Thursday, 5 May 2011

British Voters Are About to Make Another Monumental Mistake

British voters are about to be tasked with making a critical decision about what is in their best interests that, sadly, the majority are simply unequipped to make.  They are going to go to the polls in a referendum, as Canadians faced not long ago, to vote on whether to abandon the antiquated status quo electoral system, "first past the post", or shift to the more democratically representative "preferential" system.  We all know what the retirees who make up the majority of voters who bother to cast a vote in referendums will choose.  

Example from a provincial
election. Click to enlarge.
[The difference is simply that, EVEN THOUGH the majority of voters voted against any given party, the old system gives the power in parliament to the party who beat out the next closest competitor on number of seats won.  In the most recent Canadian federal election, most voters voted against the Conservatives, led by Stephen Harper, but they 'won a majority' with 39.6% of the vote.  60.4% of people who chose to vote wanted a coalition of the NDP and Liberal parties to lead the country with the Conservatives in a properly representative minority opposition to keep the coalition honest.  

In other words, the 'first past the post' electoral system does not allow the wishes of the majority of Canadian voters to be represented accurately in parliament.  It was invented at a time when there were only two competing parties.  In our modern world, facing exponentially more complicated challenges that require nuance, plurality and compromise, the old system makes no sense, yet voters chose against change, as the politicians knew they would.]

In response to a couple of Australian political journalists' perspectives sent to me by a very clever, switched-on political watcher, John Glyde of Mollymook, NSW, here's my point of view on the option that democratic governments too often have of abdicating their responsibilities and passing the decision-making buck onto the type of people who make up the actual vote-casting majority.
What both writers are essentially bemoaning is a critical feature of the democratic system that is dysfunctional.  The system entirely and completely breaks down when it gets dialed back to what most people believe is its essence, the initial ancient Greek version of it, ‘one man, one vote’.  Even back then, however, it was never actually ‘one man, one vote’, it was a group of elite guys who had control of the state in their hands due to family ties, ‘noble birthright’, or wealth/power making decisions for the rest of the populace in the forum.

Our modern democratic system works fairly well when our elected representatives are temporarily relieved of the pressure of worrying about what the masses of voters might think of their decisions and are allowed to vote with their intellect, insight and experience (free even, as the American system USED to be, of party policy).  This only happens in the first months or year or two of their terms after an election.  The American system works slightly better than the ones that allow for non-confidence motions that spur mid-term elections because they get a full 4 years to make change happen (and compromise with the opposition), and often get 8 years if they do well up-front.

Democracy as a system works best when the electorate gets the opportunity to elect a bunch of smart, experienced and (we hope) principled representatives and then leave them alone for 4 years or so to do the job we gave them, to make the difficult, complex decisions on running our country that most of us are not smart enough, or experienced enough, nor have the interest and patience to fully research and contemplate, to make.

That election process, going to the polls every 4 or 6 years, is the only ‘referendum’ any democratic system ever needs: the chance to turf out the last majority and put in place a different one that the voters believe will better represent their collective desires and needs.  It is this latter issue that is truly at the core of the debate over ‘first past the post’ and ‘preferential’, and ‘preferential’ is clearly the more democratic of the systems.

My key point is that whenever important decisions are passed off out of the political forum of parliament and into the hands of average voters in a referendum, we do NOT get smart decisions being made that are in the best interest of the majority, we ALWAYS get a lowest common denominator outcome.  The ‘first past the post’ vs. ‘preferential’ systems decision is NOT something that should EVER be put to a referendum, in fact nothing in a democracy ever should.

Whenever difficult decisions get shunted out of the appropriate forum and into the hands of the hoi polloi it is usually a forgone conclusion that nothing will change, and the politicians that, together, do this use it as a political tactic (as you well know) to pass the buck to the people and say “We gave you the decision-making power and YOU chose this outcome”.   I call BS.  We elected THEM to make these tough decisions as, en mass, we can’t grasp the intricacies of the issues.

Looking at a bell curve of IQ and overlaying it with a bell curve of ‘indifference to interest’, and another of ‘change-averse to early-adopter’, you end up with a VAST majority of any population who are not going to vote to adopt new, complex, potentially risky (in their perception) changes to the status quo.  (Examples in the US are abandoning the one dollar bill, the metric system, or most recently, gay marriage in California.)  What you get EVERY time the politicos pass the buck with a referendum is the decision that makes the old, change-averse and not-so-smart mass of people who get out to vote most (post-retirement-age people, no offence intended!) most comfortable.

Any truly progressive democratic country would adopt several key systematic changes:
  1. A ‘preferential’ electoral system.
  2. Mechanisms to protect smart politicians from being pressured to vote on party lines vs. with their brains (the current critical flaw in the US system).
  3. A fixed term of 4-6 years for the elected politicians to get the policies they were voted in to put in place completed.
  4. A ban on referendums of any kind other than the general election system.
But that's just one cynic’s opinion!

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