I’ve made no secret of my attitude to UKIP, a party so awful that I seriously considered voting Conservative to avoid the apocalyptic scenario of my own constituency, the Forest of Dean, joining Clacton as the equal most backward and reactionary place in Britain. Everything about them is calculated to appeal to the lowest part of voters: to fear, exclusion and nostalgia rather than to aspiration, inclusion and actually building something. Their relentless meanness to the poorest most vulnerable people in the nation and in the world repels me. I am ashamed to be British when I think that they polled 12.6% of the votes — that 3,881,099 people in my nation said “Yes, these are the people I want representing me”.
But here’s the thing. That is what happened. 3,881,099 people — more than one in eight of those who voted — wanted a UKIP representative. And they got one seat. Meanwhile, the Scottish Nationalists garnered only 1,454,436 votes — not much more than third as many as UKIP — but won 56 seats. In other words, the SNP won a seat for each 26,000 votes, but UKIP won a seat for each 3,800,000 votes. The SNP got 150 times as many seats per vote as UKIP did.
That can’t be right, can it?
Now of course the Liberal Democrats — and before them, the old Liberal Party — have been banging on about proportional representation (PR) since forever. That’s because the LibDems have traditionally been the party badly served by the present system in which we directly elect representatives, one for each constituency. In pretty much every election, the Lib Dems’ share of the seats has been much less than their share of the vote.
And the two big parties that benefit from this system — the Conservatives and Labour always get more seats than they would in proportion to votes cast — have of course resisted all attempts to change our voting system. Because why would they reform a system that works in their favour?
So: should we use proportional representation?
I really don’t know.
For one thing, it genuinely is much more complicated than our present system. (Unlike the AV system, which we rejected in 2011 largely because the big parties told us it was “too complicated” even though it’s actually an amazingly simple tweak to the present system.) True PR systems are complicated. Complicated enough that I’m not going to make a fool of myself by trying to explain them.
But, well, maybe sometimes the best solution is complicated. Lots of methods in statistics are complicated, but they give us much more reliable results than just eyeballing the data. Many politicians would like to use the “simple”, “common sense” approach to policy: to say that when country X did Y, the result was Z, so we should also do Y so we get result Z. Yet there’s a whole science of statistics that says, hang on a minute, we don’t know that Y caused Z. In making policy we defer (or we should defer) to experts who can tell us the true meanings of correlations. Maybe in forming the governments that make policy, we should similarly defer to those who understand the more complex system that gives better results?
What I do know is that if as a country we’re going to move towards a PR system, this may be the best time to do it. We have a manifestly unrepresentative set of representatives in the House of Commons; and the very fact that it’s a better set then the one we would have had under a PR system (more compassionate SNP MPs, fewer borderline-racist UKIPpers) give us moral high-ground to work towards reforming the system in the knowledge that if we succeed, it won’t be in our interests.
And so we reach the end of this series. To summarise the five parts, my reading of the election is
- The Conservatives won by default, because no-one else presented a compelling vision, and it was sufficient for them to portray themselves as experienced and competent.
- The SNP did amazingly well because they were the only serious party that offered a serious alternative to the austerity rhetoric of the mainstream.
- Labour lost because they didn’t present themselves as meaningfully different to the Conservatives, merely a less experienced and competent version of the same thing.
- The Lib Dems were wiped out because instead of talking about what they are for, they just said “at least we’re not those guys”.
- UKIP won only a single seat, despite getting three times as many votes as the SNP, because our electoral system is not proportional (but it serves them right because they’re scumbags).
Does that seem about right?