Monday, 10 May 2010

More politics, sorry

People were turned away at the polling stations. Young people were told to allow older people to go first, then by the time they got to the head of the queue they told the polling station was closed. In some places not enough ballot papers had been printed and people could not vote. In some places, would-be voters sat in to demand their right to vote.
Third world?
Nope, the UK.
Not everywhere, not all over, and almost certainly thanks to incompetence and antiquated systems rather than actual fixing - although there are enquiries going on in some places into the use of the postal vote, where suspiciouly large numbers of voters have suddenly registered from the same address.
It was a hard fought election and the majorities in many places are very slim - just a few votes between winning and losing the seat. In Oxford West, for example, after an ill-tempered campaign in which the sitting MP was described on leaflets as "Doctor Death", the winner polled only 176 more votes than he did.
What effect has the lost votes had around the country? Nobody knows, and the only way to find out is for individuals who believe they have been prevented from voting to mount an individual challenge in that constituency. If their challenge succeeds there can be a by-election.
Our voting system is often described as "first past the post". This is true on two levels. In the constituencies, the winner is the one with more votes than the next candidate, even if it's only one more vote. In Parliament, the party with more seats than the others gets to form the government - which means that all the ministries are headed only by members of that party, only that party gets to sit in the Cabinet (the inner circle) and the leader of that party becomes Prime Minister. Latterly, ministers and Cabinet members have even been appointed directly by the Prime Minister not necessarily from members of parliament (or, conceivably, even from members of the party of government), so important roles in government are taken by people who have not been elected to anything at all. Lord Young, part of Thatcher's government, was the first I can remember.
The situation at the moment is that the Conservatives, polling a minority of the votes cast overall, have more seats than the next party, Labour, but not more than Labour, the Lib Dems and all the small parties put together. This means that if they tried to pass any laws - especially laws that not all their own members agree with - the other parties could defeat them, and a government that cannot legislate cannot govern.
But Labour and the Lib Dems, polling a majority of the votes cast between them, don't have enough seats to pass laws if the Conservatives (and perhaps a few of the parties with one or two or three seats between them) oppose them.
So neither party can govern.
It's an irony of the situation that the two major parties which campaigned on electoral reform demonstrated the need for it by getting 52% of votes cast, but not 52% of the seats. The Lib Dems, for example, with nearly a quarter of the popular vote, got fewer than 10% of the seats.
This is why the negotiations between the Tories (who oppose electoral reform) and the Lib Dems (for whom it has been a platform for many years, and who stand to benefit most from it) are a bit delicate just now...
In the meantime, how would we know whether our elections are fair, or whether unfair tactics have been used, or whether local parties have lied to the electorate? Oddly, there is no central data monitoring, as Ben Goldacre explains:


tinker said...

It's always sort of amazed me that the UK manages to have a viable third party despite being first-past-the-post. In the US (where essentially all of our elections are FPTP) you are regarded as "throwing away your vote" if you vote for a party besides the big two. Moreover everybody has enough sympathy (or antipathy) for one or the other of the big parties that it's hard to muster up the pox-on-all-your-houses attitude required for a third party vote. I really don't understand how the Lib Dems manage.

Sarah said...

Hi Tinker!
By and large, they haven't, except in what are often referred to as "the Celtic Fringe" - Cornwall, Wales and Scotland - where the old Liberal party held on after it all went pearshaped in 1910, and where they've been vulnerable to the Scots and Welsh Nationalists (the Cornish Nationalists aren't much of a force to be reckoned with). In spite of getting just under a quarter of the votes cast this time, they only have 8% of the seats. It's only the peculiar result this time around, with no clear majority, that makes them such a force right now. Last time there was a hung parliament the leader of the Liberals (as they were then)Jeremy Thorpe thought he had a deal. I've read that he was hoping to be made foreign secretary, but got stiffed. With that in mind (and the fact that the Labour government in 1997 had promised electoral reform in their manifesto but also reneged when they got a landslide), Nick Clegg is wise to be cautious about any deals he makes.