Why First Past the Post caused Brexit

For anyone who is young, idealistic and cheerful, I would not recommend visiting Britain at the moment. There is a pall of gloom in the air, mainly because a misguided political gamble by a handful of elites in the Tory party has lurched our economy off a cliff. Those who grabbed the steering wheel have no idea how to avoid the crunch and those relegated to the backseat are wringing their hands and praying that we get another referendum on whether we have a soft landing.

In a previous post, I laid out how we got into this rather unfortunate situation, but now taking another self-righteous stride backwards, and, taking what one might call the long view, I would suggest that the real cause of our troubles is a seemingly innocuous element of our constitution, namely our electoral system.

The UK has First Past the Post. I go into this profoundly bizarre system elsewhere, but the long and short of it is that one party can get 35% of the vote and receive 65% of the seats in parliament, while another party gets 12% of the vote and only receives one solitary MP.

Proponents of the FPTP argue that one of the benefits is that it prevents extreme parties being represented in parliament. For example, UKIP, a thoroughly undesirable bunch of xenophobes and Little Engladers, are a party we don’t want sitting on those blush seats. So the Conservatives argued that a system of proportional representation would lead to UKIP getting 60-80 seats in parliament. Cue moral outrage from decent middle class folk.

It might seem very sensible to exclude a party with thoroughly unethical and bigoted ideas. The only problem is that at the last election 4 million people voted for them, and in return for 4 million votes they received exactly one MP. This lead to a perfectly understandable groundswell of resentment and frustration with the British political system among UKIP’s electorate. Those that were then ostracised and excluded mobilised and collectively thumbed their nose at the political establishment that had ignored them for so long. The Brexit vote was to a large extent a scream of frustration from people who feel they have not been listened to.

Brexit was caused by FPTP the post in a direct way, because Cameron was scared of Labour coming through the middle in some constituencies, he promised people that the only way of getting a referendum was a vote for him. But it was also caused by FPTP in this indirect way because a majoritarian system ignores large parts of the population and that resentment will come out sooner or later.

Good old Blightly, we have an electoral system that manages to keep out parties from government that want to hamper out economy by restricting immigration, want to endorse little Englandism by forcing companies to declare foreign workers, want to cripple social mobility by introducing grammar schools. Good job we’re able to keep a party like that out of power with FPTP…

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Why Brexit?

On the 23rd of June this year the Brits rather upset political pundits, betting markets and our international allies by voting to leave the EU. I will save the reasons for this decision for another post (/rant), but I thought I’d start this jolly (and not at all bitter) series by laying out why Britian decided to hold a referendum in the first place.

In the heady and blissful days of 2013, the Conservatives were in a coalition government with the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems are pretty relaxed about the EU, but the Conservatives have always been rather divided on the issue of Europe, to put it mildly.

The Conservatives were facing an electoral challange from a smaller anti-EU party called UKIP. In fact, in 2013 it seemed like the Labour Party’s best chance to win an election would be the Conservatives losing votes to UKIP and pro-EU Labour coming through the middle.

So in darkened smoke-filled room the Conservative elite figured out an ingenious strategy: They would promise to hold a referendum on EU membership if they won the 2015 election. If you wanted to leave the EU, they argued, you shouldn’t vote for the anti-EU party, but for the Conservatives, because then you would get the referendum you so badly craved, and if Labour won there would be no referendum.

The then Prime Minister could tell older provincial people that he had their back while telling financiers, who were reasonably worried about planting a bomb under the UK economy “No worries, we’ll win the referendum, unite the party, cut your taxes and reach for the champagne.” Nudge nudge, wink wink. All good so far.

It also seemed likely in 2013 that the Conservatives would need the support of the Lib Dems to stay in power after the 2015 election. The Lib Dems would never support a referendum on EU membership, because they’re imminently sensible and don’t have a wing of xenophobes harking back to the days of empire. (Comes with the liberal turf, I suppose).

It seemed, then, that this was a great, low risk strategy to win voters. However, it turned out the plan worked a little too well. Partly as a result of their carefully designed message, the Conservatives won the election, had to hold the referendum and managed to lose it!

That is briefly how we came to have a referendum. In coming posts I will explore more deep-seated reasons for why the UK, usually so content with following authority sent a massive two fingers up to Conservatives and their crew of high financiers and political elite.

