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 http://www.otherlanguages.org following politics, economics, AI, computer security, and other subjects.[pullquote]
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