Funny foreigners and their crafty voting habits

The House of Lords several times vetoed an EU demand that elections to Strasbourg in Britain abandon first-past-the-post and instead adopt an electoral system favoured by Brussels, a version of the cleverly-named ‘proportional representation’ (PR) method. Of course the EU got its way in the end. Perhaps Agent Blair threw the hereditary peers out just to put a stop to anti-Brussels insolence of this kind.

This is interesting because, rather like the EU itself, proportional representation voting is, to its advocates, a self-evident good. The very notion it needs to be argued for arouses indignant disbelief. Whereas ‘first-past-the-post’ (a name chosen to sound frivolous and archaic, as if politics was horse-racing) is the usual term for a simple form of voting used in Britain and the US and some other places. This is an old system in which political candidates stand in geographical districts, and the candidate with the most votes in each district wins.

Many English-speaking people accept Continental politics at face value – a more sober, calm, and businesslike process conducted in gracious amphitheatre-shaped legislatures where fewer insults are shouted. The assumption is that this is, of course, the politics of the future.

If you actually ask Continentals however, they will rapidly tell you their political elites are staffed with shameless filth.

This jars strongly with your average Brit’s or American’s or Australian’s perception moving around Europe: which is of calm, clean modernity. The feeling at first on arriving in most European countries is that you have landed in some graceful place of clean streets, delicious food, and stylishly-dressed leggy girls. Everything seems rather expensive, but on the other hand it’s tidy and most people are strikingly good-looking. When one of them tells you over coffee that his politicians who apparently arrange this elegant spectacle are rogues, criminals, thieves (the language tends to go downhill from here on) your puzzled English-speaker decides he’s listening to a delightfully expressive Funny Foreigner. When more Funny Foreigners emerge, indignantly cursing their leaders as ogres and pilferers, our Anglo mentally classes them as “colourful Mediterraneans”, “inimitable Parisians”, “earnestly political Germans” and so on. You see, your well-meaning British or Canadian or Irish visitor is secretly quite won over by the sophisticated visual culture, superior cooking, the confidently swish women. When exposed to angry criticism of this lovely place by its locals, he finds himself facing what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance”.

Either he listens to the Europeans (often exclaiming they would love the politics Britain has) and embraces their critique. Or he decides he admires the calm, tasteful exterior of this culture, and quietly gives it his allegiance.

This second choice helps him to dismiss the enraged explanations of his new-found Continental friends that it’s all dishonest, fraudulent, based on lying and stealing. After all, for people from a country where MPs declaring a second home in Bognor Regis as a Parliamentary expense was a massive scandal, the story that European government weasels routinely steal tens of millions of francs, marks and euros sounds hard to believe. Vice on that scale is beyond the imagination of most suburban Brits.

Europe’s Continent has better weather, charming old towns, sexy people speaking clever foreign languages. This is the hidden source of Anglo romanticism about Euro projects. Britons who campaign for proportional representation to replace first-past-the-post privately yearn for something else – not just a voting method.

The next problem is that PR voting’s imagined superiority is a mistake.

Proportional-representation voting systems use various tricks to correct for one specific ‘perverse outcome’ (the jargon) of first-past-the-post. If you divide your country into districts and give each one to the candidate with most votes, you can have a group of people winning power who got fewer votes in total than the other lot. Donald Trump, for example, in 2016 won the presidency by winning more districts, as the rules stipulate, but his opponents complain Hillary Clinton won more votes in total. Third parties do badly in first-past-the-post, and much PR advocacy comes from third, fourth, or fifth parties disgruntled to get a handful of seats from 15% or 20% of the total vote.

The mistake is to think that this is the only perverse outcome that matters.

These discussions never mention Kenneth Arrow, one of the only mathematicians to ever innovate in political science. Arrow published a proof in 1951 that all possible voting systems cause perverse outcomes, winning him the Economics Nobel Prize in 1972. Since it’s a mathematical proof, it can’t be dismissed, only adjusted. Arrow’s list of things you want from a fair voting system (‘non-dictatorship’, ‘Pareto optimality’, ‘independence of irrelevant alternatives’) might be adjusted. Perhaps by adding some advantages of first-past-the-post.

Such as: first-past-the-post
1) creates a quick way for voters to get a disliked government out of power,
2) is easy for voters to understand,
3) keeps extreme parties out of the legislature,
4) reduces the number of corrupt and entrenched coalitions,
and (commonly overlooked)
5) reduces the power of each political party machine over individual politicians.

