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A modest proposal

April 10, 2010

When Britain goes to the polls in a month or so’s time, I, along with as many other people as can be bothered to climb out of bed (about 60% of the electorate in ’05 and ’01, maybe a bit more this time what with the prospect of this one actually mattering) will hide in a voting booth and check off the name of the candidate representing the party which, after long deliberation, we have concluded to be least worst for the country.

Given the current state of the British political system, indeed the corruption, cronyism and general convergence-of-policies to which any system of representative democracy is prone, this is really what it boils down to. Who is least bad.

At least our system allows for a modicum of upsets: the Lib Dems are exceptionally strong for a third party, in global terms (22% of the vote in ’05) and single-issue candidates get elected on a reasonably regular basis – Martin Bell against sleaze in ’97, or the Save Kidderminster Hospital party, and so on. Compared to the much more rigid binary of, say, the US, there’s a lot of room to manoeuvre.

All the same, it still boils down so often to who is the least bad. The LDs have the advantage of, being unlikely to get into majority power, not having to be quite so realistic with their proposals as the two big parties; but even they are following the big two in many respects. It makes political sense – to lure basically centrist voters away from Lab/Con they have to be reasonably towards the centre – but it’s annoying that we don’t really have a mainstream left-wing party.

Given all of the above, then, and the vast seas of apathy and bitterness currently washing across the country, I propose the following reform to the voting system: we keep it exactly as it is, rubbishy first-past-the-post and all, with one crucial alteration.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Negative Vote. Instead of resignedly placing an X beside the name of the candidate we deem least likely to accept bribes, fiddle their expenses, shuffle blindly along the party line or turn into a raving extremist when introduced to the heady air of Westminster, under the reformed system we would instead place our mark – perhaps a symbolic minus sign, or a dissatisfied emoticon for the Internet age – beside the name of the candidate we most despised, with every mark to be counted negatively.

Then, when the ballot boxes were opened, the candidate with a score closest to zero would be sent to Parliament on the understanding that fewer constituents loathed their party than any of the others. What a sobering mandate! No more would MPs labour under the delusion that their election meant, somehow, that the voters trusted or – God forbid – liked them; no, under the new system they must confront the truth, which is that nobody likes politicians, and government is composed of those the electorate dislikes the least.

And on the flipside, it would enable voters to tell the candidates of the multitudinous fringe parties – the fascists, the nationalists, the religious fundamentalists, who knows who else – precisely what they thought of their narrow-minded attempts at election. Would it not be a clear message to the extremists of the day if a thousand, a hundred thousand, a million, people wrote down in black and white that ‘No, We Do Not Want You’?

Of course there would be complications; of course. No doubt as many as currently exist – low turnout, voter apathy, recounts, boundary disputes, the lot, and no doubt even MPs elected with the reminder that We Did Not Vote For You ringing in their ears would still succumb to party-line lockstep and lack of spine before the whip.

But it would do one crucial thing: remove from politics the illusion that it is a joyful thing. Remove from the electoral system the deceptive rhetoric of free and unconstrained choice. Expose democracy for what it is: the faulty, flawed, failing solution to which we only turn because everything else is worse.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Skinner permalink
    April 10, 2010 1:28 pm

    I see a rather large flaw in this plan:

    In order for electoral reform to take place in the method you outline it would require the majority of parliament to agree to it, would it not?

    And that is frankly even less likely than a meteorite being hit by lightning on entering earth’s atmosphere, it gaining the cognitive ability to buy a lottery ticket, winning the lottery, the meteor entering hell, and then hell freezing over.

    I do however like the principle.

  2. Schrodingers Duck permalink
    April 10, 2010 3:54 pm

    This is in fact an idea that’s already been proposed: it’s a form of disapproval voting called the anti-plurality. It’s not an ideal system, though, for a couple of reasons.

    First of all, it forces me to pick which party I want to win the least. Suppose I found myself in a seat where the BNP, UKIP and the Christian Party all ran candidates. Any vote against one of them is a de facto vote for the others. And if every left-leaning voter marked a vote against the party furthest to the right, then almost all the anti votes would go to the BNP, and UKIP would end up as front runners. If an anti-plurality election were to be held tomorrow, the results list would probably look like this:

    Last: BNP – They’d probably get the bulk of disapprovals in most seats.
    Mid: Lib, Lab, Con – the exact order would probably vary from seat to seat, but all the main parties would get a fair few disapprovals thanks to expenses, partisanship and good old anti-authoritarianism.
    Runners up: Greens, UKIP, Christian – they’d pick up a few disapprovals from people especially opposed to them, but not many.
    First: An obscure independent that no-one knows enough about about to vote for or against.

    You could of course make it a plurality approval system (or in this case, disapproval), where I can vote against everyone I dislike, but then you’ll get people down-voting every party except for the one they want to win, and it would be functionally exactly the same as letting everyone vote for as many people as they wanted except for more confusing.

    What I think would be interesting would be a system where I can put as many pluses and minuses in as I want. So parties I like and would be happy to see in power get a plus. Parties who I wouldn’t vote for but have some good policies get nothing, as do small candidates that I don’t know enough about to vote for either way, and then parties I actively dislike get a negative vote.

  3. Paul Skinner permalink
    April 10, 2010 10:27 pm

    I see your point here and agree, but again this system is flawed in that you’re not giving preference to one party over another, merely saying that you wouldn’t mind one or more parties ruling equally as much as each other.

    I think that perhaps it would best be done by ordering *all* the parties on the ballot paper in favoured order. That way you can give greater points to your favourites, and diminishing points to those thereafter.

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