First, the people don't choose who governs in a Westminster parliamentary system. We do not vote for governments -- we vote for our Member of Parliament, and we elect a Parliament. It is the make-up of that Parliament which determines what party -- or parties -- will form the government.

On dumping first-past-the-post for all the wrong reasons

In an earlier post, I explained how Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson was wrongly pinning the blame for most of the problems facing Canada’s parliament on the country’s voting system, first-past-the-post (FPTP). Today a similar article has appeared in the UK media, Hung parliaments are on the up across the world – it’s time to dump first-past-the-post.

This opinion piece is far worse than Simpson’s. The author, Richard McGinley, demonstrates a notable misunderstanding of how the Westminster system of parliamentary government works. He also calls for a change of voting systems, because FPTP (occasionally) leads to hung parliaments, but fails to acknowledge that PR systems almost always result in hung parliaments. It’s all very confusing.

McGinley begins saying:

THE current electoral system used to decide who will govern from Westminster could be about to show us why it’s an ineffectual and outdated method, and has little or no chance of producing a stable and effective majority government.

The polls are indicating that neither of the two main parties will win enough seats to form a government by themselves, which in turn means that they will need to seek support from smaller parties to form another coalition.

First of all, the electoral system, FPTP, does not decide who will govern. It determines the make-up of the House of Commons. McGinley is positing that FPTP is “ineffectual” and “outdated” because it has “little or no chance of producing a stable and effective majority government” and that current polls indicate that Labour or the Conservatives will have no choice but to form another coalition as occurred in 2010. The problem with this argument is that it ignores the fact that the coalition government formed in 2010 was a stable and (by most counts) effective majority government. Many Whitehall insiders explained that the coalition government actually functioned much better than the previous Labour majority government — there was far less in-fighting.

McGinley goes on:

This means that it won’t be the people who choose who governs, but the politicians, as in 2010 when David Cameron and Nick Clegg thrashed out the deal which put them in power.

But aren’t we supposed to choose our leaders ?

Where to start? First, the people don’t choose who governs in a Westminster parliamentary system. We do not vote for governments — we vote for our Member of Parliament, and we elect a Parliament. It is the make-up of that Parliament which determines what party — or parties — will form the government.

In 2010, government formation proceeded exactly as it is supposed to proceed. The two main parties, Labour and the Conservatives, both negotiated with the Liberal Democrats. It was clear that only one combination worked in terms of providing a majority, and that was the Conservatives working with the Liberal Democrats. Labour and the Lib Dems simply did not have enough seats to form a majority together. Mr. McGinley may not like this process, but this is our the system works. A parliament was elected, a hung parliament. The parties negotiated and a government emerged that could command the confidence of the House.

McGinley then asks “aren’t we supposed to choose our leaders?” Well, not really. Parties choose their leaders. Sometimes only the party caucus gets a say in the matter, sometimes it’s a combination of caucus and party members, but the public at large doesn’t choose. And during an election, there is no vote for the Prime Minister — unless you happen to be able to vote for a party leader as your MP and they end up leading the government.

And there’s more:

First-past-the-post (FPTP) works best when there are just two parties, which is why neither of them has sought any kind of change, as no-one will climb to the top and then kick away the ladder that took them there.

With the SNP quite likely to hold the balance of power after next month, the question is, who will they support? And what if no-one wants their support?

Intriguingly, what if Cameron and Ed Miliband decide that they don’t want to bother with anyone else, and go ahead and form a “grand coalition”, effectively rendering the election a complete waste of time?

I do actually agree with McGinley on that first part — FPTP was designed for a two-party system, or for a system with two very dominant parties and one or two very minor ones. Given that McGinley despises FPTP so very much, I have to assume he’s a fan of some sort of proportional representation (PR), even though he never really says as much anywhere in the article. I say this because his next point about what happens if neither of the two main parties wants the support of the SNP isn’t an issue that might arise following an election using FPTP, it would also arise following an election using PR. And I simply do not understand at all how he can dismiss the idea of a “grand coalition” as “rendering the election a complete waste of time”. That simply makes no sense at all. Despite declining support for both of the major parties, a grand coalition of Labour and the Conservatives would represent about two-thirds of UK voters. Germany currently has a grand coalition — I don’t think anyone in Germany has dismissed that result as having rendered the election a complete waste of time. Quite the contrary — grand coalitions are normally viewed as remarkable achievements.

