This is my second in a series on the EU, Media and Democracy, inspired by a debate I was recently in.
I would argue that the EU was never a worry for the vast majority of British people until it became a worry because it was artificially generated and this coincided with issues or perceived issues with immigration. All along, I have argued that the whole thing was better seen as a referendum on immigration. Everything else was post hoc rationalisation for most people. So many members of the public were spouting off about sovereignty and democracy, but one or two years before, it wasn’t on their radar. Immigration put it on their radar. Newspapers put in on their radar.
Let me remind you a graph I showed in the last piece:
The EU, and its perceived issues of democracy and sovereignty, did not feature in the worries of British citizens until the media got a hold of the EU referendum and connected it squarely with immigration.
If the public were genuinely interested in sovereignty and democracy, in arguing that the EU was not democratic, then they should have been worried about things a lot closer to home.
Let me explain the issues with he British democratic system of First Past the Post.
First past the post or FPTP, also known as Simple Majority Voting, Winner-takes-all voting or Plurality voting is the most basic form of voting system. In its simplest form, under FPTP, voting takes place in single-member constituencies. Voters put a cross in a box next to their favoured candidate, and the candidate who gathers the most votes in the constituency or other electoral area wins the election. All other votes count for nothing. FPTP is clear, simple and decisive in the majority of cases, but many would argue that it is anything but a representative voting system.
FPTP can also be used in multi-member electoral areas where voters are asked to vote for as many candidates as there are vacancies. Examples include local council elections, elections of foundation trust governors and membership organisations.
In public elections, FPTP is the second most widely used voting system in the world, after Party-List PR. It is principally used in the electoral systems that are either are, or were once, British Colonies. FPTP is currently used to elect members of the House of Commons in the UK, both chambers of the US Congress and the lower houses in both Canada and India. The use of FPTP voting systems used to be more widespread, but many countries have now adopted other alternative voting systems….
The disadvantages and shortcomings of FPTP voting systems
- Representatives can get elected with small amounts of public support, as the size of the winning margin is irrelevant: what matters is only that they get more votes than other candidates.
- FPTP encourages tactical voting, as voters often vote not for the candidate they most prefer, but against the candidate they most dislike.
- FPTP is regarded as wasteful, as votes cast in a constituency for losing candidates, or for the winning candidate above the level they need to win that seat, count for nothing.
- FPTP can severely restrict voter choice. Parties are not homogenous and do not speak with one unified voice. Parties are more coalitions of many different viewpoints. If the preferred-party candidate in a constituency has views with which a voter doesn’t agree, he or she doesn’t have a means of expressing that at the ballot box.
- Rather than allocating seats in line with actual support, FPTP rewards parties with what is often termed ‘lumpy’ support; that is, with just enough votes to win in each particular area. With smaller parties, this works in favour of those with centralised support.
- With relatively small constituency sizes, the way boundaries are drawn can have important effects on the election result.
- Having small constituencies often leads to a proliferation of safe seats, where the same party is all but guaranteed re-election at each election. This not only effectively disenfranchises a region’s voters, but it leads to these areas being ignored when it comes to framing policy.
- If large areas of the country are effectively electoral deserts for any particular party, not only is the area ignored by that party, but also ambitious politicians from the area will have to move away from their locality if they aspire to have influence within their party.
- Because FPTP restricts a constituency’s choice of candidates, the representation of minorities and women suffers, as the ‘safest’ looking candidate is the one most likely to be offered the chance to stand for election
- Although encouraging two-party politics can be advantageous, in a multi-party culture, third parties with significant support can often be greatly disadvantaged.
There are some advantages, of course, such as local representation, but it is pertinent to note that no new democracies adopt it as their system.
I know of so many people who argued for Leave but who voted against electoral reform. Of course, there was a great irony as so many UKIP voters voted against the Alternative Vote when it came up for a referendum when the Tories went into coalition with the Lib Dems (historically hamstrung by FPTP), and yet they were punished by this for having only 1 MP for 4 million votes. At the other end of the spectrum, the Scottish National Party only had 56,000 votes per MP. Wow, what a difference. I may hate UKIP, but democratically speaking, they were done over in that election (as were the Greens, with 1.2m votes per MP).
The Lib Dems routinely need at least three times as many votes as the two main parties per MP.
We have the First Past the Post system that is the least democratically representative system of voting you can get. Only Britain and its ex-colonies have it out of tradition. Any new democracy sets up elects to have an alternative voting system on account of FPTP being a bad voting system. If the British electorate really were interested in proper sovereignty and democracy, they would be arguing vociferously for some form of AV, and to get rid of the House of Lords. And the unelected Head of State: the Queen. But they aren’t. And so it is obvious that, though many claimed sovereignty as their driving issue in the EU referendum, it really wasn’t. It wasn’t before the EU debate when they were explicitly asked about it, and it isn’t now. This much is patently obvious from the statistics, and from their actions outside of the context of the EU referendum.
The London School of Economics blog British Politics and Policy reported of the 2005 election:
In 2005 not a single MP was returned with active majority support amongst their local citizens. The UK’s ‘First Past the Post’ voting system no longer works – it is the worst of both worlds.
he UK’s mediaeval way of counting votes in elections has outlived its usefulness for modern times and modern politics. Guy Lodge and Glenn Gottfried show that it is very reliant on the results in relatively few marginal seats and it produces volatile and highly disproportionate outcomes, treating many parties unfairly. The system now creates unrepresentative parliaments, and by ‘wasting’ millions of votes it hugely discourages citizens’ participation and breeds cynicism about politics. Finally, first past the post fails on its own terms as it struggles to produce single-party governments….
