Thursday, May 6, 2010

Democracy in the UK

Me: "So what are you going to do today?"

Dad: "Stay here and watch the election coverage on the internet"

Yup, it's election time in the UK!

I'm not voting, because I don't think it's fair for people to influence the results if they don't have to live with the consequences1. For the record, if I had decided to vote, I would have picked the Liberal Democrats - their coalition with Labour did some good things in the Scottish parliament, and I think that would be my favoured outcome for this election. Although if there's a hung parliament and Labour end up in third place, as is being predicted, a Lib Dem - Conservative coalition might better reflect the way the country voted and therefore be a fairer outcome, if a less natural relationship.

Speaking of which, the chance that the Lib Dems might manage to push through some kind of electoral reform is one of my reasons for hoping they form part of the next government. The current first-past-the-post system is blatantly unfair; the Lib Dems in the UK (and the NDP in Canada) get far fewer seats than they should, given the share of the popular vote they attract. Given that the UK and Canadian systems are essentially identical, my wish is the same for both systems: a mixed constituency MP / proportional representation system like the Scottish one. In Scotland, everyone gets two votes - the first for a candidate in your constituency, and the second for a political party. A certain percentage of seats in the house are given to the candidates who win in each constituency with the first vote, and the rest are divided up among the parties according to what percentage of the second vote they won. This system let me vote for Donald Dewar, the Labour candidate in my constituency, who was a bloody good bloke and also guaranteed to win regardless of how I voted, but also for the Lib Dems, who, as I mentioned, used their PR share of the seats to form a governing coalition with Labour and get some of their pet issues (abolition of university tuition fees, universal free care for the elderly) into the books.

Anyway, I seem to have got sidetracked from the original purpose of this post, which was to lament that I miss the British election fever. It's just not the same in Canada; people don't talk about politics as much, and we're missing a certain British sense of silliness and fun. Every Brit I know in real life and on the internet is positively obsessed with this election, and I've had a fantastic time reading their posts, debating with them,and listening to the hilarious Vote Now Show podcasts from the BBC2. The last Canadian election campaign was deathly dull in comparison. My friends did talk about it, but not with the passion and obsession that you see in the UK. I think we actually discussed the US election more than the Canadian one. There were no election night parties with drinking games (featuring red, blue, and yellow drinks, obviously) based on the number of seats each party wins, and no-one stayed up all night to watch the results come in like everyone I know always does in the UK.

Part of the reason is that I'm in the West of Canada, where we're under-represented in parliament and where people are still voting when the results in the East are already known. Yeah, there's a complete ban on reporting those results until the Western polls close, but it doesn't exactly help to ease the existing sense that our voices don't matter and that people in other provinces have already chosen the government before we've even voted. I've watched election night CBC news shows where the outcome was announced within ten minutes of our polls closing, before a single BC vote had even been counted.

From Wikipedia:
Electoral Quotient (Average population per MP):

Prince Edward Island: 33,824
Saskatchewan: 69,924
New Brunswick: 72,950
Newfoundland and Labrador: 73,276
Manitoba: 79,970
Nova Scotia: 82,546
Quebec: 96,500
Alberta: 106,243
Ontario: 107,642

British Columbia: 108,548


Combining this situation with a first-past-the-post system is a recipe for voter disengagement and dangerously low turnouts, especially in the West3. We should have a mixed constituency MP / proportional representation system. You know, like the Scottish one (see how I managed to link what I originally planned to write about back into what I waffled on about at the beginning? Blogging WIN!)

Can any of my Canadian readers from over-represented and/or Eastern time zone provinces please let me know if there's any more election fever there than there is in BC? I might have to come for a visit during the next election campaign...

Anyway, if you're in the UK, enjoy all the swingometer action tonight! Have some red, blue, and/or yellow drinks for me.

And, if you haven't voted yet, GET OUT AND VOTE! You have a right that's been given to only a tiny minority of the people who have ever lived, and which is still denied to far too many: please don't take it for granted.


1) Although I might vote next time just to make sure that I keep my rights in case I want to use them in the future - see Tideliar's recent post about trying to register as an overseas voter. I'd probably vote for the Green party though, or someone else who hasn't got a chance of winning.

