Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Proportional Representation and the Old Political Tribes



Our political parties in the UK are not what they should be. The most basic definition of a political party should be that they are a grouping of individuals who share basic political ideals, ideologies and goals. Here in the UK, though, that really doesn't apply to any of our major parties. The reason for that, I suggest, is our electoral system.

First Past The Post (FPTP) is a system designed for two large 'parties' fighting each other. We use it in the UK for fairly understandable reasons - when our system was designed, that was really the case. Every 'realignment' we have seen in politics since then has really been a matter of one or both of those two extremely vague groups 'realigning' to the circumstances of the changing world. That 'us or them' situation isn't how it should be, though.

Look at the way our political parties are constructed in the UK (and the same broadly applies in other two party system countries). They aren't alliances of like-minded people at all, as the current Brexit debate is starkly highlighting. They are just permanent 'coalitions' between groups who are mostly opposed to each other slightly less than they are opposed to 'the other lot'. The hardcore Brexit-supporting 'ERG' and their like within the Conservative Party really have very little in common politically with the 'One Nation' Tories, other than being broadly opposed to anything resembling 'Socialism'. Likewise, the Socialists now in charge of the leadership of the Labour Party have little in common with the 'Social Democrats' like Tony Blair. The big parties are nothing more than 'Tribes' united only by (and in) their hatred of 'the other lot'.

Even in the Lib Dems the same applies. In a sense it's often not quite so obvious because it's a smaller party that has gone through a recent process of damage and recovery in membership (so many have perhaps signed up to be 'Lib Dems' as opposed to being one or other of the formative groups), but the formation of the party is telling. The SDP was formed by a group of Social Democrats leaving Labour to get away from the other parts of that 'tribe'. As a smaller and more specific grouping, it was always going to be virtually impossible to 'break through' and challenge the dominance of the two parties in their two party system - to survive, it almost had to try to form another broader grouping with the people it disagreed with least - to try to create another big 'tribe' to stand up to the other big 'tribes'. The same was true of the Liberals, of course - as a broadly single ideology party, they were never likely to be big enough in their specific support to defeat the big 'tribes'.  UKIP were, you could say, similarly born from a group of Tories leaving their party - they perhaps did achieve a lot in terms of aims with very little, but they never made much of an electoral impact.

What that leaves us with is a sense that a 'political party', in what I would call the 'truest sense' of the basic definition above, cannot actually actually exist in the UK. Or at least it cannot exist as a UK-wide party with any serious hope of being a significant or influential group within parliament and government (a coalition has happened once in recent times, of course, but that was to a large degree down to both of the big tribes spectacularly failing to 'win' (i.e. to seem to those few significant voters in marginals to be a marginally less awful option than the other one) at the same time - a very rare occurrence). That is down to the electoral system actively working against anything other than one mass grouping opposing another mass grouping - it is entirely set up for nothing more than constant mutual entrenchment.

Let's consider this in purely practical terms. In order to form a 'national party' across Britain (note: I'm leaving aside the issue of the smaller parties that are geographically specific to the smaller nations within the UK - they are by definition working on a far more limited scale anyway), any party has to be fighting seats at elections across Britain. Any party other than the big two has to do so knowing that it cannot hope to defeat the 'us or them for government' narrative in anything more than a few seats, but that it won't get taken seriously enough to win even those if it can't show itself to be a 'national party' standing across Britain. For the sake of argument, let's say they really need to be standing in 600 seats in order to win the relatively few that they can realistically win.

That 600 seat number has several implications - firstly, they need to find 600 suitable and willing people to stand, along with up to another 600 to act as agents. That's 1200 people, spread evenly across the length and breadth of Britain. OK, it might be that they ought to have that number of members and more in order to show that they are seriously representing the views of enough people to get voted in anywhere, so that isn't a problem. It is a practical difficulty, though, and especially for a new party that is starting out - they have a limited time to get that kind of traction between elections, without there being any kind of coverage of them because the media usually won't talk much to a group with no MPs.

Then think about deposits - in order to stand in 600 seats, they need to find £300K before they start. That's just the deposits to get them on the ballot paper, with no campaigning funds for anywhere, and they they will also know that they are going to lose a significant amount of those deposits as they are squeezed out by the effects of a two party system, narrative and tactical voting ('vote for us to keep them from winning here'). So any smaller party that wants to ever be taken at all seriously really has to find a fully disposable £300K just to get started - OK, they can build up to that, but it's a very long process to undertake when you know ultimately that the chances of ultimate success and government even partly according to your ideals is still virtually nil. Meanwhile, the huge 'us or them' groupings with their huge resources don't really need to worry about that, because they know they will retain all but a tiny number of deposits anyway.