Under FPTP, election results are effectively determined by the small minority of voters who happen to live in all-important marginal seats. Conversely, it means that the vast majority of voters who live in safe seats have little ability to shape the outcome of national elections.7
In 2015, compare the seats under FPTP against a form of proportional representation:
This appears only now to concern UKIP voters because they were on the receiving end. In other words, they were not concerned about representative democracy at all (which they attack the EU for) until they were punished themselves by the FPTP system. And now the EU referendum is over, they again don’t care.
I campaigned on the streets for AV, and the AV campaign was winning the public vote, when it was up for referendum back when the Lib Dems started their coalition with the Tories. As the Tories would lose a lot of seats under a fairer system of PR, Cameron, then PM, in a fit of undemocratic sentiment, p[honed up the editors of four national right-leaning newspapers and asked they started campaigning with propaganda for the No campaign against AV. Overnight the polls switched and No won the campaign.
That’s democracy for you – won by the media and those disseminating information.
Going forward, what can we say about democracy? Well, anyone who voted Leave is, so it is claimed, interested in democracy and sovereignty and self-determination. By extension, then, they should all be well behind Scottish independence. And Welsh. Heck, where is the line of demarcation? Should we not allow self-determination of any entity that wants it? Cornwall, Yorkshire…? However, you can bet your bottom dollar that most Leave voters were Unioist when it came to the Scottish referendum. There is clearly a hypocrisy at play here. They want out of one larger framework of nations, but in on another.
It is difficult to establish a line around the UK coast, but not within it. After all, that line is merely an accident of history.
For me, the future challenges are those of international collaboration. I am an internationalist in this regard. I feel really strongly about this. I don’t want to continue to see a regression into nationalist politics that we have seen in the UK, we are seeing in Poland and Hungary. Progressive, collaborative politics is being shunned in favour of shrinking back into our tribal domains. We won’t solve international problems without working together internationally.
Here, The Conversation looks at how democratic the EU actually is:
I suggest that we expect certain characteristics to be present in the structures of any liberal democracy. They should be representative, transparent and accountable. If these characteristics are present then the democratic institutions will normally enjoy legitimacy and authority.
The EU is undoubtedly representative – more so than many national parliaments, including Britain’s. The European Parliament is made up of MEPs from all 28 EU member states, each elected using various forms of proportional representation (unlike the House of Commons, which is elected through a widely criticised first-past-the-post system)….
The European Commission itself is made up of civil servants recruited from all the member states.
Transparency and accountability
The EU does fall down on transparency. The parliament is transparent enough Commission civil servants have been found to be much more open to enquiries than those working in the British government.
Although the Council of Ministers now holds public sessions, the elected governments of the member states are not keen to grant access to debates in the Council, which are held behind closed doors – and where most important decisions are made. These meetings can’t be watched online and minutes are not made public. Not even representatives of the European Parliament can attend.
But this could be easily changed. And internally within the EU, had we remained.
And instead of looking to blame the EU for perceived faults, some of those faults lie at the feet of national governments and organisations, such as the press:
This is difficult to square with the claim of being democratic, but the remedy mostly lies with the national parliaments. It could and should be their job to call their own government ministers to account for what they do in Brussels, but most national parliaments do a very poor job in this regard – the House of Commons being one of these poor performers.
Another difficulty with ensuring accountability is that, in the absence of significant Europe-wide print or broadcast media, it is up to the national press and broadcasters to fill the public in on what goes on in Brussels. Once again most national level media (especially in the UK) do a patchy, inconsistent and often misleading job.
But there are opportunities for direct citizen involvement in EU matters. Citizens can lobby their own MEPs, or all MEPs if they wish – and it is often individual complaints from citizens that lead to groundbreaking legal judgments by the European Court of Justice. If an EU-wide petition attracts more than 1m signatures from a range of countries, the European Commission must bring proposals about that subject before the European Parliament. The European ombudsman also helps individuals pursue grievances which might involve maladministration by the EU’s institutions.
Clearly the EU structure has defects when assessed by the normal standards of Western democracy – but I would argue that the British parliament, with its unelected House of Lords and an unrepresentative House of Commons (in terms of the balance of political parties to votes cast), is even less democratic.
Eurosceptics have for a long time questioned the legitimacy of the EU – but that charge is difficult to sustain. Of course national parliaments have all agreed to pool sovereignty in the EU institutions, but they are entitled to do that and have done so with their eyes wide open. Many even asked their citizens to vote on the decision in a referendum.
What’s more, national governments, through the Council of Ministers, are still the most powerful collective influence in shaping EU decisions – not the European Parliament. They have the right to raise a yellow card about EU legislation, which can cause the Commission to change it.
And the EU is in the process of strengthening the ability of national parliaments to call a halt to EU legislation if they object to it.
So all in all, the EU is, or is at least working to be, a democratic organisation. It has its failings but national governments have just as many – if not more.
Caring more about what MEPs we voted in would have been a start, and then holding them to account through the media or through the many democratic channels available.
The point of this piece is to show that whilst many Leavers claimed sovereignty and democratic accountability were driving forces behind their votes, this was simply not true, and that they should point their fingers much closer to home first.
It all looks rather hypocritical.
Myself, I wanted democratic change at home, and some reformations in the EU, inspired from within.
I got neither.
There is no soul, either, and the Christian has to try to shoehorn something into nephesh.