COLUMN: Proportionality – the paradox
I like reflecting. It can occupy quite a lot of time though, so I like to do something practical while pondering. Over the weekend I was considering what I may have in common with the Leader of West Sussex County Council.
Anyway, after a long walk, mowing the lawns, washing the cars and motorcycles and hoovering the house, my mind finally hit upon a commonality: both the Leader and I won our County Council seats with an absolute majority of the vote. In other words, over half and, therefore, more than all the other contenders combined.
This puts the pair of us in a true political minority. This is where my Paradox begins.
Courtesy of our so-called First-Past-The-Post electoral system, we end up with councils and parliaments, where most elected representatives - and indeed the governing party itself – are likely to have just a minority of public support.
Put cynically (and I’ve warned you of my cynicism before), most people don’t want ‘em! You’re starting to warm to this now, aren’t you?
Truth is, our electoral system is not First-Past-The-Post at all - there is no post. It is - as a reasonably-famous Swedish pop group once put it: Winner-Takes-It-All (the loser standing small... go on have a quick hum, nobody’s listening!). All the other parties in the race get nothing – despite the fact the majority of the electorate backed them. The paradox rolls on, but how come?
Well, in an ancient democracy like ours, the voting system dates back centuries. The only manageable way to select your representative in days gone by was to gather in the village square together and put your hands up either for Tom or Dick and be counted (Harry probably just stood at the back, having realised the futility of it).
In effect, we still have this medieval system today, which makes no attempt to proportion the governing body in keeping with the will of the people.
Ironic perhaps that at West Sussex County Council much is made of our select committees being structured according to Proportionality. Snag is that it is all based on seats won (most of which were taken with a minority of the vote, remember), rather than the actual total votes cast by the electorate.
So, in reality we have around 65% of these committee places in the hands of a governing party, which actually took just 38% of the vote.
So, Mr Disgusted of Horsham and Ms Outraged of Bognor (come on, you know who you are!) might now start to understand why the people’s will seems so often to get lost in the process. The fact that the real power at County Council is in the hands of just nine cabinet members, all drawn from the governing group (as are all the select committee chairmen), compounds our paradox further.
Nobody in the political arena doubts the practical difficulties in delivering rational and effective policy – and it’s easier to criticise things than to solve them. However, what we do see here yet again is the fundamentally flawed nature of our systems and the need for a healthy and vigilant opposition to highlight them. No wonder I’m becoming so unpopular at County Hall.
It may not have escaped your attention that these flawed systems nicely underpin the hegemony of just two large political parties in this land, who not surprisingly, have no interest in addressing the issue.
The most bitter irony and hypocrisy emerges when one makes a comparison with the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, which were all endowed with modern proportional electoral systems, all cleverly set up to bring us closer to democracy and yet retain the main advantages of our present system. If it’s good enough for them, why isn’t it good enough for us?
No, I won’t leave that as a rhetorical question; the answer is in the previous paragraph, of course.
There is insufficient space here to elaborate and you’re probably getting bored by now, so research it further yourself? What you will start to discover, is that we still have a fair distance to go to achieve a democracy we can believe in and some powerful forces standing in our way.