mandates and majorities

What does a vote mean? Who knows. Our political representatives routinely take it mean anything they like. They refuse to acknowledge the obvious fact that we often vote for one party merely because we dislike them less than another.

So here’s a simple suggestion as to how we might redesign the electoral system so that voters can make it perfectly clear whether our representatives have a true mandate, or are they are simply the least bad option.

We have a major political split in our house. Half the voters here believe that it is our duty to vote. The other half believes that one should not dignify as ‘democratic’ a process that allows us only to chose between one bunch of manipulative hypocrites we heartily despise and another bunch of manipulative hypocrites we despise even more.

Admittedly there are only two of us in all, but I can’t help feeling we are a microcosm. And if democracy is government of the people by the people for the people, we both think there’s still a long way to go before we can seriously call ourselves a democracy.

But so what? I wouldn’t be exactly the first political commentator to predict that the result of the impending general election will be a Labour victory. But will I be the first to suggest that they will be the least popular party ever to win by a landslide? They will have a massive majority, but do they have a mandate? Not that I can see. But if we all go out and vote for people we don’t like, don’t trust and don’t believe in, and poll after poll says so, will that stop them saying they have a mandate to hand over yet more of the family silver to big business, the US government and an equally unloved, undemocratic European Union?

And that is exactly why so many people will stay at home on polling day: we can endure them running the country – is there a choice? – but we really can’t stomach the self-congratulation.

But what democratic system could distinguish between a majority and a mandate without becoming horrendously complicated? How about this: instead of voting for the single candidate of your choice, how about voting for every candidate – but vote by giving them each a score. And while we’re at it, how about negative scoring for the ones we really hate? That way we can say exactly how much – or how little – we like them. Love the Tories, hate Labour? +5 and -5. Despise Labour, but hate the Tories? -2 and -5. Don’t really mind the current government, but would prefer the Lib Dems – a little? 0 and +2.

It is a tantalising prospect. How many candidates would win by getting the lowest negative vote? Would whole elections be won and lot because one side seemed a little less revolting that the other?

It gets rid of a lot of other problems too. No excuse for not voting now. No need for protest votes or tactical voting or not voting for the Lib Dems or the Greens because they’ll never get in – in this system, there are no wasted votes.

It’s an amazingly simple solution. We wouldn’t need to change anything about voting except the instructions on the form. Counting the votes would take no more than a calculator. We would know exactly what the electorate thought of the elected. And so would they. Democratic heaven.

It is that simple – and potentially quite devastating in its implications. Which is why no one in the political system would dream of implementing it. That would take modesty, honesty and courage – the very opposite of what it takes to top the greasy pole these days. But what a prospect – politicians who had to admit that they were, at best, the least bad option. It might even encourage people to vote like they mean it.

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