2) I taught my parents how to play these podcasts from iTunes before I left this morning. They're both feeling homesick today. 

3) Oh well, at least we've got the oil sands Rocky Mountains and all the best ski resorts.


  1. Great post Cath!

    yup, the Canadian system is still fairly biased against the West... but you can't change the numbers without touching that "French" issue. (At least that was what I was taught in Canadian PoliSci ;) )

    I think the mixed system that you talk about seems "more fair" even if it is a bit difficult to calculate the % of votes I'm sure? Then again, all systems will be strange when you scale them up... and trying to accomodate for region variance etc. that said, I would feel very little and uninterested to vote if I lived in a constituency that was opposite of mine with a majority...

    I am not allowed to vote in my new place of residence. At all. I am allowed to vote in the general election back in sweden in fall time though, and I think I will take the opportunity to do that. Maybe since I am fairly active in politics still? I think it is very good though, that I am not allowed to vote in the local and county elections since that would mean taxes etc for which I don't live in anymore.

    Now I'm off for some election coverage for my lunch time! :)

  2. I spent that last few years in NS but recently moved back to NB. It seemed as though NS had a slightly more engaged population than NB, but it could be that as I get older I just notice the nuance of election time more. It is certainly nowhere near the fervor you describe, and I would agree that most of my peers were more interested in the US elections.

    While you believe your vote doesn't count, we are ambivalent because we are labeled a "have-not" province & the leaders deign us unimportant to pander to. I also feel like "historical" voting is strong here: people vote as they've always voted. Which is scary when you think that we are the first to get counted.

  3. Chall: really?! It feels messy. I'm glad you enjoyed it though!

    Yes, there is a "let's keep Quebec happy" factor involved in maintaining the status quo.

    It's really hard to disengage from the politics of your own country, isn't it? Even though I don't live there any more and don't have any plans to return (if I did I'd live in Scotland, but not just because of their electoral system!), I still have the BBC website as my home page, still listen to all the BBC radio podcasts I can subscribe to from here, and still discuss British politics with my family and friends. For a while I was tempted to vote because this is going to be a close one, but I persuaded myself to stand by my principles. And hopefully there'll be a Canadian election along soon that I can vote in instead!

    Natalie, in some ways the US election affects us more than the Canadian one! My husband definitely feels this way as the Vancouver movie industry is dominated by American companies, and changes to the tax structure / employment laws / exchange rate affect him directly. And for me, US science policy sets the tone for everyone else's, which directly affects me!

    Good point about MPs spending more time trying to win some provinces than others. I guess people in all provinces are united by "grass i always greener" syndrome :)

  4. Oh, the UK is finally having their election!? I knew it was coming up sometime soon, but I lost track of the exact time. (This is when not keeping up with current events embarrasses me.)

    I wonder what US politics would be like with a mixture of election districts and proportional representation?

  5. Some people queued for over an hour and a half; only to be turned away when the polls closed at 10pm........ how angry would you be!

  6. RPS77, the voting's over, but there's still plenty of time to follow the coalition negotiations. Could take days or even weeks...

    UHDD, yes, it was embarassingly disorganised. The BBC said there are hundreds of postal votes missing in my parents' constituency, too, although that seat ended up being much less marginal than predicted, so hopefully it didn't make a difference. Not that that's the point, but you know what I mean...

  7. Living as I do in the Hated Republic of Ontario(TM), I always presume that everyone else blames elections on us. And Quebec.

    However, I'm surprised by the voter representation numbers you cite. By your own logic, Ontario and Quebec would be the next two provinces to (semi-legitimately) complain about poor representation. And we all know how well *that* argument would go with the rest of Canada, west, east, north, wherever.

  8. Also, you forgot all of the Territories.

  9. I didn't "blame" any province in particular, just the East in general - and when you're in Western BC, everywhere East of Alberta gets called "the East"*. And they've *all* finished voting before our polls close! Being last to vote AND the most under-represented is a very unfortunate combination.

    I'd like to see representation evened out across the whole country, for sure, there's obviously nothing anyone can do about the time differences.

    The Wikipedia page didn't have any figures for the territories and I was too lazy to hunt them down. It would be interesting to see how they compare to the provinces.

    *It's like when people in Inverness call Edinburgh "down South", which always makes me laugh!


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