NO FAIRER SOCIETY WITHOUT FAIR VOTING. IT'S JUST NOT POSSIBLE.
Shipwrecking electoral reform on the rocks of Brexit.
Early September 2019 and it is difficult to focus on electoral reform. Rollicking privateer Johnson's up on the bridge tacking this way and that to deliver on his handsome commission - crash the good ship Brexit, its cargo and all who sail on her, onto the rocks of capsize and futility. What else can there be to worry about?
The magnitude of the perils is not in doubt. Johnson is in open hostility with remain voters and busily trying to disarm a lot of others. He drafted up millions using the promise of comfortable passage to new lands of opportunity. Now he says the message was really come what may, at any cost, 'do-or-die'.
The UK is one of only three major advanced democracies that retain FPTP in favour of a proportional system of electing national governments. Our laxity may be about to catch up with us in ways that in hindsight will make Project Fear look like an argument between drunken shipmates that blew up over which crossing was better - Dover-Calais or Calais-Dover. We argue that events could be just around the corner to be very concerned about.
There are links here to a scenario in three parts that will do full justice to the unfolding and development of the prospect. If you read right through, you may find cause for a little optimism in the otherwise very gloomy picture we paint - deliberately. As someone has recently observed, the disappearance of democracy won't be noticed, it will have crept up discreetly in little steps.
Notes: on this site we try to keep our posts to no more than a ten-minute read, say around the length of a tabloid half page. The stuff we cover is never suited to tweet length summaries. The issues are usually complex and require explanation, evidence and fact. You won't find much sloganising or sermonising though sometimes we do call upon informed guesswork, opinion or prediction.
We don't pretend to have all the answers. Everything that is not backed by evidence or is not fact is up for debate and discussion. We start out genuinely baffled how an advanced democracy sticks with an FPTP electoral system that under briefest scrutiny has one fewer leg to stand on than Long John Silver. Those of us who recognise the fact surely must work together to achieve change in our lifetimes. Helping in this is the sole point of this website. We ask for your input and involvement.
November 2017: 2017, Year of 7 European Elections.
December 2016: FPTP change; stuck in a snowdrift?
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The statistical outcomes of the 5 May 2005 UK General Election: looking back on 2005 ushers you into a political realm where reason and reality don't seem to make sense. New Labour obtained power with a fantastic 66 seat majority after landing just one in five of the available electoral votes.
To help with better understanding of this extraordinary level of distortion, we display results and analysis for the 2005 election in the Statistics option on the menu bar, along with data for the 2001, 2010, 2015 and 2017 elections (for a wider range of data and information you can also visit the Electoral Reform Society website).
As far as fairness is concerned, 2005 was as if a syndicate had somehow got away with a lottery jackpot win by matching three numbers. At Party HQ that night, the celebratory smiles hovering over the champagne glasses must have conveyed mixed feelings of delight and bemusement.
This website is called 5.5.5 & Counting because we are now fourteen years on with three more elections behind us and our democracy is still waiting for change. Supporters of this website want electoral reform which achieves two things without delay:
- the end of first-past-the-post, the system that is a convenient mechanism for levering into power one or other of Tory and Labour, the country's largest but, as our statistics show, two parties that combined have only once in this century gained more than 50% support
- a proper proportional voting system which achieves fairness for voters by reflecting national voting intentions
We'd welcome your comments on all our posts and, meanwhile, Click here for more detail on what we're about.
5 May 2005
A big opportunity for a push towards Proportional Representation now presents
The opposition parties’ cooperative achievement in parliament has been remarkable. They and all of us owe a huge debt of gratitude to the admirable 21 Tory MPs who have risked sacrificing their party career futures.
But even allowing for the 21, the government’s working majority is history. Painfully aware of this, it is transparently in bullying and cajoling mode trying to force a general election. Its poll ratings – inexplicably to some of us – look promising. They look unstoppable if you factor in a last-minute pact with the Brexit Party.
So far, the opposition parties are not biting. With a will they can organise themselves not only to turn down an early election but to hold one off for a long time. Let’s suppose, without taking anything for granted yet, that their efforts do end up materialising the following three conditions:
no deal is dead and buried this side of an election
a referendum with remain on the ballot is a collectively agreed policy
Article 50 is extended
The first two, once in place, make the EU extremely amenable to the third. We have the ingredients for a government of national unity (GNU). Why not keep the reactionary, confrontational populist leadership on the other side pinned where it can do little harm?
A GNU is not without problem but with the three conditions in place, it seems stupid to let it fall purely on the leadership issue. For short term purposes, that is relatively trivial alongside other far more significant aims and objectives. In other words, don’t get hung up on compromise, get down to negotiation.
