Interpreting the Electorate: What the Public Expresses With Their Vote

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credit: BBC

The 2017 UK General Election has provided just the latest in a string of surprising election results in the name of a form of anti-establishment populism. A common refrain this time was ‘the winners look like losers and the losers look like winners’ with runner-up party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, even claiming a form of victory. The election was indeed a huge success for Labour who performed far better than most predicted and not only scuppered the Conservative goal of increasing their Parliamentary majority, not only reducing that majority, but in fact, costing the government their majority and causing a hung Parliament. In the age of 24-hour news and social media, talking heads and hot takes flood the post-election space with reaction and analysis, and following this election, many narratives became common here. Most common was that the loss of SNP seats in Scotland reflected a weariness from the Scottish electorate regarding the prospect of the ‘IndyRef2’ referendum on Scottish Independence that the SNP had been planning; while another one I saw repeated was that the UK voters have rejected both Prime Minister Theresa May and Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn by providing neither with a majority; and another being that the failure of May was a clear rejection of her ‘Hard Brexit’ project. These are conclusions that certainly can be drawn circumstantially – of course the election is a measure of the voting population’s acceptance of each party’s manifesto and political beliefs, but can we really draw any specific conclusions about a voter’s opinion or the electorate’s overall desires result based on their vote? Thinking of the examples above, I will argue that you probably can’t, and further what the ideal voting system would be once that is considered.

Looking at these examples, how secure are the conclusions that were drawn from the final vote? The most common one, that the loss of seats for the SNP showed that the population had no appetite for IndyRef2 was one that even SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon stating that the prospect of the vote was a factor in the results. There’s no question that it was a key issue in the 2017 election, being at the forefront of the Ruth Davidson’s Conservative campaign and indeed a common part of every Unionist party’s campaigns, and when considering only that, you can conclude that the voters were calming their interest in independence. It would, in fact, be a nonsense to suggest that indyref played no part in the election as many Scots are dead against it while others who aren’t will indeed be against another vote so soon after the last one.

That wasn’t the only issue in play during this election though. In terms of policy, Labour – until recently a lame duck in Scotland – found a resurgence in the generally more left-wing Scotland with their largely progressive, anti-austerity manifesto, eating in to the SNP’s vote by echoing their values. Practically too, it is now clear that Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats colluded to damage the SNP vote share. It has been reported that while each party fielded candidates in every constituency, they in some cases fielded “paper candidates” that wouldn’t actively compete in target SNP constituencies and in so doing, would consolidate the Unionist vote. This was a key factor in the SNP losing seats in areas such as Moray and Edinburgh. Finally, the context of the 2015 election result must be considered. The SNP won an absolutely unprecedented 56 out of 59 seats in that election, and it was only to be realistically expected that they would lose some seats this time. Bearing in mind the anti-austerity surge of Labour likely resonating in Scotland, the coordinated tactical attack on SNP seats by Unionist parties, and the fact that the SNP were likely to lose some seats anyway, an interpretation of the Scottish results becomes more complicated. With that in mind, I won’t argue that despite the vote, there is still an equal appetite for independence, but I will argue that it can’t be concluded that the Scottish people are no longer interested in independence. The results of the next UK election and especially the next Scottish election will be the most telling indicators of the future of Scottish independence.

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What people think of Brexit and feel about it is the defining political mystery of the decade. credit: BBC

Of Brexit, given that the Conservatives represented a vote for a ‘Hard Brexit’, it can understandably be concluded that their lack of majority reflects a lack of majority confidence in their approach to Brexit and a desire for a ‘softer Brexit’. Many people certainly seem spooked by a Hard Brexit, but it’s important to reiterate that there were many issues at play during the election with austerity, social care, and national security being equally potent and visible in the build up to the vote. This vote wasn’t a referendum on Brexit and though it may seem apparent that Brexit is less popular now, the only referendum we had on Brexit came last year and was (narrowly) won by the Brexiteers. As is the case though in Scotland as well, while a conclusion on the issue can’t be definitely reached, it is certain that there will be a practical result of the conclusions drawn; in the case of Scotland, the prospect of independence has been damaged, and with Brexit, thankfully, it seems possible that the government’s approach to Brexit may be ‘softer’, perhaps including negotiation to remain in the European single market.

