Democracy and the ways in which my mind doesn’t get on with it.

I have a confession to make. Despite having always regarded myself as “something of a democrat” (which means… democratic, just not too much of a good thing), my voting intentions have never worked very well with the particular concept of democracy most people in this country have.

For instance, before I understood the voting system, and how the terms of the contest varied from region to region, I used to claim that “if Labour were going to win, I would vote Conservative, if the Conservatives were likely to win, I would vote Labour”, unashamedly, even though I could understand the logical problems with this sort of tactical voting, not to mention what it says about your ego that I believed that I was smart enough to vote tactically for good reasons.

I still have something of this idea in me, though watered down by a greater understanding of FPTP and the knowledge that in my home constituency of Leominster, the best opposition to the incumbent MP would be from the Liberal Democrats. However, my University constituency is a Labour seat, with the Conservatives the nearest opposition (to my knowledge), and I cannot help but think that I would vote differently were Labour at all likely to win the forthcoming election (which they are not, at present) than in the context of the present polls. This is because of what perceive to be a fundamental problem with elections, the fact that enough people can prefer one party moderately enough over another to give them a landslide majority, despite the fact that if the magnitude of their preferences were to be taken into account, they would not probably wish to deliver such landslide levels of control.

There are some of you who would probably say that this is meaningless anyway, as the Conservatives have only ever gone past the 50% level once, and that with a “fair” voting system, they would not be delivered a landslide majority, which is fair enough. But even if it’s only a hypothetical consideration in the full, I feel it is still an important one: electoral contests are an imperfect way of reflecting upon someone’s opinions, because even with the most ‘proportional’ voting systems, what is not taken into account is how much of a role you envision for the losers.

Of course, some of you would probably argue Single Transferable Vote as an exception to this, in that you can “divide” your preferences between different parties to quite a sophisticated level in some cases (depending on the size of the constituency, and how much attention you want to give to the ballot paper). But even Single Transferable Vote is tricky: the likely-hood of a vote being “transferred” is hit and miss, and the chances depend on the level of popular support a candidate gains to begin with. I suppose the latter factor puts something of a lid on the chances of a candidate gaining too disproportionately from the appeal of being “marginally better” than the other contestants, but it’s still a clumsy tool. It may, unfortunately, be the best one for addressing this problem.

Still, there are other issues. The problem with the “all in one” nature of British democracy at the moment is that people have to balance the needs of Local Representation, National Representation, choice of government agenda, choice of legislative agenda, their preferences on the level of the individual candidate and their preferences on the level of the national party. The Conservatives have laughably tried to insinuate in the past that this maximises choice in national elections: the reality is that it stretches it to the barest thinnist it could conceivably be.

What is probably more crucial is that we have a greater choice in terms of representative democracy, including greater local devolution and a largely democratic House of Lords, unpalatable connotations though these ideas may have at first. For even if a “perfect” voting system of representation exists, it cannot possibly fulfill all of the needs for each type of political representation rolled into one. Two constitutional experiments in the last decade have shown particular promise: Devolution, and greater bicameralism. It is just as critical that we draw from this pool than attempting to plaster a problem over with electoral reform, be it improving the voting system or primaries.


2 responses to this post.

  1. Good post if I may say.

    I agree with large parts of it. One problem with British thinking on electoral reform is the need to hang on to local representation, I accept it is a good thing but it is by no means the most important function of elections and representatives.

    I also agree that fundamental to increased democracy is outside parliamentary elections, through devolution, the Lords and many other reforms. We must not focus on our electoral system eccesively.


  2. Thanks.

    I generally like the concept of direct representation, but I do accept that it is problematic for proportionality of representation. All these factors need to be weighed up, really — from the balance of power between all forms of government., to the proportionality of outcomes, to the basis of whatever reform is decided to be necessary.

    I do hope that it’s correct that Brown is thinking of legislating for a referendum on AV, though — I would probably vote in favour of that.


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