So the system is self-perpetuating - a two party system that makes sure that the barriers for any other parties (even long established ones) are so high that it's virtually impossible to get over them. I'm going to say that that is extremely unhealthy for democracy, and that's before we even consider the 'make votes matter' issues of FPTP, and the fact that most of our votes might as well have gone straight in the bin anyway because most of us (unless we live in one of a handful of 'marginals') have zero chance of exerting a significant democratic influence. We end up inevitably with two huge groupings that can't even agree with themselves on anything more fundamental than 'we don't like what the people over there want to do'. Actually on individual issues many on both sides would agree with each other more than they agree with people on their own side, but they aren't allowed to because of 'tribal unity' - the whole thing is a fairly ludicrous way to do 'democracy', when you stop and think about it.

And people wonder why our governments are usually pretty useless at getting anything much done!

By definition, our 'parties' (those two currently capable of getting the numbers to form governments particularly) don't even vaguely agree with themselves! More than that, we 'the people' have no way of exerting influence over the balance of views within those parties - they select their candidates, and we have to vote for the candidate that they happen to give us in order to 'keep the other lot out' whether they reflect our views or not. The electorate cannot decide between a 'Socialist-led' government and a 'Social Democrat-led' government if they elect a Labour government, or between a 'One Nation-led' government or an 'ERG-led' government if they vote Tory.

If you are a 'One Nation Tory' voter living in Jacob Rees Mogg's constituency, for example, what do you do? How do we know whether his Tory voters support his ERG stance or Ken Clarke's type of Conservatism? We don't. That's not really very 'democratic' at all. It's not just a matter of groups reflecting a majority between them negotiating a coalition deal to reflect those views - it's a large group of 'not the other side' deciding for themselves what kind of government they are going to be without reference to the balance of views that should be being expressed by the population in any democracy.

So how does Proportional Representation (PR) help us with this situation? Think of it this way - let us say that a system of PR is set up that elects MPs on a transferable vote basis, with larger constituencies electing 5 MPs each, and has a similar numbers overall as the current system. There are arguments to be had about exactly what the best system is, but we'll leave those aside to consider the basics. Now in order to have a candidate to for everyone to vote for, keeping to that general principle of 600 of the 'old constituencies' as coverage, you only need to stand one fifth of the numbers to achieve it. Of course, larger parties will put up multiple candidates to try to get more than one of those 5 seats in each constituency, but smaller parties can make an assumption that they are unlikely to get more than one of their candidates elected in any seats and restrict themselves accordingly. Now any 'third' or 'new' party can become a 'national' UK-wide standing group by putting up 120 candidates (at a cost of only £60K).

That puts us in a situation where people can form far better defined 'political parties' with smaller numbers of people, but still with a realistic chance of getting a number of people elected to represent those views from the electorate. The ERG and the One Nation Tories, for example, no longer have to be in the same 'party' to get elected, and no longer have to constantly compromise or even hide their views to prevent the group from splitting apart (and thereby 'letting the other lot in'). They can put their own cases forward, and stand (or fall) on their own merits, but still with the chance of getting their views and policies into government as part of the post-election coalition negotiations. That's an important point - it means that the negotiations and compromises that politics and government will always require would be taking place after the election, in the open, and according to the balance of leverage given by the electorate (rather than behind closed doors in party rooms according to who has 'influence' of some kind within the party, as is all too often the case at the moment).

There may be some who don't like this idea, because they might feel that they would lose some of their 'influence' if their ideas had to actually face the public vote instead of just being pushed through their parties with the threat of causing 'disunity' (and the public apparently don't like 'disunity'). There are some, indeed, who would be worried that they would lose their own seat in parliament if they had to stand on their own merits, or at least on the merits of their own political ideologies, instead of on their 'we're not the other party' label. We shouldn't allow such people to dictate the agenda of electoral reform - they are worried about losing their own disproportionate influence over the direction of the country. That is an influence they should never have had in a democracy, and I suspect we can now all see the flaws in the commonly cited argument of 'FPTP produces strong and stable government'!

