Tuesday 13 February 2024

Missing the opportunity


The idea that the way people vote may not always be the result of a careful assessment of the parties and their candidates is not exactly a new one. Graham Wallas, back in 1908 (“Human Nature in Politics”) argued that political opinions and actions are largely the result of habit based on irrational assumptions. I can’t remember exactly where, but another formulation of a similar idea which I came across in 1970 or 1971 described voting as an essentially irrational act. Not everybody would agree, of course, but there is enough truth contained in the statements for us to be wary of those who argue strongly for a position which implies something different. As evidence, of a sort, I can offer one story from my own campaigning history in which an elderly couple told me that they were going to vote for myself and Plaid Cymru “because Labour and the Tories gave away the Empire”. There are plenty of other examples, and few people who’ve ever done any serious canvassing will not have similar stories to tell.

The immediate relevance of this is the debate over the proposed new voting system for the Senedd, which has aroused the ire of some. Some of the criticism is justified; some rather less so. Personally, I’d prefer that the two parties pushing reform (Labour and Plaid) had agreed to implement STV instead. There are problems with all voting systems, but it's always seemed to me that STV is the best – or perhaps I should say least worst. For me, the primary criticism of the closed list system as opposed to STV is that STV allows second, third etc choices to influence the outcome, whilst under a closed list, only first preference votes count, meaning that the votes of people whose first choice is for a smaller party are completely disregarded. Much of the public criticism of the closed list has, however, revolved around a rather different issue, which is about the right of voters to choose an individual to represent them, rather than simply a party.

In small rural community council elections, where most of the candidates will be known to most of the electors, I don’t doubt that the personality and history of the individual is a major factor in the voters’ choice. But the more populous the area choosing a representative, the smaller the proportion of the electorate that will actually know enough about the individuals, and the more likely it is that voters choose based on party rather than person. And whilst some long-standing MPs and MSs like to believe that they have an enormous personal vote, my own experience of canvassing at Senedd and Westminster parliament levels tells me that that is likely to be greatly exaggerated. As a candidate, I’ve had people telling me that ‘I don’t normally vote for your party, but I’m voting for you’, and as a canvasser for other candidates, I’ve had people telling me that ‘I normally vote for your party, but I’m not voting for X’. Candidates hear the positive messages – their foot-soldiers hear the negative ones. It is a fiction of the UK constitution that voters choose an individual to represent them rather than a party, but a fiction that many choose to believe. It's true, of course, that a closed list effectively allows parties to select which of their candidates will be the first to be elected, but the extent to which that ceases to be true under a more open system is somewhat exaggerated.

There is another aspect to this as well. Some of the critics of the closed list have also been quite critical in the past of the quality of some of those elected to the Senedd. There is a certain degree of arrogance behind that criticism, implying as it does that those making the criticism have the knowledge, experience and ability to do better. But let us suppose that the criticism is indeed a valid one. Are electors really in a position to be able to address that, given their necessarily limited knowledge of the individuals? If the quality of those elected needs to be improved, the only people in a position to do that are the political parties themselves. Furthermore, it isn’t just about individuals – if we want a successful Senedd leading a successful Wales, we need the best team. And as any sports fan will know, the best rugby team isn’t the one with 15 outside halves, and nor is the best soccer team the one with 11 centre-forwards. A closed list invites the electors to vote for a team rather than an individual, and that gives the political parties the opportunity to decide who their A-team is and position team members on the lists in such a way as to get that team elected in the order it chooses. The problem with that however is that, in practice, there is no sign to date of the parties abandoning a selection system based entirely on ambition and popularity and trying seriously to assess ability and suitability instead. As it is, they seem to be hell-bent on going for a closed list system which is not as representative as STV and then ignoring the one big advantage that it does have.

1 comment:

Spirit of BME said...

I think that couple had got it right.
Let me add a similar experience ,not as a candidate – heaven forbid, but as a pounder of the streets taking an opinion poll in a valley constituency on a rainy Saturday morning.
This middle-aged woman I interviewed proudly announced that she had voted Plaid Cymru and would continue to do so. On answering the social questions, she gave a predictable socialist type of answer. Then, I asked the Defence/Nuclear questions to which she answered that it was important that we upgrade the weapons and take the first opportunity to nuke the USSR.