Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Are voting systems moral?

A fascinating experience, saying anything publicly about the UK voting system. We're all due to have a referendum, er, in about 3 months time. There seems to be an eerie silence on the subject in public places, however. This is probably because people regard it as an issue for political anoraks, and thus nothing to do with real life, let alone morality.

Hang on, though. I am sure good Christians have every right to take various points of view about the best voting system on offer, but I would be deeply disturbed if they just switched on their morality override as they did this. We are told that God is a God of justice, who loves equity (Psalm 11 and Psalm 33) The theme is reflected on many occasions in the Hebrew Scriptures. If it strikes them that the present system serves such values best, they should support it. But a purely pragmatic approach cannot be the best way to deal with the question.

But this is about politics, a generally dirty and shame-inducing word among the English who like to pretend they don't have politics, because that is generally the best cover for underhand politics. This is what Disraeli meant when he said “A British government is an organised hypocrisy.” Actually, Jesus had strong views about organised hypocrisy - why not us?

The fact is people sometimes misunderstand what Jesus was saying when he pulled out a coin and said “Render to Caesar...” He is sometimes thought to be saying there are two worlds, religion and politics and never the twain shall meet - a very convenient view for politicians. That's not, however, what he meant. He pulled out the coin and asked whose image it bore. Caesar’s - so it must be Caesar’s. But turning from your money to your life, whose image, we may ask, does the whole human being wear? God’s. We are to render to God the things that are God's — the whole of life that bears his image.

So by all means let's have a discussion about voting systems. I wonder what general moral principles we will be using as we take our positions. The answer “None, because this is about politics” strikes me as distinctly weedy, nasty people would suggest “sub-Christian.”


UKViewer said...

I think that politics are part of life and that we ignore them at our peril - we risk being sidelined and the Christian voice dismissed entirely from public life.

I am a member of the Green party, which might be a minority, but whose policies in general fit my views on not just the environment but also social justice as well.

As for voting, the alternative vote is not perfect, it is not proportional representation, which seemed suitable for the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish, but not the whole of the United Kingdom.

The claim made by the main parties is that we will end up like Italy, but Germany has a system of proportional representation and governs in coalitions, which are both effective and set a standard for democracy which we should envy.

The church (some bishops anyway) have started to state their position on AV, it needs something like the Archbishops Council to actually express the views of the Church, in unity with other religious denominations.

Sometimes the British voter seems quite apathetic, but perhaps it is because politicians refuse to engage on the basis of openness and frankness, rather than party political positions.

I understand that it is likely that the coalition government will take opposing positions on the AV vote, what message does that send to the voters about unity of purpose and the greater good.

Erika Baker said...

UK Viewer
I would like to caution your enthusiasm about the German system a little. It worked very well for many years when Germany was re-building after the war and growing and when, despite deep political differences, there was a sense of everyone working together.

But the major political crises in the last 20 years have arisen because the complex system of checks and balances in Government has produced virtual sclerosis.

I don't know what part of that is due to proportional representation.
When I grew up I couldn't imagine a political world in which the Liberal Democrats weren't king makers and where there hadn't been a Liberal Democratic Federal Economic Minister.
The Green party discovered the same when it finally became a real force to be reckoned with in the 1980’s and for many many years the Federal Environment Minister was a one of their members.
That gives the smaller parties an importance beyond their political success.

Some of the problems in the last few years has arisen partly because the coalition partners threatened to form allegiances with other main parties and destabilise the Government. The result is that a. Governments aren’t as bold as they could be and b. that the differences between the main parties are not as pronounced as they could be because everyone hovers around the centre, partly to make sure they remain attractive to the smaller king making parties, partly because nothing too bold would ever get through the checks and balance system.

By all means, favour a system like the German one, but analyse it carefully first and learn from its weaknesses.

Si Hollett said...

+Alan, you are quoted in the Independent today as saying that FPTP puts too much power in the hands of the party whips and manager (to the point of only serving those people). Can you please explain how AV will take power from the whips? I can't see a scenario where the whips would have less control under AV.

With both systems on offer being aproportional, while there are arguments either way, including moral, they are rather marginal arguments - it seems to be a debate for political anoraks because most of the differences are only really of importance for political anoraks. If it was a real choice between FPTP and some form of PR, then there'd be far more debate on the relative merits of each system.

Doug Chaplin said...

Alan, I'd be glad to see you explain further. I think (if I've not misunderstood you) that I disagree with where morality comes into this. I've posted a longer argument here if you're interested. It's not impossible our positions are rather closer than they seem, though

Steve Hayes said...

Two observations:

One, from nearly 50 years ago when I visited a Pentecostal church with some friends and the minister happened to be preaching on "should the church oppose 90-day detention?" His answer was no, because of "Render unto Caesar", and that issue wass politics and had nothg to do with the church. As we were leaving he wasked what we thought of the sermon, and I said "Consider a 90-day detainee: whose image is he made in, God's or Caesar's?" And he said "We have lots of policemen in the congregation, I just have to tell them what you just said and you'll be in for 90 days."

The second is that in South Africa we have had proportional representation since 1994. It is good in that it allows minority views to be represented without wasted votes, but it also has the drawback of making MPs accountable to their parties rather than to the electorate. So there is some talk of adopting a single transferable vote system, that should, in theory, give the best of both worlds.

Ian S-T said...

And then there's the dilemma of whether your vote is for the local parliamentary candidate as a person, their local or national views, their local party, their national party, the principles the national party stands for, the national party leader etc. If some of that doesn't apply, then perhaps the technicalities are too complex for Joe Public?

The Church Mouse said...

Bishop Alan

I'm glad to hear your perspective, and agree broadly that we should not switch off our view of morality when considering these things. I also agree with you that there will be different moral perspectives on these issues.

The natural consequence of this view, therefore, must be that no one position can claim a monopoly on the moral high ground - merely that each side will include moral considerations as they form their views.

What concerns me is the way your comments have been used by the Yes campaign to imply that FPTP is immoral and AV is the only moral choice. Jonathan Bartley has been peddling this line for some time, with the ludicrous argument on the Ekklesia website that the Church should support AV to atone for past sins in failing to support the suffragettes.

It is rather worrying to me that your private comments to Jonathan Bartley, which have not been reproduced in full, have been selectively extracted and taken as the words to represent not just your views, but those of 9 other bishops on this subject. As far as Mouse is aware, there is no joint letter from the 10 bishops stating clearly what their case is. Instead we have a press release from a campaign organisation with a couple of selective quotes.

Pam Smith said...

I would have thought the lack of a widespread public discussion among Christians and non Christians alike at the moment has more to do with the fact that the parties have not yet started campaigning on it, so there is little momentum to report on it yet.

I'm not really clear who, if anyone, has said that we should not apply morality to all our decisions, whether we are Christian or not. However morality calls us to think about the consequences of our actions for ourselves and others.

I was an instinctive supporter of proportional representation until recently - it seemed fairer that everyone's views should be represented proportionately.

The emergence of a coalition government in the UK which seemingly believes that forming a coalition means that they are free to implement any new ideas they like and dump any inconvenient manifesto commitments, doesn't strike me as particularly 'moral'.

Not does their immediate decision to ride over the constitution by implementing fixed term governments.

Therefore I shall not be voting for any change from the FPTP system unless and until safeguards are put in place to ensure that there are constitutional limits on what any Government may do in order to keep itself in power.

I don't consider my decision to be immoral.

Peter Kirk said...

I was sad not to find, on this blog or elsewhere, the kind of discussion based on moral principles which you call for in your last paragraph. I have mentioned this in the update to my latest post. I made my own independent start on such a discussion in an earlier post.

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