Happy St. George’s Day, everyone. A day where we can tell fun stories about a dragon, and maybe have a little rousing sing-song of Land of Hope and Glory round the piano. And, potentially, a day during a time where we can become proud of English and British democracy.
Having said that, though, it’s probably too early to count our chickens until after the election. But some startling revelations have begun to come to light as a result of the rapid rise in social media usage as a means of communicating information. In this post, I will be giving a brief review of how the internet has developed since the last election, and then some brief comments about the up-coming election, in particularly looking at whether the system is as broken as is claimed—and its implications, particularly for Liberal Democrat voters during a time when they appear to be receiving unprecedented support.
Why do I say we can be proud of English and British democracy? I say this because I believe in the (currently unfashionable) notion that our electoral system is arguably the best in the world, and that it has been large vested interests, particularly large media interests, that have served to create the illusion that it is inherently geared toward a two-horse race. Since social media sites such as Facebook and (particularly) Twitter have given ordinary people the unprecedented ability to disseminate information and analyses of evidence to the public, this media stranglehold is threatened to be broken, and we have a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate just how broken the stranglehold is in the upcoming election. The news of James Murdoch bursting in through the Independent’s offices for a sweary row after the Indy ran an ad declaring “Rupert Murdoch won’t decide this election” was particularly salient.
In the last weeks, we have learned from the former Sun editor how the paper’s brief was to marginalise the third party, and always give the impression that they could never win under the current electoral system. The Liberal Democrats themselves, in my opinion, have rather contributed to their own downfall in this regard, with electoral reform being so high on their agenda that it rather resigns them to their fate: they will forever be the third party until they change the system, and won’t get to change the system because they’ll forever be the third party. I covered this in some detail in my last post.
We have also (finally!) for the first time seen live televised debates between the leaders (and prospective cabinet members) of the three main parties. Some have criticised these as being a crass “Americanization” of British politics. I wholeheartedly disagree. I think they have engaged the public in ways that old-fashioned campaigns have failed to do. If we also consider the ability of the general public to highlight, annotate, scrutinise, support and criticise each party leader’s claims live, using Twitter, as the debate unfolds, I would suggest that the ability for these debates to have engaged the public directly is further enhanced. Add to that the rise of the internet’s capabilities for delivering video content on-demand. It is startling to think that at the time of the last general election, the very first video on YouTube had been posted less than a month earlier.
So how does that relate to the UK’s current electoral system, and why do I claim that it’s one of the best in the world? Well, if we look at the system naively, we could say that right now, at this moment in time, no candidate in any constituency has any votes. In the beginning, as the story goes, everybody was even. It is perfectly possible for any candidate to win in any constituency, on this basis. So surely it’s alright, right?
Not quite. In the strict sense of the word, our First-Past-The-Post electoral system isn’t entirely a democratic system. It is also an inherently geocratic system. OK, I made that term up, but essentially what I mean is that it is not just people (as in the Greek demos) that are taken into account. Place is as well. This is largely a result of the fact that such a system necessitates the drawing of boundaries, and the divvying up of the country into constituent parts.
The effect of arbitrary boundary drawing was examined back in the 80s by Stan Openshaw, in his analysis of an effect that he called the Modifiable Areal Unit Problem (MAUP). He noticed that if you divided a large area up into a number of smaller areas, and then looked at aggregated statistics from those areas, that you would get different results if you erased your initial boundaries and drew new ones, even if you drew the boundaries so that the sizes of the small areas was the same as before. Electoral constituencies obey this law as well. An example of this has been in the gerrymandering of congressional districts in the US. Originally, this was done so that ethnic minorities were guaranteed a representative in Congress, though continued gerrymandering for less scrupulous reasons has led to an overwhelming number of Congressional seats to be considered “safe”.
My opinion is that this form of “geodemocracy”, where geographic factors play a minor but significant role in shaping government over and above the pure counting of people, is not all that undesirable. It’s certainly a source of major debate in Canada, where some constituencies in giant, extremely remote areas contain only a tiny proportion of the population compared to densely populated urban areas. However, if the vote were truly proportional, then on issues that affect the local area or environment rather than people directly, inhabitants of remote areas would be in effect under-represented.
