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

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.

FPTP’s Two Great Deceptions in the run up to every election

FPTP’s Two Great Deceptions in the run up to every election

Tory and Labour want an outright majority so at each election, their priority of achieving a ‘winner-take-all’ outcome takes over. To them, playing the electoral system seems more important than any concern for whether democratic election process is being served or not. In or out of power they have not been interested in:

  • the depth and validity of their mandate to govern outright
  • whether your and my vote gets counted towards the overall outcome in a meaningful way
  • parliamentary representation that reflects the growth of support for small and new parties.

A lot of that might be obvious but now we come to two further examples of FPTP’s power of democratic distortion that are not as easy to spot. We call them FPTP’s Two Great Deceptions.

Deception 1

In the weeks before an election hosts of experts, pundits, politicians and presenters push out a familiar mantra in one or another form of words: ‘Get out and vote. Don’t waste your democratic right; influence the outcome; vote with your conscience; it only takes 20 minutes.’

The thing they never make clear is that they are only talking to voters in contested seats.

In the much greater number of safe seats the advice they are giving you is pointless on almost every count. Mostly Labour and Tory, by far, have held the swathes of safe seats lying across England for decades. Under FPTP, cast a vote for any party other than the incumbent and you simply cannot influence the outcome. You might as well have stayed at home. FACT: Voting will take about 20 minutes but other than that, the advice the pundits and the rest are putting out is a complete deception as far as it affects you.

Deception 2

Think about what the media put on your screens when they analyse and debate the election. It centres on three basic factors:

  • the quality of the parties’ leaderships with particular focus on the prospective PM
  • the parties’ policies or manifesto, compared one against the other
  • the skills and qualities local MPs bring to their relationships with their constituents

Now recall that in the FPTP voting booth, you get one ‘X’ to mark in one box and if you attempt anything more, your paper is spoilt. It is clear then that the analysis of these differences only helps you if, as it happens, you conclude all three of them apply to the party of one of the candidates you consider voting for.

But what if they don’t. In your view, Party A might have the best leader, B the better policies and C a really hard working local MP. FPTP will not let you express all that careful analysis you will make and indeed, will be encouraged in the run up to the election to make as if it were possible for you to fully express your preferences.

FPTP turns every voter into a one-shot wonder. It lacks the sophistication to serve a 21C election process in an advanced democracy. Only a system of PR that allows you to make multiple choices or rank two or more candidates can give you that.

If we had such a system, many of which are happily in use across Europe, the Two Great FPTP Deceptions would no longer be relevant. It would be worth going out to vote in every constituency because all votes, including non-winning votes, would have a say in the overall result. Doing all the analysis would have made sense too, because after all that, you do not have to back your once-every-five-year opportunity into a single corner if that’s not what you want.

Electoral Reform is Urgent – the Dangers of Brexit and ‘Missing Marginals’

Electoral Reform is Urgent – the Dangers of Brexit and Missing Marginals

There are three points in this post. Two are about a need for urgency on electoral reform and the third concerns this website.

Let us first deal with the two matters that call for Urgency on Electoral Reform.

Brexit: surprisingly to us, no case was ever brought before an EU jurisdiction to get First-past-the-post declared unfit for purpose in a 21C democracy. Our January item showed how we are the last country in Europe to use it while the others all have one or other system of proportional representation. With Brexit almost certainly going through, any scrutiny by the EU we might have called on will be out of reach for good.

We will be on our own to wonder whether the power-holding segment of our homogenised political class might like to move to an even less democratic electoral system. Citizens should be capable of recognising this possibility when they look at an institution that prides itself for carrying over into the digital age attitudes and practices rooted in the 18C or earlier. If when MPs enter Westminster world, there’s a pompous, antiquated mindset that enough find it hard to stay out of, we are entitled to worry.

Particularly those who think Brexit is a short-sighted error – a regression for our democracy – need a way of getting some balance back. In the short term, an effective answer is electoral reform. Proportional representation broadly reflects the will of the electorate and takes away the ability of any single party to govern us outright without a genuine majority mandate. Let’s get a campaign underway. URGENT!