On the topic of getting an unpopular government out of power, we can glance at Germany where Angela Merkel is still leader. This is despite widespread German annoyance over her inviting a million non-refugees, many with angry Islamist views, to her gemütlich little welfare nest in 2015. With first-past-the-post she’d have lost office by now.

Or we could look at Sweden, where the social democratic party was in government between 1932 and 1976, an unbroken stretch of 44 years. Sweden’s Social Democrats are back in power again now – the party has been out of government for around 15 years since 1914, serving very short spells in opposition.

Unsurprisingly, Sweden’s system is a complex variant on multi-member-constituency PR. Similarly, it’s interesting to note the North East Devolution project, as there has been a constant up-and-down debate over who should be in power to help the UK’s economically disadvantaged regions.

For PR systems leading to weird national politics, there’s an embarrassment of riches to choose from, but Japan’s fiddly version of transferrable vote deserves an honourable mention. One party, the ‘Liberal Democrats’ or LDP, has been in power virtually unchallenged since 1955. Its time in opposition during those six decades? One year in 1993 / 94 and 3 years from 2009 to 2012. It’s back in government now of course.

Yet, when Britain’s Conservatives, elected into office in 1979 lost power in 1997, newspaper writers were full of scorn that one party governed for18 years! 1955 to 1993 (Japan) or 1932 to 1976 (Sweden) obviously pale in comparison.

In an amusing irony, having imposed PR on British elections to Strasbourg, the EU thereby enabled Nigel Farage to have a seat in a chamber, amplifying his critique of the foolish and dangerous federal project. Had first-past-the-post remained for British MEPs, UKIP might never have obtained the eyes-wide-open second referendum so long denied to voters. It’s interesting how many Remainers rage at the “hypocritical” anti-EU Farage getting an MEP’s salary. Yet Remainers never tell Sinn Fein MPs to refuse salaries from a polity they don’t recognise, Britain.

This view – that a legislature (or at least an EU body) should only admit elected representatives who support its goals – also reveals what really motivates PR.

Like socialism and like the EU, PR is an attempted technical fix for moral, human failings. Socialists promise a technical solution to poverty, selfishness, callousness – human shortcomings other eras understood were spiritual frailties needing spiritual remedies.

Eurobugs imagine they have a technical fix for warfare, although of course civil wars inside states are the worst kind, and trading partners often fight, contrary to the EEC/EC/EU founding myth.

Alongside these two, it becomes clearer how PR enthusiasts think.

They see political parties (not people) as the natural units of politics. So the only perverse outcome they can understand is when their preferred party doesn’t get the power it “deserves”. These are campaigners who, like socialists and euro-federalists, think that politics is about policies, flowcharts, committees, not about fallible human beings. Since the EU offers government by unsackable officials, PR is natural for them. PR subordinates politics to parties, party members to party machines, and parties themselves to coalitions.

Perfect for entrenching The Secretariat That Never Ends.

Mark Griffith is a financial trader and writer based in Budapest. He translates Hungarian and keeps a weblog at following politics, economics, AI, computer security, and other subjects.[pullquote]

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8 Comments on Funny foreigners and their crafty voting habits

  1. Here’s one funny foreigner to give an insight about a PR systems workings (if one is allowed). I come from Finland, where we use D’Hondt Method (that is, your vote goes not onnly to your chosen candidate but also to the total sum of his party in your district, from which a number is added to all the candidates of the said party according to their ranking by personal votes). Reading this I can’t see anything but big party talk supporting their status as “one of the two” ad infinitum.

    I admit the negative sides of PR voting, most importantly the fact that my candidate may not pass but my vote would help a number of other candidates from the same party (or election alliance). An another one is the lack of the Shadow cabinet, which can exist in biparty system really – no one can know the composition of the next government in PR system.

    But really, “the extreme parties” being sealed away from legislature? That is a ridiculous argument, especially in this age of newspeak and faulty media describing ‘fascist’ everything that would aim to national preservation. “Extreme” is the same as “patriotic” these days. The only non-EU-positive party in my country, which is also the non-multicultural one by instance, would not gain but perhaps a pair of seats in any election, because people largely vote the old parties (them being “respectable”) that have us in this mess in the first place. If one doesn’t think 20% of the voters not being represented at all from election to another as parody of democracy, one should not be called a democrat at all.

    The article also makes too great a point from long terms of parties’ stands in office. As one party almost never can form the government alone, several for it after (usually) long and gritty negotiations, where stretching compromises are made, which shows in their policy. Thank heavens for this “milding” factor, as, for instance, it allowed centre-right party and recently-reallowed social democratic party in the same government in the 20’s, greatly easing the tensions created by our bloody civil war of 1918.

