Thursday, 4 November 2010

The law of diminishing representation

This isn’t my own notion, but as far as I know the friend of mine who explained it to me has never written it down anywhere, doesn’t mind my re-telling it, and doesn’t want a personal acknowledgement, so here goes.

It’s something he came up with on the spur of the moment during a short trip to the Soviet Union in 1987. This was during the era of Mikhail Gorbachev, the first Soviet leader to have been born after the October Revolution. The Soviet Union still had the appearance of strength, Leninist iconography was still to be found everywhere and even talk of glasnost – perestroika – demokratia could not disguise the fact that the USSR was still a one-party state. Four years later, of course, the tightrope that Gorbachev had been walking snapped; nationalist agitation amongst the ethnic minorities of the Soviet Union reached a peak, there was an abortive Stalinist coup in Moscow (mainly amongst men promoted by Gorbachev himself), a break-up of the Soviet Union, and the eventual rise of the opportunist Boris Yeltsin.

Back in 1987 my friend was sitting in a dacha outside Kiev chatting about politics with a group of Russian and Ukrainian men. No doubt their party credentials were good, but the political discussion seemed to be open and free. Someone mentioned Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister at the time, and my friend commented on how unpopular she was at home. Of course that led to the question of how come she could enjoy elective power if she was unpopular. My friend, who was sitting by the longer edge of a rectangular table, put a finger at each end and moved his right hand inward as he explained every point of the following:

Imagine the population of a country. There will be a certain percentage of people in that population who are not entitled to vote – they may be under the legal voting age, or serving prison sentences, or detained under mental health legislation, or may simply be unaware of the registration process – but we will give this portion of the population a generously low value of 10%. Then let us imagine a general election; a large part of the population simply do not vote, for one reason or another. Again let’s be generous and say that 50% of those eligible do vote. In the United Kingdom one votes for one’s Member of Parliament in a local constituency. On the voting paper there will be at least three candidates, representing the Conservative Party, the Labour Party (one of those two will be most likely to form a government), the Liberal Democrats (who will gain quite a number of seats but will be most likely to end up in third place); also on the voting paper may well be candidates representing other parties, some of which (such as the Scottish National Party, Sinn Fein, and Plaid Cymru) may have significant local support and may even win seats, others of which (such as the British National Party, UKIP, or the Green Party1) may have sufficient support to have an arithmetical effect on the local result. Constituency elections are decided on a “first past the post” basis, so a winning candidate does not have to win an outright majority, merely a plurality of the votes. Again being generous, and ignoring spoilt and invalid voting papers, let’s assume 50% of the votes cast go to candidates from the party of which, say, Mrs Thatcher is the leader at the time. If you do the maths you will see that we are already down to 22.5% of the population.

But it doesn’t stop there. Can we assume that all of that 22.5% is in total agreement with the election manifesto of the party which takes control of government? Surely there will be a number of voters who had to think hard, or who decided to settle for one party or the other on a couple of issues, or on the basis of overall political philosophy rather than issues, or out of simple party loyalty and lifetime voting habits, or even simply because they didn’t like the alternative and used their votes to keep someone else out. That 22.5% is being whittled away. There will of course be a core who have actually read the manifesto from end to end with complete attention, and agree with it wholeheartedly, but they will be few in number – about the size of an average Politburo maybe, certainly they will by and large be party activists2.

Then there may be others who, although they were to some degree sure at the time they voted, regretted their choice later. I suggest that amongst those might be someone who lost his or her job due to government policy. During the 1979 general election campaign there was a famous Conservative Party poster, designed by Saatchi and Saatchi. It bore the slogan “Labour isn’t working”, showed what purported to be a long queue of people waiting at an unemployment office (it later came to light that the line of people had been largely made up of volunteers from the Young Conservatives), and was supposed to highlight the level of unemployment under the then-current Labour government. It stood at about one-and-a-half million... 

The poster was reckoned to be a great success, so much so that a later campaign in 2009 carried the slogan “Labour still isn’t working”. However, shortly after coming to power, Mrs Thatcher’s anti-inflationary and anti-Trade-Union policies led to unemployment figures of more than three million (in fact it was cogently argued that she had used deliberate unemployment as a counter-inflationary device), and I dare say that amongst the extra unemployed may well have been people who regretted voting for her.

Anyhow, that is what my friend meant by his coining – The law of diminishing representation – and by the time he had finished explaining it to his Soviet hosts he was leaning to the left hand edge of the table with his hands quite close together.

Incidentally, there is one thing about (British) politicians in power, of whatever party, that annoys me intensely. That is that they claim to have a “mandate” from the electorate to carry out their policies. Apart from the fact that this law of diminishing representation ought to humble the pride of any governing politician, the House of Commons is a representative body; a mandate can only be given to a delegate body. By definition no one in Westminster can have any “mandate”, and to claim one is to lie.


1 The Green Party actually won a seat in the 2010 elections. Caroline Lucas was returned as the Member of Parliament for Brighton, becoming the UK’s first Green Party MP.

2 Actual membership of the Conservative Party stands at approximately just under 0.5% of the population. Currently the Prime Minister of the UK is David Cameron MP, leader of the Conservative Party; although the party does not have an overall majority in the House of Commons, it has formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, who came third in the general election. The Liberal Democrats’ leader Nick Clegg MP is now Deputy Prime Minister. The Liberal Democrats’ membership stands at around 0.1% of the population. The former party of Government, the Labour Party (now more commonly referred to as “New Labour”) came second in the general election, has been led by Ed Miliband MP since recently (his current title in the House of Commons is “Leader of HM Opposition”), and its current membership is around 0.3% of the population. I quote the membership numbers here only because of their possible relevance to the “law of diminishing representation”.

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