Monday, 20 June 2011

The failure of British electoral reform and how it relates to cycling

There was recently a failed attempt to reform the electoral system in the UK.

Britain has for many years had a first past the post electoral system. It results in absolute rule by a small majority, and many people don't like this. Due to this system, no vote that I cast in the UK ever counted for anything, as no-one who I ever voted for got any power at all.

Many people would like to see this system replaced by a system of proportional representation which results in the views of the country being proportionately represented in parliament. This has been discussed for many years in the UK, and many people want such a system. No-one's votes would be "wasted" simply because they live in an area where they are outnumbered by people with a different view. The Netherlands has a proportional representation system, as do many other countries, and while there is much whining in Britain that this would create problems, it seems to work just fine here.

Anyway, how does this relate to cycling, and how to campaign on cycling ? Well, the recently lost vote in Britain was not on switching to a truly proportional system, but instead about a switch to using Alternative Vote. This actually is only a very minor tweak to what the country already had, and keeps the problem of the winner-takes-all aspects of FPTP. Frankly, it makes no real difference to the injustice of the voting system in the UK, but merely makes voting more complicated.

The end result of campaigning for something which no-one really wanted and few were enthusiastic about is that nothing has changed. Britain is keeping the old system. According to some, the chance of a lifetime has been lost.

However, frankly, I've rarely seen a campaign less likely to succeed than this one. What a large number of people in the UK wanted was real electoral reform, giving proportionality. There was never, and could never, be huge demand for a very small change to the existing system. The public were left wondering why they should be interested in a mere procedural change. Why bother ?

An "achievable first step" ?
People in the "Yes" group openly talked about this as "an achievable first step" towards PR, even though it's not a step at all. There is no natural progression from AV to PR. No reason for AV to exist before PR is possible.

Reform campaigners had been fooled by the opposition into making a compromise before their campaign got started. As a result, they were asking people to vote for something they never wanted in order to perhaps get to vote again later for something they did want. Naturally, there was little support for voting for something that few people ever wanted in the first place, so the campaign was always doomed to fail.

This has echoes in cycle campaigning. Self-styled "realists" amongst cycle campaigners ask not for what is actually needed and possible, but for what they think is "achievable given current standards". This also will fail to achieve mass support, and fail to achieve even the minor changes that they work towards because they will inevitably be forced to compromise again before implementation. Even the best possible result of such a style of campaigning is that a poor standard of cycle infrastructure results.

Why are both these groups so timid ? Why are they diluting their own message, and therefore losing supporters before they've even had a chance to build a movement ?

Applying the same thinking to recent successful campaigns
Let's consider what other campaigns in recent history would have achieved if they'd taken the same approach:
  • Mahatma Gandhi achieved something by actually making a stand. He did not ask for slightly lower taxes on salt, he made salt himself without paying tax. Despite the obvious risks involved, this attracted a mass following.
  • Nelson Mandela, with the ANC's Defiance Campaign demanded "conditions which will restore human dignity, equality and freedom to every South African." They did not ask for a slight improvement in conditions, but true equality.
  • Martin Luther King said "we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." (read the whole speech. It's powerful stuff).
  • The incident with Rosa Parks on the bus didn't end merely with the section sign on the bus being in a fixed position so that she wouldn't have to move in the future, but with the end of segregation on the bus and a good start on ending it in other places as well.
  • Harvey Milk didn't ask just ask for gay people not to be beaten up on Tuesdays.
It is possible to get a mass movement behind real change, but not behind irrelevant change. Campaigners need to keep this in mind. When working towards change for cyclists in the UK.

These children in Assen have a right
to safety which is enforced by
sympathetic infrastructure design.
Equality ?
Why talk about civil rights and equality campaigners in the context of cycling ? Well, what else are we asking for but the equal right of cyclists to go about their lives in peace and safety without harassment and danger ? Campaigners must be bold. They must ask for the best possible result they can imagine, not an easy compromise. Compromises might be inevitable along the way, but no successful negotiation starts by asking for less than you really want and nothing good will come of celebrating a bad compromise as if it's the best possible outcome.

The Dutch campaign about child safety was the right approach. It was a big, bold issue behind which everyone could be allied, whether or not they were interested in cycling or "cyclists". This resulted in a reduction in the annual number of child deaths on the roads to a twentieth of the previous figure. That success helped to pave the way for the infrastructure which everyone in The Netherlands benefits from now.

Many people fall into the trap of having low aspirations. Make sure you're not one of them. You don't have so much time as you think.


Green Idea Factory said...

Hear, hear!! Couldn't agree more, though for a moment I thought you were going to be more detailed about the Timid Universe version of those famous events... for example that Gandhi would only demand independence from the United Kingdom outside of commute hours, or that Rosa Parks would only ask for de-segregation on every other bus on a route.

