Sunday, 26 October 2014

How I learned to stop worrying and love proportional representation

I believe in the two party system. I believe that in politics we can normally boil everything down to one of two choices. Obviously there are all sorts of nuances in what each person thinks about all the possible political issues that might exist, but broadly speaking you come into politics for one of two reasons: either because you see your first payslip and are shocked that you have to pay taxes and the government is ripping you off, or because you see your first payslip and are shocked at how much your boss is ripping you off. As such, we can broadly agree that the political right want to cut taxes and the political left want to redistribute wealth. It's as simple as that. 

I am on the left because I realise that nothing I have ever achieved or will achieve in life is a result of my effort alone, and I have always and will always rely on other people, and importantly the state, in getting to where I am today.

Therefore I support the party of the left. In Britain, the Labour Party.

The problem is that I am in a tiny minority in thinking the way I do.

I will support the Labour Party no matter what it does. After all, socialism is what a Labour Government does. 

But most people aren't like me. Most people want the Government to do exactly what they want them to do. They are upset if a government of the left doesn't redistribute as much as they'd like, or that a government of the right doesn't cut taxes as much as they'd like. They don't understand that governments are actually quite limited as to what they can do without crashing the economy and/or the public finances. 

At a more fundamental level, they don't understand that a democratic government can't in any case pull too far one way or another, because it has to take into account the majority of the people. The unfortunate thing is that there is no majority of the people that is in one mind about all the issues simultaneously.

Democratic governments will always disappoint people. And because people on the left tend to be more optimistic, governments of the left tend to disappoint more than governments of the right.

There will therefore always be a broad group of people who, disillusioned by the compromises of government, recoil from mainstream parties of left and right.

They convince themselves that there is a better, purer way. That the two major parties have colluded amongst themselves and the only possible way out is to vote for third, fourth and fifth parties. 

They are wrong. As Liberal Democrat voters in this country have seen, there is no way to avoid the tough choices of government when your turn comes to make them. Yes, the Lib Dems have acted appallingly. They ran on a left wing economic platform and governed on a right wing economic platform.

That shows, of course, that if voters wanted the left wing economic platform, they should have voted for the left of centre party, rather than a rubbish bin party.

Opponents of the two party system criticise its supporters for this line of argument. Why shouldn't people vote according to their heart's desires? And this ties in with criticism of the UK voting system, which forces people into 'tactical voting'. But there are two points to raise here. 

The first is that in the 2010 election there really were two options on economic policy: that represented by the Tories, and that represented by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, which has very similar economic plans (even if our manifestos differed radically in other respects).

The second is that this binary choice manifests itself in proportional systems as well. Sweden has had 7 major parties in the recent past, but they have divided into a 'left camp' and a 'right camp' and the voters know which is which. (Of course, now the Swedes have their own rubbish bin party, the Sweden Democrats, who may damage that system, or, as is more likely, be assimilated into the 'right camp' as the vaguely similar Norwegian Progress Party have.)

No democratic system or politicians can shy away from the big choices. The German Left Party has put forward hundreds of policies safe in the knowledge that they will never be in government to find out their consequences, because they refuse to cooperate with other parties. And millions of people still vote for them! I'm sorry, but when I vote, I vote because I hope to get some of the things I want enacted.

Having said all of the above, I repeat that I am in a tiny minority. In our individualistic age, we demand to get what we want all the time. So if people want to vote for a party supporting a £10 minimum wage, but they only get a party supporting an £8 minimum wage, they feel aggrieved. If they want to vote for a party supporting an immediate referendum on the EU, but they only get one supporting a referendum in 2017, they feel outraged.

I am outraged that they are outraged but my opinion doesn't matter. And I realise that, unlike them.

This is all leading to one conclusion: we need proportional representation in Britain. We need the same thing to happen to UKIP and the Greens as has happened to the Lib Dems (not entirely sure we can do anything about the nationalists, no matter what happens they will blame all problems on Westminster). When it's UKIP that are actually carrying out their policy of cutting taxes for the rich and cutting services for everyone else, as opposed to being a blank canvas which idiots can project whatever they want onto, let's see how long the 'people's army' last.

There are ways and means of implementing proportional representation: I would personally prefer small districts rather than large districts. In any case, if the Green Party get 6% and just one seat, there's no chance that they will have to join government and wake up from their fantasy world, but if they get 6% and 40 seats, there's a quite high chance of reality coming and hitting them in the face like a wet fracking fish. Of course, like the German Left, they might shrink away from that responsibility, but in that case they should lose their right to complain.

In 1999, the Austrian Freedom Party, a classic rubbish bin party, got 27% of the vote and had to enter government. In the next election, in 2002, they went down to 10%. Government kills rubbish bin parties. Since 2006, however, Austria has been governed by a grand coalition between the main parties of left and right, which represents the death of politics, and by 2013 the Freedom Party were back up to 21%. If we deny left/right politics, we open the door to increased disaffection and ultimately, nastiness.

I want politics to be realistic because I believe in politics. Without politics and politicians, to take just one example, we wouldn't have the NHS. We would still be living in a world where children are living in slums and working in factories. If ordinary people lose faith in politics, it opens the door for the rich and powerful to keep control of the government. But ordinary people need to live in the land of the possible, and ultimately I think forcing rubbish bin and fantasy parties to take responsibility is better for politics and better for society.

The only way we can do that in Britain is by introducing proportional representation. The two party system is dying under first past the post. Only PR can save it.

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