2017: Year of 7 European Elections

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

In Germany and the Netherlands, turn-out increased by 4.7% and 7.3% respectively. Note in the up to date Participation Rate table both countries moving well up from their previous ninth and seventh places:

Participation Rates revised 1 Nov 2017

Advocates of the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the only one persisting in Europe, argue that British voters would not like Westminster elections based on proportional representation. Just across the Channel, though, European electorates are mostly 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 that country’s turn out rate.

2017’s increase in UK turn-out 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 the marginal interests 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 (more on 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.

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 media interviewers  stay most comfortable handling 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 of the developed nations have PR?

  • 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.

 

PR ‘Ten Minute Bill’ on the 16th strategically all wrong (posted Dec 2015)

First of all, have you heard anything in the media about the Representation of the People (Proportional Representation) Bill? Have you any idea what it is, that it’s about electoral reform?

On 16th December 2015 – yes, as soon as that – Jonathan Reynolds MP is proposing a Bill in Westminster which will give ‘your MP a chance to support proportional representation.’

What are its chances of success? Well, in the briefing on social media asking you to send an email to express your support to your local MP, it says ‘…the kind of Bill being put forward rarely becomes law.’

On 5.5.5 & Counting we desperately want to see electoral reform because we believe that a fairer society is not possible without a fair voting system. So we think you should send that email. But we also think that the crucial objective of getting rid of first-past-the-post and replacing it with a fair voting system for UK general elections is not firmly enough at the heart of the strategic approach this Bill represents. And here are the main problems:

•The idea of electoral reform certainly got some profile after the 2015 general election when millions saw that UKIP and the Greens got five million votes and ludicrously only two seats in parliament. But things then stopped a long way short of putting any real flesh on the bone. This Bill must be treated with caution because we simply don’t know at this stage if it will serve as a vehicle for the political class to claim ‘we’re doing something about it’ while actually steering electoral reform for general elections onto a sideline and into a good ol’ fudge of classic British proportions.

•It is a compromising and guarded approach. For example, it says, ‘If (the Bill) were to reach later parliamentary stages…’: ‘…the Bill is a crucial step in the right direction…’ that may move to ‘the system used in N.I. and Scotland for local elections…’ but is ‘…a vital move to a more proportional voting system for Westminster.’ This doesn’t sound or look like a focussed intention to get rid of FPTP for general elections. We worry that there’s an aim for a halfway house that might be palatable to the Westminster political class. It comes across almost as an appeal to Westminster for a top-down solution.

•Optimistically, there may be a little more public support for a bill of this sort than when the Liberal Democrats agreed with the Tories a referendum on AV in 2011. That never had a hope of winning and it was a setback for the electoral reform movement. It served ‘status quo’ politicians well by giving them all the ammunition they’ve needed ever since to say the people were asked but they didn’t want electoral change.

•This Bill claims to have the support of about half-a-million petitioners and five party leaders. How many people are now going to write to their MPs at this stage remains to be seen. It may not be a complete empty vessel but it clearly lacks the confidence and assertiveness that would come with the known support, understanding, awareness and ownership of a significant proportion of the electorate. It would be strategically better to have that in place before bringing the Bill to parliament rather than keeping fingers crossed that millions are going to be inspired to write to MPs two weeks before Christmas.

•There has not been ongoing momentum for change building up in the public at large. We believe that to have any chance of getting the Westminster political class, putting it in a seasonal context, to vote like turkeys for Christmas, support in the order of 5 to 10 million people will be needed. Half-a-million isn’t enough because anyone sitting in Westminster in a safe seat knows that the electorate in total is 46m and voters for ‘other’ parties (not Tory or Labour) who want electoral reform number around 10m. About 15m don’t vote at all and the support of a significant number of them would also be a powerful persuader (‘Make it worth voting and I’ll vote).

•There is talk in the briefing of different types of PR system which, as far as we are aware, have not been consulted upon or agreed with people who want to see fair voting in this country. In the briefing and draft letter, STV and Additional Member systems are mentioned. But what we should know already is exactly the system that the wider electoral reform community understands, approves and wants. Again surely, this should be before a Bill like this goes to parliament. Arguments for electoral reform have never gained a hold on public imagination in the UK. But that’s (1) because the arguments haven’t been put over well enough or often enough, (2) because PR systems are difficult to explain and there has been no consistent process of raising awareness of how they work and what their benefits are, (3) arguments for FPTP are in contrast easy to explain, come with ‘hooks’ that appeal to a sense of simplicity, decisiveness and good old British pragmatism and (4) are backed up with false claims and mythology that we haven’t worked nearly hard enough to dispel.

Please respond with your views and comments. 5.5.5 & Counting undertakes to review and publish to this website your best suggestions for actions and strategy to achieve full electoral reform within the next five years.

So much focus – on the wrong things?

Are you old enough to remember when every day for years and years we would switch on the radio or TV and be swamped with news of conflict in the Balkans? Serbs, Croats and Bosnians – it was difficult to avoid listening to the intractable problems of peoples you’d barely heard of before. In reality none of it was going to influence our day-to-day life in our home country very much at all.

