Sunday, March 15, 2015

The ultimate irony : anti-Scottish chauvinism could succeed in putting paid to the God-awful first-past-the-post voting system, where reason and logic failed

Sir Gus O'Donnell, who served as Cabinet Secretary under three Prime Ministers (Blair, Brown and Cameron) has declared that the SNP's seemingly imminent breakthrough at Westminster will call into question the legitimacy of the first-past-the-post voting system.   He quite clearly tied this point to the ongoing outbreak of Tartan Terror and Haggis Phobia by noting that what the election is "all about is Scotland" - which is plainly a fate worse than death as far as Whitehall mandarins are concerned.

So we're being invited to believe that the SNP winning 7% or 8% of the seats on the basis of 4% of the UK-wide vote, and holding merely a share of power as a result, somehow instantly renders first-past-the-post no longer fit for purpose, when the following was apparently perfectly OK -

* Elections being "all about" the West Midlands, London, and the North-West of England, because that's where all the marginal seats were.  Party leaders used to make one or two bored visits to Scotland during general election campaigns to avoid looking impolite.

* Labour being "elected" to rule on a single-party basis in 2005, in spite of 65% of the electorate voting against them.  It barely seemed to even occur to anyone in the London media to raise question marks over legitimacy, and when one journalist went through the motions of doing so, Tony Blair effortlessly got away with a show of astonishment.

*  Mrs Thatcher using the absolute power of an elective dictatorship to turn the UK upside down and devastate working-class communities, even though anything up to 58% of people had voted against her.  (The combined non-Tory vote was never lower than 56% in any of her three general election "victories".)  It's remarkable that so many people in Labour were relaxed about this effect of the voting system - it was a price well worth paying, apparently, just so long as they got their own shot at absolute power eventually.

You might suppose that it's wishful thinking to suggest that even the London establishment's loathing of the Jocks will prove strong enough to finally get rid of first-past-the-post, but consider this - the UK political system is becoming more like India's.  We still have first-past-the-post, and yet we have little prospect of anything other than proportional representation-type outcomes (ie. no single party holding a clear working majority) for the foreseeable future.  The reason this is happening is the same as in India - fracturing and regionalisation of the party system.  If a "regional" party gets 40% or 45% of the vote in its own part of the country, first-past-the-post exaggerates the effect and ensures that "national" parties are unlikely to pick up many seats there, thus significantly reducing the chances of anyone winning an overall majority.

Northern Ireland effectively "seceded" from the UK party system in the early 1970s, and it looks like Scotland could be about to do something similar.  When the Liberal Democrats regroup from their upcoming disaster, they could start to look like a de facto regional party of South-West England, and of course Plaid Cymru are already dominant in a few pockets of Wales.  Even Labour and the Tories are becoming increasingly "regional", because both are failing to challenge outside their own heartlands as effectively as they used to a few decades ago.

So if the London establishment are no longer enjoying the supposed "advantage" of first-past-the-post (ie. single-party elective dictatorship on a minority vote), they might just conclude that they have nothing left to lose by "stuffing the Jocks" (to use Mike Smithson's favourite phrase), and introducing proportional representation to weaken the SNP's influence.  Let's hope so - even when the right thing is done for stupid and offensive reasons, it's still the right thing.


  1. Eloquently put. The Westminster dalliance with PR might get really serious if it looks like a large tranche of SNP MPs could be an ongoing part of the House of Commons scene rather than one-of aberration. Generally, the anti-Scottish reaction of the Brit establishment, both politicians and various media types, has ranged from petulant and patronizing all the way through to what I feel forced to call, with heavy heart, racism. Anyway, supposing the Scots "invasion" of the Commons really does lead to PR *and* the SNP props up a Labour minority government - we could b looking at some very substantial progressive parting gifts from Scotland to the UK in the runup to Indy!

  2. FPTP was accepted because Scotland voted Westminster. It never really mattered who, just as long as it was a Westminster party. From Liberals to Scottish Unionists and finally to Labour. Thatcher did some serious damage to the ties that bind as did Major. Blair reluctantly supported devolution but it was seen as the only way to stop Scotland leaving. Blair, Brown and Scottish labour did very little to repair a lot of the damage, they felt devolution in its current form was enough. Then the SNP win in 2007 and again in 2011. Scottish labours reaction is very similar to what we are seeing down south.

    After the indy-ref the "vow that never was" led to the smith commission and labour did its utmost to scupper it. The tories then played a blinder (or so they thought) and tied it to EVEL. Then polls come out saying Scottish labour has lost Scotland. The SNP say they won't deal with Cameron or Clegg, but they will make a deal with UK labour.

    A non Westminster party with no emotional connection to Britain could arrive, put labour in power and then exercise influence on the UK. Cue frothing Anti-Scottish bile from the very folk who were love bombing less than half a year ago.

