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Electoral Reform and the Tyranny of the Majority

04/06/2015 13:07 BST | Updated 03/06/2016 10:59 BST

In the Republic, Plato highlights a fundamental flaw in democracy. He argues that an 'equal share of constitutional power' allows the majority of the population to influence policies that may adversely affect the minority. Certain democratic decisions that have the potential to oppress a small number of people - and could indeed be morally reprehensible - will succeed as long as they serve the self-interested majority. There are countless historical examples that support this argument. This ostensible defect prompts Plato to describe democracy, somewhat hyperbolically, as the 'tyranny of the majority'.

In the wake of the most unrepresentative election to date, calls to improve Britain's democratic process have resurfaced. Electoral reform has gained momentum, with wide-ranging support from the Greens, UKIP, Liberal Democrats and, commendably considering their gains, the SNP. Moreover, a recent survey from The Independent suggests that 61% of the population support some kind of electoral reform. There are, however, obstacles that prevent change. These obstacles, as Plato realised, stem from a flaw in democracy: the first past the post system, unfair as it may be, continues to reward the majority.

Natalie Bennett claimed that seeking electoral reform is like asking the turkeys to vote for Christmas. She directed her argument at those self-interested MPs that will inexorably vote against legislation that could leave them jobless. This is an apt criticism. Electoral reform, however, can transcend traditional constitutional methods. A general appetite for change, buttressed by a popular campaign to generate further support, could force a referendum. The appetite, as The Independent survey demonstrates, certainly exists and popular campaigns are gaining momentum. The problem, however, is that if there was a referendum, Bennett's turkey analogy can be extended to the wider population.

The majority of voters will support first past the post over proportional representation - which is the form this debate will inevitably take - as it continues to serve their interests. Folks that traditionally vote for the two major parties - and indeed the third largest party, the SNP - have an advantage under the present system, as their parties are traditionally more likely to gain power.

The first past the post system also prevents the rise of fringe parties like the Greens and UKIP - often considered too radical. Preventing these parties from achieving constitutional power is, despite their seemingly popular appeal, supported by many Britons. Thus asking the majority of people to vote for a different electoral system that inexorably reduces the power of the party that they favour - promoting instead smaller parties - is, again, akin to asking a few more turkeys to vote for Christmas.

There are thus two challenges that prevent fairer representation: the majority of MPs won't vote for electoral reform as it threatens their livelihood and the majority of the electorate will support first past the post to retain the monopoly of their parties. Thus, there exists a democratic paradox: the majority will democratically vote against a fairer democracy. The question of whether it is right or wrong will play only a small role in answering this question. As the Tory victory at the general election demonstrated, people look after themselves first. Doing what is right comes second.

In a straightforward battle of first past the post versus proportional representation, voters will make their decision based on self-interest. The tyranny of the majority, and thus the first past the post system, will inevitably prevail, as it did so convincingly in the 2011 referendum.