How can the British live with their electoral system?

I woke up to some bad news on the morning of May 8th.: an unexpectedly decisive victory for the Conservatives, who proved all the polls wrong and ended up with an actual majority. I’m not British and I don’t live in the UK, but I did grow up there and still take an interest in British politics. Furthermore, the neoliberal wave which started with Ronald Reagan and was enthusiastically welcomed by his friend Margaret Thatcher, did not stop at the English Channel. What happens in the UK is very relevant for anyone living in Europe. For whatever reason, this news made me angry, so it was time for a serious rant…

Maybe you actually like the Conservatives, or at least reckon they’re not quite as bad as Labour. Well, it’s certainly not impossible that some of the 11 million or so people who voted Conservative will find their way here eventually. So before I go any further, let me point out why I found their victory such bad news. First of all, what sort of party are they? A quick look at the Political Compass chart for the 2015 election shows the Conservatives at the very far right of the Left/Right economic axis. If they were any further to the right they’d fall off the edge. On the vertical Authoritarian/Libertarian axis, which covers social rather than economic issues, they’re the most authoritarian party (‘no nonsense’, if you prefer that label) except for the BNP, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (remember Ian Paisley?) and the UKIP. To put that into a European perspective, the EU Political Compass 2012 shows the UK and Spain in joint first place at the extreme right of the chart – not a single country has a more right-wing economic policy than these two – while the only countries above the UK on the ‘no nonsense’ scale are Italy, Poland, Latvia and Hungary. What this means, I’m sorry to have to tell a large portion of the British electorate, is that they’ve just given an absolute majority to an extreme right-wing party.

Now, for anyone who doesn’t know what an extreme right-wing economic policy looks like, let me spell it out:

  • In a democratic country like the UK everyone, regardless of race, economic background or anything else, has an equal chance of getting a good education and a good job, so if you’re poor it must be your own fault. You’re too lazy, for instance.
  • Conversely, if you’re rich that must be because you’ve worked hard, so it’s about time the government stopped taking away your hard-earned cash and wasting it on the undeserving poor.

Even if the above two statements aren’t true (I’m sure most Conservatives would at least admit that Britain isn’t quite perfect yet), it’s normal and natural that there are rich people and poor people, so get over it. As Aydin said in Winter Sleep :

God made rich people and poor people, and he must have known what he was doing.

And if that sounds a bit harsh, we still have to remember that the best way of helping poor people is to let the rich keep more of their money, in the hope that some of it might ‘trickle down’ to the poor. We have to be cruel to be kind.

OK, that’s a pretty black-and-white view of things, and many people will undoubtedly accuse me of exaggerating, but I think it does a pretty good job of summing up the basic philosophy behind an extreme right-wing economic policy. So, if you agree with all or even most of the above, then the Conservative party is the one for you and you have every reason to be very happy with the election results. Unfortunately this does not apply to me.

BTW, for anyone who isn’t familiar with the The Political Compass, I recommend having a look and taking their political test. It’s not a site to be taken very, very seriously but it can be quite informative, especially when it comes to comparing parties and countries. The exact position they assign on the axes to any particular party is very much open to debate, but I see no reason to think they’re any less accurate regarding the Conservatives than they are with anyone else.

But anyway, all that wasn’t really what got me angry and inspired this rant. I’ve been around too long to get annoyed that easily by politics! I must admit that my initial reaction was something along the lines of “Yet again the British have proven what a complete bunch of easily-led morons they are!”. After all, I doubt very much whether a large percentage of the British would really agree with the extreme right-wing economic philosophy outlined above, and I suspect that a lot of Conservative voters (especially the poorer ones) will assume that the people behind The Political Compass are lying when they portray the Conservatives as an extreme right-wing party, or that my view of what an extreme right-wing economic policy looks like is incorrect. After all, that’s not what the Conservatives said they were like, and neither does it match up to what the press were saying about them. I, on the other hand, would say that the press and the public relations people have done their job well, and yet again the British voters have fallen for it. But how many of them exactly?