    The pressure is on Miliband to write off any deal so as to lock out the SNP. You'll notice that Cameron isn't under the same pressure. Odd then that Scottish labour keep saying an SNP vote is a tory vote. Even odder then that Scottish labour are desperately trying to convince its own voters to vote tory in marginals and get tories in to power. I don't think that Scottish labour is actually a functioning party at this time. It's a cartoonishly inept clique, not a force for change.

    UK labours triangulation of right wing votes in England has left it in a bind where it may have to contemplate writing Scotland off as the Tories have. So much for one nation labour.

    I think this "terror of the scots" is an imbecilic piece of politicking meant to scare English voters into backing the Tories bid for power. Bevan once said that if tories didn't have any policies they'd use any old bogey man. Scotland is the tories bogey man. Typically they are doing this without any regard to the damage being done.

    So no, I don't believe they will do the right thing for the wrong reasons. They are doing the wrong thing for all the wrong reasons. They'll write Scotland off because of their utter failure to the right thing in the first place.

  3. I see your arguments, James, but I do wonder if the Tories would dare to do it? How would that go down with the more right wing segments - they want total victory and will settle for nothing less. There are also the corporate backers who must be want to see value for their "investment".

  4. Going to try and sneak in before James here...
    Yougov Scottish crossbreak:
    49% SNP
    25% Lab
    14% Con
    5% Green
    3% Lib
    3% UKIP

  5. English parliament would solve the jock problem. EVEL and all that. Course you'd need an upper house / senate of one nation one vote and well the English parties would never go for that so full independence seems the best way forward.

    1. Indeed scottish_skier and the longer the coward Cameron rants about the SNP and Labour the more he will inevitably drive up the support for an english parliament which is not his parties policy but it is the kippers.

      This is the 'Osborne effect' whereby a tory twit 'master strategy' gets tried until it inevitably boosts the kippers since the tories can never outkip the kippers. Just like banging on about Europe and immigration did.

      We now see the knock-on effects of that tory focus on deals with Farage offering a pact to the tories. Even little Ed would be hard pushed not to realise he can answer back to the coward Cameron 'what about you and the kippers?' the next time the incompetent fop bangs on about SNP and Labour deals.

      Both 'strategies' have the result of cementing in the electorates mind that which has been obvious from the polling for months. Nobody is going to win the next election and another hung parliament is on the cards. Which is ideal for us in scotland. :-)

  6. It's not so long since Westminster held a once in a generation,decisive referendum on changing the voting system,which was rejected by voters.
    Surely,they cannot be thinking about another referendum so soon?

    1. Aye, why can't they just accept the result and move on.

  7. Before we get all excited at the prospect of PR, can we just pause and think about why that is assumed to be a better system?

    I am not saying it is not, note, but I do think we need to look at the downside before concluding it is automatically more democratic,

    Under a PR system there is this problem: you cannot know what you are voting for when you vote. This has been very clearly illustrated by recent experience of the coalition.

    With all its faults and its failures, a party's manifesto remains important in this country: because with an overall majority there is no bar to delivery of manifesto promises. The mainstream parties, and our neoliberal anti- democracy masters have been peddling the line that all parties lie and that the manifesto is meaningless: the better to undermine any faith in democracy, and simultaneously to enhance the power of the media by increasing the "beauty contest" element in elections, But we can only vote intelligently if we hold parties to account for what they promise: and that means that we have to value the manifestos and punish those who do not see the promises as binding. Naturally events may make some promises void, but at the least they should feel constrained to explain exactly why they make a particular change, if and when they do.

    In a PR system there is no possibility of doing that: and we have seen how it works with the lib dem tuition fees debacle, as an example. That fiasco shows that people do still take manifesto promises seriously, and so they should.

    But in a PR system the excuses made on that and other failures become routine: and there is talk "grown up politics" and the "need for compromise". That all translates to "we can not tell you what we will do if elected: depends on who we get into bed with"

    Other countries do have PR systems and I presume there is a mechanism in place so folk know at least what they are voting to prevent: perhaps the parties detail "red line issues" in their version of the manifesto, as the SNP seems to have done over renewal of trident, for example

    But before I will support PR I need to know what that mechanism will be: because without that knowledge I will always be buying a pig in a poke and there will be less scope for challenging that than there is under FPTP, with all its faults

    No system is perfect: but if a change is to happen then we need to think it through

    1. Except, and I've seen this happen in the MMP elected NZ parliament, if a party betrays too much of their manifesto/ideals in going into coalition then they get punished next election. Exactly as we are seeing with the FibDems. They did not have to go into coalition with anyone (as they didn't at Holyrood in 2007), they didn't have to go into full coalition either. They could have enabled a Tory govt through a confidence and supply agreement and kept their hands fairly clean (subsequent to their voting records of course). Minor parties that go into full coalition had better do so for the 'right' reasons, get their policy through (the LibDems didn't get PR) and not support too many nasty policies from the big partner. Otherwise they will get punished: their own voters will turn from them in disgust and more people will vote for the big party to get the organ grinder without the monkey. As recently happened in NZ.

