Ever since the start of the General Election campaigns early this year, there’s been a growing political movement for voting reform in the UK. I’m not sure where it started, but campaigns like Take Back Parliament were going mental (and still are), and people were advocating voting Lib Dem solely for their policies about this. The original Lib Dem plan was to table a reform of the system from first past the post to proportional representation. The general consensus was that this would lead to a fairer representation of what people want from the government, and somehow that would mean that governments would make more ‘sensible’, progressive decisions which are more likely to work. Of course, this would be best for everybody except those who benefit more than proportionally from the current voting system.
Who are those people who benefit at others expense? Well, you may have heard that the Lib Dems lost seats in the last election but gained votes. That’s a good example, and that’s a real problem with FPTP; minority parties do not get represented properly*. Now I don’t for a moment think that we shouldn’t change our voting system; this post isn’t designed to convince either way (you can make perfectly good judgments on that yourselves by reading summaries of these things from unbiased sources such as Wikipedia and New Scientist). Nope, I think that we can make a better system without even touching the actual voting system.
The problem I see is that there is so much disinformation and toxic crud spread about by parties who are effectively paid to disrupt fair politics. Yes, I’m talking about the papers… well I’m not talking about them exclusively. Ben Goldacre has an ongoing campaign against papers doing this kind of thing in order to try and make the MMR lightning strike twice, and there’s a similar thing going on with politics. But again, I think this problem is being tackled (if not sufficiently then at least it’s happening) by people far more knowledgeable and eloquent than I.
What I’d like to see changed is the fundamental messages given to people in education. I don’t believe that we communicate properly as a society the importance of measuring opinion against all available facts. Maybe if children were taught how to evaluate an opinion objectively and subject their own ideas to test then we’d be able to have more rational discussions about society. Don’t try to tell me that scientific thinking is well taught in schools because I doubt that I’d understand it myself if I hadn’t read around when I was younger. Hell, I encountered scientifically minded people on my own university course who still didn’t understand this kind of thing [a year of labs definitely remedied that though].
Scientific and critical thinking should be a method free for all, and more importantly something that everybody is taught as standard. If scientific perspectives can get us mobile phones, printing, the internet, computers et cetera, and – more importantly – can tell us about how best to change our policies, then why should this be denied to the majority of schoolchildren? Furthermore, I don’t accept that a voting system will ever be useful when the voters are unable to form a logically consistent viewpoint which they can properly back up. It doesn’t matter what the opinion actually is; as long as it’s well defended and take into account the evidence properly, it’s valid. Until the majority of the voting population holds valid opinions (by the above definition), change in the voting system is largely useless.
So in summary; teach critical and scientific thinking from a young age. Encourage people to include the evidence available when they build opinions. Give the most voice to people who do not over-extrapolate from or deliberately misinterpret the findings which scientific investigation presents us with. Maybe then, we’ll be in a position where fair representation of people’s opinions is utterly important and useful; where finding a voting system which works best for the electorate is imperative. Until then, the campaign to make parliament better will have my support, but not my heart.
I apologize for my poor writing style; I’m sure it will improve with practice.
* This, admittedly, is both a good and bad thing. Greens are an example of a party woefully under-represented and the BNP an example of a party I’d rather not see better represented. Maybe, however, proper representation of and engagement by these parties will out the less defendable ideas. So might my suggestions in the rest of this article.