Why do we never learn anything from history?


Continuing a case study of electoral reform as war games politics. ( Mainly covering the Tory rule of the 1980s. )

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Back to: War games politics censors knowledge thru free enquiry. ( First part of this electoral reform case study. )

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Tory PR between single member constituencies.

My argument is that the last quarter of the twentieth century saw 'fair votes' movements conduct an electoral reform campaign that was essentially the adversarial politics, they criticised. It was just trying to replace one dogma with another.

The old dogma was that the first past the post system produced strong governments, with working majorities, directly chosen by the people from individual representatives, with local links to their constituents, in a single member system. As with the fair votes dogma, this sounds reasonable. But once again the devil is in the details, which show how crudely inefficient and restrictive a system it is.

When the Conservatives came back to power in 1979, the first thing they did was to equalise single member constituencies, often with disregard to community boundaries. This caused much local protest that their interests were unnaturally fragmented. As a result, the Tory majorities in parliamentary seats massively increased in the succeeding general elections of 1983 and 1987, for little difference in their minority per-centage of the vote ( about 44 to 42 ).

In other words, proportional representation between single member constituencies was the particular system that maximised the Tories' number of seats in parliament. Of course, no one, who could be heard, ever called it that. But that, nevertheless, is what it was. Proportional representation, in any form, was a dirty word, with the Tory leaders. For people to realise that the Tories were grossly exploiting a particular, if restricted, form of it, to their own advantage, might start awkward questions being asked about a less self-defeating use of the PR principle.

Had the Tories ever thought of this, they neednt have worried. To electoral reformers, proportional representation was too holy a concept, to be associated, in however attenuated a form, with the dirty deeds of the Tory party digging itself in, to hold onto power.

But we see here, once again, the wisdom of calling things by their proper names, to resolve conflicts that are not based on any real difference of democratic principle, if the truth were known. And here we come to the nub of the problem. For purposes of personal or partisan advantage, it is often inconvenient for the truth to be known, and steps may be taken to suppress it.

Tory suppression of impartial enquiry.

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For instance, before their 1979 victory, the Tories promised, in two campaigns, to hold a Speakers Conference on Electoral Reform. But by then, a national campaign had got under way, that might even win the argument. And the new Tory government unilaterally rushed in the above-described legislation, to equalise constituencies, whose accurate description is PR between single member constituencies.

The new PM, Margaret Thatcher said: 'the lady is not for turning'. So, what was the meaning behind this U-turn against a constitutional settlement of reform?

Much of British industry was lavishly and secretly funding the Tories. ( By 2001, Blair's Labour government required parties to disclose large donations and limit spending on elections and referendums. ) Fears were voiced that a leftward Labour party was going to nationalise the biggest companies. First past the post might give it a working majority in parliament, to do that, with less than forty per cent support of the voters.

Hence, the Tories, in opposition, sounded much less dismissive of proportional representation. Some of their business funders found PR attractive as a means to put the command economy forever beyond the Labour Left. Thatcherism soon showed itself to be a radical alternative, with its return to laissez-faire economics. And not all business was happy with the prospect of their planning being set at nought, by even more radical swings between the two extremes of socialism and individualism. ( My web pages, on Constitutional Economics and an economic parliament, discuss how to reconcile socialism and capitalism, democratically. )

First past the post promoted these polarities by exaggerating swings in voters' support, in terms of the number of seats changing hands between the big two parties. Prof. Finer refered to surveys showing the public less doctrinaire than the official lines.

The Conservative government of the 1980s refused to hold an impartial enquiry into the electoral anomalies, they had so eagerly engineered. This was as much to say, with the arrogance of power, that the government knew best. When the inter-viewer David Dimbleby questioned the prime minister, he put it to her, that she was just saying she didnt like it ( PR ). He implied this was not justification enough.

