I congratulate you. You managed to read past voting systems, a topic so dull and complex blending your finger sounds preferable. You must either be brave or a nerd. Excellent. Most of my favorite people are at least one of the two.
Many important things end up dull and complex. Indeed the complicated is often dull and the dull is often complicated. This is all by design, of course. It is far easier to bore people into submission than to argue or to lie. Use long words, exclusionary lexicon, and eventually people will leave the issue alone. The experts, they probably know best, right?
Except voting systems are something we should all care about, as they can engender huge social change. They are one of those structures that hum away unnoticed every four or five years, quietly and in the background, exerting incredible influence. Pushing society this way and that. So, I’ll talk about them as a human being, not as somebody who once studied politics. Promise.
Things changed in the late 90s. US and UK parties before this era were largely principled. They had their ideology, their world view. And they were elitist. Their electoral strategies involved laying out their vision and trying to persuade voters around to it. We know what is good for you, every policy would whisper.
This changed with the 1996 re-election of Bill Clinton and the 1997 election of Tony Blair. We moved towards a market of votes. One in which individuals created demand for certain policies, and the political parties responded. Through focus groups and cold calls, conducted daily, the mood of the nation was gauged. People’s emotional desires and rational wants were listened to, and then answered. Parties became a conduit for your whim, a mouth piece rather than a boot, amplifying your voice instead of stamping on your face.
And it turned out giving voters what they want was wildly successful. It won votes. How direct! How democratic!
Except it wasn’t. And it still isn’t. Votes don’t win these elections, swing votes do. The UK and the US have electoral systems which mean the majority of votes don’t count. Yes, really. Each country is carved up into constituencies and then a party needs the most votes in a constituency to win that constituency. So the rest of the votes in that constituency are wasted, they don’t count for anything, they elect nobody. They don’t matter.
Compounding this is that most constituencies are safe. They have an electoral makeup which essentially guarantees them to one party or another. The few that do change hands are the only ones that have any importance. And within those constituencies, only the small group that are likely to change their vote matter.
And herein lies the problem, the desires of a small clutch of voters are deciding elections. They were the ones being cold called, being focus grouped. Suburban housewives and small business owners. The squeezed middle in Britain. This is why political rhetoric pretends only the middle class exist. Because to them, they are the only class that exists. The only one that matters. And within that, only the few that live in the right areas. The areas with a chance of swinging from left to right, from one party to another.
This phenomenon has helped usher in the era of low tax, low welfare, privatization, and deficit we have today. This small group’s desire to keep what they earn and own their property. Their desire for safety and comfort above social change, above the righting of wrongs. They are those people who wash their cars three times a week. They buy a new sofa every two years and talk about children and mortgages. We are ruled by these safe, cocooned individuals, and they don’t even know it!
Another truism is that all the parties these days are the same. Well, of course! Because they are all slavishly follow the whim of this same tiny demographic.
And yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. Swing voters exist because our electoral system is flawed. The elephant in the room, stomping all over our post war consensus. A proportional system, where parties get the same percentage of seats as they do votes, would mean we would all be swing voters. We’d all matter. We’d all be worth pandering to. Our politics would reflect the desires of all of us, not just an often regressive minority.
It would be so elegant. And perhaps the only way. A return to the principled politics of the past would over joy many, but parties are vote machines, gobbling away. This reactive politics, a measuring of the nation, is a fantastic way to win elections. Parties won’t turn their backs. We can no longer even see the rubicon, it being so definitely crossed.
Here we’ve just dipped a toe. If you’re brave enough to leap start with this documentary on how politics in the UK started to pander. For more details on the different types of voting systems, click here, and for a more intimate critique of the UK and USA voting systems, click here.