Sunday, 9 May 2010

UK election coverage: too much extrapolation


Is anyone else sick of being told 'what they voted for' by politicians, journalists and pundits?

Today, for instance, we have Deborah Orr in the Guardian writing:

'Wake up, "progressives" … Sixty-one per cent didn't vote Labour. Sixty-seven per cent didn't vote Lib Dem.'

Before going on to argue that

'Only 23% of "progressives" voted for the party that is committed to genuine proportional representation (rather than the sudden fudge of AV or AV plus). The rest – that's 29% – voted for the party that had 13 years to roll out this grand project, and lost interest very early on.'

Sorry, Debs old girl, but that's a load of arse. People's votes are about as clear an indication of their opinion on electoral reform as their choice of supermarket is an indication of their attitude to battery farming.

In other words, it's a bit more complicated than that.

As you may recall, I voted for Lib Dem Dr Evan Harris (sadly in vain). To some degree I suppose I also voted against Nicola Blackwood, the Conservative candidate. Other parties had (in my constituency, Oxford West & Abingdon) no chance of winning the seat, so I don't think I can be said to have been voting against Labour or any of the other smaller parties (much though I might have liked to vote against some of 'em).

I voted for Dr Evan Harris. I didn't, in fact, feel I'd necessarily have voted for the Liberal Democrats had it not been for Evan Harris (as I outlined in my aforelinked post). As it happens (and as, perhaps, this post will make clear) I also think that electoral reform would be a good thing.

But, see, 'electoral reform' wasn't on my ballot paper.

In the UK, we vote, directly, for our constituency MP; indirectly for the party represented by that MP; and double-indirectly for the policies of that party.

Let's illustrate this, shall we?, by means of a rather ludicrous hypothetical.

I – let us say – am a rabidly pro-Trident Tory. I'm a right-wing leaner by nature, but I am especially passionate about national defence, and my top concern is that the UK retain its nuclear deterrent.

Though it troubles me to request it, I ask you to picture me thus. (How do I look?)

So … In my Oxford West & Abingdon constituency, I have just voted for Nicola Blackwood, the successful Tory candidate. So I'm happy that she's got in, and that her party is pro-Trident.

In a month's time, though, plucky young Nicola decides to defect to Labour.

Because it is Nicola for whom I voted (not the Conservative party), I have no say in this. Technically, she is free to defect as she likes without triggering a by-election.

So now it appears that I (blue-blooded Tory) have indirectly voted for Labour. Alack!

As if things weren't bad enough, Labour then, as a result of political wrangling within its body of MPs and deals drawn up with other parties, reverses its current pro-Trident stance.

Now I'm not saying that this is likely. But my intention is to illustrate the fact that, technically, none of this has in any way gone against my vote. Because my vote was simply a vote of trust in Nicola Blackwood, the person. Likewise, Nicola's membership of a political party is her own 'vote of trust' in that party and its policies.

(Okay. I think I probably made my point. Can I stop pretending to be a hawkish Tory now, please?)

And to go back to my supermarket analogy: I may buy most of my groceries at Tesco because it's 50m walk from my house, it's fairly cheap and the queue's generally short. But I happen to believe that Tesco's meat (yeah, even the organic stuff) is reared less humanely than I would like. But I still keep shopping there because other factors are in its favour. And I don't buy any of the gankin' meat, anyway. So woe betide the person who tells me that my grocery-buying from Tesco means that I am endorsing lower standards of animal welfare.

(Incidentally and for the record, that was another of my illustrative examples. I'm not suggesting that Tesco has low animal welfare standards: I don't know enough about it to opine. More importantly, nor am I suggesting that I buy most of my groceries at Tesco. No indeed.)

Anyhow, yeah, so, to get back to the point – when people like Deborah Orr extrapolate from our votes, they are grossly manipulating the facts. Not a single person in the UK had the opportunity to vote for or against electoral reform. Strictly speaking, not a single person in the UK even had the opportunity to vote for or against a political party – though plenty of people thought they were doing just that, and admittedly the effect may appear very, very similar.

Now I'm not actually saying that this indirect democracy is necessarily a bad thing (though, as I'll outline – contain yourselves! – in a future post, I prefer the version of indirect democracy offered by proportional representation). What I'm saying is this: let's not keep talking as if 'the UK voters' have voted for or against particular policies. Because that is pretending that we have a direct democracy, a system that allows us to endorse policies.

We don't. We have a system that, at its root, simply allows us to trust one single human being to do the right thing.

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