The Electoral Reform Society (ERS), of which I am a member and supporter, published a widely distributed report post-election suggesting that once again the “First Past the Post” (FPTP) system is a “system in crisis”.
The report is well presented, superbly researched and factually sound. It is also absolutely hopeless.
It is in fact a classic example of all that is wrong with progressive political thinking. It takes a set of progressive priorities and justifies them. Of course, if it matters to you that the system is “disproportionate”, delivers “wasted votes” or promotes “tactical voting”, then self-evidently the system is “in crisis”. But what if it doesn’t matter to you?
In other words, the report addressed all of the arguments made by those in favour of electoral reform, but none at all of those by those made against. What if, instead of the above, your main aims in an electoral system are to have a simple system designed to “stop extremism”, to deliver “direct representation”, and to promote “stable government”? If those are your aims, then the system has worked brilliantly – keeping extremists like UKIP out of government while delivering a majority centre-right government on a majority right-leaning vote without the need for weeks of uncertainty and fudged coalition. If that is your aim, there is simply no crisis at all – quite the contrary! Not once is that case – as self-evident to many as the need for proportionality is to ERS members – addressed in the report.
(This is, for reference, only one example. I read one Guardian article which accused the Conservatives of “doing away with human rights” – a self-evident outrage to the left. Yet actually what some of them are trying to do is repatriate responsibility for human rights to British courts – a self-evident priority of the right. So we have another example of the left failing to address even the basic case. By the way, I think Michael Gove is mad and any tampering with the Human Rights Act is misguided, but let us at least understand where the support for this is coming from and seek to address it maturely.)
The ERS may be better to stop writing reports about other things, and address the elephant in its own room. In 2011 there was a referendum on replacing FPTP, and it was lost heavily (32-68). Has the ERS yet put out a report on why this happened? “Electoral Reform – a Cause in Crisis” would have been a perfectly apt title.
This crisis remains. It needs to start with this inconvenient truth: for every one person who thinks the 2015 election was disproportionate and it is outrageous that smaller parties were left with just two seats for 5 million votes, there are two (based on the referendum result) who are thanking it for not giving UKIP 80 seats. (After all, the Conservatives will now move to postpone any attempts to do away with the Human Rights Act; but they would proceeding quickly if they were in coalition with UKIP!)
The ERS does in fact need to start with its own assumptions. Let us take just one: it says “STV” (the Single Transferable Vote system used for Assembly Elections here and for local elections here and in Scotland) works “perfectly well” in Northern Ireland. Does it? Do we not have an extraordinarily localised form of politics where our legislators think only of their own area and even their own tribe and never of Northern Ireland as a whole? Is it not a bit peculiar that no country outside the English-speaking world has adopted the system, if it is so obviously brilliant?
It also needs to be accurate. In 2011, for example, it consistently stated, clearly (and now demonstrably) erroneously, that AV (Alternate Vote, the proposed alternative to FPTP) was “more proportionate”. What it does is maintain all the advantages of FPTP while giving more people a say – but, having dismissed FPTP and all the arguments for it out of hand as not even worthy of consideration, this obvious case was never made.
It then needs to tackle the priorities of its opponents, not its supporters. Germany’s PR system has in fact countered extremism perfectly well; delivers direct representation (albeit through constituencies twice the size); and typically produces more stable governments than Britain’s FPTP (just eight post-War Chancellors versus twelve Prime Ministers; no snap elections versus three snap elections in 1951/1966/1974). That is to leave aside the argument that the potential for extremism drives others towards a stronger centre (this is apparent in Scandinavia), that direct representation is overrated (it can result in crazy localism and MPs elected on their ability to run an advice centre rather than legislate), and “stable government” can also mean “unaccountable government”, by no means necessarily a good thing (after all, Northern Ireland has had a devolved “stable government” since 2007…)
The biggest challenge of all is that the ERS is unlikely to succeed without context or, more fundamentally, allies. I joined not because I was convinced of the case for Electoral Reform specifically, but because I wanted political (institutional) reform more generally. Indeed, with the Union itself in danger, that is an increasingly compelling argument. The idea that STV will save the Union is self-evidently ridiculous; but the idea that a new federal set-up with a House of Lords appointed proportionately and wide-ranging devolution of powers to countries and cities (including tax-raising) may bring democracy closer to the people and thus create greater accountability, stability and purpose for the UK as a whole sounds like good sense (and has at least some support across all the main political parties and ideologies).
I want the ERS to succeed. However, it cannot escape the fact it has not. Perhaps the first reform should be internal.