    And yes, our politicians are crooks, ego trippers and thiefs just like yours. Don’t think that any choice between voting systems would help that.

  2. The British used to be known as good compromisers. So the simple answer, assuming we stick with about 600 MPs, is surely to enlarge the constituencies to retain fewer, say 400, constituency MPs, and have the remaining seats, say 200, allotted by PR. We would then have the benefits of both methods: local representation by “our” member, and a fair hearing for significant “minor” parties.

  3. Long, long ago, Aristotle wrote of apparently democratic measures that had an anti-democratic effect.

    If he were writing about representative democracy today, he would certainly choose PR as an example of this.

    The composition of the government will not reflect the wishes of the electorate as much as the outcome of horse-trading by the political class.

    Plus, you won’t have ‘your’ MP any more.

    • Jim; “horse-trading” between the parties is exactly what is required to force TPTB to consider the concerns of the electorate.
      Of what value is “your” MP when they are held captive by the political whip?

  4. Whether PR is “crafty” or not can be debated. What cannot be denied is that the British Parliamentary system is a complete failure and has been for at least 150 years. The 2015 election is illustrative; SNP gets 4.7% of the vote and wins 56 seats, UKIP gets 12.7% of the vote and gets only one seat brought to it previously by a Tory rebel.
    In contrast, in the German election of 2017, AFD gets 12.6% of the votes and 94 seats out a total of 598. Now it is true that the German system is an amalgam of FPTP and PR, and is quite complicated, so much so in fact that it would be totally incomprehensible to the average British clot of all classes.
    The British system is a pantomime, a circus, where process long ago overcame purpose. Westminster fiddles while Britain burns.

    • rogerinflorida, you’re falling into the very trap against which Mark Griffith’s interesting article warns us: you’re thinking about politics in terms of parties instead of people.

      But even on your assumptions, the fact is that if you’d changed the voting system to help UKIP win a few seats in 2015, you’d also have given a majority in the House of Commons to the hydra-headed Lib/Lab/SNP/Green beast in 2017.

      Fiddling with the mechanics of voting won’t stop Britain burning. What’s needed, if the fire is to be put out by legislation instead of civil war, is a restriction on the types of people who are allowed to vote.

      • PJR: Politics is either about issues and principles, or tribal identities. The current British system is class based, the working class votes Labour, the upper class and their snob hangers on vote Tory, not absolutely true but close enough.
        Political parties are, or should be, groups of people coming together to push policies of a particular type. They may also be (as in England) groups of people seeking to either wrest, or protect, power and privilege.
        We have a living example of the failure of British representative “democracy” in the complete failure of both major parties to control the 3rd world invasion of Britain that has occurred since WW2, in defiance of that invasion being a major concern of the native population. Their views did not count. That invasion is a catastrophe from which no recovery is possible.
        It is against this background that the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency has to be viewed, it is a reaction to “the fundamental transformation of the USA” that has been a deliberate policy of both US major parties.
        Frankly, a political system that offers a leadership choice between Teresa May (Reese-Mogg?) and Jeremy Corbyn is completely intellectually bankrupt, decadent beyond recovery. What awaits you is not civil war, that would require some courage, energy and enthusiasm. No, what awaits you is the pit of complete dystopia.

  5. The limits of the significance of Mr. Arrow’s work has been greatly clarified by later mathematicians such as Donald Saari. Saari gives in his several books very lucid explanations of how voting paradoxes arise and what can be done to manage them.

    Luigi Sturzo wrote a book Contro la proporzionale discussing the problems of proportional representation. Euro style proportionality erases local representation, since a party is elected, not representatives of a constituency. Thus the system that is “obviously fair” paradoxically turns out to deny every local constituency its individual voice. An ideology is elected, so the “fair” system is in the end in principle totalitarian.

    The claims of fairness or unfairness seem never to examine to whom fairness is due. Only when this is agreed can the fairness of the voting practice be meaningfully discussed. Thus, if one accepts the idea of geographical districts, one cannot logically claim a non proportional outcome is “perverse”. In the USA, the decision was made originally that in federal voting, fairness should be to the states. Hence the name the United *States* of America. Not the United People of America. Mrs. Clinton and those with her that want to eliminate the Electoral College are really saying do away with the States. Under their scheme, the States would hasten to become simply administrative departments, a process which took a big step forward with the 17th Amendment.