What of the notion that the hung Parliament means that British electorate rejected both May and Corbyn? As an amorphous group, the electorate certainly didn’t favour either party, but that doesn’t amount to a rejection of both leaders. Starting to think more specifically about what a vote denotes, an individual voter can’t really predict how the UK-wide electorate will vote and in no way can vote for one or the other as part of a rejection of both; there was no option on the ballot paper stating ‘Neither May or Corbyn’, and in fact, the only votes that can in any way be seen as against May and Corbyn as Prime Minister are the ones that weren’t for Labour and Conservative, amounting to a significant minority of votes. 82.4% of votes were for either the Conservatives or Labour, and when those people cast those votes, they accepted that who they were voting for could end up governing, and as a consequence, the votes can only be seen as – at the very least – a vote supporting a preference for either leader. Far from both leaders being rejected, the support for each leader was significant, just not to the extent where one had much more support than the other.

I’ve argued so far what a vote doesn’t represent, and it seems extensive given the complications involved in elections, but there are certain things we can infer, though it requires an almost puritanical logic based on how voters interact with a ballot paper which itself represents something very specific.

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What British voters see when they vote, credit: BBC

So what is the least we can honestly interpret from someone voting for a candidate representing a party in a local constituency? The answer to that depends on what the ramifications of that vote is, and so, what voters know their vote could result in. In many ways, it’s very simple. I think it’s very clear that voters understand their vote for a candidate is also a vote for a political party, and that if that candidate wins their constituency, it is a vote that boosts their party’s chances of becoming the government. That doesn’t mean that voters are always voting for someone they actively want to govern, though they often do, but it does at least mean that the voter understands that the party their vote supports could get in to power, and so – at least – that they accept that result. In other words, it is inarguable that when someone votes for a certain candidate representing a certain party, they accept that party as their governmental preference.

There are certain complications to this – there are many parties and especially independent individuals who could never form a government on their own, parties who don’t stand in at least 256 constituencies. In this case, using a similar logic as before which assumes nothing beyond what the voter understands of the consequences of their vote, when a voter votes for a smaller party or individual, they understand that the person or party they support could wield some form of power either in coalition government or in opposition.

This all sounds well and good, but the power this theoretical voter has is somewhat undermined by the current First Past the Post voting system. While it means that each constituency is represented by its voting majority at Westminster, it means that smaller parties who are well-supported, but not enough to come first in many seats can be under-represented at Parliament when compared to the overall vote they attract. This is perhaps most obviously the case with the Green Party, who attracted over half a million votes nation-wide (or around 1.6% of the popular vote). Parliament holds 650 seats, 1.6% of which would amount to – roughly – 10 seats. Instead, they only have one seat at Parliament and a tenth of the power they should wield based on the votes they attracted. Other parties are similarly under-represented at Parliament based on the votes they attracted in this election. The SNP slightly complicate matters by only standing for seats in Scotland, as other parties like Plaid Cymru in Wales do. The SNP especially own more seats than their vote share would usually gain in Parliament as they concentrate their votes in target constituencies (i.e. every Scottish constituency), but this is a quirk of UK elections that can neither be condemned or changed.

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Voting reform is an important issue, but the right system is crucial. Credit: The Conservative Party

Generally speaking though, when it comes to UK elections, the voting system needs to be reformed so that the MPs at Westminster and the parties they represent are as representative of the voting share of the electorate. Going back to the voting booth and the philosophy of voting, when enough people choose to accept or actively support a certain party being in power, and that desire isn’t represented in Parliament, there is something wrong with the system. Many people and politicians already support voting reform, but there are many voting systems being advocated for, so which system best reflects the role and will of the voter as well as best representing that electorate as a whole?

One of the most commonly suggested voting systems for reform is Single Transferable Vote (STV). This is already used in familiar territory – in Scotland for council elections, Northern Ireland for various elections, and elsewhere across the world. In this system, a voter is asked to rank candidates with their first preference receiving a ‘1’, their next favourite a ‘2’, and so on and so on, though there is no obligation to rank any more than one candidate. In some ways, this sounds positive – the ability to but lack of obligation to rank candidates gives voters a lot of leeway to express themselves. Problems come though when you move to the counting and seat dispersal stages of an STV election. For its faults, with First Past the Post, the electorate self-evidently understand how their votes become seats, but I would like to hazard an educated guess that this isn’t the same with STV for most. I’m not claiming any specific intellect, but I am currently interested in politics enough to write an article about voting, and I struggle with understanding it. This is how it works:

-The election starts by counting every voter’s first choice, with a candidate who reaches or exceeds the number of votes required for a seat is elected.

