09 May 2007

Inherent unfairness of the first-past-the-post system

I recently reported that I took part in local elections in York. It turns out that at least 52 fellow students were denied the experience, as the University forgot to put them on the electoral register. In Scotland, over 100 000 ballot papers were spoilt due to the voters' difficulties with understanding the new voting machines and the "complex" electoral system used to elect the Scottish parliamentarians.

Yet Polly Toynbee in The Guardian delivers a merciless verdict on by far the worst form of voters' disenfranchisement: the first-past-the-past (FPTP) electoral system used to select the local councillors as well as MPs.
"In yet more councils results and votes were wildly out of kilter: in Brentwood the Tories won 11 of 13 seats on 37% of the vote. In Sunderland Labour won 75% of the seats on 43% of the vote. In Eastbourne the Lib Dems got fewer than half the votes but 20 of 27 seats. So why bother to vote? Most voters didn't and their cynicism was often a rational response. Tories may puff themselves into artificial indignation over the West Lothian question (Scottish MPs voting on English issues), but like Labour they ignore this far greater voting swindle."
I cast my vote for a Labour candidate. As she did not get most of the votes in my ward and thus did not make it on the Council, my vote was for nothing. At least I thought that she may have won. But what if you live in a ward/constituency which has always been (and always will be) held by the party you don't support? You simply don't bother to vote anymore. And not because you don't care about politics. As Toynbee says:
"It makes sense: where there are more parties, where every vote counts and where no constituencies are a foregone conclusion, more people bother to vote."
Toynbee appeals to the Conservatives to endorse the Proportional Representation (PR):
"Opposing proportional representation is a no-brainer for the stupid party; the Conservatives are now at a massive disadvantage under the present system. On these results they are still unlikely to win outright in a general election, but they might if votes were fairly apportioned. As it is, they still have mountains to move in the north and in the cities. They would be wise to start campaigning for PR now while they are ahead, for if Brown does well and Labour surges forward, it will look like a loser's bleat later on. Only Tories in mainly Labour Wales get the message: they put PR for local elections into their manifesto."
However, the Tories are most probably not going to listen to Toynbee's advice. Funnily enough, the Conservatives were recently told by one of Cameron's key advisers to "ditch Churchill" and instead embrace Toynbee's left-wing social agenda. I guess that doesn't apply to the constitutional reform.

So why are the Tories so reluctant to open the door to reform? Firstly, they are unlikely ever to get over 50% of the national vote. Therefore, they are worried that the use of the PR would inevitably translate into a permanent Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition in Westminster and condemn the Tories to eternal oppositon. Yet they are forgetting that with the introduction of the PR, other parties like the Greens or the British National Party would most likely obtain Westminster seats and mix the cards. Secondly, one gets the feeling that in some quarters the FPTP is portrayed as an essential component of British democracy, in direct opposition to the European PR systems which are commonly dismissed for producing weak governments. And it goes without saying that the Conservatives' first and foremost task is to conserve all "ancient British institutions". Sadly, that doesn't seem to include civic equality.


Semyon said...

The reason why the Tories will probably not embrace PR also explains Labour's inactivity on the issue, at Westminster at least. Each wants to be assured of an outright majority without having to compromise with other parties. Actually, if the Tories polled 41% at the next General Election they would be looking at a small, yet effective, working majority (Railings and Thrasher, I think). It is simply not true to say that if Cameron wants to be PM he needs to take inner city seats in places like Manchester, Liverpool or even York. That's New Labour's election night spin, bought so credulously by the BBC and, apparently, Ms Toynbee as well. New Labour won in 1997 by taking the South from the Tories, for Cameron to win it is sufficient to reverse this.

Thus, with victory in sight for the Conservatives, it is clearly rational for the party to ignore Ms Toynbee's advice.

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