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Against First Past the post; for greater democracy not less.

Declan O'Neill


 

In his article “Against proportional representation” Jim Jepps presents some telling arguments, but the conclusions he draws do not stand up.   There may possibly be nothing more boring than spending an evening discussing the merits of different systems of PR, but what Jim has done is effectively highlight the democratic deficit in the “closed list system” the New Labour government imposed on this country (though not the North of Ireland)  for the Euro elections.  It may be no accident of this system that it prevents the transfer of votes between Left candidates, but more on that later.

 

Where should socialists start?   If socialism is to mean anything it must involve the highest possible form of democracy, where as a minimum those who make decisions are accountable to, and can be removed by, those who are affected by them.   As Jim argues “ we should press for the most democratic system available”  “First past the post” (FPTP)  is probably the least democratic  of the alternatives available.  To summarise a few of its more obvious weaknesses:

-         in Britain no government in the last sixty years can claim to have the support of the majority of voters.

-         On at least two occasions (1951 and Feb 1974) the party that won most votes lost the election

-         It discourages participation, as in majority of constituencies, who you vote for makes no difference.

-         It discriminates against smaller parties, allowing, for example, the Labour Party, to ague that a vote for an left alternative is a “wasted vote” and will only allow the Tories in.

 

Of course, changing the voting system on its own will not produce democracy.  Whatever the voting system, Britain will remain a profoundly undemocratic country as long as we have a House of Lords, a monarchy, a privy council, no right of recall of MP’s etc..  But it is not just a question of arguing for a system where “the left has a better chance of getting elected”, though that would be a considerable bonus – socialists should always be consistent democrats.

 

To deal with Jim’s five points.

 

“Firstly elections should not just be about getting someone elected”

 

As he argues “ we stand in elections to build the movement”, but how does PR prevent, and FPTP  aid this?  Not all systems of PR necessitate “ a number of people  being elected for a wider area than  FPTP”,  Having first past the post for the Euro elections would not have made it the slightest bit easier to “highlight the threats to local day services or problems in your area” – that would be a feature of European elections whatever the system of voting.

 

“Secondly elected representatives should be accountable to the electorate”

 

Of course, but the argument that FPTP is better than PR is securing this does not stand up.  Under FPTP it is nonsense to argue that an MP has to “take some notice” of complaints or “potentially face the consequences”.  Only in the most marginal of constituencies is this even remotely true.

 

Jim is absolutely right in his criticism of the “closed list” system, which in practice means all power to the party leaderships.   This could be countered by an “open list” system, allowing voters to vote for individual candidates within lists, or even more effectively by other systems of PR. 

 

“Thirdly no one knows who their MEPs are, but most people know who their MPs are”

 

I’ll resist the temptation to simply say “so what”, as there is an important point underlying this, namely the degree to which elected representatives are accountable and replaceable.  Again the point is that this criticism applies to the system of PR used in the Euro elections, and illustrates the degree to which the European parliament is removed from the real concerns of voters.   Ironically of the arguments used against the single transferable vote system (STV) in multi-member constituencies is that MP become too close to their constituents and have almost a social worker-client relationship with the voters.

 

“Fourthly it leads us to think that here are easy answers- when we should be doing deep work”

 

PR is not some panacea, and Jim is absolutely right to point this out.   If politics is seen as irrelevant then tinkering with the electoral system will make no difference to the degree to which people get involved.  To go back to his first point we get involved in electoral politics as one way of getting our politics across, not as an end in itself.   But if we are trying to win people to a democratic socialist politics  defending the indefensible will not do this – and FPTP, on democratic grounds, is impossible to defend.

 

“Fifthly it means fascists get elected too”

 

If I can paraphrase Jim’s previous point, there are no easy answers to stopping the growth of the far right, though the BNP has done rather better under the present voting system than the Left.   The reasons for the growth of the far right have more to do with the policies of successive governments than the electoral system in place   However, it is illogical, incoherent and wrong to argue for less democracy in order to stop the rise of fascism.  The BNP already like to portray themselves as the party of outsiders, standing up to the establishment on behalf of ordinary people.   Jim’s argument will give them yet more ammunition for that argument.

Fascism can only be defeated politically, by the Left providing a coherent alternative, a real workers democracy.   To quote Jim again “there are democratic principles involved here” and  the Left can only grow by being the strongest  defender of democracy

 

Voting systems represent only one facet of democracy, and socialists can and will have different views on which system best aids the struggle for social change. None is necessarily the “most democratic”, however that is defined.   For example, the Liberal  Democrats argue for STV because it best suits their own particular interests.  For their own reasons the British state has, at different times, imposed this system on both parts of Ireland.  In the south of Ireland the major party, Fianna Fail, then made manipulation of the STV system a major art form.  (Not content with this, Fianna Fail has twice tried to replace STV with FPTP, in order to secure permanent control of the Irish Parliament, the Dail.)  Yet in the north of Ireland the existence of STV has allowed the Socialist Environmental Alliance and the Greens to advocate transfers to each other without damaging their own interests and independence. 

In Scotland a “mixed member system” has certainly aided the growth of the Scottish Socialist party.    Even within single member systems there are alternatives to FPTP, such as the alternative and supplementary vote

 

At some point the left in England will have to take these issues seriously.   Of course we want a system which helps the left get elected, but more importantly we want a system that contributes to our overall aim - the building of a socialist democracy.

 

 

August 2004

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This article was a response to
Against Proportional Representation
Jim Jepps

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