Let’s start with electoral reform. The Liberal-Democrats: What’s wrong with ‘We want two or three in the cabinet but we aren’t that fussy about who leads provided that we get a meaningfully defined push towards real PR effected in the remainder of this parliament.’
The SNP: ‘We want three or four in the cabinet but we aren’t that fussy about who leads provided none here opposes our plans for Indy 2 nor interfere in campaigning north of the border,’ adding, ‘Scots are old enough and ugly enough to make up their minds on their own. And yes, despite the fact that we have benefited from FPTP, we also want PR because it is democratically fair.’
Labour: ‘We would want to lead and it is right, from our perspective, that Jeremy heads it. We have some red lines on policies we want to introduce early on. Here they are…….Agree to those and we could potentially steer things steadily towards a referendum in the spring. Condition is that we retain unity and we don’t start arranging alliances within alliances until the Brexit issue has cleared.’
Minor parties and independents: support could be crucial. A few are known to have wanted electoral reform for some time. A few more might now be seeing the need for it in the light of the current constitutional and trust crises and the troubling limitations of two-party politics exposed by Brexit Most would favour a delayed election and very few do not want a referendum.
The 21: Would favour a referendum and a delayed election; presumably they have a lot of work to do first bringing their party back to ‘all nation Conservatism’ (their term not ours). Immersive working with Labour is out of the question. Issue by issue support on Brexit related decision making, however, is very feasible.
If there is no current legal or constitutional barrier to GNU containing the Tory-DUP pact powerless as late as 2022 if judicious to do so, surely the advantage has to be used. The opposition parties are already in the driving seat.
They must calm down and think carefully about how much they need to risk an early election:
this side of Brexit or a referendum, do Labour seriously think they can win enough votes to form the largest party?
look at the polls – where on Earth are they going to pick up the necessary votes from?
at this point, how can an election focus much attention away from issues other than unresolved Brexit?
the heat and volatility of the current situation is treacherous – this is not a re-run of 2017.
how can anyone block the Tories and BXP from forming a last minute pre-election pact?
imagine parliament when they install a populist stooge as speaker.
what chance of a referendum if the populists win the election?
what chance of Indy2 if English nationalistic populism gets a hold on power, and then the Scots will be wanting it desperately?
As far as this website is concerned, the most important issue of all. We’ve already said leave the EU and the chances for reform to PR slip deep down into the pan. Let the right-wing authoritarians get established and we risk things actually going in the opposite direction to PR. The base support loves “strongman government that will break the rules”.
We have an analogy for opposition parties spurning the opportunities when those three precious conditions above are in place. They would be like a small group of prisoners all in the ninth year of an eleven year sentence who have somehow managed to overpower and tie up the governor. Now instead of holding the governor hostage and negotiating a safe and careful passage to the outside they make a dash for the twenty foot tall front gate and try to scale it. They have at best a one in three chance of escaping and at least a two in three risk of capture. The penalty for failure is straight back to the cells with another five years added, all privileges withdrawn.
Shipwrecking PR on the Rocks of Brexit: the long road back
When its base level of support is enough to return the populist coalition – or whatever it mutates into – at every election, is there any prospect at all for a liberal comeback? Well without the regime itself imploding or exposing itself to some scandal or PR catastrophe that even its supporters can’t stomach, the ray of light that would maybe present itself is not all that powerful. It is a hope.
Before all that long, ‘Project Fear’ could start looking in hindsight like ‘Project Accurate.’ The economic isolation resulting from severing all our trading agreements with Europe hits hard. The dreams of glory where global economic trading and British expertise overcome all the odds turns sour. Not that this necessarily makes a lot of difference to the base support. They’ve made an art of doubling down on their belief system against all the evidence. Confessing to their own bad judgement won’t come easy. They always said they were up for a bit of self-harm and suffering.
The rot will show up more pressingly when the impacts of failure hit on the cashflows of the multi-millionaire elites of the Tory and Brexit parties and, with strong overlaps on the Venn diagram of opulence and wealth hoarding ventures, the pockets of their chums and backers in the finance and corporate sectors. Tim Martin doesn’t literally have to be crying into his beer, but you get the picture. Now something will have to happen.
Where else can they turn but back to Europe? Not with a view to fully rejoining, of course – that would be a total climbdown. But there is potential for treaties which give limited access in the key areas of the single market and the customs union, one or both. Regrettably none of this would be happening for a minimum of five to ten years.
