First Past The Post: And Why We're The Lame Horse.
In 2010, the outcome of the British General Election produced a 'Hung Parliament,' a priapic metaphor for the public that is screwed from the start due to such a result. None of the saccharine rhetoric from smarmy politicians cuts the mustard or managed to sweeten us enough. The last time this happened was in 1974, when neither Edward Heath nor Harold Wilson managed to secure a Westminster majority. In the February election, a Hung Parliament failed to produce a majority government, negotiations with the Liberals broke down and Harold Wilson's Labour Party continued as a minority government, until a General Election was forced again in the autumn of '74, with Labour gaining a small majority.
Fast forward 36 years and paint a similar scenario, this time the roles have been inverted. The Conservatives under David Cameron haven't enough seats to form a majority, yet they opt out of unpalatable prospect of a minority and enter negotiations with the Liberal Democrats. Talks work this time and for the first time since 1945, the United Kingdom has a Coalition Government. The Cabinet is divided between Lib Dems and Conservatives. A cabal dubbed the ConDemNation by naysayers of their policies in light of one of the most harrowing recessions in decades and ministers' ostensibly callous apathy towards many of those on the breadline. It seems that the Liberal Democrats, who, before 2010, comprised a mainstream party always on the outskirts of real power, yet championed some refreshing ideals. However, they cashed in the cheque of integrity for the even greater dividend of ambition and power. Nick Clegg, actually celebrated as quite the exotic outsider in the lead up to the Election (more appealing than establishment Cameron and clapped out Brown) turned into the modern day Brutus after the Ides of May that year. Thrusting the knife of betrayal into the voters with an almost phallic vociferousness. The blade was poisoned and four years of austerity and "We're In It Together," has proven correct, we are boiled down into a slurry of proletarian gruel. As Westminster and the bankers that are to blame for the financial mess, remove further away from the reality of the vast swathes of serf.
Fast forward four years later and another General Election looms. It seems pretty clear that "None of the Above" would be the salient and sane choice for many, if it was a viable choice. A Hung Parliament looms again as the indifference at best, outright contempt at worst, for the political climate and establishment festers in the poisoned wound left by Clegg's knife blow, exacerbating a post-Thatcher sickness casting delirium over Cruel Britannia.
Ballot Box In A Noose?
Hung Parliaments are rare, or used to be anathema in the British landscape, thanks to our voting system, known colloquially in voting circles as "First Past The Post." (Hereafter referred to as FPTP) The rules of this voting system are simple, the person/party with the most votes win. Fair and democratically sound, right? Turns out not so much when elections are broken down into parliamentary constituencies. Various wards and council seats are up for grabs in by-elections and General Elections every 2-5 years. Council wards run the gamut of cosmopolitan degrees of people and population and this is where FPTP's solidity crumbles, in terms of sheer numbers.
A council ward in the Outer Hebrides' number of votes will be dwarfed by another ward in inner city London. As an example, both could vote Labour. However, the rural vote may barely attain 2,500 crosses on paper perhaps, whereas the London vote could far exceed 120,000 in votes for the same party. When FPTP is taken into consideration, this counts as two ward seats for Labour, nice! What about the remaining percentage of the electorate? Take London's most populous borough, Croydon. 120,000 votes would equal roughly 31%-32% of the votes and Labour wins that seat outright with almost one third of the vote Although the remaining two-thirds aren't represented under FPTP in Westminster. Majority rules, seems like an easy attainment of fairness, or does it?
Proportional Representation (hereafter referred to as PR) is an alternative electoral system. Under PR, the percentage patterns of voters are factored in as opposed to sheer bulk of favour lavished on one MP. So in this scenario, 30% for Labour would be factored in as 30% of voter's favour (followed by, say 18% for Tories, 13% for Lib Dem and so on). What it offers is a full spectrum of the will of the electorate.
Should the voting system change?
Hung Parliaments used to be rare and coalitions were a last resort for a nation in crisis (such as the World Wars). Plus, it would be a clear, well known symptom of PR that more coalitions would form as a byproduct of a panoply of democratic talismans standing for their constituents. Another criticism is that it may throw some more unwanted light on fringe parties with unsavoury theories and beliefs.
Yet the political landscape has altered. What used to be polarised (an issue of lacking multiple choice itself) is now a bland mire of similarity. If one could place a cigarette paper between the three party leaders and their post Blair "everyman" oil slick, I would admire their skills of dexterity, sleight of hand and powers of discernment. Fringe elements have arisen, perhaps largely for the worse. A concern is that PR would give those outsiders a platform and voice, it would, for a time. Yet at the same time, it would serve to highlight the unwholesome taste in the mouth caused by such bizarre sentiments. Democracy right now bears the scars of a creased cloth, it works for the establishment. Proportional Representation could have the potential to iron those ruffles out.
Politics and government is regarded as a race because of First Past The Post, something to win gaining "majority." Whereas democracy should be divided fairly among those who voiced their support for a representative in even doses. The result? Greater voter participation as the public would finally believe their vote matters. Greater accountability from our elected representatives.
"Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all others that have been tried." - Winston Churchill.
A current governmental climate is trying and a problem shared, is a problem halved. Maybe better politicians will evolve from a new process where a more representative parliament bears the load of a nation in a changing world? Sticking in the mud however, only leaves a preserved corpse.
© Brad James, 2014.