– If any such elected candidate has more votes than the quota, the excess votes are transferred to other candidates. Votes that would have gone to the winner go to the next preference.

– If no-one new meets the quota required to win a seat, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and those votes are transferred to each voter’s next preferred candidate.

This process repeats until either a winner is found for every seat or there are as many seats as remaining candidates.

It’s not impossible to understand, but it requires the effort to research it or have it explained to you, and it’s arguable that huge swathes of the electorate are disengaged enough to not do so, and so I think it’s safe to conclude that a large number of the electorate, when using this system, wouldn’t fully understand how their vote works. Understanding that process is important, but a bigger problem comes, I think, with the fundamental characteristic of ranking candidates.

When discussing the logical baseline of what a vote represents, I concluded that it represents support for a party or candidate who the voter at least accepts being in power. For some, they will support who they vote for very strongly, while in other cases, they just may see them as ‘the best of a bad bunch’. In ranked voting, you can assume the same for a person’s first preference, but what can you assume about a second, third, or fourth preference? You can probably still assume that a lower preference vote for a party or candidate represents accepting the idea of them ending up in power, after all, they still showed them some support, but how strong is that support? When someone votes once, or as a first preference, it’s clear preference for a favoured party or candidate, but as layers of preference get added to that, the situation gets muddied. As an example, in this past election, I voted SNP, but hypothetically, in an STV election, I could, and possibly would have voted SNP as 1, Labour as 2, and Green as 3. Parties with anti-austerity manifestos who – crucially – weren’t Conservatives would have received more votes and be in a stronger position, and I would feel glad that I could vote for all of the parties in some form as I like them all. Imagine next, a different person who casts the exact same vote, possibly as an anti-Tory vote too but who voted for the lower preferences mainly because they damaged the Tories and simply ‘didn’t mind them’. This is a very realistic hypothetical, and one which gives me pause as it’s clear the strength of conviction, especially with the more preferences selected, will differ between voters yet carry the same weight for each of them. One person’s fourth preference could be selected with more conviction than another’s third or second preference. Of course, even when people only cast one preference, the enthusiasm in doing so can differ between voters, but there is always that baseline assumption there that whether you’re wild about them or simply accepting of them being elected, you have chosen them above all to lead, and there is far less variance of meaning in a vote. In fact, in some ways, there’s as much power in who you don’t vote for as in who you select as a lower preference.

It must be remembered that though a lesser preference vote is undoubtedly a show of support, it is essentially a contingency for if the person’s preferred party of candidate isn’t elected, and while I understand the allure of that for the voter, it conversely makes voting a less active and arguably more negative prospect; as opposed to simply picking the single party or candidate you think is best suited to lead your country, you end up voting for a block of candidates you  would object to the least.

There are several voting systems reformers are interested in, including AV which was voted on in recent years in the UK, or MMP, which is used in Scotland and Wales for elections to their devolved governments, but the system I think is the ‘most perfect’ is a Closed Party List system. There are variants of this system used in various elections across the world, but the system I would propose would retain the single vote, and a fairly simple to understand connection between vote and elected officials. In this system, the UK would be split in to larger regional constituencies consisting of major cities and counties towards which everyone in that area would vote once for a party or independent candidate. The votes cast for each constituency would be divided by the number of seats available in that constituency, that amount constituting a quote required to earn a seat. That sounds more complicated than it is, so to illustrate, I will use the 2017 results from Glasgow.

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The SNP won 6 out of 7 Glasgow seats, but did this represent their level of support? Credit: The SNP

In reality, this is what happened:
256, 179 votes were cast to elect 7 MP’s which ended up being 6 SNP MP’s and 1 Labour MP. In several cases, seats were won with very small majorities and so the SNP won 6 out of 7 seats despite only receiving 7, 748 more than Labour and just over 41% of the vote.

