKIP supporters. The ingredients are all there for a massive swing to UKIP to force a further referendum to happen. The most important constitutional questions are now around the creation of effective democratic institutions and the increase of citizen’s power over their governance, thereby ending the drift in the other direction. Evidence of this is very visible as the UK ‘minority’ government stalls in mid-term and the EU dismisses the concept of democratic accountability altogether.
If UKIP can get its act together and put forward a national policy framework including a firm commitment to a robust and effective voting system, there is every reason to think that any beleaguered government will concede another referendum as the safest course of action.
The recent pattern seems to be, when in doubt, hold a referendum and use all the power and resources of the government to try to win it. Truth, decency and honesty please take a short break.
The alternative for both Conservative and Labour parties is a haemorrhaging of votes to UKIP regardless of the result of the EU vote.
What’s the next step
It will come as no surprise to anyone, that new ideas aren’t welcome when their only strength is that they are the best idea. In that respect we are a peculiar species as we value status and position, regardless of how they are obtained, far more highly that we do good ideas. It’s simply who we are.
The oddly named ‘Electoral Society’ (100 years of failure) have no interest in new electoral systems because their internal bureaucracy doesn’t allow fleetness of foot and, of course, everything suffers from the ‘not invented ere’ syndrome which usually supresses any contribution from the ‘little people’. Other hands on the reigns of progress are vested interests (why, for example, cars still burn fuel) but pressure for a change to the electoral system may not be seen as relevant to the money men though, we’ll have to wait and see the reality of that assumption.
We need to get electoral reform up the agenda by talking about it and sharing information and influencing those who might be able to give it a push. Whatever system is eventually chosen it really ought to be subject to a critical review process, as opposed to selection by patronage.
I’m certain that whatever criteria is laid down the F2PTP voting system will outscore any other but, getting to that stage will be require some help along the way.