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Matthew Parris

The Will of the People does not exist. It is the abominable snowman of politics

Matthew Parris offers Another Voice

19 May 2010

12:00 AM

19 May 2010

12:00 AM

I shall now attempt something in which I fully expect to fail. My pessimism is not unfounded. I’ve been trying to put across this case for 30 years, without ever seeing in my hearers’ eyes that glint of recognition that signals the successful communication of an idea.

Failure to convey an argument that I’m sure is important and right has been frustrating. But this is the fate of advocates of theories that challenge the very terms of a debate. The same difficulty is encountered by advocates for atheism; may well be encountered if the Hadron Collider in Geneva fails to verify the existence of the Higgs-Boson sub-atomic particle; and was among the reasons the miasma theory of the transmission of diseases lingered so stubbornly in the face of counterfactual evidence.

Advocacy struggles when central to its logic is the submission that something we take for granted, and around which a great web of related reasoning has been built, simply doesn’t exist. Even if forced to accept that the missing entity has not been usefully described, let alone proved, people will resist the conclusion that it doesn’t exist, preferring to protest that, though we all suspect it’s there, and though it surely must be there if there’s a perfectly good English word for it, it’s proving difficult to tie down.

And so to the current argument about changes (or ‘reforms’) to Britain’s voting system. My submission is this: that the Will Of The People (WOTP) does not exist. There is no such thing. The WOTP is a fiction, a mirage, a conceptual void, a construction as fanciful as the creation of ploughs, scorpions and huntsmen out of the random dots of stars in the night sky. Once we accept that there is no such animal as the WOTP, the secondary debate about how most accurately to represent it simply falls away; and we become able to ask more practical questions about the right relationship between the many and often conflicting wishes and opinions of many people, and the structures of their governance.

First, though, we must clear the air of centuries of history and literature in which the phrase ‘Will Of The People’ has been so drummed into us by political oratory that we’ve grown almost unable to ask whether there really is anything out there answering to this phrase. Arguments about changing our voting systems have all started from the assertion that the WOTP exists, then proceeded to propose rival methods for capturing it and turning it into a government. Proposals are many: a rolling programme of referendums; a presidential system; government by an assembly; first-past-the-post; the alternative vote; the single transferable vote. All have their merits, and no such proposal has ever definitively trounced its rivals. Each has been found to be good at doing certain things and less good at doing others; and the argument has rumbled on for centuries, that elusive major premise, the WOTP itself, never quite being spotted — though claims to the identification of its footprints are lodged. The Will Of The People is the abominable snowman of voting reform.

How to prove this? I cannot. It is for my critics to prove they’ve seen the WOTP and know how it is to be estimated. But I can at least ask some questions about it. From any attempt to answer them it may emerge that in our WOTP hunt we are seeking many different things: things which may not in fact, and in some cases cannot in principle, reside in any single entity.


(1) Does the WOTP translate into choosing (a) decisions a government should take, or (b) the individuals who should be appointed to take them?

(2) If the answer to (1) is ‘both’, yet (b) ends up in conflict with (a) — i.e. the elected decision-makers want to take decisions the electors don’t like — which does the WOTP think should defer to which?

(3) If 25 per cent of the people want person P to be mayor/president/prime minister, 35 per cent want person Q, and 40 per cent want person R, what truly proportional system of representation can translate this into the selection of a candidate backed by the WOTP?

(4) If Tories believe the WOTP is best expressed by first-past-the-post when electing an MP, why do they select their parliamentary candidates by a version of the alternative vote system?

(5) If Liberal Democrats think the WOTP is best expressed by a proportional system of parliamentary elections, why should the parliamentarians thus chosen then help choose their own party leaders by an alternative vote system?

(6) If representing the WOTP demands (as Lib Dems believe) that parties’ representation in the Commons should be proportionate to the votes cast, how can it be fair that in what these MPs are elected to do (as opposed to what they’re elected to be) — to vote for or against particular policies — votes cast for a losing proposition in a Commons Division Lobby are entirely wasted votes, without impact on the policy chosen? How can the WOTP be fairly represented when a decision is binary — i.e. yes or no?

(7) If the WOTP is divided on what kind of voting system we should choose, why in a referendum should supporters of the winning proposal get all of what they wanted while supporters of the losing one get none?

(8) Imagine three possible voting systems, put in a referendum: (a) Status Quo; (b) Alternative Vote; and (c) Proportional Representation. And say none of these three obtains an absolute majority. There will then be an absolute majority against any one of the three. So what’s the WOTP?

Taken literally and mathematically, the WOTP only ever exists when the people are virtually unanimous. Yet any historian will protest — and I concede — that there is such a thing as zeitgeist. A very strong popular demand for or against something (or someone) can sometimes be felt in the very wind. Unfortunately for WOTPists, however, this cannot be calculated mathematically. It is the strength of popular surges, at least as much as the numbers, that makes currents of opinion what they are, and I doubt there was ever a numerical majority for the French Revolution. Two votes, one cast by a voter who’s all but undecided, and the other by a voter who’s passionately engaged, carry the same weight — but is it the WOTP that intensity as well as numbers should be taken into account when calculating the WOTP?

You tell me. Or join me in taking a machete to this maze, and confront what, once confronted, is the obvious: that different voters want different things with differing degrees of intensity; some can be reconciled; some are susceptible to compromise; some involve the complete overruling of a minority. Turning this subtle miscellany into structures of government that are to some degree responsive to the electorate yet capable of producing a decisive government (and even, where necessary, a temporarily unpopular government) requires us all to come down from our high horses of democratic absolutism.

It’s a mess. There are no absolutes. This is the beginning of constitutional wisdom.


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