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.


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 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. We are seeing all too painfully that home-grown domestic knife crime is bringing about the premature deaths mainly of young males at a far greater rate than acts of terrorism. These are linked to street gang culture and drugs. Maybe some of us would like to be hearing regularly exactly what resources the agencies of the law are dedicating to this problem and reporting back to the public on the success or otherwise of their operations. Instead whatever they are doing is all kept rather low key in contrast to anti-terrorism initiatives.

A final thing that you might not expect to be more of a threat to you than terrorism. Rather worryingly, ‘yourself’. And, yes, it’s ahigher rate of death which gets media coverage just about proportionate to the distressing nature 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 Media and FPTP section, we say why the broadcasters do not want reform of this country’s unfair general election system.

Survival of the fittest, er… electoral system.


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