The results of the election, in terms of the ratio between share of the vote and number of MPs, speak for themselves. First past the post voting can leave a lot of people feeling like their views are not represented.
The table below shows the number of seats won by each party alongside their share of the vote and the number of seats which each party would have ended up with under proportional representation.
|Party||UK vote share||Number of seats (actual)||Number of seats (proportional)|
The difference is striking in some instances. The Green Party won 3.8% of the overall vote. Under proportional representation this would have translated into 3.8% of the 650 seats available, 24 or 25 seats. The reality is that they ended up with only a single MP, or 0.15% of the available seats. UKIP have been even more disappointed, their 12.6% of the vote would have given them around 82 MPs rather than the one they ended up with. The Conservatives, Labour and the SNP on the other hand seem to have benefited from the same system.
The point is, the representation of different political views in parliament is disproportionate to the number of people who actually hold them. If the big advantage of democracy is that everyone has the right to represent their own interests and to have them taken into account in political decision making then under-representation of particular interests is a problem.
The real problem, however, is even bigger than that. Even under proportional representation voting is simply a method of preference aggregation. It should be fairly uncontroversial that politics should be concerned with the common good. The way I’m choosing to interpret this is that the common good is related to the subjective welfare of the people. At the most basic level, a situation where everyone regards their welfare as maximised is to be preferred to a situation where everyone regards their welfare as minimised. The problem is that, if we think that government should promote the common good, then we need to find a better decision making procedure than the simple aggregation of expressed preferences.
In our current system there are three main sources of political information. The media, personal experience (which includes our conversations with each other) and our representatives. The media, and our representatives, both have a similar relationship with the electorate. This relationship is based on marketing. In the case of the media, this is based on reporting information in a way which maximises sales. If people have a preference for having their existing beliefs confirmed rather than challenged then the media will report in a way which does so depending on their target audience. For example an internet search for “immigration Guardian” brought up the headline “A punitive approach to refugees will lead Europe to unrest and corruption”. Searching for “immigration Daily Mail” brought up “Secret report warns of migration meltdown in Britain”. From this it seems fairly clear what the general attitude towards immigration is expected to be for these two audiences, although without further investigation this difference could just be due to chance or could be a demonstration of confirmation bias on my part. However, if this is the case then we are in a situation where the target audience of any media organisation will have their existing views reinforced more often than not. Our representatives have to do a similar thing. The main difference is that, where the Daily Mail is confirming its audience’s beliefs in order to get them to spend money on their publication, political parties are trying to say that they will act in a accordance with the electorate’s preferences in order to get them to spend their vote on their local candidate.
If this is based on the pre-existing preferences which we have and which are constantly reinforced through our choice of media then the overall message we will get from both our media sources and our actual and potential representatives is going to be as close as they can get to what we already believe.
This leads into our personal experiences. The problem is that we are afflicted with a variety of cognitive biases. For example, confirmation bias leads us to interpret events in a way which confirms what we already believe and the backfire effect makes us respond to evidence against our current beliefs by rejecting it and strengthening our beliefs. This will include our conversations with each other. The general tendency, and observing any online political discussion is likely to confirm this, is to dismiss people with different political opinions as either stupid or malicious.
This is no way to ensure that political decisions are made in a way which focusses on and promotes the common good.
I believe that the way out of this is to improve access to political education at the same time as promoting a more accurate view of the complexity of politics. Political issues do not simply involve matters of fact, they also involve judgements of value. Both sides of this are more complex than our current popular way of engaging with them allows. Due to this complexity it is perfectly possible that two people could be completely rational and in possession of all the relevant facts and still disagree on the correct policy. When discussing tax, one person may believe that the wealthy should pay a greater proportion due to the fact that they have benefited from the system more than the poor have, while another may argue that everyone should pay the same amount as taxing one person for the benefit of another is too close to slavery.
Promoting a greater understanding of the origins of political disagreement goes hand in hand with encouraging more rational political discussion. The encouragement of more rational political discussion, based on the idea that even your opponents are reasonable people will help to transform the preferences which we bring to political decision making. If we have a greater understanding of the issues then we are more likely to understand which policies will promote the common good. If we are committed to solving political disagreements through rational discussion then we will have to support our political preferences with reasons which we expect to be persuasive to others. If we are unable to find reasons why others should support the policies we prefer then we will either have to abandon them or modify them into a more acceptable public form. It will not be possible for me to support a set of policies simply on the basis that I prefer them.
What I have attempted to give a basic description of is the idea of deliberative democracy. That is, a way of making political decisions through rational deliberation focussed on the common good rather than the aggregation of private preferences. A lot more detail is possible but the point has been to show that the problems with our political system are not limited to a lack of proportional representation. At the very least we also need to encourage greater political education, including the ability to critically assess value judgements, and promote the idea that political disagreements can be entirely rational rather than motivated by malice or stupidity.
Cohen, J. “Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy” from The Good Polity (eds Hamlin and Pettit) (Blackwell, Oxford 1989). in Matrevers and Pike (2003)
Elster, J. “The Market and the Forum” from Foundations of Social Choice Theory (eds Elster and Hylland) (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1986) in Matrevers and Pike (2003)
Gutmann, A. and Thompson, D. “Why Deliberative Democracy?” (Woodstock: Princeton University Press, 2004)
Matrevers, D. and Pike, J., (2003) (eds) Debates in Contemporary Political Philosophy an Anthology, London, Routledge in association with the Open University.
Rawls, J., “The Domain Of The Political and Overlapping Consensus” The New York University Law Review 64, 1989, in Matravers and Pike
Sunstein, C. 1991 “Preferences and Politics” Philosophy and Public Affairs 20 3-34