Representation, Representation, Representation

Ken writes:

Of course I am interested in the UK election which is going on next door. It turns out that UK citizens like me and Dot can vote for 15 years after we were last resident in the UK, which takes us up to 2021. I arranged a postal ballot and have cast my vote already for Ming the Magnificent, though I doubt it will be needed in North East Fife.

(aside: My one reservation about him is that he doesn’t live in the constituency. There were only five candidates on the ballot (Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dem, Scottish Nationalist, and UK Independence Party), and only the UKIP candidate actually lived in the constituency. But maybe this is just a case of the pot calling the kettle black. How can I complain about my representative’s ties to the locality when I am absent myself. It is a little bit odd that for 15 years I will have an admittedly very slight influence in the electoral fortunes of somewhere I only lived for two and a half years. Perhaps there should be a special MP for UK citizens overseas. Ditto for NZ)

I’m in favour of a switch to a system of proportional representation, but I do not think that the current First Past the Post (FPP) system is unfair in any significant sense. Rather, the problem as I see it is a lack of match between what people think they’re voting for and what the system expects them to be voting for. The FPP system assumes that people are choosing a person to represent them in parliament, a person who WILL represent them even if the successful candidate is not someone they chose and who doesn’t resemble them very closely. But voters nowadays don’t share those assumptions. They think they’re voting for who should be the next government—voting, as it were, for their PM rather than their MP. When we hear a statistic like X% of the population voted for party Y and are not represented in parliament, or not proportionately represented because party Y does not have X% of the seats, we’re already rejecting the assumptions underlying the FPP model. From an FPP perspective, people don’t support parties, they support candidates and the people are represented by whoever won the seat. They are represented by someone who doesn’t resemble them.

I think it is quite confusing that the word ‘representation’ has a couple of loosely related senses and I suspect that people aren’t always clear about which sense they mean.

Representation 1: You representative is your advocate or proxy, the one who will present your interests in the national parliament.

Representation 2: Resemblance. A good true or accurate representation is one that shares the qualities of what it represents; like a painting which is dark where what it represents is dark and light where it is light and so on.

Clearly, one can be well-represented by someone who does not resemble one very closely at all. For example, a penniless drug-addict could be well represented by a court appointed lawyer who is a model of bourgeois respectability. Presumably, it is better for the drug addict not to be represented in this sense by another drug addict. An election under FPP gives people some influence over who will be their representative in the advocacy sense, without any consideration for whether that person represents them in the second sense. And it would be impossible for one person to represent everyone in the second sense because people are too different.

But I’m sure that most people believe that they will get better advocacy from someone who is like them in significant respects. On the whole, we think that someone who represents us in the second sense will do a better job of representing us in the first sense. I think this, but more from gut feeling than studied fact. It is an empirical question. Is it true?

Given that people want parliament to resemble the population, it would be a good thing if some form of proportional representation could be introduced, for you would think that people’s political beliefs are at least as relevant as their race or sex or religion for the determining the make up of parliament.


8 thoughts on “Representation, Representation, Representation

  1. Murray

    This is not really a comment on Ken’s post, but on the ruminations that it inspired, and on the slogan “No taxation without representation”. What if all voters had to register into a party. Then if their party was over- (or under-) represented in Parliament their taxes would be adjusted by the same proportion to compensate for this. OK, I can think of lots of valid objections but there is a “fun” aspect to the system!

  2. Personally I’m for a jury-duty style government and civil service. Members are selected from the entire populace, probably geared towards your resemblance definition of representation, and serving members rotate regularly, never repeating. To stop an over-powerful civil service, those positions are rotating, too, and randomly drawn from the pool of persons having the necessary skills.

  3. kenanddot

    @ Murray: Nice. But you’d have to think of some way to stop rich bankers setting up their own party to avoid paying tax (it would be very unpopular).

    @ Jeremy: The jury system would ultimately mean government by popular media and or lobby groups. The serving members could be wooed by lobbyists and wouldn’t be seeking re-election so there would be no way to hold them to account if anything went wrong. It would mean that people who actually wanted to go into politics (e.g. to make the world a better place) would be shut out of the system, which seems excessive. It seems like a pretty bad idea to me.


  4. There are lots of possible problems with such a system, but if we base our government on our assumption of weakness rather than our potential for strength, then we assure mediocrity.

    We already have governments almost entirely controlled by media and lobby groups. And people who want to go into politics to make change for the better are already shut out of the system. You’re describing our current system of government.

    I think we might find that, given the challenge of an important position, people would seek to make important and meaningful changes to their world. I believe they would achieve more than our political class has — over time. You have a pretty mean estimation of your fellow men if you assume that normal people, given the chance to make policy, would seek only bribes. You may be right, but I don’t think so. Whatever your average career politician will stoop to now — an average person has never considered stooping 10% so low.

  5. Barbara

    Ah a man after my own heart. I too think Ming is a wonderful man and I have the greatest admiration for him. If you follow the Lib Dems what did you think of Jo Grimmond – a previous leader – or are you too young to have heard of him?

  6. I had a similar exchange with my manager (who also happens to be an ex politician) and asked her what you vote for in the UK – the candidate or the party. Without a doubt the party, she said. In that case, FPP is wrong and we should have PR. Not that I can vote, but I did go through the conundrum of not feeling represented by the candidate of the party I might well have voted for (if I were allowed to).

    Regardless of that argument, FPP favours a two party system, and discourages people to vote for candidates that don’t stand a chance of winning the seat. Which bugs me because I really would vote Green (if I could – am I repeating myself?). But I’d be wasting my vote to do that.

    Anyway, the suspense goes on and it’s quite amusing and reassuring how Scotland relishes in anti-conservatism at present. I’ve never felt more at home 😉

  7. Belle Inconnue

    i voted partly for the party, partly for the person. I didn’t go libdem because the candidate, whilst she ‘resembled’ me in being white, middle class, young and female, seemed as though she would be hopeless in parliament, and I want to represented who can dress themselves properly and is unlikely to be totally eaten alive in the commons.

    I don’t really need to have someone who is somehow ‘like’ me to represent me – I voted for an aisan man, standing for labour. He has a proper job (maths teacher), which seems better than spending a whole life in politics, and seems nice. I didn’t go for conservative because I don’t their policies. The libdems seem to have good policies, but most of them seem like helpless idiots.

    what I would like is to vote green, whoever the person is, as they represent what I think we should be doing politically, more closely than any other party. it doesn’t matter if they have a tiny minority of MPs – at least someone would be there to raise the issues that I’m interested in. PR would of course let BNP and UKIP in as well as the greens, and I don’t agree with them, but many people do, and their voices should be heard as well.

    I have also realised, depressingly, that I have never once voted for someone who has actually become my MP.

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