Diminishing Number of Marginal Seats: we recommend this link to the London School of Economics website which published ‘The Case of the Missing Marginals.’ It is indicating how their numbers are in decline. There are already about 425 safe seats where your vote for a party that’s not the incumbent is about as meaningful as casting it into the nearest drain outside the voting station. Only in the marginals does any serious contest take place, mostly between Tory and Labour but not exclusively. The parties funnel the lion’s share of their campaign budgets into the marginals.

So from a practical point of view, fewer marginals and more safe seats is no bad thing for them. But if the number of marginals keeps diminishing ad absurdum, in theory only one party might be able to win general elections in perpetuity. It will not take much more to push us over the line to full-on ‘electoral dictatorship’.

Whether in safe seats or marginals, winning and most non-winning votes cast under proportional representation are both of value. They are meaningfully counted and will have a say in the final allocation of seats in parliament. So the worst effects of this disturbing ‘missing marginals’ trend can only be protected against in the short term by moving to proportional representation. This looks like high-octane campaign fuel to us! URGENT!

Contact Form: the contact form on our Homepage is functioning again after being out of order for some time. We apologise if you have tried to use the form and hit a dead end. Annoying for you and an embarrassing issue for us. We would like to hear back from you on any of the posts, issues and analyses on the site. The contact form is an opportunity to respond with comments, questions or requests to post your thoughts.

FPTP change; stuck in a snowdrift?

hunters-in-the-snow

Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1565)

The artistry and detail in Peter Brueghel’s masterpiece ‘Hunters in the Snow’ is enough to take your breath away. But the story it depicts is equally intriguing. A group of hunters cross the foreground, heads bowed returning with a very slim catch. Even their line of dogs looks depressed, stooped over with snouts almost dragging the snow.

In the middle ground, though, all the folk are out on the frozen village pond clearly having a great time playing winter games. They seem separate from the harsh reality of the environment, not wanting to acknowledge that they might become very unfortunate victims of it quite soon.

Probably we can all think of examples in modern life where we’ve seen this dynamic at play. 5.5.5 & Counting cannot help wondering whether the political parties in this country who want and need FPTP elections replaced are a bit like the villagers. Take Nigel Farage whose UKIP party laughably gained one seat on the back of nearly 4m votes in 2015. What could possibly be more urgent – more of a priority – than getting the ball rolling for a Brexit-like campaign for electoral reform? Yet off he went to the US to give valuable time and resource to, of all people, Donald Trump.

Now we have a lot of time for the Green Party but what was the point of Caroline Lucas a little while ago seeking a pact with Labour, a party that has never mentioned electoral reform in a manifesto. We have heard no more since. The Greens suffered under FPTP too gaining one seat with just under one million votes. They might be trying to send a strategically placed curling stone down the rink but look again at history. Mainstream interests invariably have the power to swallow up or clear out whatever it suits them to label a marginal interest and without ultimately conceding anything of much worth at all.

The Lib-Dems are a bit of a mystery. We know that as willing capitulators to the no-hope 2011 AV referendum and their subsequent electoral collapse, they must be feeling a little reserved and glum about where to go next. Could they ever admit that had they organised and led a concerted, focussed campaign on an appropriate timeline to get the messages over and over, a bit like Brexit did, the outcome could have been much different. Once, they would naturally have been at the head of an electoral reform campaign but now we think the leadership focus would have to be elsewhere.

The integrity and consistency of Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP is thus far quite impressive. The one smaller party that did benefit from the FPTP system but still with a manifesto commitment to electoral reform because it is fair to voters. Sustain that and it’s the best and most powerful position of principle to work from. Continual media obsession with a ‘will she/won’t she?’ on a second independence referendum hogs all the attention on politics north of the border. But Sturgeon doesn’t need propping up by FPTP, independent Scotland or not. We think she’d say that if Labour returns 25%, that should translate to something like 25% representation in Holyrood, Westminster or wherever. Simple!

