Actually, most people are happy with the result of the general election

One of the assertions that I keep seeing on social media and other websites is that only a minority of people voted for the current government, with the implication that it therefore lacks both popular support and legitimacy.

It’s become something of a self-replicating meme, particularly among those who still haven’t come to terms with the fact that their opinions weren’t shared by the majority of voters. I see it so often that I’ve decided to respond to it here, so that in future I can just point people at this article rather than having to type all of this every time.

Usually, this claim takes the form of pointing out that around 37% of votes were cast for the Conservatives, although some (such as Astroturf campaign group 38 Degrees) like to go further and assert that only 24% of the electorate voted for them on the basis that you have to take account of non-voters as well.

While technically true, however, this does not in any way support the implication that most people don’t support the current government.

For a start, the total proportion of votes cast were for a centre-right or right-wing party. If you add up the votes for the Conservatives, UKIP and the DUP then you get a bare majority (just over 50%) of all votes cast.

Given that there were only two realistic options for who would be Prime Minister, anyone voting for any party other than Labour or the Conservatives would only expect to be in power as part of a coalition. UKIP and the DUP are both broadly right of centre parties, although their agendas differ greatly. So a vote for either of them was a vote for a right of centre government. And the only right of centre government which is in any way plausible is one in which the Conservatives are the largest party and David Cameron is Prime Minister.

Even if we had full proportional representation, therefore, we’d still have David Cameron in Downing Street and most government ministries run by Conservatives.

However, the people who voted for overtly right of centre parties aren’t the only ones who would be happy with that. A small, but non-trivial, number of Lib Dem voters would consider themselves centre-right rather than centre-left. The “Orange Book” Lib Dems would almost certainly be happier with a Cameron-led government than one led by Ed Miliband.

Then there are voters in Scotland who are nationalists first and conservatives second, and therefore voted for the SNP despite, rather than because, it’s a left of centre party. They, too, are presumably happy with the outcome of the SNP dominating Scotland with a Conservative government in Westminster. There may not be all that many of them, but the certainly exist. So we can add them to the overall total of supporters of a Conservative-led government.

OK, but what about the non-voters? Well, there are many reasons for not voting, but a general “none of the above” attitude is not the most common. Research suggests that antipathy to all the parties only amounts to around 15%-20% of non-voters. For the rest, apathy, disinterest and practical issues (such as being unable to arrange a postal vote in time) are what stopped them voting.

Of the apathetic voters, many of them are apathetic because they genuinely don’t care who runs the country. They can, therefore, be presumed to be, if not exactly happy, at least comfortable with the result of the general election in May. It is true, of course, that they’d also have been equally comfortable with a Labour government. But they can’t be assumed to be opposed to the current government.

For the rest, research also suggests that if voting were compulsory (as it is in Australia), non-voters would divide among the parties on offer in much the same proportions as actual voters. So if all those non-voters had voted, it would have increased the number of votes cast for the Conservatives more than it would have increased the number of votes cast for any other party. And the overall proportion of votes cast for the Conservatives would have remained unchanged.

It is, therefore, statistically indisputable that the majority of the UK electorate, at the 2015 election, preferred a right of centre government. The only area of difference is that some of them preferred a single party government while others preferred a coalition.

We can also look at this another way. A majority of the electrate wanted a right of centre government. Of those who did, a majority wanted a single party government. So a single party, right of centre government is the result that is the best fit for the largest number of the electorate. If, instead of voting for individual candidates in individual seats, we’d had a single election for four options…

A: left of centre coalition
B: left of centre single party
C: right of centre coalition
D: right of centre single party

…and used a ranking vote system, such as AV or Condorcet, to choose between them, then (barring some really weird ranking choices) option D would have won.

However you slice and dice it, you always end up wih the “right” result being either a Conservative government or a Conservative-led coalition government along with other right wing parties. There is no valid argument which results in any left-wing party being in government.

It’s not unreasonable to make the argument that a coalition of multiple right-wing parties would have been a better reflection of the overall preferences of the electorate, although even that has its issues (why should UKIP have been part of the government when Labour, who got considerably more votes and seats, are not?). But the one thing that you cannot honestly argue – or imply – is that there is some kind of “anti-Conservative majority” in the UK.

