14 May 2010

All Electoral Systems Are Rubbish: Discuss.

Tom Harris (Labour MP for ultra safe seat Glasgow South) has taken to defending first-past-the-post by admitting it is rubbish but that so are all other electoral systems.

While it is true that all electoral systems have defects, Tom is using the standard multinational/conglomerate method used by big oil, tobacco, food and pharmaceutical companies etc, of muddying the evidential waters which is known as 'manufacturing doubt'. Ben Goldacre talks about this in his book Bad Science in relation to the 'nutritional industry' and in relation to vitamin pill conglomerates.

The Tory press are adept at this, rather than analyse and discuss a study of say 50 countries that shows a comprehensive relationship between inequality, lower quality of life, higher government debt, less environmental protection, poorer value public services, higher corruption, lower political engagement and turnout with less proportional electoral systems, they will take one example, anecdote or even myth that suits their needs and claim that THAT proves their case.

This is exactly what Tom Harris is doing here. An example might be - 'Italy is corrupt and unstable and they have PR therefore all PR countries are corrupt and unstable'. This ignores the fact that the majority of countries with PR have much lower levels of corruption and instability than that seen in FPTP countries. It also plays on a few myths, for a start Italy has had a number of different electoral systems over the years, has actually had no more governments and elections than a lot of FPTP countries when you take 'cabinet reshuffles' into account probably less change at the top. And of course, Italy's problems relate more to its media and outside interference from the US to stop the communists gaining power in the 60s and 70s than it does to its electoral system.

You could also of course cite Israel or the Netherlands for instability, but that doesn't work quite so well for the FPTPers because Netherland in particular has a much stronger economy and society than ours and of course Israel has problems that would challenge any electoral system.  But the fact remains, single cases and anecdotes are not enough to prove any case. Always be suspicious of people that do not engage with the evidence and just bang on about a single case as if their argument is self evident. It usually isn't.

It is hardly surprising that defenders of a system where the party with the most votes can get half the seats of the party that comes third, is having to admit it is rubbish. But to say this doesn't matter because other systems have faults is not enough. They should demonstrate WHY having slighter bigger constituencies is WORSE than this total disregard for how people vote. They should demonstrate how having more than 1 MP representing an area is WORSE than having many millions of people totally unrepresented in parliament. They should demonstrate why having 75% of seats so safe they never change and that a few party members behind closed doors really decide who is your MP is BETTER than an open list system where people can have a real choice of MP. They should demonstrate why having a system where the drawing of the boundaries has a bigger impact on results than how people actually vote is BETTER than having MPs elected by a majority that includes 2nd and 3rd preferences as well as 1st preferences.

And that is the crux of why first-past-the-post is the worst system - how much impact the boundaries have. It is not so much WHO you vote for that counts as WHERE you live and where the boundary quango decided to draw the boundaries.

This gerrymander wheel tool invented by the Australian proportional representation society shows how without any voter moving or changing their vote the result can be a narrow win for one side or a massive win for the other - just by moving the boundaries. And I am not talking about different size constituencies - every constituency remains the same size.

That is the crux of first-past-the-post, even if you are trying to be fair, the boundaries can throw up the most biased results. It doesn't have to be deliberate gerrymandering, under first-past-the-post it happens regularly by accident that the results are massively skewed against one party or other.

The Tories and Labour negotiated what they thought were fair boundaries between them (but not the other parties) in the 1990s and yet it resulted in a massive bias to Labour and not such a big bias towards the Tories (remember just because minor parties lost out more to Labour, doesn't mean that the bias was 'against' the Tories, just that the Tories didn't benefit as much in screwing the Lib Dems and others).

This is ultimately why the Tories agreed to a referendum on AV as long as the Lib Dems backed their changes to the boundaries - making constituency sizes bigger will help the Tories in a number of ways but it also increases the gerrymandering possibilities. And of course with the media on the Torie's side, a system that falls far short of being proportional and a Labour party in opposition that might also be hostile, the referendum is going to be difficult for the Lib Dems to win.

1 comment:

  1. We have to somehow get across to people the fact that there are several proportional systems and they are very different. People keep citing Israel, but if I remember correctly Israel has a pure list system, with no threshold, where the whole country is a single constituency. Absolutely nobody has ever proposed such a system for the UK.

    Tom Harris is an idiot. It is absurd to say that all systems are rubbish. STV in multi-member constituencies isn't rubbish. I wonder if knows anything about it?

    One reason why tribalist party hacks like Harris don't like STV might be that STV takes power away from the party machine and gives it to the voter.