Rabbits aren’t going to come running out of their cosy warrens into the waiting nets of hunters and there will be sports and fun fairs again on a frozen Thames before turkeys in their hundreds of safe seats in England vote for Christmas. The Other parties must become acutely aware that nothing less than a professionally organised campaign in a Brexit format – a direct and sustained campaign without the lies and deceptions that targets the jugular of the political establishment – is going to shift anything.

The two-party system is being kept artificially afloat thanks to FPTP. Voters need to be given a stake in electoral reform and the critical question at this moment is not a campaign how, why, who, where? It’s when and what on earth is the delay all about? The snow melts away but winter soon comes round again to bite painfully with its harsh reality.

EU Referendum has roots in UK election system (posted April 2016)

The EU Referendum is just two months away. With so many shared problems embroiling so many countries, it hardly seems the right time to consider jumping the European ship.

The UK has stayed ‘in’ for decades, feeling uncomfortable and accustomed to firing off impressive displays of recalcitrance across the Channel. This Referendum comes about because certain aspects of our culture and character never stop reinforcing our self-image as a people apart from them. We can’t explore them all, so will stick with the one that is fully relevant to the 5.5.5 & Counting website and this country’s desperate need for electoral reform. Some very important differences are reflected in the UK general election system.

We have first-past-the-post (FPTP) which aims for and usually delivers a winner-take-all result. It means that a single party can govern outright with positive support down at 21% of the electorate (Labour 2005). That often translates to a little over one-third of those who voted. In Europe, that is nowhere near enough for a party to govern outright. Across European politics, it is normal for parties with the largest support to have to negotiate coalitions and other working arrangements with smaller parties. Once they get together something like 51% representation, they can go ahead and form a government.

tragedy and comedy masks

Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQs) – comedy or tragedy?

Then look at the way our system sets up MPs in the chamber for deeply adversarial exchanges. Dismissing the semi-circular seating most parliaments prefer, they sit in parallel rows confronting each other across a dividing gangway. And if you’re someone in the general public or the media who likes their politics à la Punch and Judy, you’re rarely disappointed. The insults and gestures launched viciously at each other during PMQs, for example, must be seen and heard to be believed outside of a reform school yard. But even in the more serious contexts of longer debates and ministerial statements they commonly break off into put-downs of their opponents. Personal mockery is all part and parcel and stimulates their own side into braying, jeering, whooping and laughing.

A current BBC TV documentary ‘Them or Us’ quotes Margaret Thatcher after a European summit complaining that the leaders across the table were so smooth she couldn’t get anything off them. There was no edge she could create from which you’d get a bit of anger and argument and then, in her view, agreement. But in terms of improving your negotiation skills, would you really want to follow her lead? She was only emphasising how different the theatre of politics she came up through was compared to theirs. Throughout the programme too, you kept noticing that the accent of the voices railing most aggressively against Brussels down the decades was English – Brit-Englishness.

Our politicians work their way up through a culture where confrontation and argument are expected to trump negotiation and common personal respect. They are not that bothered about fairness – to each other or the voters at large – and have no qualms about taking power on minority support. They’ll happily then govern and have their leader strut around on the international stage as if with the moral backing of the nation fully behind them.

The mindset they acquire – or bring – produces a feeling of entitlement to bully their way through. They are unlikely to be able to see it in themselves, our current leader, David Cameron, being a prime example. He only manages to come over as reasonable during the breaks he takes from spraying disparaging and offensive comments around in all directions (by the way, this website is highly sceptical about the depth of Mr. Cameron’s stated commitment to the EU, but that’s another debate).

Abrasiveness has never worked with Europe and never will. Until the UK takes a much more critical look at its own attitudes, Remain or Leave the future looks broadly the same. The people of the UK will be kept on the side lines, ruled over by an unrepresentative minority government still taking them nowhere on a host of issues, none more intractable than the unrelenting tide of immigration. This political class is too well established to do anything other than it already knows and does. 5.5.5 & Counting argues it’s not the EU, it’s our electoral system that stifles the prospect of much meaningful change for the better.