Our current system, to a reasonable standard (though I do accept it could be slightly improved), takes into account place as well as people. Moving to a system of proportional representation would probably be fairer for policy decisions that directly affect individuals, such as taxation. But for issues which have an effect on people’s lives by effecting change on the areas in which they live, such as the location of industry, transport, the environment, and so on, the agenda would be dominated by densely populated urban areas. London would have 8 million representatives to Cambridge’s 0.2 million. When policies are determined within the house by a First-Past-The-Post system, then having a Proportional Representation voting system without the house disproportionately favours those who live in more densely populated areas.
A second advantage, in my opinion at least, is that the system as it stands favours the incumbent. No, really, this is an advantage; allow me to explain why. Firstly, this grants an incumbent government a great degree of stability to enact policy and actually get the things done that they had been elected to do. Secondly, it means that when the challenger finally does burst through the glass ceiling and defeat the incumbent, they will have built up an enormous amount of political will from the public to do so. More often than not, they themselves then hold a very strong mandate when they do get elected. In other words, it takes a lot more than is strictly “fair” to topple an incumbent, but when they are toppled, they are properly toppled. It is highly unusual to have a weak mandate, because it doesn’t take much once a small lead is established to turn it into a big one.
The effect of geography on the electoral system, however, appears to rather stymie the Lib Dems, because their votes are cast in a more even geographical pattern across the country than for either the Tories or Labour. Hence, many Lib Dem candidates finish second in their constituencies, which under this system counts for as much as finishing dead last. So, on the face of it at least, the Lib Dems arguments for electoral reform seem to hold water.
However, that’s not the full story. Firstly, despite having just highlighted about the importance of geography in an election, it would be foolish to ignore demography entirely, since that still forms the main part of the UK’s electoral process. One effect that may start to become important is the cohort effect – the effect of the composition of the electorate changing as older people die and younger people reach their 18th birthday. Here’s an illustration.
Let’s assume that people my age and younger are more likely to vote Liberal Democrat (if they actually bothered voting) than those who are older. But while the voting age remains at 18+, the upper-bound of the “young-and-disaffected” population (whom the Liberal Democrats are targeting) is going up. Let’s assume that the upper bound lies at my age. I am currently 29. In the 2005 election, I was 24. In the 2001 election, I was 20, and in the 1997 election, I was only 16 and hence ineligible to vote. Thus the size of the age-group of people younger than myself that was eligible to vote has grown from nobody in 1997 to the 18-20 age-group in 2001, to the 18-24 age-group in 2005, to the 18-29 age-group now. Based on ONS population estimates and projections, the size of the “young-and-disaffected” age group has increased dramatically since the 2001 election:
UK "Young-and-disaffected" cohort size
|Election year||Width of age-band||Population in age-band||Total population 18+||Percentage|
Additionally, the other advantage I cited earlier, which is easy to overlook, plays right into the Lib Dems’ hands. It is true that if the votes cast were dead even across all three parties, then the Liberal Democrats would come a distant third. However, it is not far beyond that point that an awful lot of Labour and Tory seats would start getting snaffled up. A commentary on the polls from YouGov noted that when responding to the question “How would you vote on May 6 if you thought the Liberal Democrats had a significant chance of winning the election?”, 49% responded Liberal Democrat, 25% Conservative, and 19% Labour. This would have been enough to land the Lib Dems an estimated 548 (out of 650) seats.
This, for me, is reason alone why you should get out and vote this election, regardless of your affiliation, or whether or not you think the system is broken. Like it or lump it, it’s the one we’ve got, therefore for the time being we must play by its rules. The electoral system we have isn’t perfect, but no system is, and it’s certainly not fundamentally broken. It is simply the belief that it is broken, made worse by the Lib Dems’ consistent insistence that it is broken and needs a drastic overhaul, that ultimately (and self-fulfillingly) breaks it.