A big opportunity to push for PR

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 Part 3: the long road back

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.

Go to: Part 1    Part 2

Shipwrecking PR Part 2: Digging in

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.

Go to: Part 1    Part 3


Shipwrecking PR Part 1: the Scenario

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.

Go to: Part 2    Part 3

First past the post countries

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.

Europe Vote Shares

European General Elections: vote shares of largest parties.

The table shows the vote shares gained by the four best supported parties in the most recent European elections in sixteen countries including the UK.

The table places countries in order of highest to lowest turnout. The French legislative parliament attracts low turnout in comparison to presidential elections and thus places France at the foot of the table. Much in the way of local and European elections in the UK many voters treat it as a bit of a sideshow. The largest party fell just short of an overall majority but gained consent of the assembly to lead. In Poland the voting constitution is complex and in 2015 for the first time a party achieved the necessary level of support to take government by itself.

Germany is being governed under a Grand Coalition. For the uninitiated, it is a coalition between the two largest parties. We were unable to clearly identify from available sources the exact arrangements under which Portugal is currently governed in its parliament.

At the foot of columns 5,6,7 and 8 we have shown the average support for the placings ranging from 30.2% for the largest to 9.2% for the fourth largest parties.

Beneath that we show by how much the UK varies from average and it can be seen that the variance at each placing is statistically huge. The second place variance is not far off the value of the average itself. If we remove France from the averages, the UK variances increase a little more.

Our data may help readers in terms of the following lines of investigation:

    • Referring to Column 9, under proportional representation systems, is there a common pattern in the arrangements made for government? The small ‘s’ indicates a party that achieved fifth place support or lower. Formation talks may be under negotiation in countries with recent election dates.
    • What levels of support do the largest parties attract (Column 5) and how evenly is support divided across the four largest parties (Columns 5 to 8)?
    • If readers are interested in true levels of support in the electorate as a whole, the percentages in Columns 5 to 8 must be multiplied by the percentage turnout in Column 3. In each case actual support is a lower figure, increasingly lower until among the bottom-most rows, the figure will be approximately halved.
    • The table will inform readers as to the distinctly different pattern shown up in the figures for the UK. It would have been even more evident had we taken Poland and France out of consideration, countries where the untypical factors mentioned above apply. Unusual circumstances did prevail at the time of the UK 2017 general election. But the largest party has often gained 40% and more in recent UK elections and the second largest over 30%.
  • Electoral reformers can use this table as a step to identification of a model for proper proportional system of the type they wish to advocate for the UK. At first glance our analysis indicates both quantitative and qualitative differences between the top and lower halves of the table.

We hope you have found this data useful. We encourage you to circulate it among those who wish to bring about a real improvement to the UK’s democracy by moving us as quickly as possible to a PR system.

European GE Turnouts

Rates of General Election Participation in European Countries

The table here shows the rates of participation in sixteen European countries. The UK is the only nation that has continued to use the first-past-the-post election system. The others use proportional representation except for France where a two-round presidential election operates which usually ends up in a run-off decided on a simple majority between two candidates.  We show the turnout rate in the second round.

The table is kept up to date with revision made as soon as possible after new elections are held (Column 2). It is a snapshot making available data that can be used for a variety of purposes, the main ones being:

a) to evaluate and rank UK turnout against principal European countries (Column 7).

b) to allow readers to form a view on any relationship between the rate of turnout and the system of election in use (Column 6).

c) to indicate the approximate change in the number of UK voters who would turn out to vote if the rate of participation matched that of the other countries in the table (Column 8).

d) to calculate an average rate of turnout across the sixteen countries. As of June 2019 this currently stands at 73.7% UK excluded and 73.4% UK included.

2017 UK Election – a glance back to the mythology vs the facts

It’s been eighteen months since 555 & Counting was updated. The main explanation is things cropping up to hinder plans and create delays. That’s topical! All the same, the untypical voting pattern in 2017, out of alignment with the UK’s four previous elections, did have an influence in knocking us slightly off course. As did the Brexit imbroglio, too omnipresent to be prevented from silencing all arguments needing to be advanced for electoral reform.