It was perhaps strange the broadcasters didn’t include a regular half hour slot for getting all the Balkan news out of the way in one hit. That way, people for whom it was very important would know when to tune in and the rest of us would know when to withdraw tactfully from TV or radio earshot – get dressed for work, brush one’s teeth, etc.

It felt like flavour of the decade problem diversion in the 1990s was the Balkans. On its heels through the ‘noughties’ to the present day, it’s been wall to wall terrorism, radical Islam and a whole family of race-related issues. Terrorism may kill an average of about ten people a year in this country. Our roads system permits ten deaths a day (and a lot more life-changing injuries). The Citizens Report website provides depressing detail of the 600-700 murders per year that occur in the UK. Thousands of women are diagnosed with breast cancer every month. Do we know where our priorities lie? This site will occasionally mention 5.5.5 Syndrome. A sure symptom of the condition is the capacity of a modern, technological democracy to pour resources, effort and attention into a threat to its welfare that’s been pumped up out of all proportion.

Nowadays, we cannot turn on the radio and television and hope to escape the constant drumbeat of story after report after revelation from the long-running soap ‘Terrorism Family’. So some of us might be here again, wishing there was a special slot at a fixed time so that those who want their new dose of daily alarm can tune in. The rest of us could plan to avoid the constant harping on about issues that are barely ever going to influence our daily lives in a real sense.

This is not to downgrade the terrible impact of terrorist strikes when they do happen. They are low-frequency, high-impact events. In terms of their effects and the misery they cause, they are in the same family of issues as fatal aeroplane or train crashes, motorway pile-ups, gas explosions, ferry disasters, floods. It would be bizarre if there weren’t a sharp attention spike in the aftermath of life-changing tragedies like these. Equally, spread over time, you would expect any or all of these issues to be the subject of initiatives and debates. After all, we presumably would like to eradicate the lot of them. For example, we sometimes get alarming reports on how aviation procedures are being shortcut or how developers are still being allowed to build on flood plains. But we don’t occupy every other media minute every day mulling over and fretting about them as we do with ‘Terrorism Family’.

The word ‘factoid’ was coined by the author Norman Mailer and means a thing that is repeated in the media as if it were true even though it may not be. It seems like in this country there always has to be ‘a super-package of fear’ that comes under that definition. It’s a narrative that hits the headlines day after day as if it speaks volumes about things that will imperil your daily life when in fact they will not.

The likelihood of being killed in an act of terrorism in the UK is on a par with being killed by lightning – about five per year. A reckless driver or an emotionally disturbed relative or family acquaintance is far more likely to kill you than a terrorist. Here is an item by Richard Jackson that provides an interesting angle on ten things you might not expect to be more of a threat to you than terrorism. Rather worryingly, one of them appears to be ‘yourself’. And, yes, we do get proportionate coverage in the media of the distressing problem of suicide.

On 5.5.5 & Counting, we are worried that the issue of fair voting hardly ever gets coverage in the mainstream media. Of course, this is partly because it doesn’t have life-or-death implications. But there can be few issues with such far reaching effects on your day to day life. In our section Media and FPTP, we say why the broadcasters do not want reform of this country’s unfair general election system.

Survival of the fittest, er… electoral system.

god-of-prosperity

Work harder or pray to the God of Prosperity? Both must have a chance of working!

Survival of the fittest, the term we know from evolutionary biology, has been seized upon by some as the natural explanation for success in human society. But a simpler explanation is that people hang on to what they’ve got and pass it down as commercial interest or personal wealth. Once there’s something in place that keeps bringing them benefits, those finding themselves in that position don’t change it. This has serious implications for our electoral system and for the future of a society that is becoming more and more unequal.

Survival of the fittest in scientific terms means that the genetic attributes of fitter individuals, living under conditions of competition for limited natural resources and in a challenging environment, are more likely to be transmitted to and survive in young that themselves grow to maturity and reproduce. But they only got that extra bit of fitness in the first place due to a chance genetic mutation. It wasn’t something they did to themselves or willed to happen.

A look at the relatively soft lifestyle that comes with modern human civilisation tells us that only a very few people with certain medical conditions will have problems reproducing successfully. Comparatively small numbers of children are affected by harmful genetic mutations that shorten their lives. Children are far more likely to be at risk from something in the human environment whether it be poverty, contagious disease, violence or pollution.

Research suggests that the extreme hardships of slavery led to natural selection for muscular endurance and deprivation-resistance. Michael Johnson, the famous 400 metre runner, has written that this could explain the dominance of black Afro-Caribbean athletes in sprint events today. There is little doubt that the Sherpas of mountaineering fame benefit from genetic endowment for endurance at the high altitudes that leave everyone else gasping for breath at the slightest exertion.

But let’s be clear, there is no evolutionary selection going on for fittest politicians, footballers, actors, bankers, company chairmen, astronauts or whatever – and why would there be? The evolution of human society is not the same as natural evolution. On the contrary, much of human social development has been about overcoming or alleviating the constraints of the natural environment.

To understand why some humans have most power, wealth or influence in society we have to look more deeply and widely at a range of factors. Their standing cannot be explained as the outcome of some natural evolutionary process which has swept them haplessly and innocently to sit at the top of the income and wealth pile. Continue reading