Irrelevant Alternatives and PR

Never Despair, No Hope No Glory
Time to go for PR!

There was little discussion of our electoral system as part of the UK Labour leadership debate. Yet proportional representation has never seemed more clearly essential to avoid the permanent triumph of self-interest politics. Something quite extraordinary happened between the 2010 and 2015 elections that has been extraordinarily little remarked upon. The outcome in terms of Parliamentary seats was a very clear shift from a centrist coalition representing 59% of the electorate to a brazenly right-wing single-party government representing only 37%. Yet the voting pattern did not indicate any such change in preference by voters.

The 2015 result was driven not by votes gained or lost by the Conservatives (up by 0.8%) or Labour (up by 1.5%) but by the switch of around 15% of votes from the Liberal Democrats to a combination of UKIP, Greens and SNP. (Of course that is not to say that those 2010 Liberal Democrat voters themselves switched in that way – it was much more complex than that.) Were an individual to take a decision like this economists would regard it as irrational, because it is influenced by an ‘irrelevant alternative’. It is equivalent to a vegetarian changing their restaurant order (from one veggie dish to another) because of the addition of a new meat item on the menu! There is no sensible reason for thinking that a net switch in votes from the Liberal Democrats to parties other than the Tories indicates that the electorate wanted the Conservatives to have greater power than they previously did – yet that is exactly what the effect was! So our First Past the Post (FPTP) Voting System gives us irrational results that can change in ways that we don’t choose.

The problem we now face is that as long as the Tories can keep 40% of voters on board, they can pretty much do what they like to the rest. It is pretty obvious that George Osborne has recognised this and is skilfully exploiting it. The extent to which the 40% care about the 60% is reduced by demonization tactics aided by an unscrupulous section of the media.

So our First Past the Post (FPTP) Voting System gives us irrational results that can change in ways that we don’t choose. Without a straight two-party spectrum of choices, we need proportional representation. One of the most unforgivable failures of the Blair-given electoral victories was the not to take this forward, having proposed it, when surely given the majorities and mood it would have been possible. But of course it went against the self-interest of sitting MPs, and now the whirlwind of an ideologically-driven majority Conservative government is reaped.

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