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Pathfinders: Post-election Blues

Russia has been claiming since late last year that the Scottish referendum on independence was rigged by Westminster in favour of a ‘no’ vote (Guardian, 19 September 2014). Following up this exercise in pots calling kettles black, they have hailed the landslide victory of the SNP in the general election as proof positive that they were right. How, their propagandists want to know, could Scotland be split down the middle on independence one minute, and then vote unanimously for the Scottish National Party the next, if there wasn’t substantial monkey business going on? Many confused UK voters may be wondering the same thing.

Let’s put aside the obvious retort that if Westminster was going to rig the independence referendum why didn’t they rig the Scottish vote in the general election as well? The real answer to this conundrum is not nearly so cloak-and-dagger, though it does remain puzzling to many. Greens and especially UKIP voters woke up wide-eyed with shock and cries of ‘We wuz robbed’ on post-election day upon finding that their votes had gone en-masse down the toilet while only Tory votes had the magical power to produce MPs.

People just don’t seem to get how first-past-the-post works, despite having the whole business out at tedious length in a special referendum in 2011. If your vote isn’t for the winner, it’s the same as if you hadn’t bothered voting at all. The 2014 Scottish referendum was a close-run thing, with a 55.3 percent No vote against a 44.7 percent Yes vote on an 84.59 percent turnout. In the General Election, assuming just a two-horse race between the SNP and Labour and assuming the same voting ratio in each seat, the result would still have been a SNP landslide. That’s not how it was, of course, because there were several horses in the field to split the anti-SNP vote. In the event, Labour had just under 25 percent of the vote, Cons had 15 percent and Lib Dems had 7.5 percent. When you add this lot up and throw in the dreg Other votes it comes to about 50 percent. So the SNP landslide of 56 out of 59 seats was derived from just 50 percent of the votes. Which represents just 5 percent more nationalist fervour (or dislike of Miliband’s pink Tories) than we saw in the referendum.

No need for Kremlin Konspiracies then. But it is still surprising how surprised people are about this FPTP system. It’s as if nobody can remember the debate anymore. Matters seemed clear enough back in 2011. Aside from a lot of guff about fair representation and the hallowed ideals of democracy, the choice was between a political system that was forever locked into a swinging pendulum between two identikit parties which spent their entire decade-long terms undoing each other’s works, and a Euro-style consensus politics where political horse-trading, coalitions and compromises were the order of the day. In the one system you get a periodic rollercoaster of drama and convulsion ultimately culminating in no change, while in the other you get a lot of humdrum sameness culminating in no change. Around 70 percent of British voters chose the drama. And now they act surprised when they get it.

Socialists have varying opinions on this matter. Ultimately though, for socialism to be established across the world, and for it to work, support for it would have to be so massive that it wouldn’t make any difference what voting system was in place. There is the more vexing question of how to do voting in a socialist society, given that mathematically-speaking there is no voting system which can be ‘fair’ to everyone. This sobering fact was first established in 1950 by Nobel prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow, whose ‘impossibility theorem’ surveyed all the possible voting systems then known and found that none could meet all his proposed criteria for fairness. Since then new contenders have come forward, or at least old ones in new livery. One of these is ‘range-voting’, a style of voting used in medieval Venice and more recently to rate YouTube videos, where you give candidates a score out of 10, or give them no score, or the same score, with the highest aggregate score giving the winner (New Scientist, 12 April 2008). But there are downsides to every system. In many, a candidate can win even if they were not most people’s first choice. Plus the systems can be gamed by strategic voting, a tactic quite likely in capitalist elections if not in socialism.

Still, this is not a question for socialists to get bogged down in. People in socialism would choose the system which delivered the greatest fairness to the greatest number. If it turned out not to work, they’d try something else. Formal voting might not even be a large factor in socialist society, since for all we know people might devise more informal ways of operating society which did not require it. How often do you see hands-in-the-air voting systems employed in groups organising a party or a picnic or a volunteer building project, after all? It might be that voting would only occur, on the whole, on the rare occasions when disputes arose, or things went wrong, rather than as a regular and ritualised social institution. How this might work, and work transparently, is not for us to guess. What is true is that we can’t make assumptions about democratic structures in socialism based on structures which exist in today’s capitalist world, where an elaborate apparatus exists mainly for show. Opponents like to caricature socialism as endless meetings getting in the way of real work. Socialists who are accustomed to today’s procedural complexities have sometimes projected similar procedures into the future, scaling them up to the level of global super-conferences and the like and thus inadvertently lending support to the caricaturists. What gets forgotten in all this is the issue of trust. As we have learned to trust scientists to do a good job, and the scientific method to expose those who don’t, so we might learn to trust other socialists to do a good job, and the socialist political method to uncover bad jobs where necessary, rather than set ourselves the impossible task of personally scrutinising every decision, every resource budget and every policy document for signs of weakness. The emancipation of humanity from wage-servitude doesn’t have to mean we all become full-time nit-pickers and bureaucrats. It could just as easily mean a welcome release from obsessing about the democratic process itself.