Be careful what you wish for

by eiduralfredsson

Many people are very fond of the first-past-the-post system (FPTP) and have convinced themselves that a) it increases our chances of having a stronger government and that b) this is a good thing. This is mindlessly repeated by large numbers of people every day.

“Strong” could mean a lot of different things, but I’m assuming here that it means having enough power to enforce policy without having to negotiate with other parties. In practice, this means having more seats than all the other parties put together. The most extreme version of this is where one party has all the seats and this, by the previous definition, is the strongest possible government.

This raises two questions:
1. If this is a good thing, what is the point of having an opposition in the first place? Don’t they just get in the way of proper government?
2. Why do we need more than one MP? Strong government within a party is surely just as important for the party as a strong national government is for the country. Or is democracy more important within your favourite party than nationally?

This is an argument for dictatorship.

Surely, the only time a dictatorship is justified is when everyone (or close to that) votes for the dictator (assuming more than one is running)? Very few would support a dictator they didn’t vote for, but with FPTP it is technically possible to end up with one party with all the seats, but only a fraction of the popular vote.

This must be what FPTP supporters want. If not, what exactly do they want? Is this only a good thing if your favourite party wins? Is there some optimal balance of power? If so, what is it? Which parties are allowed to participate? Shouldn’t we design the system to achieve this balance? And since the public can not be trusted to decide that balance with the popular vote, who should decide?

Arguments for introducing such biases are inherently elitist and arrogant. They are saying that the public is too stupid to vote.

But is strong government a good thing in the first place? This is a common assumption and it might make some superficial sense, but rarely does any evidence show up. Iceland has had a version of such a system for decades and it, um…, hasn’t worked very well. Incompetent and corrupt de facto dictators, propped up by a large majority, have run the country to the ground. Ben Goldacre has this: no obvious correlation between the size of the biggest party and low government debt.

It would be interesting to see some proper analysis of this, but I suspect that there is no correlation. Some strong governments are good, some are bad. Some weak governments are good, some are bad.

The only consistent way to reflect the vote of the people and to avoid accidental dictatorships is to have proportional representation.