As someone who spent 15 years in a government caucus the make-up of which was determined by the ‘first past the post’ (winner take all) electoral system, I have a somewhat different perspective on electoral reform than do many other citizens. Indeed, I was a Cabinet Minister for two terms, thanks, in part, to the beneficence of the ‘first past the post’ system. Beyond my 15 years as an M.L.A. and Cabinet Minister, I was a party activist for another 16 years.
I am deeply committed to democracy and, on the basis of experience and commitment, I urge British Columbians to affirm the move from our current ‘first past the post’ system to some form of proportional representation.
There appear to be three types of argument in favour of the ‘first past the post’ electoral system.
1. The ‘first past the post system’ is an essential characteristic of true democracy: anything else is not democratic.
2. The ‘first past the post’ electoral system is the only operationally practical one, in terms of determining who should govern and giving them a workable mandate to govern.
3. The ‘first past the post’ electoral system is the only one that assures a direct, functional and positive relationship between voters and their elected representative(s).
And, of course, there are also acknowledged shortcomings to the ‘first past the post’ system, which its proponents tend to ignore.
Given what I understand democracy to be, and given my experience, I would say that the arguments in favour of the ‘first past the post’ electoral system are mythic and wrong. Worse, hanging on to the past distracts us from thinking about how to improve our democracy, by improving: our decision-making process; and, citizen support for the decisions made by government.
The first question we might ask ourselves is this. What is the essence of democracy? Is it a particular electoral system, or a decision-making process? Or is it something else, or something more?
I would argue that democracy is primarily a way of living together. How we choose to self-govern is a secondary consideration that reflects our commitment to a democratic way of life.
I adopt Paul Woodruff’s argument (First Democracy) that democracy is embodied in seven cardinal characteristics:
1. We want to live without tyranny and without being, ourselves, tyrannical;
2. We want to live in harmony and with reciprocal respect;
3. We want the rule of law;
4. We acknowledge the natural equality of all persons;
5. We value citizen wisdom;
6. We must reason about the future without certain knowledge about how it will unfold;
7. We value the education of all for the life of a good citizen in a democracy.
When we consider the way we choose our representatives, the main question should be: “What method of selection might be most conducive to nurturing those seven characteristics of a vibrant democracy”? More than 90 countries around the world have answered that question by adopting some system of proportional representation.
But, before we consider what we might accomplish by the adoption of a system of proportional representation, let us consider the arguments for and against keeping our long-lasting ‘first past the post’ (winner take all) electoral system.
In a series of posts, to follow, I want to explore the ‘first past the post’ system from the perspective of someone who lived inside it, benefitted from its features, and was frustrated by its shortcomings.