A Vote for Voting Properly

With the election behind us a few voices are at last crying foul – and this time its not just the Lib Dems. But the issue of electoral reform goes way beyond who got how many seats.

What we Voted ForThe image on the right, from the Independent tells a striking story. Under proportional representation our parliament would now look very different, indeed the Liberal Democrats would hold the balance of power with neither Labour nor the Tories able to form a government on their own. Their analysis needs some serious qualification: PR is unlikely to be sprung upon us, after we’d cast our votes, so our knowledge of our direct effect on the power of the different parties would change voting behaviour in marked and fairly unpredictable ways. We can, however, be certain both that more people would come out to vote, and that tactical voting would diminish (or even become meaningless).

Voting SystemsThe graph on the left shows that straight PR systems average 68% turnout, while plurality/majority systems (like first past the post) average 59% turnout. (Source IDEA Voter Turnout – Global Survey).

If the debate on the UK’s institutionally biased system is to take on real meaning, with the promise of a referendum on the matter, then there will be plenty of time for debating the pros and cons of coalition governments, local representatives, the threshold below which minority parties should be denied power, and a myriad of other complex constitutional issues. For me, right now, the burning issue is what would it do to our elections? How would it effect what should be a showcase of sensitive policy innovation displayed by the wise leaders of the political forces who exercise the power of the nation?

Well, things can, you’d think, only get better. We have been through what has almost universally been described as a dire, dreary election season. It is a cliched observation that image and the soundbite have taken over from substance in electioneering. This is truer than ever.

The campaign was initially dominated by finding ‘billion pound blackholes’ in each party’s manifesto. While election promises should be broadly realistic, it is, in fact, the civil service who should be doing the sums. A bunch of politicians spinning eachother’s figures can only serve to confuse – what they hope to get out of it is simply an overriding feeling that thier opponents are untrustworth and/or incompetent. The finish of the campaign was dominated by personality politics. For the record: Tony Blair did lie, and it is important, and the other parties have every right to point this out. However, it is the mock outrage as standard response by the media that kept this so high on the agenda, and did exactly what Howard had hoped: left an overriding feeling that Tony Blair was untrustworthy. Practically everything in between these peaks of image manipulation was soundbite. To move beyond the cliche, we must understand why it is the image and the soundbite have come to dominate the way parties campaign, and at the root of that is the very method by which we count our votes.

There is a postcode lottery of power in Britain. I felt disenfranchised by my location. Living in an ultra-safe Labour seat (Sheffield Central), even most of the labour voters felt they weren’t making a difference. This was hardly unusual, in the opinion of the Financial Times, 366 constituencies were safe, with a further 68 being long-shots. So that’s just under 33% of the seats being up for grabs. (In fact just 55 seats changed hands, less that 9%; BBC). What’s really important about all this is that the politicians know it better than anyone. They do not waste their resources campaigning in safe seats.

All parties have engaged in what Liam Fox trumpeted as “bespoke campaigning”. Labour and Conservatives both bought into the Mosaic system which uses a vast quantity of marketing data to link a classification of lifestyle types to postcodes, which can cover as few as 15 houses, and the electoral register. It is this sort of targetting that leads to all those silly stereotypes, from the original Mondeo Man, to the ‘Rustbelt Resiliance’ and ‘Golden Empty Nesters’ of this year. (See Patrick Wintour in the Guardian.)

So, safe seat? Nobody wants to talk to you. Wrong lifestyle? Nobody wants to talk to you. Fair enough, you might think, I can still find out what the parties think, and vote accordingly. The problem is that what the parties think is determined by the small percentage of voters who are identified swingers, located in marginal seats. Manifestos are written just for them. The national debate is created just for them. And the punchline? Most swing voters in marginal seats don’t care about politics!

This massive devaluation of political debate into marketing in the UK is driven by our ‘first past the post’ voting. Some version of PR can offer a range of benefits (as well as some dangers) as an alternative electoral system, but the one I desire most, is that maybe politicians will start to care what I think.

Some things to do:

Update: To put it another way…

Rob says:

sign the petition… we currently have the least democratic democracy in the world, well almost, we could exclude burma I suppose, and possibly the US, but not even sure about that one. Less than 22% of the population voted labour, yet they have a huge majority of 66 still. We need political reform and there is a big move going on for it at the moment. After you’ve signed, you must take to the streets and chain yourself to something and pretend you are a suffragette or chartist. Then we must all march on parliament… which might actually happen at some point, might have more effect than an anti war march, they can’t ignore us if we are demanding they change the system.