The myth abounded even among eminent scholars that UK politics had bounced back to rude health. They claimed 2017 to be a massive return to two-party politics and ‘a big turn out’. Both were statistically untrue, as this website was pointing out in 2017 (see last para here) and (fourth para here). But real facts find traction in the public mind hard to come by. Factoids, truisms and positive sounding spins always get in the way.

As if to prove the point, I recently spoke to one of the country’s most celebrated and sought after election analysts after he’d given a presentation. He seemed slightly irritated that an evidently unqualified non-entity had stepped up to present him with the reality of those parliamentary seat distribution statistics. He dismissed them with disdainful waves of the hand and a comment something like ‘Oh, you always get that.’ Afterwards, I thought, had he been pressed or tired, he could have invited me to email him with the data.

This is the up-date of our European general election participation table that records the impressive improvement by Spain in its election held at the end of April 2019:

Sweden and Italy held elections in 2018. It’s doubtful even young readers will live to see the UK achieve Sweden’s 87.2%. But when comparing ourselves to the three European economies roughly our size, including Italy, we fall well short of them.

Now we fall well short of Spain too. If our 2017 election had seen the same turnout rate as Spain’s this year, an additional 3.3 million Brits would have gone to the polls. We continue to accumulate evidence that first-past-the-post electoral systems suppress turnout. The US uses it and their last election got a turnout of 55.5%. The most powerful head of state in the world was elected with the support of about one in four of his electorate. Something can’t be right, can it?

Our FPTP Turnout table analyses turnout rates in countries across the world that still hold to first-past-the-post systems. Forgive the spoiler but you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the turnout rates are not at all impressive.

The limitations and warts of first-past-the-post have become all too apparent as well during the Brexit deadlock. It has made it clearer to a wider audience that our two-party system is demonstrably in deep malaise. Electoral reform is now even more urgent. We’ll go into what should be learnt from Brexit in more detail in subsequent posts on this website.

2017: Year of 7 European Elections

Seven parliamentary elections took place in European countries in 2017. In France and Austria turnouts declined, bringing them down to eighth and tenth ranks in our table then. The Czech Republic and Norway were static.

In Germany and the Netherlands, turn-out increased by 4.7% and 7.3% respectively. Both countries moved well up from their previous ninth and seventh places. Since then further elections in Europe have taken place and we now reproduce the most up to date table as at June 2019:

Advocates of the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system often don’t know that it is the only one persisting among the developed democracies of Europe. Nor that along with the USA and Canada it is one of only three major western economies that retain it. But they argue that British voters would not like Westminster elections based on proportional representation. Across the Channel, though, eleven out of fourteen European electorates are more motivated than Brits to go to the polls, as our table shows. The last column projects how many more Brits would have voted at those  countries’ turnout rates.

2017’s increase in UK turnout of 2.6% from the relatively low starting point of 66.1% in 2015 and unimpressive twelfth place ranking, was touted by many as “a re-awakening of interest in politics”. Given the fanfare advance billing for Brexit – “the most crucial issue facing the nation since WWII” – 2.6% seems more like gently stirring from an afternoon nap. Numerically, though, 1.5 million extra voters did turn out, a moderate step in the right direction but fewer than Germany’s extra 2.7 million and not hugely more than the Netherlands’ 1.1 million extra, a country whose electoral size is a mere quarter of the UK’s. The issue of outstanding significance in the UK was massive vote redistribution mainly from the Liberal-Democrats and UKIP to Labour and Tory and from the Greens and SNP to a lesser degree.

In Germany, the right-wing party AfD attracted 13% of the vote, the same as UKIP in 2015. UKIP were allocated one seat in parliament, the AfD, ninety-four. Repeat: ninety-four. Under PR, UKIP would have got at least eighty. How we orbit on a politically different planet from the rest of Europe! Some would say democratically different too. This website may well not agree with UKIP policies but we unhesitatingly say they should have been defending eighty seats at the 2017 election, not one. Their standing in parliament would still be reduced no doubt. In fact under first-past-the-post’s ‘reality’, representation of their 1 million remaining voters’ views has magicked away altogether.

