Friday, 13 February 2015

It's all our fault

This report from the ERS makes for interesting reading.  In essence, it argues that the FPTP (First Past The Post) is no longer fit for purpose, and that the result of the forthcoming election is likely to be something of a lottery, with just a few percentage points change in the difference between parties making a relatively large difference to the outcome.
I can’t disagree with the conclusion that FPTP is a sub-optimal way of choosing a government; after all, I’ve supported STV as an alternative for decades.  The growth of a multi-party system makes the deficiencies more obvious, but the system was deficient a long time before that.  It worked, up to a point, when most of the population voted for one or other of two main parties; and I suspect that the desire of so many people in those two parties to cling on to the system reflects a lack of engagement with political reality, to say nothing of a deep-seated desire to go back to the ‘good old days’ when they didn’t have to deal with all those ‘others’. 
That belief is part of what drives both of them to say that voting for anyone else is a vote for what they still see as their only ‘real’ opponent.  But when that’s the best argument that either of them can come up with to vote for them, they’re both in a very sorry state.  It’s a strategy which assumes, at root, that the voters are basically stupid, and the fact that it has worked for so long is no reason to assume that it will go on working indefinitely.
It’s something of a misconception, though, that the current system was ‘designed’ to choose a government in an era of two party politics, and that it is the change in nature of the political contest which has shown up the failings of the system.  The electoral system we are using wasn’t really designed to elect a government at all; insofar as any thought was given to it, it was a means by which a constituency elected one or more MPs.  It even pre-dates the modern concept of parties as organisations which exist outside of parliament, and goes back to the days of a very limited franchise, sometimes with only a handful of voters in the ‘rotten boroughs’.
At the time it was adopted, I doubt that anyone gave the idea of alternative methods a moment’s thought; and they would probably have considered the very notion that people could be voting for a government rather than just an individual member to be a very strange one.  And in that context, as a means solely of choosing a representative for a particular geographical area, FPTP is a system which works, in that it identifies the most popular individual of those standing.
It’s only in the more ‘modern’ era that we, rightly, expect the election of a government to be an expression of the overall opinion of the nation, rather than the aggregation of opinion of MPs from individual constituencies.  It should be obvious to anyone that FPTP fails hopelessly to achieve that.  The main reason that we’re stuck with an outdated system is that MPs from the two main parties haven’t yet reached the ‘modern’ era.  They’re still living in an age when people simply elected an MP, and it was for the MP to deal with the important stuff, such as choosing a government.  From that perspective, the problem isn’t with the system; it’s with the voters who are failing to understand that their role is simply to choose between two options.
So – it’s all our fault really.  And actually, it really is – for tolerating this travesty and allowing them to get away with it for so long.

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