McGinley then invites readers to:

have a glance around the world at a couple of other countries who also operate FPTP. One of the main arguments in favour of the system is that it prevents coalitions – except thats [sic] not the case.

India, for instance, is currently governed by a coalition. Three successive elections have led to hung parliaments in Canada, while New Zealand and Australia also have coalitions in charge.

Anyone spot the connection?

Anyone spot the connection? No? Because there isn’t one? Yes, India uses FPTP, and yes, it is governed by a coalition, but one interesting fact McGinley fails to share is that coalition wasn’t necessary. Modi’s party won enough seats to govern on its own. I don’t follow Indian politics and won’t pretend to know anything about the alliances the various parties have with each other, suffice to say that India is not a good example. Next up is Canada, where, indeed, we had three successive hung parliaments. However, in none of those instances did this lead to coalition government. We had three minority governments. If McGinley’s point is that FPTP = coalition, then Canada too is not a good example. As for New Zealand… it doesn’t even use FPTP! New Zealand adopted Mixed-Member Proportional back in 1996, so yes, it has been governed by coalitions ever since because that is normally what happens when you use PR. So again, not a good example. Australia also does not use FPTP, it uses full preferential — a ranked ballot. And yes, the current government is the Liberal-National coalition, but that isn’t really a coalition in the usual sense of the word — it’s a permanent arrangement between the two conservative parties in Australia to avoid the vote splitting that occurs between them and which favours the Labor party. McGinley is batting 0 for 4.

But he’s not done yet:

Then there are parties such as the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, all of whom will have plenty of voters throughout the country, but will lack a proportionate number of seats in the House.

This in turn means that even a majority government won’t have the support of the majority of the people. A minority government even less, which points in the direction of the Grand Coalition as a solution to solve all the ills of the nation caused by years of neglect.

That first sentence is rather confusing. Of the three parties listed, only the Liberal Democrats run candidates in England, Scotland and Wales. Plaid Cymru and the SNP don’t have voters “throughout the country” — unless McGinley is referring to only Wales in the case of Plaid Cymru and only Scotland in the case of the SNP. And in the case of the SNP, if current polls and seat projections are on target, it won’t be underrepresented in Scotland as it looks poised to win 55 of 59 seats with 43% of the vote.

As for the next paragraph, it is true that single-party majority governments rarely have the support of the majority of voters, but under FPTP, looking at overall vote totals isn’t really helpful. A general election is actually 650 individual elections since we only elect a local MP. That said, however, a coalition majority government can be far more representative of how people voted than a single-party majority government. Regardless, in a Westminster parliamentary system, what matters is not the percentage of the vote a party that forms the government receives, it is whether the government commands the confidence of the House. It is the House that decides who will be the government, remember?

This next section just seems pointless:

The very people who have made the mess that we are in will be allowed to carry on regardless, with virtually no way of stopping them. That’s despite proving that they don’t actually have any aptitude for the job.

How have we proved “they” don’t have any aptitude for the job. For what job? Being an MP? Being a cabinet minister? A politician in general? These two sentences add nothing to the discussion, such as it is.

We finally reach the end of McGinley’s diatribe:

It’s time for change, not just in the faces of the government, but in the way that we choose them.

So electoral reform, yes?

Whoever gets a chance to wield any control over one of the big parties, should a Grand Coalition not happen, must push for radical change in the way we choose those who decide our standard of living.

Right — electoral reform — some form of PR, right?

First-past-the-post is no longer suitable for the society we live in. We’re too diverse, we have too many different needs and expectations, and we need to make sure that everyone gets a say in how it’s done.

I’ve even thought of a word for a new way of doing things… democracy.

Er, what? Like it or not, FPTP is a legitimate voting system and the UK is a democracy. If you’re arguing for PR, state that clearly. This entire piece is just one big mess. McGinley seems to despise FPTP largely because it results in coalitions, wants change but won’t use the term PR anywhere. And surely he knows that any form of proportional representation virtually guarantees coalition governments? Maybe he thinks they’re “fairer” coalitions because the parties are more proportionally represented in the House? I don’t know — he never really explains himself. All we know for certain is that he doesn’t understand how government formation in Westminster parliamentary systems work and coalitions won’t go away if the UK adopts PR.


Related Posts:

Radical Centrist