The Null Device


On Thursday, Britain had a referendum on changing the electoral system from first-past-the-post (i.e., every voter sees a list of candidates, picks one, and the one with the most votes win, which means that you either choose one of Democrats Labour or the Republicans Conservatives or, for all practical purposes, you might as well have stayed home) to the alternative vote (i.e., each voter ranks the candidates in order of preference, so if their first preference doesn't get in, their vote gets transferred to their second, and so on). And the results came in, with the status quo winning with about 69% of the vote. The British people have looked at reform, found it too confusing, and said no. The results by district show an interesting, though not unexpected, pattern, with inner London, inner Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge showing up as islands of strong yes votes, most of England being a sea of conservatism, with Scotland and Wales being slightly less conservative. The place with the highest yes vote in Britain was the London Borough of Hackney.

(One must grudgingly admire the way the Tories handled this, from a purely tactical point of view: offering the Liberal Democrats (until then, seen as a progressive, centre-left party, and voted by many left-leaning voters sick of Blairite New Labour which had been captured by the right) their precious little referendum in return for supporting their agenda of radical cuts, and manoeuvring the Lib Dems into being their human shields, so that by the time the referendum came around, the bitter taste of betrayal was too strong for many natural reform supporters to vote for anything with Nick Clegg's name on it. And so, cunning and betrayal win the day again. Well played, you loathsome bastards.)

The big winners in this are the Tories, and, to a lesser extent, Labour (who supported reform in this election, though it must be remembered that electoral reform was one of Tony Blair's pledges in 1997, though Labour kept first-past-the-post throughout their government for pragmatic reasons). Big business and the media proprietors are also big winners: with MPs not having to compete as hard for votes, they have more time to listen to the real stakeholders, rather trying to placate the little people.

Too much democracy, after all, is bad for business. Let the little people have too much of a say, and you get fractious parliaments full of Greens and religious parties and such. In that sense, first-past-the-post is slightly superior to the alternative vote (and greatly superior to proportional systems) in that it distorts the aggregated views of the people into an uncontroversial median, and helps keep the levers of power well away from the rabble. The ideal system for the stakeholders' interests is a low-fidelity form of democracy: just enough to keep anyone too unpopular from outstaying their welcome and prevent the "bad emperor" problem (where corrupt or inept leaders can arise beyond the power of anyone to remove them), and give the little people the illusion of being stakeholders in the system. If anything, the US system, with its electoral-college system which almost completely eliminates third parties, is superior to UK-style FPTP for this. Once there are only two parties, they will, by necessity, become so large that they become unanswerable to the little people, and become instruments of a homogeneous policy, as seen in everything from copyright-law expansion to the accelerating increase in income inequality.

Anyway, Britain's democracy is essentially a somewhat expensive low-pass filter on Rupert Murdoch's decisions, and this vote will ensure that it remains so for the foreseeable future. Some are saying that electoral reform has been set back by a generation, though I think that's overly optimistic. With the no case having won by 69%, despite the yes case having more campaign funds, I can't see the question arising in 25 years' time. It's probably safe to say that another electoral reform referendum in Britain will not happen in the lifetime of anybody who voted on Thursday. And so, in the next election, one will be faced with voting for the lesser evil (which, in the past, has turned out into voting for Tony "PNAC" Blair because he wasn't a Tory), or just giving up and letting Murdoch's zombie hordes decide. In fact, why not just give up on democracy altogether and install Murdoch as Emperor? It'll have more or less the same effect, but save considerable money.

In other election news: the Greens have emerged as the largest party on Brighton and Hove's council, and in Scotland, the Scottish National Party has won a majority, paving the way to a referendum on independence. I wonder whether the Tories' cunning will be enough to scotch this one.

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