Mrs Thatcher gave the impression that the 1983 result for the Lib-SDP Alliance was their own fault for trying to violate the sanctity of the two-party system ( which the British constitution does not recognise, as distinct from the right to a 'loyal opposition' ). In any case, that is not all that was at issue. Leading Social Democrats broke with the Labour half of the two-party system, when it rejected 'one member one vote' as the way of managing its party affairs.

On that election night, one of the most popular and able cabinet ministers, Michael Heseltine was the only senior Tory I heard give any thought, to defending the simple majority system.

His excuses went like this:

The Alliance wouldnt have behaved any better to the Tories, if victory had been theirs.

So, he admitted the Tories were behaving badly. But actually, he was probably right. Bertrand Russell said it is a mistake to believe in the superior virtue of the oppressed. In the past quarter century, the attitude of the Liberals and their allies has put their getting more seats for votes before anything else. The Liberals who would prostitute their historic principles for a few more seats in parliament, as Norman St John Stevas, once put it, at Tory party conference.

Nevertheless, Heseltine's first argument of tu quoque, or, 'you also' ( are guilty ) is anarchic. It is the selfish belief that every one is selfish and deserves only to be selfishly treated. This would lead, as Thomas Hobbes said, to a state of 'war of all against all' in which life would be 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.'

Michael Heseltine's second excuse against the inequity of the 1983 election admitted that the system was unfair. But it could be unfair in the Alliance's favor, another time.

Here, Heseltine seems to contradict himself. Is he saying, yes the system gives unfair results, but no, it isnt unfair, because the unfairness can happen to others instead? What compensation is one unfairness for another? Both unfairnesses remain unfair.

This second excuse can be reduced to the absurd ( reductio ad absurdum ). It implies there's no need to bother about any-one being unjustly treated, because the wheel of fortune may always turn again in their favor. It was another apology for anarchy.

( Another reason, the arch-European, Heseltine gave, was the Continental experience of unstable multi-party governments. This indeed follows from their PR systems, which are based on a vote for a party division. But transferable voting allows unitary choice. STV allows voters to prefer a particular coalition and therefore make a decisive choice of the government's composition. With STV, there's no need for post-election wheeling and dealing between the parties, before a government can be formed. )

The 1987 British general election repeated 1983's bloated majority of the Tory party in power. But the tv discussion, on election night, was as if the controversy had gone away. Suppression of debate was not confined to the Tories.

Labour vows vengeance on opinion polls.

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The Liberals found some solace in by-election victories but there were signs that their two big party oppressors would deny them this, too, if they could -- essentially by the same tactics of suppressing information to the public. Like the Tory press and the media in general, opinion polls became a scape-goat for Labour failures.

The 1983 election result renewed the complaints, including from a wrathful senior front-bencher.

The argument for banning polls, during an election, was that voters shouldnt be influenced by the apparent trend other voters are following. People have to think for themselves and follow their own convictions in a democracy.

Of course, if MPs did this, they would be expelled from their parties. They would have virtually no chance of re-election, because first past the post elections dont allow voters to prefer between candidates of the same party or general political persuasion. Instead, their split vote would let in their opponent from the other main party.

The hypocrisy, of party politicians telling the public to be independent-minded, is obvious. And their argument is quite the reverse of the truth. Granted that people are influenced by polls, it need not follow they wish to get on a band-wagon. If anything, they may be voting with more, rather than less, conviction. All you can say for sure is that opinion polls allow voters to act in the knowledge of the way the campaign appears to be going.

If people cannot be trusted to use wisely a knowledge of polls, then those against the election-time polls really dont trust the people at all to behave in an informed manner. The banners of opinion polls are not democrats.

All, mainly Labour, banners were offering was ignorance of others' current choices. It was the impertinence of telling voters to keep their opinions to themselves, during an election. That is in the effective form of the collective voice of a poll.

Anti-poll legislation would be a public gagging law. For, knowledge is power. And the knowledge of the polls helps the voters decide how to use primitive X-votes to most effect. In 1983, the polls showed the Liberals, in their 'Alliance' with the new Social Democratic Party, catching up with Labour in their per-cent shares of the national vote.