Let me make it clear at this point that I’m not a big fan of democracy. If there’s anything good to be said about it, then that can only be what Winston Churchill said, i.e. that it is “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” It would go much too far here to list all the things I don’t like about democracy (another time maybe), so just for the sake of the argument let’s assume that a system in which a small minority of rich and powerful individuals employ all the ingenuity of advertising, public relations and psychology, and all the communicative power of the mass media, to persuade millions of people who know practically nothing about the issues involved to vote the way those rich and powerful individuals want them to – let us assume that such a system is a good one. In that case, the least I think we ought to ask for is that there is some link, at least an approximate one, between how people vote and the sort of government which gets elected. Unfortunately in the British system, such a link is tenuous to say the least, and this last election was a particularly good example of how ridiculous the British electoral system can be. Here are a few examples, taken from the final results as reported by the BBC:

  • The Conservatives took over half the seats with only 36,9% of the votes.
  • The Liberal Democrats got 8 seats with 7,9% of the votes, while the UKIP got one seat with 12,6%. Under proportional representation they would have got 82 seats!
  • The Greens also got one seat, but with just 3,8% of the votes.
  • The Conservatives had a 0,8% increase in their share of the votes, and gained 24 seats, while Labour had a 1,5% increase in their share of the votes, and lost 26 seats.

What it comes down to is that the geographical distribution of votes is much more important than the actual number of votes cast: a lot of votes evenly spread over the country will do you no good at all, whereas a much smaller number concentrated in just a few constituencies will get you seats in parliament. This explains the enormous success of regional parties such as the Scottish National Party (50 seats with 4,7% of the votes), Plaid Cymru (3 seats with 0,6% of the votes), and the small Northern Irish parties which did even better.

Not that I’m actually unhappy with the fact that the UKIP has been kept out of parliament, nor that I see a parliament containing 82 UKIP MPs as a very appetising prospect, but that’s beside the point. After all, the same thing could just as easily have happened to a party I like! The fact is that 12,6% of the British electorate think in a certain way and exercised their ‘democratic right’ (or so they thought) by voting UKIP – and you can’t just sweep them under the carpet using a ridiculously unfair voting system, in the hope that they’ll just give up and go away. Surely it would be better in the long term to confront the issue? And anyway, where has British ‘fair play’ got to? It used to be quite a popular concept. There’s certainly nothing fair or rational about the present system, which resembles a casino with loaded dice and a very bent croupier.

How can people live with such a transparently unfair and illogical system? The fact that it’s survived so long can only be explained by the unfair advantage it gives to the two big parties, Labour and the Conservatives, who are therefore always in power and use their influence to maintain the status quo. To change the system, those parties would have to do something which would be to their own disadvantage, and it’s a very rare thing indeed to see politicians being quite that altruistic. This is really just a minor aspect of a much more general mechanism: the fact that those in power tend to use their influence to their own advantage and to that of their own class, with the result that if nothing is done to combat the phenomenon, wealth and power tend to accumulate with an ever-smaller elite. It’s no coincidence that “de duivel schijt altijd op de grootste hoop” (literally “the devil always shits on the biggest pile”, which might perhaps be more politely translated as “the poor get poorer and the rich get richer”). Historically this has tended to continue until the elite goes too far and is destroyed by a war or a revolution, whereupon the process starts again from the beginning, although in the last few centuries they’ve got a lot better at stopping just before the edge of the abyss or at least hiding the extent of their privilege. Within organisations (even the most democratic and left-wing of them), this is also related to the iron law of oligarchy.

So what is to be done about it ? Well, nothing, for the foreseeable future. I wish I could end this post on a cheerful, optimistic note (out of character though that might be), but unfortunately it won’t be possible. For anyone who’s already forgotten, the fact that neither of the two main parties got a majority in the 2010 general election provided the Liberal Democrats with a once in a lifetime chance to swap the British first-past-the-post system under which they and their Liberal predecessors had been suffering for at least half a century, for some form of proportional representation. After all, a Labour/Conservative coalition was unthinkable, so both parties were dependent on the Liberal Democrats. Unfortunately these were so power-hungry and desperate to form part of a government along with the Conservatives that they allowed themselves to be fobbed off with the ‘Alternative Voting’ system, which is only a very slight improvement on the present one and very far indeed from proportional representation. And even then there followed a ‘dirty tricks’ campaign marked by much blatant lying on the part of the two main parties and much of the press, and as usual the British fell for it hook, line and sinker and decided with a two thirds majority that they preferred the present system. If you’ve forgotten the details you can refresh your memory here, but be warned, it makes for depressing reading.

To sum up, the British brand of democracy is such a bad system that it’s seemingly incapable of improving itself, at least for the foreseeable future. In other words, I give up!

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