In the proposed Closed Party List system though, this is what would happen:
The 256, 179 votes would be divided by the 7 seats to determine a quota amount to win a seat (36, 597). Starting with the largest party, the SNP, their vote total of 105, 318 would be divided by the quote amount to work out how many seats they won (2.87, rounded up to 3).
The same process would be repeated for the second, third, fourth party etc until the constituency runs out of seats to be awarded. In Glasgow, the final allocations would be this:

SNP (with 41.2% of the vote) with 3 seats
Labour (with 38% of the vote) with 3 seats
Conservatives (with 16.4% of the vote) with 1 seat

That would harm the cause of the party I supported, so it is with disappointment that I admit that this seems a much fairer allocation of votes based on the proportion of votes cast.

Each party would pre-prepare and publish a list of candidates and once the results are in, the lists would be used to take the allocated seats (SNP’s first 3 candidates on the list get a seat, the same with Labour, while the candidate at the top of the Tory list gets a seat). This is the only real weakness of this system as it takes away the active connection between voter and representative. I don’t see it as a fatal flaw though as, in reality, I think it is fair to state that most people already vote party first, regardless of the candidate. An SNP voter will vote for whoever the SNP candidate is, the same with Labour, and so on. A compensatory bonus to this, though is that, with the bigger constituencies, voters would now have multiple representatives than the single one their current constituencies have. Perhaps you prefer the Tories to the SNP, you can approach them for a query rather than one of the SNP representatives if they wish.

Under this system, regional representation would be retained (rather than simply taking a proportion of UK votes as a whole to calculate seats), but the overall feeling of the electorate would be more proportionally represented in terms of seats for their region. While that may skew the nationwide allocation of seats to a small degree, it would lead, I think, to the best possible representation of the will of the electorate. When you vote, you would be selecting the party you most accept to form a government, and the overall desires of the electorate is translated proportionally in to seats of power for the parties that earn it.

Ideology and Effective Parliamentary Opposition

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The Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn across from Prime Minister Theresa May credit: ITV.com

The role of politicians with regards to their duty to voters has been muddied, in the West at least, for decades, but I think the role of the politician in the UK was thrown in to disarray, drastically, with the sweeping to power of New Labour in the late 1990’s. It’s not my intention to discuss New Labour in any real detail, but that change continues to have an impression on today’s political climate, As has been argued by Adam Curtis in mesmerising fashion, Tony Blair and New Labour saw an appetite for power to be taken away from the ideologies of politicians, and instead trusted to the target-based culture of the free market; promising to improve health and education by placing targets under the noses of teachers and doctors, and letting them achieve them by any means they could. It is this shift away from ideology that this article is concerned with, and especially with relation to the role of ‘The Opposition’ in Britain’s political chambers.

Current Prime Minister Theresa May, forced by the Supreme Court to hold a Parliamentary vote on the UK leaving the EU, recently announced an bill for Brexit that revealed a preference for a ‘clean’ and decisive withdrawal from the EU. Eschewing attempts to negotiate a place for the UK in the European single market, May announced a plan to ‘Brexit’ as quickly as possible while exploring trade deals internationally to compensate for potential losses from the withdrawal. It is in this context that the role of the opposition, led – officially – by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, has come under scrutiny. Corbyn announced that he would be instructing his Labour MP’s to support Theresa May’s bill, ostensibly because he wanted Labour to support the result of last year’s EU referendum result where the majority of those who voted, did so to leave the EU. While Labour publicly opposed Brexit, it was deemed that the democratic will of the voters should be respected. In isolation, this is reasonable, but the move was met with lots of opposition by many people, including many of his supporters in a way which further splintered the Labour Party, and the idea of parliamentary opposition.

Labour MPs found themselves in a dilemma: most Labour MPs opposed Brexit, and felt that the traditional centre-left ideals of Labour did too; but the referendum result was not only democratic, but was supported by roughly two-thirds of Labour constituencies. They have been asked to decide on which way to vote regarding Brexit, but have different responsibilities pulling them in often conflicting directions – as representatives of a constituency, as representatives of a party, as representatives of their own ideals, and as representatives of the official opposition.

There has been a lot of criticism of Corbyn’s decision to back the government’s bill on Brexit exactly because they are the opposition to the government, because it has been seen by some as giving Theresa May something of a ‘free pass’ to Brexit – something that has been seen as him not doing his job as opposition, and negligently assisting Theresa May’s agenda. That suggests, though, that the leader of the opposition exists simply to frustrate the government, an approach which has been roundly criticised in the case of the likes of Mitch McConnell and House Republicans in the United States as selfishly frustrating the business of government for political gain. Surely ideological opposition should oppose governments based on their ideology rather than based on the idea of playing a role that doesn’t necessarily relate to their stance. This raises the central question of this piece: what is the duty of the opposition in British politics, is it effective, and does it make sense philosophically?

