Wednesday, 15 April 2015

What's in a Vote?

Imagine you walk into a restaurant, and some people sit there forking up imaginary food and insist that others with empty plates before them should do the same. At the other end of the room, a hungry couple offered a variety of real food refuse to eat any of them because the menu does not contain the perfect dish they have always dreamt about.

That restaurant is our electoral system. There are those who want people to vote even in cases where it would not make any difference. They acknowledge that in seats where the incumbents have the backing of an overwhelming majority of the local constituents, a vote against them would not change anything. Yet they want to see people exercise their vote so much that they would even advocate compulsory voting for all.

By contrast, we also have those who regard it as a complete waste of time to cast a vote for anyone unless that person subscribes to the same policy position they hold on virtually every issue. Whatever differences the candidates may have between themselves, they are all branded as “the same” just because none of them represents these purists’ ideal politician.

Both these outlooks focus on chasing after their own sense of political perfection and neglect to pursue what would actually help to bring about a better government.

A key reason why so many people don’t vote is because with the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, in a sizeable majority of seats in, for example, the UK Parliament (at least 60% of the seats) or the US Congress, to get the incumbent voted out is statistically highly improbable. Making it compulsory for people to vote in these cases would not change anything except perhaps make them even more disillusioned.

But making the system one based on proportional representation means every vote will count. And when people can see that the number of seats to be held by any political party will be proportional to the number of votes cast for that party, they will have an incentive to vote for the party they most strongly support, knowing each vote will directly increase the proportion of seats to be gained.

Meanwhile, since under the prevailing system the electoral battle is to be decided in the marginal seats, then one should lend a hand by helping to persuade voters in those seats to vote so as to bring about a more responsive government by backing the most appropriate party in each constituency.

Whatever people’s party political differences maybe, they must realise that just as it is necessary to press for proportional representation because a vote against incumbents in totally safe seats under FPTP would be a wasted vote, a vote for a candidate who stands no chance of winning a given seat would also be a wasted vote.

In fact, in the critical seats that could determine if a country would continue to sacrifice the poorest for the enrichment of the wealthiest, voting for anyone other than the candidate who stands the only realistic chance of dislodging the current government supporter, or keeping out an even more plutocratic/scapegoat-persecuting candidate, might well prove to be disastrously counter-productive.

Of related interest to this post: see ‘10 Things about the State of Our Democracy’

Note: As for the old arguments against proportional representation system: (1) the suggestion that first-past-the-post (FPTP) gives a better connection between a voter and the politician thus elected is spurious since the voter-to-winner ratio is so high that there is little real connection, and most people would rather deal with a politician from the party they back; (2) the warning that a proportional system could let in more extremist parties begs the question of why, if a party is so extreme that the country should seek to keep it out of public office, legal restrictions should not be placed upon such a party directly; (3) the pseudo-justification of FPTP delivering a clear-cut majority for the government is flawed in theory (because a country divided on ideological or socio-economic terms should not be ruled by a contrived majority) and in practice (even FPTP is yielding coalition government with the smaller parties gaining more support).

Friday, 10 April 2015

Thatcher, Europe & Referendum

Amongst politicians who proudly declare themselves ‘Thatcherites’, there is one policy that has become almost sacred – namely, to precipitate the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union by holding a referendum on the issue. Ironically, it was Margaret Thatcher who most cogently set out the argument, regardless of whether one were pro or anti remaining in Europe, against deciding the matter by means of a referendum.

She did this when she was the Leader of the Opposition in 1975 when the then Labour Government proposed a referendum to decide if the UK should stay or leave the then EEC (European Economic Community). It shows that sometimes when they are unencumbered by power, politicians can be quite effective in questioning the powerful:

“On all major matters the essential task of government is decision. That does not mean absence of argument or absence of some differences. It means the capacity to reach a decision after argument and consideration, and sticking to it or resigning.

We now face the new system. If the Government cannot agree, gone is the discipline of resignation, gone is the principle of accountability to Parliament. The new doctrine is to pass the buck to the people.

… Perhaps the late Lord Attlee was right when he said that the referendum was a device of dictators and demagogues.