There has to be something to hang it on too, on a scale that can be sold as sensible readjustment in response to new economic conditions. A global recession, for example, of which one such is being touted as a cast-iron certainty in the fairly short-term. Every effort is being made to push its worst impacts beyond the 2020 USA election. We don’t suppose by the way that a responsible leadership anywhere is assessing the added effect of recession on the early phase of a no deal exit Britain.
The little bit of hope for those like us who give some credence to the scenario thus far is this. The EU will have been on full alert for an approach from the UK. The aphorism ‘once bitten twice shy’ is perfectly appropriate here. The protracted struggle the EU has had with the UK parliament over Brexit will have left them like combat soldiers in recovery from bad cases of PTSD. It was painful, costly, distracting and unsettling, to name a few. Why would any rational body open itself up to the possibility of a repeat performance whenever the winds of populism blew stronger again across the Channel? The EU is not notably itself a self-harming operation. They would surely want to satisfy themselves that the potential for a repeat anti-EU groundswell was at an absolute minimum, rendered effectively unable in the absence of some totally unforeseen seismic shift to emerge again and develop enough minority support to take outright power.
Back quickly to the present again and even if the UK leaves with a deal now, the EU must be thinking this is not the end of the story. The ERG, for example, fearing any kind of a deal as federal enslavement under Franco-German domination, is hardly likely to go passive. It will never stop applying pressure for further loosening of ties.
So exit with or without a deal and we believe a rational EU will introduce a new future condition for any nation seeking to align or realign itself substantially with the EU project. They will require it to elect nationally under a fair and proportional voting system. After all, if they are to act on the positive side of the equation when it comes to the social contract between the governors and the governed, it must dread ever again being in a position of defending the interests of a majority of a member country’s electorate, as it has tried to do over Brexit alongside protecting the integrity of its own union, against a national executive that behaves like a street gang to enforce a minority will against its own population.
Proportional representation delivers a higher standard of democratic accountability to the voters anyway. FPTP distorts the will of the electorate. FPTP suppresses turnout and the drip-drip of apathy trickles down from it into voting in all national ballots, as has been constantly proved by appallingly low turnouts in local government and EU elections. Even turnout in our emotionally charged 2016 referendum was five points lower on average than run of the mill general election turnouts in ten of our nearest neighbours. And our general election turnouts since 2001 have been twelve points less on average than theirs.
In some ways it is curious the EU haven’t already been applying pressure on the UK. The wording of Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty surely provides enough latitude to probe the issue.
This then would be progressive liberalism’s only route back: first, to meaningful opposition in parliament; second, to reform of our electoral system to PR. Looking back it would have proved to be another of those so vitally important issues they themselves couldn’t ever coordinate on and get over the line. That great span of time they’d enjoyed the freedom and level field to play can only be looked back on with regret.
Shipwrecking PR on the Rocks of Brexit: Digging in
We finished the first part with a scene which depending on your point of view was charming or nightmarish. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage were in the Downing Street garden giving their first coalition press conference having just won an outright majority under FPTP with around 40% of the vote.
Under PR, note, 40% and even 45% falls short of the majority that guarantees you can take control. Under some systems, votes cast for a party that polls less than 5% are reallocated to the largest party so you could get very close. It’s even quite likely that a coalition getting in the very high forties would be given consent to govern by the opposition parties, providing it wasn’t seen as overly radical.
But without those factors, the opposition parties who hold 55-60% of the seats might have enough cohesion to form a government themselves. Less unity among them and you might be able to command power on an issue by issue basis, often referred to for some historically obscure reason as a confidence and supply arrangement. But try pushing through the worst excesses of your ambitions and you’ll be blocked.
A criticism of PR is that larger parties can stitch up deals with smaller ones (as if such a despicable practice could never occur under FPTP). But small parties learn quickly how life can bite back if they are seen to be the facilitator of policies their supporters would never have voted for in a million years. Its leadership may try to convince itself, during and after, its acts were of the purest and most noble intent or forced upon it under national imperative. Ask Messrs Clegg, Cable, Davey and company how much ice that one cuts, unless of course their priority all along was to pick up their gongs from Buckingham Palace.
Let’s stop here to make one point absolutely clear. FPTP is the reason the populist coalition could come to power. A PR system might have given them 40% or more of the seats in parliament but not an outright majority.
Once in, the coalition turns to establishing itself. It will have an eye to holding on to power as long as possible. There’s a nice long list of liberal-unfriendly stuff it wants to get on with implementing.
It is happy that its base support is ideologically at ease with a strongman approach. Sad to say, a high proportion of the wider public surveyed have expressed an alarming degree of acquiescence with the concept of authoritarianism. To what extent some just toy with the idea is unknown. A justifiably acquired view that liberalism has been weak standing up to predatory capitalism and not interested enough in protecting living standards and well-being in the low-mid range of the income spectrum is one thing. Gleeful anticipation of an assault on human rights, equalities and all the other positive elements of progressive liberalism the populists are bound to target is another.