The argument against electoral reform does tend to fall back on 'you end up with lots of smaller parties negotiating with each other instead of the public directly voting for a government'. That argument is deeply flawed. The public don't get to decide the direction of the government under FPTP, because they only get two realistic alternatives for government to choose from, and don't get any real say over the direction that the big two parties are wanting to go in. The reverse is true - in a post-election process of parties with specific ideologies, a government has to be formed according to the views of the majority of the electorate (or at least reasonably close to that). The public decides how much weight each party has within such a negotiation, not internal party 'groups'. Any deal they come up with has to sufficiently satisfy the ideals of each party involved, and then they have to work within the context of a parliament with an opposition that actually reflects the balance of all of the views that aren't represented within the government.

The current Brexit scenario is a a great example - you couldn't put a cigarette paper between the positions of the two big parties, because each is trying to somehow satisfy their own internal divisions and groupings while simultaneously trying to fulfil their real primary purpose of 'keeping the other lot out'. And those divisions are the same division on both sides, but largely being artificially prevented from working together where they agree because it would damage their 'tribe'. Meanwhile, all other views are being more or less ignored - the smaller parties have little practical voice because they are limited in numbers by the 'us or them' system and the two 'tribe' parliamentary dominance. We've ended up, at this moment, with a government deal that virtually nobody on any side of the debate really supports, and an opposition that isn't really offering anything much different. It's a 'compromise' for both lots, but not reached on the basis of the balance of opinion within the country at the time of the election. It doesn't matter what side of that argument you are on - whether you want a full fat 'no deal' brexit, or a Norway-style 'soft brexit', or a people's vote and exit from brexit - you have no seriously influential voice in the debate in our primary democratic institution speaking on your behalf, because neither of the big two parties are doing anything other than desperately trying to keep themselves in one piece to stay or get into power against the other.

If we had a system where we proportionately elected parties according to our own views, and they then negotiated and argued with each other in government and parliament to represent their own ideological positions, based on a strength in numbers directly dictated by the electorate, at least the debate would be an open one. There wouldn't be the fear of one tribal lot refusing to work with another tribal lot because they are in the wrong tribe that we have now. There wouldn't be the chaos of a government and opposition both paralysed by their own internal contradictions. It would be the normal state of affairs for parties to work together in various ways, because that is how it would always have to work. The different sides of this and every other argument would be represented, and those that agreed would be free to agree, and those that disagree would be free to disagree.

Contrary to the usual defences of FPTP, that wouldn't mean 'chaos' at all. Quite the opposite. It would be an end to the chaos that is created by nobody being able to stand up for what they actually believe on such an important topic for the future of the country without the risk of destroying themselves and their own party. More parties means more representative of public views, and more representative debate and decision making in parliament. That would be a very good thing.

Of course, some will suggest that it means more 'radical' views getting a parliamentary voice, and that can happen. Better that those views are represented openly by parties that stand and get elected on that basis than in secretive and potentially influential groupings hiding within larger parties, though, I would suggest. Let those views be heard in the elected chamber - that's democracy. Let their views be openly debated and challenged, too, and let them continue to sit and rant on the fringes as everyone else gets on with the practical business of running the country, hopefully without pandering to those more extreme voices that can only get the influence that the public allows them. Are there risks to that? Of course - there is always an inherent risk to allowing the public to vote in any way at all, in case they don't vote the way you want them to. That's not a valid reason for abolishing democracy itself, though.

So let's end the current mess of a so-called 'party' system in the UK, and have a real democracy of actual political parties that are themselves bound together by their ideological positions (that then negotiation according to the leverage given to them by the public). Let's get rid of the Tories and have 'One Nation' standing against 'ERG', and similarly have 'Socialist Labour' standing against 'Social Democrats', and even the latter against 'Liberals'. Let's see what the public majority actually tells us about the balance of all of those different views and more, and then let those new parties work together across the old tribal lines to achieve things in a way that has some chance of commanding reasonable support among the people. Let's sweep away the whole failing system by having an electoral system that actually allows the public to make real choices, have a real influence over the direction of their government.

Would PR really kill off the old parties? It would be a long and (for some) pretty painful process, of course, but eventually I suspect it would. And not a moment too soon.

1 comment:

  1. Just to add to your analysis of the Liberal Democrats: within a year or so after the merger, there were more people who had joined the new party than remaining former members of the SDP and the Liberal party put together. Nevertheless, the strands you identified are certainly still there. (My memory is also that there were some liberal thinkers in the SDP and some inclined to social democracy in the old Liberal party.)

    After PR, I suggest there would be an identifiable socialist party and separate parties of social liberals, economic liberals, ecologists and a party which looked after the interests of capital. There might also be regionally-based parties. This seems to be the pattern for many continental nations. France is the glaring exception - but then France has run-off elections, not true PR.

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