Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Tom Harris on FPTP

I never thought I'd link to a Labour blogger, but a proper exposition of my own thoughts on electoral reform is long overdue, and I don't think I'll get to it any time soon.

In the meantime, I recommend Tom Harris's recent blog about First Past The Post. I don't agree with all of what he says, but like Daniel Hannan, I sympathise with his concerns about coalition governments.
As a supporter of FPTP I can acknowledge that the system has its faults and that the alternatives have some merits. From what I’ve seen so far, supporters of reform cannot make a similar leap.

So I’ll make it easy from them: all electoral systems are rubbish. I just happen to believe that first-past-the-post is a bit less rubbish then the rest.

Because if what you’re looking for is the perfect system that will accurately reflect every vote cast and provide good government, then don’t bother. Go and take up something useful instead. Like gardening. Or stamp collecting.

All electoral systems are flawed in some way. They all have disadvantages and weaknesses. And when the LibDems and their supporters in the Labour Party claim otherwise, they’re deliberately trying to deceive.

So, as I say, FPTP is a rubbish electoral system. But let me qualify that: it’s a rubbish system for electing a legislature. As a system for electing a government, it’s actually a very good one. So as this debate continues, the various proponents of the different systems should be clear about what we think general elections are for – are they primarily for electing 650 MPs? Or for electing a government?

He derides the horse-trading and king-making that seems inevitable under alternative systems:
Under most forms of PR [the current] result would be replicated each and every time: the voters have had their say – now we can ignore them and negotiate away the policies they’ve just voted for in exchange for ministerial cars. Nice.

And how can it be remotely democratic to give the failed leader of the third most popular party in the country such king-making powers? Why is Nick Clegg’s opinion on who should form the government of any interest to anyone?
He also emphasises FPTP's ability to clear out an unpopular government:
At least under FPTP, whatever its disadvantages, the party that’s elected has to implement the policies in its manifesto. And if it doesn’t, it can be kicked out. Not so with most forms of PR. Have you been listening to some of the arguments in favour of reform, particularly on the Left? Reform would mean a permanent centre-left coalition in this country, they say. But since when has permanent government by the same two parties been remotely democratic? This argument, to me, is the best reason not to go for reform. I’m a democrat. I believe that if we’re beaten by the Tories, they should form the government. It’s up to the electorate to decide if they want a change of government, not political parties.
It's not completely true, of course. New Labour held power under FPTP for three terms, despite broken manifesto pledges and some very nasty surprises to boot. And we mustn't forget that the majority of the British public didn't buy into their manifesto in the first place (even in 1997, only 43.2% voted Labour). But it is likely that AV would have made it even harder to sweep away Gordon Brown's hated government (even now they lurk, with the possibility of influence, even leadership).

Harris concludes with some refreshing honesty:
But of course there are party advantages obscuring this debate, and I’m not going to pretend that the big parties’ historic support for FPTP is entirely altruistic. Parties tend to support whichever system is most beneficial to them, and the LibDems are no different in this respect. When the SDP was formed, former Labour MPs with absolutely no track record of interest in electoral reform suddenly found themselves advocating PR in every TV interview they gave. That’s politics for you. But don’t try to tell me that the LibDems’ motives are based purely on principle and not at all on electoral advantage for them.
As noted previously, I think genuine PR (not AV, AV Plus, or STV) should play a role at some level, perhaps for an elected upper house.

The fundamental problem, though, is democracy itself. Especially with universal suffrage, it is prone to tyranny of the subservient.

I'll conclude with the commendable sentiments of the Libertarian Alliance:
What we want is a Government so small,
that it doesn't matter where it is,
what it does, who's in it,
or how they got there

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