Monday, 24 May 2010

Information and votes, electoral reform and 'the electorate'

A couple of random thoughts on the electoral processes following the recent UK election.

1 An election is of course an information/communication process. What is being communicated and between whom is not so straightforward. Well, maybe to whom is OK, since I guess it's the state (perhaps the Queen) - ie who or whatever forms the parliament. From whom is more difficult. A lot of talk in the media has been in terms of 'the electorate' (or 'the British people') 'saying' something (eg, that they wanted a hung parliament). I'm struggling with that. It's not that I have a problem per se with groups having agency. I think I accept that Britain does things, and even when I disagree strongly there is some sense in which Britain is doing that in my name. But that's after the election. There's a sense in which the present government is 'my' government and I am implicated in anything they do: but there is NO sense in which I voted for this government.

Somewhere in there there is something about semantics and intentionality. You can't conclude from looking at the results of the election that there is this thing called 'the electorate' that 'said' something or other.

2 There's a lot of talk about the need for electoral reform and about 'fairness' in the electoral system. I want electoral reform, but I'm not 100% sure what I want. Actually I quite like the idea of the AV system being proposed because I want to keep a constituency MP (though I've never voted for him my - Conservative - MP has listened and responded to me on a number for issues: I like that) but I want to be able to vote for who I really want rather than feeling the need to vote tactically. It seems AV would allow me to do that - though I get the impression I'm about the only person in the country who does want AV. Most people seem either to insist that there should be no change at all or else will settle for nothing short of full proportional representation (like the Electoral Reform Society).

Anyway, that's a bit of a digression. What I wanted to draw attention to was an item on BBC Radio 4's excellent More or Less last week. The short discussion of the maths of voting systems was good, but, in particular, I was interested in Arrow's Impossibility Theorem. What I liked about it was the approach that breaks down the assessment of a 'fair' system into simple statements of things that are required for a system to be considered fair. And the fact that it concludes:
no voting method can satisfy a certain set of desirable criteria, implying no voting method is ideal
(It reminds me of the conclusion of thermodynamics: you can neither win nor break even.)

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