Tag Archives: Scottish Independence

Election 2015 – Keeping Things in Proportion

When you hear the heads of three political party leaders hit the floor on the same day, you know it’s been an eventful election. Green Party leader Natalie Bennett said before the results were announced that the most likely victim was to be the First Past The Post electoral system. Many of us are waiting for this fourth head to drop.

There are experts at the Electoral Reform Society who could explain the different alternative systems and their respective advantages and disadvantages, if politicians wanted to know but of course the winner is rarely keen to change a system under which they have just achieved victory. On this occasion, we may have to insist. This election was too chaotic to count as democracy. Poorly coordinated tactical voting based upon opinion poles that are now known to have been wrong, is a very risky way to make an important decision.

  • Majority

Out of the people who voted, the winner is the option that gets more than 50% of the votes. There can be a draw and with more than 2 options, there won’t necessarily be a winner.

  • First-Past-The-Post (FPTP)

The winner is the option that gets most votes. When there are more than 2 options and the spit is fairly equal, there can be arguments over ‘legitimacy’, as there were at this election.

UK elections are run under a combination of these 2 systems, FPTP to decide which party’s leader tries to form a government but if there is no majority then further horse trading and agreements with other parties to work together to achieve a majority.

Does FPTP ever work? It can, if there are only 2 choices (and no-one is hiding a third option that many people would have preferred, as happened in the Scottish Independence referendum) and there is no dispute over the borders of the appropriate constituency or who should be entitled to vote (another pair of hurdles the ‘Scottish question’ did not clear cleanly.)

Until last night, the Conservatives seemed likely to get the most votes but not to have a majority. We heard the SNP argue that an ‘alliance of the Left’ would have a greater share of the vote that would have more legitimacy. The unexpected Conservative majority saved us from that entertainment.

What do we want from our elections? There has been a lot of talk of “PR”,

  • Proportional Representation

A set of systems that would select MPs from a group of candidates, in proportion to the number of votes they receive. At first sight, this seems fair but what if there are candidates that have some support from a small section of the population but are extremely unpopular with another part of the community, possibly everyone else? Systems that allow ‘NOT preferences’ to be expressed exist.A

  • Transferable Votes system

is used in Australia. You put a “1” against your first choice, a “2” against your second etc. After voting, if your first choice has not won then it is transferred to your second choice. It is designed to maximise the satisfaction, or at least minimise the dissatisfaction, across the population.

Would an example help? Imagine there is an election in Israel. An election is held to choose 2 councillors from 4 candidates. You might get 1 PLO candidate, 1 from a Zionist group that wanted to build on Palestinian land and two moderates who want to respect the traditions of the two communities but to build shared first schools so that kids get to know each other before they learn to hate.

Under Proportional Representation, it is not inconceivable that the Palestinians would vote for the PLO candidate first and the Israelis would vote for the Zionist.

Under a Transferable Votes system, they might choose 2 moderates who are no-ones first choice. Is this compromise, social engineering or satisfaction optimisation? Is it better to make a few people very happy and a few people  very unhappy with each choice?

An exercise to the reader: UKIP seem likely to favour PR but they are very worried about immigration by Muslims and the possibility of Islamist extremism within those communities. Under PR, might there ever be enough fundamentalist Muslims spread around the UK to elect there own MP?

Remember when we had a FPTP referendum and chose not to move the only bad PR system we were offered, in case we got coalition governments? What about when most Scots probably wanted greater devolved power within the UK but were offered an In/Out referrendum?

Democracy is not simple. Decisions have consequences. We should not change voting systems in a rush. I think Natalie Bennett knows this, so we should listen to what she says.

The values and beliefs hiding behind the concepts and ideas

For the last few years I had a verbal sparring partner at work. We had grown comfortable expressing strong opinions that we didn’t necessarily believe in, as an intellectual challenge and to mutually explore what we actually think about a subject. We sometimes gave the impression to casual observers that we hated one another; but it worked for us.

Nearly always, during these squabbles, we discovered that at a deeper level we agreed about fundamentals but had been coming at the subject from a different angle or using words that misled the other into shadow-boxing a spectre from our own imaginations. We would argue forcefully for an hour or two before finally identifying a point of agreement that had been crouching in the shadows. Very occasionally, we would not converge. Whenever this happened, it would eventually emerge that we were arguing from a point of view based on our core values, which are different in some areas.

Some months ago I started to consider why well-meaning people, with logical thought processes, when presented with the same data,  came to different, even opposite conclusions, based on their political beliefs. I decided to apply what I’d learned from my own ‘heated debates’ to political thinking. I started by trying to identify the value systems supporting Left and RIght Wing political thinking. That is still a work in progress but I’ve discovered that almost everyone involved in politics will cite their main motivation at the beginning to have been their desire to make the world a better and fairer place.

As there are concepts behind the content of our information resources, so there are deeply held values and beliefs forming the foundations of those concepts, yet we rarely bring our values out into the broad light of day. Are we ashamed?  Almost everything we do is informed by values that we keep hidden, perhaps from ourselves. Is that healthy?

The Scottish Referendum brought out questions about where Scottish, English and British values were different. We discovered that we didn’t know what that meant. People said that the British believe in “fairness” but we argued and we screamed “that’s not fair” at each other as we fought about ideas.

Before we start to write, should we make an honest private check-list of our personal values? As we approach the next general election, I’d like to see the values of parliamentary candidates made explicit. I guess I’d like some reassurance that they believe in something.