The Labour Party, which on the surface at least has moved back towards traditional socialist values following the less ideological period of New Labour rule, is an independent political party with it’s own manifesto for power. While this will respond to the current political climate as well as the manifesto of the governing Conservative party, Labour’s manifesto is based, ultimately, on it’s own political values, not all of which are at odds with those of the Conservatives. Where the parties differ, it is based on ideology, and it is in this climate where political ideology is seen as naïve, sometimes self-indulgent, and even sometimes, undemocratic, that a political party can be expected to act a certain way simply because they are in official opposition to government. Later the same week, Theresa May stated that she and the British government officially was explicitly opposed to waterboarding, but this is something that Labour agree with, as most do, but as the opposition, should they be criticising May’s denouncement of waterboarding? This may seem like an obvious example, but it follows that if it is not the opposition’s job to oppose the government on every issue, they can’t be expected to on any specific issue.

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Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the faces of ‘New Labour’ were also the faces of a new, less ideological politics credit: The Independent

There is no doubt that having a public figure challenging the government is a valuable idea that should be preserved, but if they are expected to simply react negatively to the government, regardless of their own ideology, the role becomes, in actuality, apolitical; something along the lines of an auditor. What is lost is a sincere ideological debate, in which each party can set out their respective ideological stall and let the public decide. This is compounded by another shift magnified by New Labour – towards politicians setting out manifestos they think will get them elected, rather than ones they believe in. New Labour worked hard to move away from their traditional socialist identity and moved significantly towards the political centre to appear more moderate and therefore, more electable. This was incredibly successful, leading to over a decade of power; but who was it that was elected? New Labour were a new party in more than just name and as time progressed, the difference between them and the Conservatives became less and less tangible, embracing the free market and hawkish tendencies more than ever before. This is a shift from the public expressing themselves through voting for parties who represent the closest thing to the vanguard of the time, to parties chasing the vanguard themselves for power. The power is empty – the result of essentially campaigning for a role that has been defined by others (the media, press, lobbies, and extremists with the loudest voices). Like the role of the opposition, it is almost an apolitical, managerial role that ignores, on a daily basis, political ethics. Politicians devise policy because they think it will appeal to voters, rather than formulate what they think is best for humanity, and let the people decide on if they are right.

This is what I advocate for, though I am not confident it is an approach that will return any time soon: political parties build manifestos based on their beliefs and ethics, and the people vote for whichever set of ideals they agree most with. In comparison with Labour, who changed their ideals  for votes, this is something the Greens – to their credit – have always done; only wanting to be elected with a mandate to pursue policies they believe in, and not seeking power under any other terms. So then what of the role of the opposition? If the opposition is just the party which came second in the election, then it sets up this contradiction of roles again. Well, the answer, I believe, is to formalise the opposition as what it already is: an apolitical body which publicly challenges the sitting government on all issues; a Devil’s Advocate, you might say – and what’s more, this job shouldn’t be that of another political party, but of an independent public body. The usual, natural worries around things like corruption and politicking, especially with regards to state funded mouth-pieces, are totally countered by the nature of the role – if their only job is to challenge governmental policy, then not doing that job would be completely obvious. If their job is to raise a counterpoint to governmental policy, there is nothing to do but argue against the government. If the government advocate for tax breaks for a certain group, the opposition devise an argument for that being a bad idea; if the government want to intervene militarily abroad, the opposition argues against it. It would be a role that is essentially purely debate based and would be best suited to lawyers rather than politicians.

I think this would secure a dependable, effective opposition, rather than the responsibility essentially being inherited by the party receiving the second largest count of votes, while freeing up that party to put forward their ideological case for power without having to do so in relation to the government – a trend which I believe is responsible lack of true progressive change in Britain in the last 20 years. It won’t of course, stop parties chasing the vocal vanguard – usually more right wing, and represented by the powerful tabloid press – altogether, but I do think it would help create conditions in which parties could offer a more sincere political ideology for the general public to vote on. Of course, since Donald Trump is prancing all over the established “rules” of politics, it’s hard to say for sure what the political arena will be like after the next few years, but I think this system preserves the two elements that are crucial to a healthy democracy – effective opposition, and debates over political ideology.