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Pololitics #1 – Learning How to Count

It’s hard to imagine the storm of bullshit and detritus that is UK politics getting any worse than it currently is. With the Tories intent on returning us to 19th Century work houses and Victorian schooling, the Labour Party jumping on any bandwagon that trundles past while fighting the wrong battles, and the Lib Dems standing behind Cameron’s trousers shaking their fists hoping to catch any sweets he might drop, it’s easy to understand the feelings of apathy and disenfranchisement described by Russell Brand and Jeremy Paxman. Well, get ready for the next fifteen or sixteen months, taking that storm and whipping it up into a tumult, a maelstrom, a tempest of utter, utter bollocks from all sides. The next year will be entirely politicking in the run up to the next general election.

I’ve got a whole head full of why the democracy we enjoy in this country is failing us. Some of it, I expect you will disagree with. In a shocking break from current popular debate in the world (‘you either agree with me, or you’re a moron’), I think that’s great. It’s great for people to disagree, and for them to discuss things and thus, by combining the cognitive powers of the many and the differing experiences and contrasting viewpoints, much more of the picture can be illuminated. The current way of thinking, however, appears to be: a) you’re a limp-wristed lefty; b) you’re a right-wing fascist. There is no middle ground.

What I’m doing here though is highlighting a collection of things which are irrelevant of political leaning: the mechanisms of our democracy. I’m not sure entirely how long this list will be, it’s already evolving as I write it. Today I wanted to start with the high level of how we actually vote and how fair it really is.

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

– Sir Winston Churchill

I think you’ll be hard pushed to find a sensible, educated person – at least, one who isn’t pushing a fascist-like agenda – that disagrees with the notion that democracy in its purest form is the best way of ensuring a society functions fairly. The idea that every member of that society, above an arbitrary age deemed suitable, gets to vote on who the leaders of that country should be for an arbitrary length of service seems to be a very unprejudiced and reasonable solution to a very complex problem. Democracy, albeit stringent and precise in its definition, is applied the world over in a very woolly and inconsistent way.

The problem with democracy is that it’s difficult to determine where to stop. If we held a public vote on every decision a government needed to make, nothing would ever get done. Conversely, some decisions are deemed so important that a referendum is called, so we can vote on it specifically. So we draw a line, a very wiggly line with dashes in some places, often in crayon. We elect a government with executive power to make that kind of decision for us. After all, we haven’t got the time ourselves to spend learning about how things will affect us have we? No, Eastenders is on later and Danny Dyer’s in it now.

So how do we elect a government? Well, it’s different the world over in its subtleties, but in its simplest form we vote. Each registered person in the UK is given one chance to vote in elections and referendums (no, not referenda). We elect a government based on what the most people want. The government then has a mandate to govern the country and to express the interests of the majority of folk, and eveyone else has to lump it, because most people disagree with them. That sounds fair doesn’t it? And that’s about as far as most people think about it. Only that’s not entirely true. In fact, some might say, it’s a load of old bollocks.

Proportional Representation and First Past the Post

First of all, lets look at what happens down at the ground level of a General Election. The UK is carved up into 650 arbitrarily defined parliamentary constituencies. These constituencies each have one seat in the House of Commons, an MP. The MP for you constituency is supposed to represent your community – a community drawn on a map by a committee who has likely never been there – in parliament. All your vote actually does, is determine which candidate in your constituency will sit in the House. That sounds fair doesn’t it? Your enforced community has a 1/650th stake in the doings of the country?

Sure it does. Did you also know that the incumbent government has the power to redraw those boundaries at any point? They only have to compell the House in debate enough for them to vote it through. What that means is, your arbitrarily defined community could end up larger or smaller, or indeed, be incorporated into a larger constituency or carved up into a smaller one.

So what? I still get to vote on who our representative is…

That is true, but all constituencies are not made equal. The smallest constituency in the 2010 election was Na h-Eileanan an Iar in Scotland with an electorate comprising 21,837 voters. The largest was the Isle of Wight with 110,924. Why does this matter? Well, in a larger constituency, your vote is worth less.

In the Isle of Wight in 2010, one vote was worth 1/110,924th of the public opinion there (assuming everyone voted, which they didn’t). That’s about 9×10^-6 or 0.000009 in maths speak. In that Scottish place, your vote is worth 1/21,837th of the public opinion, or 4.5×10^-5 or 0.000045. So if you divide the second by the first, you will see that in Na h-Eileanan an Iar, your vote is worth five times as much as that of a denizen of the Isle of Wight.

It’s a little less fair when you look at it like that isn’t it? Now, this is an extreme example, I accept. Most of the constituencies in the UK average around 60 – 80,000 voters, so in real terms, the differences are less pronounced. The point is though, if a particular party has good intelligence on how the electorate are likely to vote in any given area, it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility to redraw political boundaries to favour them. This sort of things happens almost every government term, and it’s a bit wrong in my opinion.

So, we’ve established that determination of your opinion’s worth is erratic at best, subjective at worst, so how do we determine which candidate wins the last of the musical chairs? Well, as we said, you tick their name and stick it in a box, then the one with the most ticks is the winner. Now surely that’s fair isn’t it?

Yes and no. It’s certainly the simplest way of doing it and the easiest for voters to comprehend, but is it really fair? Well let’s look at it from a slightly different angle.

Let’s say 100 voters turn out in your constituency and they have a choice between 5 candidates. In order to win that seat, the winning candidate need only gain the most votes. So a winning outcome might be that Candidate A gets 89 votes and the remaining 11 are spread between the rest. This often happens, and in fairness, looks perfectly reasonable.

However, it is also true that if candidate A only got 21 votes; B, C, and D got 20 each; and poor E got 19; A would still win the seat, despite 79% of the electorate voting for someone else. Doesn’t look so fair now does it? That’s First Past the Post, beloved of two-party systems the world over.

Now, I’ve had some trouble trying to find out what the average number of candidates was per constituency in 2010, but if we take a completely fabricated situation and say every constituency had five candidates, in an absolute worst case scenario, a party could come to government with a mere 21% of the total public vote. Now if you also take into account that a party only has to win majority to form a government, they only need 326 seats. So they only need 21% of the vote in 326 constituencies. That means over 79% of the public may well have not wanted the winning party anywhere near government.

Based on that bunch of wild assumptions and conjecture, I find it difficult to see how that is a fair representation of our society’s collective will at all.

What is equally as telling is that only 65% of eligible voters even bothered turning up on 6th may 2010. Over a third either couldn’t be bothered, conscientiously objected or spoiled their ballot paper. So if you factor this in, what we have might be representative of public opinion, but really, we have no idea whatsoever what people think.

So, in summary, as a voter, if you happen to live in a large constituency, your vote is worth less than your mate in a smaller one, and if you have a lot of candidates, one of them can win the seat, even with a tiny slice of the votes. In terms of the First Past the Post system of vote determination, we had the opportunity to change this, but the whole thing was hijacked by two organisations with agendas and a fuck load of money, and most of you couldn’t be arsed to turn up because you didn’t understand it. So we’re probably stuck with it for another fifty years.

We have also seen that in order to form a government in the United Kingdom, you have to have a massive party. A party capable of winning at least 326 seats. If you don’t win a majority of seats, you might still be able to help form a coalition, like we have now, but let’s face it, that’s unlikely to happen. So unless you are a member of the Conservative Party, or the Labour Party, the likelihood is, you will never join government in a meaningful way. (The Con-Lib coalition excepted as an anomaly).

And that is why I have a problem with Party Politics, which is what I’ll moan about next time.

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