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idiothole ([personal profile] idiothole) wrote2011-01-05 12:39 am
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Political systems & electoral reform - thoughts on Finnish and British politics.

Being a foreign follower of British politics is interesting, partly because British politics in itself is interesting, but also because I always come at certain subjects with a viewpoint slightly different from any actual, British commentators. There are subjects where I have my views, and they're by no means unique views, and then there are subjects where I notice that my own viewpoint is so removed from the British context, I can't really swing one way or the other on it.

Such a subject is electoral reform, specifically the plans to go from First Past the Post to Alternative Vote.

Finland is a land of proportional representation when it comes to parliamentary elections. Specifically Party-list PR. Essentially this has created a system where one of the three major parties typically "wins" the election and leads the creation of a government. However, the smaller parties tend to get a break as well. For example, say you voted for a Green candidate. They might not get in. But since your vote has been pooled to the overall number of votes the party got, another Green member may get in from your district, thanks to the distributional number given to the number (I admit this part is always where my math-literacy ends and I just get a little confused). Of course, there might be a member from the Centre party (which is a bigger party and was the election winner last time) who got less votes than the Green member, but thanks to the mathematics and the fact Centre party got more votes, they get in. The Greens may also make an election-alliance with another party (this is a rather weird Finnish specialty as I've lead to understand), where their votes will be pooled together to get a better distributional number.

Sound confusing? I suppose it might be. At heart, the Finnish system has lead to coalition governments for about as long as there's been democracy. One of the complaints you hear most often from Finns is that political parties are all the same, and nobody can tell the differences between them. I would say this is partly correct and partly political laziness on the part of voters (in that if you look hard enough, I'm sure there are differences). But it does make the point that once you've always had parties working side-by-side, collaborating in government and then departing and maybe at some point coming together in opposition, the relations between parties tend to be a lot less hostile. (Finnish parliament certainly lacks the drama and the liveliness of House of Commons.)

So as ever we notice that a different history brings about a different system. A Finnish voter doesn't think much about the formation of a coalition government (which typically contain major parties as well as smaller parties), but to a British voter it's a shock, and a failing of the system that is supposed to bring about one party in an absolute majority in government. All rather understandable.

What about AV, then? Well, in the British system, supposedly this would bring about more proportional representation. It might also bring about more coalition governments. Given the current coalition deal, in which the Liberal Democrats seem to have become a punching bag to a public resisting what are understood as Tory policies, I can see why people would not want more coalitions. But then, it would possibly mark the transition from a system where two parties dominate to one where three parties do, and the smaller parties are no longer considered a joke.

However, unlike in the truly proportional system, a vote counts more than in FPTP but it doesn't necessarily count in the grand scheme of things. So there will probably still be safe seats for certain, they'll just be more easily contested, but in a sort of strange way, where a candidate might be unseated based on the fact they are less preferred than the other candidates (so a Conservative candidate may be unseated if people who vote for LD or Labour end up picking the other party candidate as secondary preference, and not the Conservative candidate). I don't know, it's such a weird system, and based on what I've heard about it from Australians, who all seem to have enormous disregard for their political system and their politicians, even more so than Finns and Brits, I do think Clegg might've had a point with calling it a miserable compromise.

I've thought a lot about the idea of constituencies. Finland has voting areas, so that people know where to go vote near their house, and I can't give my vote to a candidate from Rovaniemi (town near polar circle) when I live in Helsinki. But I don't have a representative in as much as they represent all people who live in this area I live in. Of course, the candidate I last voted got in so I would write to them, had I concern of some kind. But say I had voted for somebody who hadn't got in, whose party had zero MPs? Would I be less represented than the Labour supported in a Conservative safeseat, or a Green supporter in most constituencies? I have a hunch Brits wouldn't want to give up on constituencies, since they seem to serve a purpose, if only for pompous MP's to denounce constituency concerns for a long while and them embrace them come election time. ;)

But as charming as constituencies are with their quaint names, I feel like if the electoral system would be to come truly PR, they'd have to be abolished (so that a vote for Labour is a vote for Labour, no matter where you are in the country, and same for every other party), and that's obviously way too huge a step. I think that's also kind of what makes AV such a strange system - it's a step on a road to PR but it's not quite the stride. I think some pro-AV would like it to be a stepping stone, but will it? Can it? I mean, how long until the next time somebody decides to bring up electoral reform? I mean, just the lengthy process of how universal suffrage came about was complex enough in the UK. (In Finland, in comparison, there was a certain ease of a brand new political system where they decided, let's have parliament, one chamber, no fuss, everybody gets to vote, done, election, please.)

Some say AV has to happen because if AV doesn't happen, nothing progressive will be done in terms of reforming the electoral system. Fair enough, but it does sound a bit alarmist and desperate, like telling a soldier going off to war that if he doesn't pull on his last night of freedom, he'll probably die a virgin.

I guess my point is, I don't know where I stand exactly on the electoral reform issue, and of course it's not really my place to take a stand, as I won't be the one deciding. And I certainly understand both arguments - YES to AV because it is more democratic than FPTP and perhaps any change is better than no change at all, but NO to AV because it's a strange system nobody quite wants whole-heartedly but is willing to settle for and doesn't bring true proportional representation. Of course, you might've guessed going by this post, I am leaning heavily towards skepticism. But like I said, it's all for Britain to decide, not me.