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Sunday, May 08, 2005


I have been asked by Bill Keezer of Bill's Comments why I consider the first past the post (FTPT) system compared to proportional representation (PR) so dreadful when it appears not to be disapproved of in the US. Since I do indeed consider it corrupting that is a very good question.

Thursday's election here led to Labour gaining 55% of seats & thus a comfortable majority on 35.9% of the vote. The Tories got 30% on 33% & the Liberal Democrats got 10% on 22.5%. Paradoxically the Scottish National Party got 1% on 1.5% of the UKwide vote proving that FTPT is less destructive of localised parties, a point I will raise again at the end.

Under FTPT if the vote was perfectly evenly spread then Labour would get 35.9% in every constituency & all the seats. Fortunately perfection does not happen in the real world. Actually there is a further wrinkle in that Labour's vote, being disproportionately urban working class tends to be somewhat more concentrated & these tend to be shrinking constituencies (we also have movement to suburbia) so they actually do rather better than they ought to. Had the Tories got 35.9% & Labour 33% there would have been no overall majority & Labour would still have been the largest party.

It is obvious that this is unfair & undemocratic. I believe it also leads to bad & corrupting government. All parties represent their voter's interests. When they have 51% of the vote it is usually assumed that they represent a fair approxiamation of the general interest (this is clearly not so in places where there are tribally divided communities such as Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq & traditionally the southern USA & I think democrats should be giving this problem much more thought). A party which represents only 37% is clearly not able to preside in this way & the large majority of people feel, correctly, that they are disenfranchised. FTPT also destroys small parties & makes the 2 large parties fight only over the areas where their policies abut. This means that new ideas tend not to surface & I believe there is no field of human endeavour where there is more of a shortage of new ideas than politics. The one argument for FTPT which, in my opinion, holds weight is that it allows new parties to grow when they should not - the National Socialists are the prime example. I would say however that there is at least as much risk of a traditional party being captured by entryism under FPTP (the religious right threaten the Republicans thus & Labour had a serious problem once with a well organised Trotskite group) & that the democracy ultimately stand or falls on whether the electorate feel involved.

It also heightens geographical divisions. For example there is a common belief held by Scots, of whom I am one, that we are socialistically inclined. This is because even during the height of Thatcherism (she won repeatedly on 42%) Scotland returned 85% Labour MPs. However Labour never actually got as much as 50% of the vote here & by most measurements we are only about 3% to the left - this myth has nonetheless entered the national psyche. This all leads to a great deal of cynicism in politics. It is also extremely difficult to change because the party in government is, by definition, doing very well out of it. Scotland provides an interesting example in that recently we have gained a state government which is run by PR. This means that the government is an alliance of Labour & Liberals. While it would be wrong to suggest that we have become enthusiastic about our leaders the election results in Scotland show that people think the Liberal influence on government has been beneficial & the historic logjam in Scots politics is clearly breaking.

If it is so dreadful why doesn't everybody (ie the US) want to be free of it?

Partly happenstance - it is only fairly recently that this has become such an important issue here - the 1945 election is the last one where the winner had a majority but with most winners in the high forties it did not seem so important.

Partly that Americans are justifiably proud of their founding fathers & slow to change their constituion - in the 18thC PR did not exist, it requires a greater degree of state organisation than was common then. I strongly suspect that if it had been an option it would have been chosen for at least one House (possibly not both because separation of power is a cornerstone of the constitution).

Partly also I think, that the US has a Presidential system so that parties are less important & less disciplined. Presidents could also be elected by PR, either by use of a transferable vote or, by a run off by the leading candidates, both of which ensure the winner has, eventually, most of the votes, but, since somebody has to drive it is not so obvious a problem as in a parliamentary system which is supposed to be built on concensous. While there have been many 3rd parties they tend not to survive failure. Since WW2 their have been 4 significant 3rd parties - the Progressives of Henry Wallace, George Wallace's states rightists, Ross Perot & Nadar's greens. Had all of those survived US politics would be considerably more diverse & interesting.

Does this really matter that much for good governance. I actively do not want to put PR forward as a magic bullet - there are many badly run countries with PR & Singapore is well run on FTPT. Nonetheless I have 3 examples, 1 from the UK & 2 from the US where FTPT was disasterous. At the end of WW2 the UK Liberal party disintigrated under an electoral squeeze - this meant that Lloyd George was excluded from power - since he had been considerably more important to winning WW1 than Churchill to WW2, wanted an Empire Free Trade area, pressed for Keynsian economics during the Depression & pressed for acceptance of Russia's offer of alliance before WW2 broke out this loss is obvious. The US examples are that of Teddy Roosevelt, whose fight with Taft split the Republican party & allowed Wilson in during WW1. With a transferrable vote Roosevelt would certainly have been President & would have sorted out the war (he was that sort of guy) before Russia revolted & established a workable "League of Peace". Finally, & as an example of the geographical divisions FTPT produces, Abraham Lincoln was elected as part of a 4 way split in which he got a small majority of northern votes & virtually no southern ones - he thus came to power on about 40% of the vote in a manner which was seen as unfair in the southern states. The rest is history.

Further reading;
Electoral Reform Society

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