Why you can’t just vote for policies

As we approach the general election in May, a number of websites have sprung up (and more will probably follow) where you can compare the various policies of the parties competing for your vote. The idea is that you can then make an unbiased judgement about the policies proposed by each party, and choose which to vote for accordingly. One of the sites which does this is the aptly-named Vote for Policies, and as their founder explains:

“I wanted other people to let go of their preconceptions, to see past the spin and judge parties on the policies they were proposing.”

The problem is that this doesn’t work. You can’t just vote for policies alone. That is not to say that policies are unimportant, because they clearly are. But there are other aspects of casting your vote which matter as well. You can’t simply look at the manifestos of each party and decide who to vote for based only on that.

There are two main reasons why you can’t just decide how to vote based solely on how well each party matches up to your own preferences.

It isn’t just what you say, it’s also what you do.

The first is that policies are not the only thing which matters. And it isn’t, as a blog post on Vote for Policies suggests, just a straightforward choice between policy and personality:

“Do you decide how to vote on policy or personality? Is it better to put emotion aside, and focus on which policies a party is offering?”

This is a false dichotomy. For a start, it isn’t necessarily an emotional choice to consider a candidate’s personality. A key part of an elected representative’s role is dealing with the general public; you have to be comfortable being in the public eye, you have to be at ease in social settings and you have to be open and approachable. These are personality traits, but they matter.

I think most people would also agree that it’s important for MPs and other elected representatives to be hard working, honest and transparent. You can’t judge this on their policies alone, you can only assess them from their interaction with you and with the media. And it’s entirely rational to make that assessment. It may be harder to assess than how well you like their policies, but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored.

The other issue here is that policies and personality are not the only factors. There are aspects of a candidate’s personal life which really don’t matter very much, such as where they went to school or university, who they are married to or what their parents did for a living. But what they do now is relevant. So is their experience of work outside politics. These aren’t policy issues, but they do affect how suitable a candidate is for the role.

One very important factor in a candidate’s suitability is their competence. Government isn’t just about having a set of policies and applying them rigidly in every situation. Making the right decisions about circumstances as they arise is probably the single defining factor of an administration’s success – or lack of it.

Obviously, these decisions will be guided by policies and principles, and there will often be cases where there is a clear difference of approach between parties. But there will also be many cases where there is no clear-cut ideological answer, and the administration has to make a purely pragmatic choice.

Having confidence that one party is more likely to get these questions right is a very powerful reason to prefer them over other parties. Often, it’s even a reason to prefer them over a party that you may feel more in tune with as far as their policies are concerned.

It’s a lot easier to promise the moon on a stick than it is to make a stick long enough to deliver it.

The second reason why you can’t just choose a party based on their policies is that the policies themselves can be misleading.

Most of the policy matching applications tend to over-state the extent to which you agree with the fringe parties. If you are politically inclined to the left, you will find that the Greens are surprisingly representative of your point of view. If you are inclined to the right, you will find a strong convergence between your views and Ukip’s. You might even find that Respect and the BNP come into it, as well.

It doesn’t take a lot of thought to realise why this is the case. The fringe parties know that they have no prospect of real power – the best they can hope for is to be the king-makers in a hung parliament – and therefore they have no need to focus on practical, achievable policies.

The mainstream parties have to be realistic – or, at least, try to be realistic – in their manifestos. In particular, both the Conservatives and Labour have to ensure that their policies are costed, as not doing so will be a huge electoral liability. They also have to be careful to avoid making promises that they will probably need to break if they win, no matter how popular those policies may be.

The fringe parties, by contrast, can be as populist as they like. They can cherry pick from a shopping list of dog-whistle policies which appeal to their target demographic, whether or not those policies are practical or achievable in the real world. And that will be reflected in how many of their policies you find yourself agreeing with on a policy match website.

You wouldn’t hire the CEO of a multi-trillion organisation just by getting them to fill in an application form.

I’m not saying that policies are unimportant. Clearly, they are. But it’s a huge mistake to vote for policies alone. Choosing your next MP, and our next government, can’t be reduced to a simple tick-box exercise.