Actually, I just finished an iPhone app. called "Camera filter" based on a hacked facial integration product. I have it set up so that if I take a photo of a bike path the camera instantly compares it the best practice example available in its dynamic databanks. If the path is below a customizable threshold of goodness it tells me "Inferior infrastructure. Delete?"

Kevin Love said...

I do not think that it is reasonable to say that you vote was "wasted" because the candidate you voted for did not win.

Applying the same logic, if the candidate that you voted for did win by a margin of votes greater than 1, then your vote was also wasted.

The same is true in a PR system. By your logic, if your vote didn't trigger another seat for the party you voted for, then your vote was wasted.

My own take on FPTP vs PR is that PR works better in a homogeneous culture such as The Netherlands. And FPTP works better in a country that does not have cultural integrity such as Canada or the UK. Because it is geographically based, FPTP allows regional parties such as the Bloc Quebecoise or the Scottish Nationalists to appeal to the people in their ridings.

Anonymous said...

Now this is a powerful post!
Totally agree...

Keep up!

Chris Cooke said...

I agree totally. Well put.

And to Kevin Love: no vote is wasted in a good PR system, since surplus votes (after a candidate has been elected) can be redistributed to other preferences: see

Also, the Netherlands is surely not a homogenous culture. Traditionally it's made up of a number of sharply different groups who simply agreed to disagree, to avoid conflict. Currently it's not homogenous either, as a look at the tumultuous state of Dutch politics in recent years could tell you. If the Netherlands had had FPTP it would have exploded long before now.

Paul Martin said...

Excellent commentary, David.

OldGreyBeard said...

I think the problem is that since it's so difficult to achieve anything that we are simply grateful to accept anything so we feel we have achieved something.

The philosophy of accepting better rather than perfect but it is a flawed approach.

Alan Selk said...

Here in the states cyclist have been shuffled into the gutter for so long that when the first on street bike lanes showed up we were jumping with glee. Anything is better then nothing.

Unfortunately in most places it hasn't moved beyond giving bike users a few feet on the side of the street marked with a bit of paint, and that's just one step removed from vehicular cycling. The great majority, and that includes bike users in the USA, can't even imagine more. It's always interesting to watch someone when I show them a video of bike users in Northern Europe. After they remove their jaw from the floor the wheels start turning.

J.. said...

@Kevin Love
Wrong on all counts, I'm sorry to say.
A vote is counted as a loss when nothing is gotten in return. If your guy wins by a margin of one, then (assuming there's two candidates) your vote was part of a voting block the size of 50% of the electorate, yet that block is now worth 100% of political power. Your vote just doubled its returns. Conversely, people voting for the loser get 0%.
When I vote, I represent 1/10000000 of the electorate, give or take. I can be sure that the person/party I vote for gets 1/10000000 of all political power. The only way I can be disenfrenchised as a voter is when my guy doesn't get the bare minimum number needed for a seat (that's 10000000/150 for parliament here).

FPTP used to work better for large nations with very remote areas, like Canada, the US, etc. But since the dawn of the information age, this system has become an archaic joke.

Clark said...

I agree Alan. The same thing here in Vancouver with our old type lanes. When we first got our two separated bike lanes downtown, my first time riding on them it felt so "civilized". Before they were in I was content with whatever there was but now having tasted better I can see how inadequate much of it was and how much the old type can cause conflict. The new ones work very smoothly. (Except of course in the imaginations of writers at trashy tabloids.)
I now advocate for more separated lanes.
Reading this blog has been very inspiring for me and many others. The post a short while ago about roundabouts with underpasses has made me now consider such a thing for here. If they're going to spend zillions on a highway system they can throw a few pennies to make it so people cycling and walking can cross under it. It would be pretty farout for some but then after would make total sense.
There's also the Overton Window thing in politics where you can through education and campaigning, move the "overton window" closer towards what is desired. What was once unheard of can then be discussed as a possibility.
I think cyclists in North America are at a really good point in history to demand high quality infrastructure and to educate city planners on what that looks like. And not give up or let ourselves be given the bum's rush but to have a place at the table with all other modes of transportation.

Here in British Columbia we almost had proportional representation. There was a referendum for the single transferable vote type. It didn't pass and that's really too bad as it's a province that seems to flip-flop back and forth every 8 years. The parties tend to get in power to dominate and then get turfed out and then the other guys do the same. No ideas of working together.

Severin said...

Inspiring post! I recently found myself feeling the same way, we need to campaign and advocate what we want and not settle for substandard. It's tough to stay motivated though.

kfg said...

Take care to get what you like or you will be forced to like what you get. - GBS