The treaty [with Europe] has been in operation for over two years. I know of no country in the Western World in which a referendum has been used to override a treaty obligation which had been through all its parliamentary stages and had been in operation for two years. Such a step would have a damaging effect on Britain's standing in the world. …

We know … the present Prime Minister was firmly against a referendum. But problems and divisions were arising in his own party, and one group of dissenters campaigned for a referendum. We accept that any hon. Member who holds strong views on the legislation itself is entitled to propose any method which he chooses to defeat it. But when Cabinets and Shadow Cabinets come to deliberate, they should bear in mind all the constitutional consequences of the course of action proposed to be slow to undermine cherished principles which have served liberty well for a long time.

It is quite possible to put a democratic case for having referendum provisions. If a referendum is put forward seriously as a constitutional instrument, we should need to consider the different kinds of referenda involved and what they implied for the present rules and conventions of our political order.

Assuming that we wanted the referendum provisions to apply only to constitutional questions, we should try to define what that means in a British context—an extraordinarily difficult exercise. If we wanted to avoid leaving the decision on whether to have a referendum to the whim of future Governments, we should have to think of some means of limiting its powers.

This White Paper has come about because of the Government's concern for internal party interests. It is a licence for Ministers to disagree on central issues but still stay in power. I believe that the right course would be to reject it and to consider the wider constitutional issues properly and at length.”

(40 years on from that speech by Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons on 11 March 1975, ardent Thatcherites from Cameron to Farage should take note from their political idol when she had so comprehensively exposed the pitfalls of resorting to referenda).

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Invasion of the Power Snatchers

Human history is filled with reminders that we should treat each other in a reciprocal manner, and not let anyone get away with taking advantage of others in ways they would never tolerate themselves. Embedded in ethical codes, moral tales, and religious commandments – this Golden Rule tells us that everyone should be accorded equal respect, and none is to be placed at the whim or mercy of someone else. This calls for sustained vigilance against anyone seeking to appropriate too much power for themselves.

Exceptional circumstances, which call for power to be vested in a single decision-maker, should be treated precisely as exceptional with effective plans to end any temporary concentration of emergency power.

And we should beware of the antics of those who are as adept at assuming the mantle of a Midas as that of a Caesar. We must be prepared to reverse the hyper-accumulation of wealth by an elite, and ensure it is adequately counter-balanced by tax-based redistribution. Attempts to deceive people into surrendering power to a privileged few by dressing the latter’s interests up as vital economic, military or religious goals must be exposed and rejected. The basic needs of those in the weakest position must never be passed over in any trade-off to satisfy the demands of the strong. The capacity for whistle-blowing by the few and open protest by the many must be reinforced and built into the machinery of civic resistance.

But when confronted by the entrenched position of the powerful, it is easy to believe that the concentration of power is not just unavoidable, but irreversible. Precisely because the power gap has widened, the powerful would be less and less inclined to give way, while others are powerless precisely to the extent that they cannot challenge the status quo. Instead of tackling the problem of power imbalance, people are then told to accept the inevitability, even the sanctity, of power divisions such that reciprocity gives way permanently to an asymmetric relationship – the disadvantaged shall act out of deference or fear to ensure they are not even worse off, and the privileged shall act out of their generosity or mercy in granting a few small concessions.

Consequently, all too many resign themselves to living under prevailing power structures, because it is drummed into them that significant changes could never be achieved.

In reality, power relations that are more balanced and thus conducive to reciprocity can be attained. Throughout history, the progressive struggle has successfully challenged the epistemological authority of dogmatists, and opened up the field of knowledge to wider participation; confronted the evaluative authority of edicts and traditions that neglect the interests of those with little power, and promoted the equal respect for all; and opposed the executive authority of leaders to make unaccountable decisions, and introduced instead more power sharing.

Yet the enemy of reciprocity is never completely vanquished. As soon as we let our guard down, those who seek to dominate and exploit others will emerge again and manipulate society to amass wealth and power for themselves at everyone else’s expense.

To protect all that is fair and decent in human interactions, we must therefore relentlessly repel the invasion of the power snatchers.

For a detailed exposition see: Against Power Inequalities: a history of the progressive struggle.