Interference in the ethics of the financial sector and the modus operandi of the corporate giants is not to be expected. But reform of public services and their administrative functions is low hanging fruit. Let’s recall the Farage campaign slogan ‘Reforming the Westminster Establishment’.
Why then would they not look at the electoral system? Even the jaws of their support base might fall open at the image of an announcement from a high balcony, a row of uniformed military generals stern faced in attendance, saying that the UK was now the world’s newest democratic dictatorship. Improbable, yes but worth a quick note: not long after liberation from the tyranny of the Russian Federation, President Lukashenko of Belarus altered the laws of his country to take powers away from parliament, so that he could determine constitutional aspects like the electoral system. Benign dictatorship with a bit of discipline in evidence on the streets is a package that some folks will buy.
But culturally, at least for now, that would be a hard one to swing in the UK. Better perhaps first to focus on FPTP and see how far a bit of tinkering will take you. Objective: fine tune the system to skew the probabilities of election in favour of populist coalition candidates.
The word ‘gerrymandering’ should spring to mind here. It’s in the right zone but a bit dated. This regime has connections with players in or close to big tech, indeed owing much success to their data harvesting expertise. Self-teaching algorithms enabled a computer to become an IT world chess champion with four hours learning. An FPTP optimisation problem to produce any given output will be child’s play.
Those lax liberal progressives in the centre and on the centre-left will be looking on wondering how they let all this get by them. It won’t be the first time they’ve mused along similar lines – just after the Brexit result for instance – but this time the consequences of their distracted attention have crossed into the chronic-degenerative category. The socialist left, by the way, is even further up the sidelines, edged out of mainstream politics following the examples of Greece and France.
Here’s what went wrong. Just like the Remain effort, too much was taken for granted. They did not get their ear close enough to the ground to be aware of the depth, tenacity and sophistication of the anti-liberal forces lining up to bring them down. Then when they got the message they did not know how to effectively respond. So now they are walled off from everything they aspired to. Isolated from the EU and politically impotent in the UK.
Scotland and Northern Ireland have more control of their own fate and can use escape routes if they choose. If they took them, conformity with populist ideology achieves even greater force in the England-Wales national unit, whatever that gets called. An autocratic leaning English nationalism will favour something purist in tone – Britannia? That will strike an eternal nation of destiny note while you’re shoring up dominance – digitally, administratively, economically.
The prospects for a resurgence of liberalism any time soon start to look enormously slim. The longer out of power, the more the coalition skews FPTP against them step by little step. If you can’t grin and bear it, the only solution might be to move out. This is about as grim as it gets before we move on to part three where we try to lift the scenario near the end with a slightly optimistic twist.
Shipwrecking PR on the Rocks of Brexit: the Scenario
Come 1 November among the possible scenarios, here is one with high probability. Johnson will have had a window to seize the option of a general election at some point. He will have needed to convince enough Tory MPs an outright majority is theirs for the taking. Currently a sustained Liberal-Democrat resurgence and twitchy opinion polls don’t help him. So could he stomach a pact with the Brexit Party? He will have had to know exactly how many of his centre-right MPs’ consciences were burdened, as Heseltine has been reminding them with the recollection that as many as five million Tories voted Remain. Equally, dozens may be harbouring grave doubts over the direction of travel of Conservatism under his leadership.
If he concludes he can do the Brexit pact, we must turn immediate and serious attention on Mr Farage, homo angrimegaphonicus, who blasts his intention ‘to reform the Westminster establishment.’ We might find him sitting in a right wing coalition cabinet. Naive souls will have taken his slogan to mean he carries a big arrow around ready to point in the direction of PR. Nul points. He subscribes no more to the notion of fairer voting than any other species of populism represented round that table. The agenda in front of them is a list of matters harmonious.
First up will be the rolling back on rights of all sorts and the attack on the liberalism they despise in social and political contexts. But they will not be clamping down on under-regulated financial markets or the unfettered corporate capitalism they admire, idolise and derive much of their most influential support from.
More discreetly, there’s a subject the group’s autocratic impulses must lead them onto sooner or later. ‘Colleagues, just a thought experiment. Can we tweak the odds to keep ourselves in power next time round? Are there opportunities to be squeezed out of FPTP?
If the thought of one-party rule presses your buttons, the bottom line challenge is to increase the chances that a smaller percentage of voters get you back in. Match that to the unchanging level of your base support and you’re home and dry. Thereafter, apply two golden rules: don’t upset them by picking a leader even they don’t like; don’t get caught on the hook of a scandal which massive public disgust will crucify you on.
