Friday, 30 April 2010

Election special: vote to change how you vote

Election-time in the UK is fast approaching so get your party hats on and sing a happy song, for it is election time and we have all fallen into the trap of watching the leaders' debate and reading the rankings as if they mattered.
Don't they? You ask.
Of course they don't, I reply – and not, for once, just to be controversial.

The leaders' debate is interesting. It shows you how photogenic your new prime minister will be. How good a debater. How good at repeating or creating sound-bites. It may even give you a tiny little glimpse of what his politics will be like once elected, but let's not get over-excited. These guys are trying to get elected, not give you an insight on how realism and constraints on the ground influence policy-making in real life.

The numbers that we all pore over the morning after each debate are also interesting. But ultimately completely misleading.
So we know who the country, overall, would vote for if choosing a prime minister across the nation was how we voted over here. But it ain't so the figures we look at are no use at all in understanding what will happen with the election. They would and could be useful in another place, one with oh I don't know a proportional representation electoral system, perhaps? But this is not that place and looking at those figures is not simply a waste of time, it is a deeply misleading political proposition.

First past the post, folks.
That means you vote for your MP, not your PM.
Yes, yes I know you often actually just choose a party; often not even knowing what your local MP stands for – although you really should not be doing that because that is not how electoral responsibility works in this country but that's another conversation for another time. And yes you vote 'Labour' but you voting Labour doesn't necessarily help Labour get elected. Or the Lib Dems, more to the point.

Diffuse support all over the country is no good whatsoever for making it into government in this United Kingdom of ours. You need concentrated support in a winning number of constituencies. That doesn't even mean a majority in said constituencies. It just means more than the other guys.
An excellent system for choosing your MPs who will then go on to form a government. A pretty poor system for choosing a presidential-style Prime Minister or which party you want in government.

So cut back to the debates.
You look at the three of them and make your choice. 'I'll have Clegg. I like his politics, I like his wife, I like that he doesn't do God, he's my sort of guy'.
And now what?
In a PR system if you vote Lib Dem, you've voted Lib Dem. Your votes towards both your local MP and the government swing the same way. But what about here? You vote Lib Dem and maybe your candidate gets the seat and you are home free. But if not? You may actually be helping the bad guys (whoever you deem them to be) get into government.
Does that matter?
It depends. If you think you are choosing a government on polling day, it matters a great deal.
And our parties seem to want us to choose a government, to select a premier and only as an afterthought also choose our MPs on polling day.
Which is fine, it is how many countries successfully run their democracies after all. But their electoral system fits the way their election is being fought so at least the numbers add up. Most of the time. All things being equal.

So now what?
We are in the land in-between, where the way we are encouraged to vote by party political broadcasts, manifestos, debates and advertising has absolutely no connection to the way we actually vote, the way our vote counts or is counted. Voters in Wonderland and through the looking glass nothing is as it seems so you don't get what you bargained for.

Electoral reform is needed, my friends. Or a return to fighting a pre-election campaign that is suitable to our electoral system.
Eliminating the disconnect between the choice we are given and the way we can make it is the only way to help democracy remain vibrant and relevant in this country. So. If you want to give me presidential-style debates, if you want me to think of politics at party-level and in terms of sweeping national mandates, give me a voting system that allows me to make those choices without unwittingly helping re-elect the people I wanted out in the first place.

Democracy needs informed, responsible voters or it perishes.
So here we are .
Traditionally the main defense of the current system has been its empowering simplicity.
But the simplicity is outdated and its guardians are making the most of the disconnect between the way we vote and the way those votes are counted. Apart from Clegg. He's honest about the need for electoral reform – especially as he stands to gain from it most of all.
Actually, that's not true.
He stands to gain more than any other party.
But the real victor, that would be us. You. The voters. The people.
So power to us, damn it. It is a democracy after all.
And although we tend to forget all about participation between elections, let's at least remember on polling day.
And make it count.
If not in the grand scheme of things then let's at least make the numbers add up.