      Also in PR elections parties state in advance what their red lines are and who they would prefer to go into an arrangement with. As the SNP and UKIP are doing, to the consternation of the big two who are desperately pretending they can each win a majority when those days seem to be past.

  8. Proportional representation in terms of the home nations sounds good to me for the UK parliament. One home nation one vote; Scotland, England, Wales and NI all get one vote.

    Works for the Council of the European Union (the other chamber of the EU Parliament), why not the UK union?

    Why should England get more votes? Denmark has the same say as Germany in the CotEU.

    1. You're incorrect there. Each state has a number of votes related to their population. The system is designed to prevent big countries from being able to get a majority without the support of some smaller states.

    2. The European Council has one person from each member state plus the Presidents of the Council and Commision.

    3. The council of ministers increasingly operates on qmv.

      One person may be present but they exercise multiple nondivisible votes.

    4. CotEU votes require 55% of member states with 65% of the population to pass. 16 of 28 and 327 of 503 million population. Applied to the British Union, that would be 3 of 4 and 42 of 65 million. I'm sure you can work out that this gives England a full veto but only a joint veto for any two other nations.

      What you're probably thinking of is the US Senate, in which all senators have an equal vote regardless of home state population differences. However, the important thing to note is that both the Senate and the CotEU have a well-mixed bag of states - a few larges, a few mediums and a few smalls, more or less balancing out in the end. That won't happen with one large, one medium and two smalls.

      Anyway, one vote one nation is definitely still FPTP. It's just that a 'constituency' can be 400,000 or 80,000,000 strong and depending how many parties stand, the 'winner' could have the backing of less than 16% of their electorate. Any form of PR has to allocate multiple numbers of seats to each 'constituency' and let parties put forth their number 1, 2, 3, etc. preferred candidates.

    5. Thanks for the clarification. I thought it was more like a standard federal senate (e.g. USA) of one state one vote. Certainly in the case of the EU, one member country can't out vote another / all the others as per the UK. Nor does a apparently need the EU's 'permission' to leave, as London seems to think feels is the case for it and Scotland.

  9. I notice a lot of the projections still leave the Tories with one seat. I also note that Emma Harper's fundraiser has less than three days to go and she still needs over £1000. If she can get that, the Indiegogo commission payable halves. Emma is fighting to unseat David Mundell in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale.

  10. Some fascinating ideas here. PR looks very attractive if you picture all the parties spread out on a single left-right gradient. In that case the likeliest majority comes from parties clustered towards the centre and it’s virtually impossible to make a radical shift on the basis of minority backing (as Thatcher did after 1979). A modest shift to left or right is likely to reflect a genuine change in voters’ opinions.

    But few real-life political systems are as neat as this. PR encourages the growth of specialist parties to represent the interests of religious, ethnic, regional and sectional groups. In James’s analogy, PR routinely produces results like those that India now, and maybe soon the UK, get under FPTP. Even without this fragmentation the picture of a single neat left-right gradient is unconvincing. Economic and social liberalism don’t always go hand in hand. Thatcher may have been an economic liberal but on social issues she was pretty illiberal (both reactionary and collectivist).

    PR makes it difficult to adopt a policy without majority support, but there’s plenty of scope for horse-trading and pork-barrel politics. One party can ‘lend’ its support to another for a policy which doesn’t affect its core constituency in exchange for reciprocal support in ts own core area. It’s a common criticism of Israeli politics that small religious parties sell their support to the highest bidder.

    Given the current structure of the UK, with its asymmetric devolution and weirdly skewed demographics, the introduction of PR on its own could create as many problems as it solves. What we really need is root-and-branch reform of the UK constitution. And how likely is that?

  11. It’s also fascinating to speculate how a bill implementing PR could be managed through Westminster. There would be plenty of back-bench opposition, from Labour as well as Tories, so it would require the active co-operation of the Labour and Tory whips. PR would almost certainly be presented as a way of protecting the UK (AKA England) from marauding Nats. This kind of open alliance between Labour and Tories to reduce Scottish influence might not go down well in Scotland.

    And would it be possible these days to introduce PR without a referendum? What if England voted Yes and Scotland voted No? All in all, Westminster might conclude that it was easier just to get rid of the Scots altogether.

  12. Interesting comments. I wonder if the conservatives regret the AV vote posturing now with the rise of UKIP? It would not surprise me if the Westminster parties propose a PR type system and trialled it in Scotland first, with the rUK keeping FPTP- all in the interests of fairness of course!