FPTP – Shooting the Three Foxes (posted Jan 2016)

Argue for electoral reform against an advocate for FPTP and very quickly you’ll be listening to three lines of an old song we’ve heard a hundred times before:

  • FPTP creates decisive government

  • Proportional representation would give us coalitions that are weak and indecisive and…

  • …smaller parties would exert undue influence over larger ones

Electoral reformers often try to take on the answers to the three ‘clichés that never die’ directly. That’s a mistake because the opponent gains a useful advantage – they can draw the discussion away from the central principle we electoral reformers want to address.

So be prepared to shoot the Three FPTP Foxes quickly when they’re let loose. We can begin this by emphasising and repeating the following three-part message each time a media opportunity presents itself:

  • that electoral reformers’ central aim, through a proper proportional voting system, is fair votes for people (or, put another way, votes that count for people)

  • we find that FPTP advocates always prefer to sidestep fair voting and concentrate instead on the behaviour and practice of governments or politicians in power

  • therefore, they wrongly conflate two issues and we can clearly see that their main concern is with government practice and attitude, not with people having fair votes

Even the most experienced media interviewers like to stay in their comfort zone by restricting the focus to these well-known FPTP clichés. Electoral reformer: be aware of the need to get on to territory that works for you, not for them. 5.5.5 & Counting believe that once there, there are several strategic pitches that will open up to much more uncomfortable probing than FPTP advocates usually have to face:

  • What is it about FPTP that you think creates the optimum amount of decisiveness in government, compared say to some of the more benign forms of dictatorship?

  • This level of decisiveness – you claim it is so ideal that it justifies denying the majority of the 46 million people of the electorate a vote that will count?

  • Are you saying that single-party government is never weak? If so, you presumably don’t mind being the opposition party because they’ll be getting things strongly right or strongly wrong. You can’t lose either way.

  • Are you saying that decisiveness is always the right approach to complex or fast-changing political events and issues?

  • Does every country that elects through PR have indecisive, weak governments? Do you know how many major developed nations still use PR? (the answer is three, by the way – UK, USA & Canada).

  • Unhealthy influence can only be exerted successfully when there are others open to being influenced. Shouldn’t the larger party be strong enough to resist or manage the unreasonable demands of a small one?

  • Apparently you don’t trust the biggest party to have the skills to handle small ones but you would trust it with the power to govern us all on its own! Does that sound like a good idea?

These were a few basic suggestions. Whatever points you choose, remember the overall aim is to dispute and undermine the anti-PR myths and clichés that get in the way. The FPTP advocate often escapes without being pressed for evidence to back up those three standard assertions we started with at the top. So exposing the general lack of evidence, the lack of coherence behind the assertions, is the prime objective. Obviously this won’t be achieved on one showing. There must be repeated media presence if arguments are to gain equal or greater traction with audiences. Greater media penetration is indispensable to a successful PR campaign. Though we are not saying it is easy to achieve, it must be said that currently the campaign lacks visible co-ordination.

Go back to the three ‘Fox’ points and consider how you would answer them individually if pressed. For example, ‘I agree the risk of collusion and corruptibility under all forms of elected government should be a matter of concern to us, especially in western democracies where we’re supposed to be beyond all that. Let’s talk about it for a minute…’

Finally, a fourth assertion often cropping up near the outset is that FPTP maintains a uniquely strong link to the constituency member. This is rubbish because the system they have in Germany, say, has a mechanism for doing exactly that. So firmly dismiss it as irrelevant to the cases for and against fair voting for people. Better still, is it possible to confirm the UK electoral reform community has a commitment to a PR system that maintains or even strengthens local member links?

5.5.5 & Counting would like to hear your views and suggestions on this issue. We undertake to publish the most positive, constructive suggestions in a ‘Follow-up Post’ within six weeks.