The Veil of Ignorance - Eddie Copeland

Civic Engagement

How adding a little ignorance could improve First Past the Post

19 Dec , 2015  

The 2015 general election was labelled as the most unpredictable in a generation. In part, that was because of one great certainty: faith in politicians is at an all time low.

According to Ipsos MORI, from the start of 2014 the majority of the electorate was dissatisfied with the performance of the government and each of the individual party leaders. Fewer than a quarter of all voters believed that Labour or Conservatives would keep their election promises. And according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, in 2013 the participation rate in British politics was ranked below that of all the major powers in Europe. The deterioration of trust in politicians has gone so far that books like The Fourth Revolution, which question the future of the western democratic model, have become best sellers.

The causes of this disillusionment are many and complex. Inspiration for one partial solution comes from an American philosopher.

The Veil of Ignorance

John Rawls (1921-2002) argued that a society’s moral rules should be designed on the principle of a ‘veil of ignorance’. Put simply, those creating the rules should do so as though they had no knowledge of what position they would have in society, or what their tastes, abilities and preferences would be. To take a very extreme example, to test whether it is morally right to have a society in which 25% of people are slaves, those designing the rules would have to assume that there was a 1 in 4 chance that they could be one of them.

The same principle might be good for politics, too.

How much more carefully would laws be made and decisions be taken on policy areas such as education, housing, benefits or pension reform if those making them did not know whether they would be a student, a low-skilled worker or an affluent pensioner?

The idea makes a nice thought experiment, but – I hear you cry – has limited potential to affect an actual political system. After all, like the rest of us, politicians already know their background, wealth, preferences, abilities and tastes.

All true.

But perhaps elements of their political lives could be covered in a veil of ignorance in a way that would achieve a similar result.

The problem of political certainty

Consider that in a representative democracy politicians make decisions not just based on what they believe is good for themselves, but on what they believe is good for the majority of those they represent. The First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system is particularly effective at providing this direct link between an MP and their constituents.

Yet it also has a major weakness: the significant number of ‘safe seats’ (i.e. constituencies that consistently vote for the same party). The Electoral Reform Society describes them as ‘the 21st Century’s rotten boroughs’. They are hardly a niche issue: the average parliamentary seat last changed parties in the 1960s. In 2010, no fewer than 400 seats were said to be safe – and that in a year that had more uncertainty than usual due to the high number of retirements following the expenses scandal.

In a safe seat, an MP can afford to take a more ideological position to play to their majority base (a point well exemplified in US House primaries). Poor quality politicians can survive for longer. Most damagingly, people of a different political persuasion to their MP can feel permanently disenfranchised. All contribute to the widespread malaise with the political system.

How could a veil of ignorance help?

A Proposal for Electoral Reform

Imagine if six months before every general election, an algorithm was used to randomly redraw the shape of every constituency. The algorithm would be set up based on three clear rules:

1) Each new constituency shape must cover no more and no less than 50% of the population of the previous constituency. The second time a constituency is redrawn, it should have no geographical overlap with its original shape.

2) Each new constituency must have an equal number of constituents.

3) Each part of the constituency must have a minimum width (to avoid having, say, a 50 mile long, one mile wide section – a phenomenon not unknown in the gerrymandered districts of the USA’s House of Representatives).

The primary effect of this change would be to get rid of safe seats. If a seat strongly supported one party during one parliament, there would be no guarantee that it would do so again once the population it covered shifted by 50%.

The reason for having a 50% population overlap is twofold: 1) It ensures that MPs would still be incentivised to look after their current constituents, as 50% of them would be among their electorate at the next election. Crucially, they wouldn’t know which 50%, and so would need to take good care of all their constituents. 2) It plays to the British preference for incrementalism. Having a 50% overlap would provide some continuity and also ensure that MPs did not have to learn about a totally new and unfamiliar area after each election.

What would be the advantages of such a system?

Encourage consensus and lessen extreme views. Politicians would need to think very carefully about how their decisions affected people from a much broader range of backgrounds. Just because they represented an affluent rural consistency during one parliament, they may have to defend their record to a suburban or city area at the next election.

Broader geographical experience. After two elections, the constituency would not overlap at all with its first incarnation. Over the course of a 15 year career, politicians would therefore be incentivised to think carefully about the impact of issues beyond their boundaries. This could help reduce political NIMBYism on things like planning decisions.

Empower voters. It would make it considerably less likely that an individual voter would find themselves represented by an MP of the same party again and again. It would end the farce of election campaigns in safe seats that are based on the message that: ‘Tories / Labour / Lib Dems cannot win here’, which create strong incentives for negative tactical voting.

Root out weaker politicians. The changing boundaries would make it less likely that poor quality politicians could remain without having broad appeal.

More swiftly account for population movements. Constituency boundaries are changed periodically anyway, but normally belatedly. This would ensure it was done as a matter of course.

Pre-empting the critics

Clearly this proposal will be met with a number of objections:

It would lessen the bond between constituents and their MP. Wrong. Citizens can end up with a new MP even under the current system, such as when electoral boundaries change due to population movements, or when MPs lose their seat or retire. New MPs have always had to build their relationship with their constituents from scratch.

MPs would have less knowledge of their area. Wrong. Even under the current system, new MPs often come from outside the area and have to build their local knowledge. By maintaining a 50% population overlap after each election, an MP who was successful in multiple elections would be likely to be familiar with areas surrounding their old consistency boundaries. It is surely positive that they get to appreciate issues affecting a wider area.

It would be unfair to MPs who would have to move frequently. Prospective parliamentary candidates tend to have to move to find a seat anyway. Moving every 5-10 years is no more than many other people have to do to find work.

Why not just change the electoral system? The UK electorate has shown little appetite for changing theirs (recall the AV referendum of 2011). This proposal would maintain two great strengths of FPTP: 1) its simplicity, and 2) its direct link to constituents, while removing its major weakness: a tendency towards creating safe seats. A third strength of FPTP used to be that it provided strong, single party government. The fragmenting of our party political system has made that less certain. However, by randomly redrawing the boundaries at each election it may create more stability by encouraging politicians to hold less ideological views, making coalitions of consensus easier to form.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps.

But given the urgent need to restore faith and public trust in the political system, no solution should be left off the table. Looking for ways to create a ‘veil of ignorance’ over MPs’ political lives might just help create policies that are better for everyone.

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