Friday, April 9, 2010

Why Scotland 'doesn't matter' in this election

One of my pet hates at election time is the tendency of politicians and commentators alike to treat the electorate as a whole - whether at a local or national level - as a kind of mystical collective entity expressing its will, rather than as a group of thousands or millions of individuals making individual decisions that are then aggregated to produce an outcome. Earlier this week we had Anthony Howard rubbishing the prospect of a balanced parliament (statistically far more likely than in most previous elections because of the relative strength of the Liberal Democrats and nationalist parties) on the grounds that the British people always "prefer to come to a clear decision". Well, I'm sure they do. The problem is that 34% could come to a clear decision that they want a Labour government, 38% could come to an equally clear decision that they want a Tory government, and the net result would be a balanced parliament. The closeness (or otherwise) of the final result really isn't much of a commentary on the 'decisiveness' of the individual voters concerned.

On a similar theme, we had Danny Finkelstein's bizarre theory eighteen months ago that history proves the electorate always come to the 'right' decision no matter what. In truth, it's not all that surprising that a moderately right-of-centre commentator who was once an Owenite member of the SDP (ie. someone very close to the political centre of gravity in middle England) would feel uncannily comfortable with the result the electorate of middle England delivered on each and every occasion. So Heath "didn't deserve" a second term, Labour had failed to prove they "got it" in 1992, but had by 1997, etc, etc. What Finkelstein doesn't seem to have spotted is that he's only getting these 'right' results because UK general elections just happen to draw an arbitrary circle around an electorate with the 'right' kind of demographics and political orientation. Run precisely the same historical election contests with that circle drawn arbitrarily round a different electorate and you get very different outcomes. Run them only in Scotland, say, and rather than Finkelstein it would be a centre-left commentator contentedly noting that the electorate always get it right, and that everybody knows the stupid Tories deserved their sequence of humiliating defeats in the 1980s because they simply didn't "get it" about social justice and the need to protect industry. Run them in England only, and we'd presumably be hearing about how Heath's re-election for a second term in 1974 was "well-merited". And so on.

Reading Jeff's post on Tuesday on the subject of electoral reform, I felt that he was perhaps falling into a similar kind of trap. His contention was that the Electoral Reform Society was being disrespectful to voters by suggesting that first-past-the-post generates hundreds of safe seats that effectively disenfranchise voters - in Jeff's eyes it's the voters themselves who deliver those safe seats. If Glasgow voters want to elect Labour MPs time and time again by mammoth margins, that's a matter for them, and their decision has to be respected. The problem is that this argument rests on viewing the Glasgow electorate as one of those mystical collective entities expressing a common will. It really isn't like that. Glasgow, just like everywhere else, is comprised of individual voters making a colourful variety of individual choices. Unfortunately for those people, first-past-the-post arbitrarily traps them in a geographical box which preordains that their personal decisions count for nought. The crucial thing to understand is that this utter powerlessness applies even if they vote Labour. It is completely irrelevant whether there is a 10% swing to Labour or against Labour in these seats - the outcome will always be unalloyed Red, rendering each and every individual change of heart between elections superfluous. And of course it isn't just Glasgow - whole swathes of the UK live with a concept of 'democracy' that is to all intents and purposes as nominal or dormant as in a one-party state. The net effect is a disgraceful inequality whereby a very narrow group of floating voters in English marginal seats hold all the power in elections, and everyone else can be safely ignored. This in turn translates into a more concrete social and economic inequality as politicians do what comes naturally, and shower the bulk of their election bribes on the 'empowered few'.

Incidentally, that's precisely what commentators are getting at when they smugly assure us that Scotland "doesn't matter" in this election. It's got nothing to do with Scotland having only 9% of the population, and therefore a similar proportion of seats. It's instead a reference to the fact that Scotland contains very few Labour-Conservative marginals, and therefore has far, far fewer than 9% of the voters who will actually select the next government.

Proportional representation as proposed by the SNP (and admittedly the Lib Dems and Greens as well) would of course set this outrageous state of affairs to rights at a stroke. For the avoidance of doubt, the majoritarian Alternative Vote system proposed by Labour categorically would not.

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