In such circumstances, the polls give a modest independence to the voters from a straight fight between two parties. The big two parties, who always pressed tactical voting on the voters, because the Liberals were 'a wasted vote', were venting their spleen on the polls, for showing to what extent this was true. The polls were a force against ruling the voters by ignorance and fear of splitting their vote to let-in a least prefered party candidate.

The editorial, of a right-wing Tory paper, The Sunday Express, wanted a ban on polls. The excuse was the misleading polls in Labour's favor, before the 1985 Brecon and Radnor by-election. The Alliance narrowly won. Tho the polls got the result wrong, they were right in showing that the Alliance were the best chance of keeping Labour out. Without the polls, this would not have been known, and the voters would have been denied the power of exercising their actual preference between the two front runners.

As the pollsters say, statistically, they are bound to get it wrong sometimes, but without them, the voters would only have wild rumors, organised panics and biased hear-say.

A few MPs are allowed a private members bill, by lottery. In 1985, a Labour MP's poll-ban bill was narrowly defeated. So, little attempt was made, by the Tories with their 140 seat majority, to stop the bill. Most private members bills have little chance of being passed, without special dispensation from the government, which has increasingly crowded them out, over the years.

Metropolitan councils abolition.

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The so-called party of the constitution made a more blatant departure from constitutional methods when they abolished the metropolitan councils, mainly controled by Labour. But they left the other half of local government, in the shires, controled by their own party. This rural bias was reminiscent of the House of Commons before the Great Reform Bill of 1832.

It was a reactionary measure, in the spirit of an act of war: You cannot come to terms with these people, so destroy their power base, even if you destroy whole urban units of local democracy to do it. Indeed, this rub-out was a response to scandalous extravagance by so-called 'loony left' councils. ( Blair's outspokenness, against Livingstone as London mayor, owed to bitter memories of the likes of 'red Ken's' antics in that period, before Thatcher shut them down. ) But metropolitan councils abolition was, also, one more in a series of wasteful re-organisations of local government. It did not even have the agreement of the Tory party, especially in the Lords. Abolition was vigilante politics, instead of practical politics by seeking the long-term agreement of a constitutional settlement.

The Royal Commission on standards of conduct in public life had been set up after corruption in one-party local government. In 1976, the Salmon report did pick up the current catch-phrase, 'some form of proportional representation', as a remedy. But the commission's terms of reference forbad looking into the subject.

In other words, corruption was to be investigated as long as it didnt come up with the answer that compromised the party in government's own monopoly power. George Orwell said that if democracy means anything, it means the right to say what other people dont want to hear.

The Royal Commission on the Constitution was similarly denied this right, when it came to voting methods. But such was the seriousness of the constitutional situation in Northern Ireland, and potentially in Scotland and Wales, that the Kilbrandon report did recommend the single transferable vote for regional and the Celtic national assemblies in the UK.

'Ignorance is strength' says the Ministry of Truth in Orwell's totalitarian satire, '1984'. The Callaghan Labour government simply ignored the Kilbrandon Commission's 1973 recommendation, one of many frustrations to come, for the Liberals, at the unfairness of the two main parties.

'Why do we never learn anything from history?'

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Constitutional history, from the ancient Greek Tyrants to our 'elective dictators', may be used for examples of not learning from the past. Old battles are fought in unfamiliar guise. The dogma of the divine right of kings re-emerged as 'the leading role of the party'. The Kremlin insider, Viktor Kravchenko relates, in 'I Chose Freedom', the systematic way in which the Communist party was put above the Soviet state.

These doctrines were both excuses for the exercise of absolute authority. In both cases, civil war England or the Soviet Union, dissenters emphasised adherence to the rule of law. An example, of the latter, is given in Vladimir Bukovsky's autobiography, To Build A Castle.

