4 July 2024


How to do it.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

We all know the Churchill quotation: “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried”. Perspicacious and witty, no doubt, but it says nothing about the relative merits of different forms of democracy. And in the general whingeing and blamestorming which will follow the general election we are going to hear lots about that. “If only we had PR the Lib Dems would have romped home”, “if 16-year-olds had votes there would be more emphasis on the environment”, “if my cat had a vote it would have opposed glue traps for mice”, and all the piffling rest of it, every party or faction droning on about systems which would give it greater representation. Even this election campaign will look quite entertaining by comparison.

And yet for all that, from time to time it is only sensible to look at the system by which we deliver democracy and perhaps now is a sensible moment to look at the way in which we choose our governments. The main event of course is the general election, the election of members of the House of Commons, although once they have been chosen they exercise their power in a number of different ways. Legislation is the prerogative of the House, with a little assistance from the House of Lords, but important decisions such as the decision to go to war or, as we have recently seen, to call a general election are made by the Prime Minister in his or her capacity as adviser to the Sovereign. Still, as the Prime Minister can only hold office by establishing a parliamentary majority one can track the authority behind the exercise of prerogative powers back to the decision of the country in the last general election.  The general election then reigns supreme.

So what are the merits of our first past the post system and could it be improved? Perhaps we should begin by asking what it is supposed to deliver. You will often hear those who support PR laying emphasis on the importance of different views being represented in the House of Commons. At the moment, they say, the vast majority of the MPs come from the two big parties and broadly endorse their programs. Where are the beardos, the Marxists and the neo-Nazis, with which PR would enrich the debate? Can it be fair that those who support such people should be excluded from the political process?

The answer to that is “probably not” but the question misses the central point. Of course it is important that the democratic system should be fair enough to give government legitimacy, but there are lots of different systems which could do that. Within that constraint the best system must be decided by product. That is to say that it should be the system which will produce the best government.

Let’s start with what we have now, a first past the post system conferring a term of five years. By international standards it gives a new government an extraordinary concentration of power. Behind the Prime Minister will stand a majority of MPs holding similar views and five years is long enough to put relatively long term policies into effect. Is it a good thing that power should be concentrated in this way?

Certainly it comes with an element of risk. Suppose that the Prime Minister is seriously incompetent; then a lot of damage could be done over a five year term. Still, there are checks and balances here and the Tories to their credit have been quick to get rid of those who were clearly not up to the job. Against that, though, the system has the advantage that the Government can do what it thinks best without being jerked off course by the factional requirements of coalition partners. Remember how her dependence on the Northern Irish MPs crippled Teresa May. Look at the way in which Jacinda Aderne’s attempts to introduce capital gains tax in New Zealand was torpedoed by’ her junior partner. The fact is that, in coalition government, small parties can gain power quite disproportionate to their importance by using the government’s dependence on them as a lever for political blackmail. Levers for blackmail can, of course, occur without PR and one only has to look at the way in which the Republicans in the US used their majority in the Senate to block aid to Ukraine as a way of extracting concessions, to see just how damaging it can be. But blackmail is endemic to coalitions and any system which produces them. That is the answer for those who wish to introduce PR in general elections in the UK.

It is I suppose debatable whether the parliamentary term should be four or five years, the balance being between the risk of continuing with an exhausted administration after it has gone into a zombie state, on the one hand, and not giving a reforming government the space to do its job on the other. The right answer probably depends upon the state of the nation and where, as in Britain at the moment, fundamental reform is clearly required, the longer term is more likely to deliver it. In any case it would be an odd moment to shorten the term and Labour, assuming they win the election, are hardly likely to do so.

That leaves the franchise. Currently you have to be 18 to vote in a general election but there are those who would like to see this reduced to 16. Of course it has been tried. I am sure it would be unfair to blame the serial incompetence of the Scottish government on how it was selected but it is worth asking what the effect of such a low age qualification is likely to be. Naturally it may make 16-year-olds feel good about themselves, but that is rather beside the point . Is it conducive to good decision-making by the electorate? Are those aged between 16 and 18 less wise than their elders?

Well, not necessarily, of course, but for purely mathematical reasons they must as a cohort be less experienced and that must translate into a greater vulnerability to being sold unrealistic programs. When the Institute of Fiscal Studies observed that in this election neither party has shown proper funding for its policies it came as no surprise. Politicians get overexcited in election campaigns and realism flies out of the window. Still, a choice has to be made and that is generally done by looking at the quality of the men and women on offer at the top of the main parties. That sort of job takes experience and it seems unlikely that 16-year-olds will be as good at it as their elders.

So far, then, the current system is standing up well, so what about the other end of the franchise? We have argued before in this column that people grow more selfish as they get older and that the ageing of the population distorts decision-making. Up the triple lock and down defence expenditure! That sort of thing. Logically one should dilute the vote when people are beyond retirement age. Likely to happen when there are so many old electors? Just don’t hold your breath.

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