The Price We Pay For First Past The Post
We experience too much public expenditure followed by too little; salvo welfare followed by its punitive withdrawal; countless adversarial ’solutions’ for secondary schooling whilst countries with moderating parties in government reached consensus long ago and now direct their effort into making their various systems work; proven policies for governmental support for R&D and innovation followed by their termination; one ‘cure’ for the health service, then the opposite – or the rebadged same. The straight waste, reform and set up costs, and the re-reform and closure costs of all of these zigzags are borne by taxation.
The capacity to deal with some ‘wicked’ problems from teenage pregnancies to gangs to perpetual unemployment is built up – usually through the dynamism and innovation of the third sector. Real progress is often made, then the canoe tacks right and all of that knowledge and skill is casually discarded. The price paid rises as withdrawn effective services leave some people in their receipt back where they started, and government to pick up their costs in other ways.
Competition and democracy are close relatives. Competition matters as much in politics as it does for supermarkets, probably more. In limiting competition, standards inevitably fall. This market truism applies equally to the market for political parties, policies, politicians and to their experience relative to people’s wants and needs. The past not the future is the way to power here. The Labour/Conservative duopoly operating in a rigged market results inevitably in lower quality government. The two perpetual parties have only to convince enough people – ‘enough’ being a long way from a majority – that they are better than the other lot or the least worst (to quote Russell Brand). The electorate is forced into the dismal choice. Any self-respecting competition authority in the world would rule it illegal.
One of the further crosses of the two-party state is that when one of the parties is effectively unelectable, a one-party state is all that is left. It led Thatcher to excess and Blair to flogging dead horses – and taxation paid the bill once more.
Orderly competition drives improvement in all things. Multi-party competition that allows new parties to become established and the old to die is essential for successful government. A sound system of proportional voting produces this.
Does FPTP Mean Strong Government?
Usually at this point, a politician will stress how important is strong and decisive government and thus first past the post (even though a sole party of government can, of course, be elected under PR if the electorate so chooses). We heard this in relation to the Alternative Vote referendum by those opposed to power sharing – ‘we need the strong government that only first past the post can give’ and, by inference, not the namby-pamby government from coalitions and other inadequates. Sounds good, does it not? Flutters the spine? Makes one stand up straight?
From time to time, strong government has been in operation, most potently with Thatcher. She drove some changes through with which most would now agree, like building the M25. She drove some necessary change but punitively and with destructive speed, like the mine closures. She also drove hard some major errors, like the poll tax.
I have never seen the point of strong government of itself, when strong can and does lead to such high costs. I want right government not strong government. Right government may from time to time be bold and courageous, and it may also be considered, cautious, careful, and experimental. Strong is often an excuse for those with high control needs. Its end game is Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, and Hitler. A Thatcher would never have been necessary to resolve the worst excesses of the UK’s ideological hangover in the factories if we had previously had the plurality of proportional voting. First past the post produced both the problem and the strong and costly solution. It maintains a country in a perpetual state of civilian civil war. No first past the post – no problem – no need for Thatcher.
Estimating The Costs of FPTP