You've probably heard that, in the recent UK election, the Conservatives won by a huge majority – 80 seats more than the rest put together. Less up-front was the fact that they polled only 43.6 per cent of the votes. Buried in the tables of results was this bizarre nugget: the Scottish Nationalists, with merely 4 per cent of the votes, scooped 48 seats, while the Lib-Dems' 11 per cent pulled in a paltry 11 seats.
Of course, that's democracy, isn't it? Or is it? Most of us, I suspect, think that democracy is "rule by the will of the majority". In the old – the very old – days, when a tribe was deciding (bloodlessly) between its current chief and a challenger, it worked perfectly. It still does, provided that any vote is between just two alternatives. However, those election figures suggest that democracy's no longer so divinely simple.
Checking the current definition I was surprised (but shouldn't have been) to find that nowadays it's "government by the people", with the idea of "majority" very much side-lined, and that there are eight main types of democracy, ranging from "ruling by referendum" to a whisker this side of totalitarianism – plus a mind-boggling plethora of sub-types. Clearly, democracy has been stretched way beyond its design specs.
Quite recently there arose the vexed question of "wasted votes". Why, I'm not sure, because it's always been this way – voting is gambling: to stand a chance of winning, you must back a runner, and if your runner doesn't win, you lose your stake. So, it's no use crying over wasted votes, is it? Unless, perhaps, you have Proportional Representation.
Unfortunately, all PR's many forms seem to involve making the job of poor Joe Voter (and, where applicable, Jane Voter) much more complicated. It's hard enough deciding which candidate you like best (or dislike least), so anything like shuffling all the candidates into your order of preference effectively turns a molehill into a largely unclimbable mountain.
Years ago, I came up with an idea for PR which preserves the simple electoral system by confining the complications to parliamentary voting. Very roughly, it works thus: after an election, each party's parliamentary "voting strength" is the percentage of the electorate that voted for it, and that percentage is shared equally among its MPs.
MPs, I've been assured, will not like it. Tough – this fractional vote accurately represents what they deserve, a voice in direct proportion to their electoral support. Of course, there are many pros and cons, but it does do what it says on the tin. Rather less comprehensible to me is the recent fad for "representation of minorities" (distastefully undemocratic where it involves "reserved" seats). After all, isn't that part of any elected representative's basic remit?
In any event, it simply isn't practicable. For one thing, to do it fairly you must represent not just a few "favoured" minorities but ALL minorities; and for another, if a minority is a subset of the population with some common quality, then the number of minorities could far exceed the population. Although that might set the beehive humming, NZ would otherwise be deserted. The worrying thing is, that outcome's hardly more outlandish than many we already have.