In 1980s England a new argument, about supremacy, came out of the wood-work. Instead of the civil war between the king and parliament, this time party was urged to be supreme. Like a constitutional monarch, parliament would be reduced to a rubber stamp of decisions decided outside by party delegates.

Of course, these werent the terms that the debate was put-in by its advocates. They characterised it as 'party democracy' as distinct from 'representative democracy'. That is to say the activists at Labour party conference would pass resolutions, to be obeyed by Labour MPs in government, supposed to be representing the nation, rather than a conference-floor caucus set-up -- union bloc votes, 'electoral college' and all.

An injustice may be more difficult to dislodge when it is merely time-honored and unquestioned. It must have been hard to imagine the House of Lords losing its veto over legislation from the British 'lower' chamber. The whole dizzy hierarchy of the English class system conspired against the lower orders throwing off this yoke of their 'betters'. Rhetoric about 'the peers versus the people', in blocking welfare benefits, was all very well, but the election to decide the issue was a close-run thing.

The concept of a veto is implicit in the electoral system of first past the post. More or less half the voters never elect anyone. Their vote is vetoed by the simple majority system. In particular, parties, whose support is widespread rather than concentrated, are vetoed, winning few seats. That is, unless they have something more than nearly 26% of the national vote gathered by the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983.

One could say with some justice that this time the veto was one of 'the parties versus the people'. You may say that only applies to the parties in the two-party system. At any rate, we know from Richard Crossman's Diaries that he wanted to turn elections into a two-party system by forbidding any but Labour and Conservative to have their party labels on the ballot papers. He lamented that his party in government gave way on this duopoly. A few diary pages on, he is worrying over the Scottish Nationalists taking Labour seats.

People vote for a party, he asserts, dismissing the tradition of representation. The lack of a representative choice in the single ( party ) member system is made an excuse for its dismissal, by Crossman.

As Leo Amery said, in Thoughts On The Constitution:

the voter is not in a position to choose either the kind of representative or the kind of government he would like if he had a free choice...his function is the limited and essentially passive one of two alternatives put before him.

For these reasons, Amery promoted the single transferable vote.

Amery's insight was not shared by most electoral reformers, conducting their campaign for 'fair votes' against the entrenched two-party system. Rather, they formed a sort of 'proportional front', which may be likened to the Popular Front of the nineteen thirties. This was a centre-left alliance against fascism. Their doctrinal line was that you must not say anything critical of Comrade Stalin, lest it strengthen the fascists.

George Orwell fell out of step with this regimented opinion. ( This was to make him reviled by the left. He could give as good as he got, when dismissing 'the smelly little orthodoxies' that try to capture men's souls. ) 'Homage To Catalonia' told his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. In going to fight for the legitimate republican government, he just happened to be drafted to a small dissident group of Anarchist Marxists. Otherwise, he might never have found out how the Communists were fighting a civil war within a civil war, by eliminating all their leftist allies but orthodox communists.

The Stalinists were following the same tactics that led to the Soviet Union as a one-party state. In doing so, they were also corrupting and weakening the Spanish republican cause, which was eventually defeated.

Whatever the loyalists became, up against Franco and Stalin's followers, Orwell's book contains a chapter of British Press lies about the legitimate regime. This is supported by the witness of the philosopher R G Collingwood, in his Autobiography. He happened to be on holiday in Spain, at the time of the allegedly monstrous new regime, whose inauguration he described as like a festival.

The 'Proportional Front' is not the Popular Front but the mentality is the same. For a quarter of a century Ive heard the argument, or rather imposition, against disputing different methods of proportional representation. It was alleged this would only result in endless disagreement and weaken a common cause of supporting the 'principle' of PR.

Yet proportional 'methods' are as different in principle as dictatorship from democracy. On the one hand you have the party list by which a boss dictates the order in which party members shall go into parliament, depending on their share of votes for a 'party'. On the other hand, you have the single transferable vote by which the order of representation ( partisan or independent ) is ballot listed by all the voters -- not just the party bosses.