By all means, study the policies. But study other things too. Which party do you think will be more likely to make the right decisions on a day to day basis once in power? Which prospective prime minister do you think is the most up to the job? Which of your candidates for MP, or for any other elected position, is the most able to engage effectively with the local community? And when it comes to policies, which are realistic and achievable and which are just populism aimed at harvesting votes?

It would be nice if there was a website which aimed to answer all of those in a nice, simple fashion, in the way that the policy matching sites claim to do for policies. But there isn’t. And there can’t be.

If you want to make an informed, rational choice about who to vote for, you need to make sure that you inform yourself. Read the news. Watch the politicians on TV. Go along to local hustings. Connect with candidates on social media. And yes, check the policies and see which appeal to you. But above all, make your decision holistically rather than just focussing on one aspect of it.

A proposal for Parliamentary Reform

I’ve explained in a previous article why I think that STV in multi-member constituencies is the wrong choice for electing the House of Commons. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want change. I do want change – I just don’t want change that will weaken the foundations of representative democracy.

The simple fact is that true proportionality is fundamentally incompatible with constituency-based representative democracy. Any attempt to reconcile the two within one system will inevitably involve a compromise which fails to meet either desire.

My preferred solution, therefore, is not to attempt to solve the problem within a single system. Instead, my preference is to have both proportionality and constituency-based representative democracy. And I think that the method of achieving that is staring us in the face.

Discussion of PR always seems to revolve around altering the voting system for the House of Commons. But, at the same time, there are also proposals for a reformed – and elected – House of Lords. I think that these should be linked. Instead of treating each as a separate issue, we should be looking at not merely a different voting system for the Commons and an elected Lords, but rather a reformed Parliament – that is, both the Commons and the Lords – which retains the best elements of both Houses and yet brings the institution as a whole into the 21st century.

My proposal is simple. Retain the existing single-member constituency system for elections to the Commons, with members elected by FPTP as at present (or a simple ranking system such as AV or Condorcet). But replace the Lords with an entirely proportional chamber, with seats distributed according to the total percentage of votes received by every party at the general election. After the election, each party with more than a minimum threshold (I would put it at 1% of the total vote, from candidates fielded in at least 10 constituencies) is allocated seats in the Lords according to their total vote and they then fill them with whoever they choose. Yes, that’s a party list system, but in this case I think this is the best way of doing it because the Lords are not intended to be representatives. These members of the reformed Lords would, like members of the Commons, be full-time members of the legislature and paid a salary accordingly. However, unlike members of the Commons, they would not be eligible for second home expenses as they have no constituency to answer to and hence no need for two official residences. And I would retain a small number of cross-benchers in the Lords, appointed by an independent appointments commission that is not controlled by the government of the day.

What that means is that every vote would, in effect, count twice – once for the individual MP in the voter’s constituency, and once for the composition of the Lords. No-one’s vote would be wasted, as even if they don’t get the MP of their choice they do influence their party’s position in the Lords.

However, if this was all that was done, it wouldn’t really change much, given the current dominance of the Commons. So I’d add a few other changes, to ensure that the newly proportional Lords does have an effect. Firstly, I’d amend the Parliament Act so as to make it much harder for the Commons to force a Bill through even if it’s defeated in the Lords. Ultimately, I’d still retain the primacy of the Commons in order to avoid the possibility of legislative deadlock where the two houses simply cannot agree, but I would make it impossible to use this on a routine basis. Secondly, I’d get rid of the convention that in the case of a hung parliament, the incumbent PM remains in charge and has first dibs at forming a government. Instead, I’d make the rule that the leader of the party with the largest share of the popular vote becomes PM, full stop. If that leaves him/her in charge of a minority government, then tough – they’ll just have to get on with it and negotiate with the other parties as necessary. But there will be no “kingmakers” – a smaller party can’t pick and choose which major party to form a government with, as only the most popular party will have the right to appoint the PM.

Taken together, I think these reforms would create a stronger, more inclusive Parliament, while still retaining the current best features of both the Commons and the Lords.