We may imagine Mr Farage, prompting, ‘Surveys prove good British people like the idea of strongman government. But we’d still need a buffer against the snowflake liberals to make sure we get our feet firmly under the table.’
If you’re on 40% – even two or three points fewer in the opinion polls – FPTP holds out strong prospects for an outright majority. 2017 was atypical, a strange election in which the two major parties polled 43% and 40%, and the rest slipped away to very minor shares. Look at the opinion polls now and we see a very different picture. Four parties have been regularly polling between 15% and 30%.
In the last five elections, including 2017, the average vote for the largest party was 38%. On three occasions it was enough for an outright majority.
The current state of play puts the Tories and the Brexit Party combined in the low to mid forties. Poll results published in the mainstream media must be treated cautiously. That includes those undertaken by YouGov which rarely graphically illustrate a figure for ‘don’t knows’. This may have the effect of over representing support for one or more parties. Worse, perhaps, the partial figures reported may actually influence the eventual decisions of undecideds or waverers. We must leave that concern aside for another day.
In our scenario as it stands, we have a massive incentive for the Tory and Brexit parties to join forces. The numbers make it almost impossible for them not to get an outright majority under FPTP provided they co-ordinate efficiently. Even if that support fell to say 38% it would still be extremely difficult for the parties in the centre and on the left to stop them without themselves organising a seamless alliance. Not only might the thoroughness of the nationwide coordination required present near insuperable logistical challenges, at this point in time they are far from singing from the same hymn sheet.
So let’s conclude this section by supposing the liberal counter campaign fails. Sometime in the not too distant coming months, the deja vu moment of two bonding bros strolling the Rose Garden behind 10 Downing Street will invoke nostalgic memories of David and Nick. The buddying up pair we’ll actually be watching is Boris and Nigel.
We wanted to test whether first past the post (FPP) voting systems have an influence on the rate of voter participation in general elections around the world.
Here is a table to summarise our findings:
Very few nations with populations comparable to the UK’s still use FPP. A list of all those who do would show them to be mostly small states and island territories.
We found seventeen candidate nations with published statistics for recent general elections and discounted four of them. These latter were associated with both observations and allegations of irregularities, street violence and repression of opponents in the lead ups to and during voting. Indonesia used FPP back in 2014 but by its 2019 election it had switched to a French style presidential election with a PR system for its legislature.
We have included India with some serious reservations. It has been reported that over 1,500 people involved in the 2019 count died of exhaustion from overwork and that hundreds more were taken ill. In such distressingly stressful circumstances, it must be difficult to vouch for the reliability of the official returns.
USA, UK and Canada are the three remaining developed world economies who use FPP.
We first show the official turnout statistics reported by the authorities (Columns 7 and 8). Malaysia ranked top with 82.3%. The Philippines were just behind and Brazil third. No other country recorded a turnout of 70% or more. The lowest was Nigeria at 34.8%.
But official returns overstate the level of real participation. That is because in all countries the register of voters never matches the voting age population. In the UK, for example, who rank fifth, unregistered voters are estimated to number around three million. The absolute number is less important though than the width of the discrepancy in percentage terms. Let us first look at how taking this factor into account affects the rankings in the table.
Columns 9 and 10 now place Brazil at the top with an implied turnout of 73.4%. Voting is compulsory in Brazil for those aged 18-70.
Malaysia goes down to third place due to its implied turnout rate being nearly 16% lower than official returns. The Philippines also shows a large difference of 10%. Neither of these countries have automatic voter registration. Nor do most states in the USA where the aggregated national statistics do not appear to account for an estimated 20 to 40 million unregistered voters. Even so its turnout at 55.5% is already below the 57.8% average for all the countries in the table.
The findings compare very unfavourably with the analysis in our table that details European rates of participation. Excluding France and the UK, who do not use proportional representation, the average for the European countries is 73.6%, a higher figure than any one country in the FPP table.
This has been a simple snapshot. We have found a statistically significant difference that suggests turnout is suppressed under FPP systems. This data may not be entirely accurate but we have found no evidence to suggest that FPP voting is a neutral influence on turnout nor that it has a beneficial effect.
All the same this site will in due course research discrepancies between voting registers and voter age populations in European countries. We may also look into proportional representation systems in large non-European states in search of a fuller overall picture.
We will shortly be making available further details via a link to our Statistics section when you will be able to find the above table reproduced with notes, qualifications and a list of potential reasons for the discrepancies in people numbers we have referred to here.
We hope you find our analysis to date informative and of interest.