Usually, the campaign talk of 'making votes count' means making the party list bosses votes count as the 'representative' votes. Representation of the people has become representation of the party bosses. The voters merely get votes to count in a party proportional fashion.
'PR' supporters are always pointing out the 'stability' of all systems that do not exaggerate typical small swings in support, as first past the post does. This is another way of saying that those proportional systems, which deny representative freedom, give a minimal influence to voters, confined to their usually small changes in party allegiance: partisan PR is undemocratic.

The leading reformers may have thought there was nothing to discuss about the application of PR. But that is only an assertion that they know best, over-ruling the rights of others to disagree. The excuse was that disagreement would stir up fanaticism and put off new supporters. But that was like arresting someone for a crime they might commit.

Even Enid Lakeman was dismissed, after her death, by one reforming news-paper's article as 'obsessed', not mentioning what she was obsessed about, as if she was unfit to talk about her democratic belief or it was unfit to be talked about.

The paper, The Guardian supported additional ( list ) member systems. Lakeman actually had the audacity to consistently name democratic voting method as the single transferable vote, and expose the short-comings of list-based systems. Britain's leading expert on voting systems, she, at least knew what she was talking about.

If PR was of arbitrary application, then debate should have shown up the fact. It should have become evident that differences of method were not important. That being the case, any differences of opinion that persisted would owe only to the clash of egos. But it appears they did not trust people, in general, to attempt to reasonably settle the issue.

This left parliament to parley the issue, where in fact there is remarkably little freedom of opinion on electoral reform or on most other issues that the party whips take an interest in -- almost everything.

Different kinds of proportional elections will elect different personnel, tho they all ensure more seats for small parties. Party list systems can slip unpopular candidates into parliament. Moreover, lists dont rest on any agreed basis of how party proportional they should be. And that arbitrariness is an invitation to the power politics of bending the electoral rules to get the best result for the ruling group. This happened in Britain, without PR. But the reformers are doing nothing to change rule-bending opportunism. They are only adding to the repertoire of convenient fixes for competing politicians to get or keep themselves in power.

In grasping at a proportional principle, most influential reformers lost sight of democratic principle and the need to know its true application. Suppressing differences on proportional methods is not the way to find it.

Why do we never learn anything from history? Well, as I have tried to show in the case of electoral reform, because of a war games politics that tells the public just so much as it needs to know to serve the interests of factions, and not the public interest. This involves various means of censoring free enquiry into what those factions or parties dont want to know themselves, much less let anyone else know: that their particular cause may not coincide with the common cause, the well-being of society, or indeed, the eco-system, in which the parts really matter to each other.

Closing remarks.

War games politics of electoral reform has been based only on giving more seats for votes to small parties. This will only succeed in making them part of a divisive and weakening power struggle, with self-serving changes to voting systems.

Instead, a constitutional settlement should be sought, thru free enquiry into democratic voting method, so that the voters may be the decisive arbiters of who governs a free, united and strong country.

Pope John Paul II made Sir Thomas More the patron saint of politicians. Orwell is also 'a man for all seasons'. George Orwell continues to matter, in politics, because he opposed expedient suppressions of the truth about wrongs, even if they took place, broadly speaking, on one's 'own' side. And Orwell did consider himself on 'the Left'. A literary man, an esthete, he was sceptical of science. He was free of the specialists' barbarous jargon that no-one reads or understands. He had nothing of safe academics' professional neutrality. Yet he had a respect for truth, shared and furthered thru free enquiry.

This, after all, is the scientific ideal and it is the positive alternative ( described on my page about the scientific ethic ). That is to say politics needs to change from a war games mentality of suppressing free enquiry into evidence against party propaganda's false pretences and keeping people in ignorance.

The chaotic state of electoral knowledge shows the political class needs to change from ignorant censor to free enquirer.

Richard Lung

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