 

Some Bizarre Things about the UK

The UK is a great place to live, but there are some truly bizarre things about it. If you delicately suggest to a Brit that maybe these ought to be changed, and, you know, made a little more sensible, coherent and fair, they will look at you in shock and horror. “It’s the Mother of Parliaments, you know?” Yes, that might be true. But the Mother of Parliaments is looking rather tired and haggard. Three particularly bizarre things are hard to explain to a bewildered foreigner:

  1. First Past the Post

If there was a prize for the most cack-handed way of allocating seats at elections, you wouldn’t have to look much further than First Past the Post (FPTP). It’s a hard thing to explain to anyone who is not from the UK (unless you are from the US, Canada, India or many of the Commonwealth countries to which this hapless export has been received).

Whatever you may think of UKIP, and who doesn’t, it is patently absurd that a party can get 12.6% of the vote at an election, and still only get one lonesome MP. If the philososloth’s maths serves him rightly, that amounts to 0.15% of the seats in parliament. For 12.6% of the vote! Equally, another right wing party can receive 4.7% of the national vote and still get 56 seats in Parliament (8.62%). In all seriousness, Britain, it’s time to make the seats match the votes.

  1. House of Lords

Another thing that is patently absurd is that the UK has an overfilled and unwieldy second chamber. It might be an idea to have an unelected second chamber, if it comprised of a small group of policy expert technocrats, who know a particular policy field in and out. But as it stands, it is the depository for MPs who failed to get reelected or gave enough financial support to their party when they were young and spritely. Don’t get me wrong, there are doubtless some extremely competent peers, but we don’t need 790 of them. We don’t need to support the large numbers who don’t even turn up to vote. It has become bloated beyond all usefulness.

  1. Power

Scotland has its Parliament, Wales and Northern Ireland have their Assembly, but England does not have a Parliament or an Assembly apart from the UK Parliament which represents the whole of the UK. Politicians are ringing their hands at what should be done. There is little appetite for an English Parliament as it would incur added expense and another layer of distrusted politicians. Part of the solution is at the moment to devolve power within England, but there is no synchronised process as some places want more power and others less. Here, as in many other areas, the Brits will just have to muddle along with an imperfect system.

It’s clear that FPTP, the House of Lords and the centralised-decentralised patchwork quilt of power in the UK would not be the model of choice for any sensible country. Rather these oddities are the result of being a country that is too stuck in the past to make wideranging reform. Now these issues are not likely to quicken the pulse of a normal person, and I’m sure that the old adage “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” will come to the fore as ever, but at some point a root and branch approach must be taken with the UK constitution.

A New Case for Britain to Stay In the EU

If Cameron intends to make the product of his renegotiation the centre-point of the campaign to remain in the EU, the Brits could very well end up voting to leave. Even if he manages to get the concessions he’s asking for, the reaction of the British people is bound to vacillate between boredom, bemusement and indignation.

  • The sterling will be protected from being integrated with the Euro (yawn).
  • Welfare tourism will be combated (yawn- and it won’t satisfy anyone concerned about free movement within the EU)
  • Make Brussels pledge that the UK will not become part of a European super-state (Wait, what? Is that even a possibility? What are we doing in this crazy organisation?)

The fact is that the concessions Cameron gets will be meagre and they should play a very minor role in the campaign to keep Britain inside the EU. Centre-stage should be a positive account of the part the UK can play in the EU and the significant benefits for the UK of remaining in.

An important part of that strategy should be to combat the myth that the UK is powerless within the EU. This is seemingly a widespread perception. A recent poll showed that 61% of Brits think that the UK should take more leadership in the EU, while at the same time thinking that Britain is powerless within the current system.

The UK is not powerless within the current system. Britain is represented, and takes a leading role in, many of the EU’s programmes and initiatives. The narrative that France and Germany are conspiring to exclude the UK from influence and power in the EU is simply untrue. Germany and France realise that the UK is one of the most important members of the EU and there is genuine concern and frustration that the UK is choosing to take a back-seat.

Last week President Xi of China visited London. The red carpet and the Queen were rolled out, and he was given a slap up banquet. Two years ago, when President Hollande visited the UK all he got was a sarnie in a pub somewhere in the Midlands. We need to change the way we talk about the EU within the UK. We need to change the way we interact with the EU. Britain can take a leading role in Europe and influence its future direction in a way less influential players can only dream of. The choice at the referendum is between a Great Britain and Little England. The choice should not boil down to whether Cameron manages to wrap inadequate negotiations in an appetising package.