The UKIP party though has kept the lowest possible profile on electoral reform so we aren’t reaching for the box of tissues. With full knowledge of the situation they have placidly accepted living with the cruel fate that first-past-the-post, for all the foreseeable future, will unfailingly dole out to them and all parties of similar size and diffidence.

Handling the ‘NO DEMAND FOR REFORM’ claim

Quoting the failed AV-Referendum of 2011 is the easiest way for front-line media interviewers to block discussion of electoral reform.

This is a serious impediment to getting positive messages over to the public about PR. Electoral reform is discussed very rarely on mainstream media so any opportunities are precious. You will find a short video on our Facebook page called: Handling the false claim there is no demand for UK electoral reform.

The exchange is usually introduced by the reformer who makes a point about the FPTP system being unrepresentative and unfair. The interviewer typically responds quoting AV2011 and affirming it was rejected by the British people. The reformer nearly always tries to protest the truth, that it was never a true referendum for PR. The presenters know this very well but still cut things short by arguing it would have been a staging post in the right direction for something better…

In other words, the reformer is very easily made to seem on the defensive. A change of tactic is necessary and it can do no harm here to try and turn the tables by going on the attack.

So instead of going down the AV is not PR line, we should say that AV2011 was a mistake. It should never have happened. It was the Lib-Dem leadership’s fault that it went ahead at all.

It was a strategic blunder of huge proportions. There was no co-ordinated campaign and there was no widespread consultation or unity among potential partners. There was no coherent message, no flag flying* to get behind and the whole episode has been described as bad-tempered and ill-informed. It was held on the same day as local elections, renowned for low turn-outs, in many areas of England and sure enough the turnout was 42%.

A spade should be called a spade: the blame lies squarely with the Liberal-Democrat leadership. They wanted to chalk up something concrete to show for their Coalition status. On a hope and a prayer what they did was divert potentially more constructive pressure for electoral reform onto the sidelines, while providing enough ammunition to the status quo to last a generation.

There are several strands of evidence backing up the strategic naivety of the Lib-Dem leadership. Bear in mind that two of their party’s highest profile, flagship policies were electoral reform and Europe.

  • From the moment they decided to enter Coalition with the Tories, they made a number of bad judgements, the one mostly remembered being on tuition fees.

  • They demanded nothing on the EU – for example, a Minister for the EU or increased dissemination of positive aspects of EU membership.

  • Even if they thought they had a chance of winning it, they agreed to far too early a date for AV2011 which left no time for the necessary preparation and organisation referred to above.

  • The coalition was an opportunity to showcase a ‘PR-style alternative’ and demonstrate government need not resemble the fears FPTP advocates had always stoked up. The Lib-Dem leadership failed comprehensively – almost as if they did not grasp that the opportunity was a real one.

We should not attach blame to Liberal-Democrat voters. They made their feelings known in 2015 when support fell from an impressive 6.8m in 2010 all the way down to 2.4m.

The Liberal-Democrat legacy then is, if anything, a more tarnished image for PR and, more concretely, one year after the Coalition, a vote to exit from the EU.

Yet Mr Clegg when interviewed still convinces himself and tries to convince us that they did a great job of holding down the Tories. Denial is not helpful when looking for a way to topple the overbearing edifice that is AV2011. Parties to a future campaign for electoral reform must confess and agree that it was a big strategic blunder. The party to blame must take it on the chin and move on. It will be better for them and all the more condusive to the more assertive, positive and modern case for electoral reform this website promotes.

*It’s worth noting that the Remain campaign were much criticised for printing and distributing to every household a  leaflet containing its arguments for staying in the EU. Despite the fact that each full facing page in the document was a glossy, colour photograph, not a single image of the EU flag was visible (nor at any other time in the campaign as far as we recall). A grave strategic error?