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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Public safety and the case for electoral reform

The aftermath of the IRA's Baltic Exchange bombing, 1992 (source)

This post partially summarises and discusses Dr Matt Qvortrup's 2011 paper "Terrorism and Political Science", which won the Political Studies Association's "Best Paper" award in 2013. (The full text is available for download here.) I am grateful to Dr Qvortrup for his cooperation but of course all errors and misreadings and any perceived implications are mine.

This research is surprising and relevant to a time when many feel that the democratic system is failing or threatened by illiberal changes.

Dr Qvortrup looked at incidents of domestic terrorism in Western Europe from 1985 to 2010, a period chosen to "coincide with the rise of Islamic terrorism." Surprisingly, "terrorist attacks perpetrated by radicalised Muslims are less of a problem than the media would have us believe. Indeed... the only major Islamist attack that has been perpetrated by domestic groups—that is, citizens of the country in which the attack took place—is the 7/7 bombing in London. All other fatal attacks were perpetrated by either Marxist, nationalist or separatist groups." (p. 2)
 
So, not principally Muslims, then. And the driver is not so much poverty as not having a voice: 
 
"Terrorism is less a result of social... and economic conditions... than it is a result of political factors, such as a feeling of political disenfranchisement of minority groups." (p. 3) "Of course, not all minority groups resort to terrorism. A certain perception of disenfranchisement and a degree of alienation, perhaps coupled with a sense of discrimination, are commonly associated with radicalisation." (p. 6)
 
Rather than suppress the symptoms, we should cure the disease by "introducing more inclusive and consensus-oriented political institutions." (p. 1)
 
"Under ideal circumstances the logic is as follows: the larger the number of parties represented the greater the chance that their voices will be heard and the greater the chance that they may—in some small way—influence the decision-making and policy output. This, in turn, will increase their trust in the political system, and reduce the level of terrorism." (p. 6)
Factors tending to consensus government (p.7) include:
1. A higher number of Parliamentary parties
2. A high degree of influence by the Opposition on government policy
3. A fair relationship between votes cast and Parliamentary seats gained (see Gallagher Index)
4. A range of elected representatives from each constituency, to reflect breadth of opinion
Comment: we are beginning to see how the UK has some problems, because of our "first past the post" system. #1 we have to only a limited extent, #2 (a weak or divided Opposition) has been a recurring worry in modern times, #3 was put to a referendum in 2011 in a campaign where the big guns seemed to favour the status quo (to the disappointment of the Liberal Democrats, who sponsored it, but they're not the only minority muted by FPTP), and #4 we don't have at all.
In particular, #3 was a missed great opportunity, for as Qvortrup notes, there is a "strong positive correlation between Gallagher Disproportionality... and the number of domestic terrorist incidents. (p. 8)
But in a pluralist society, there is reason to reexamine the assumption that there should be only one representative per constituency:
"District Magnitude—‘the decisive factor’ in determining the number of parties to be elected ... is theoretically likely to be associated with a lower level of terrorism. The logic is straightforward: the higher the number of elected MPs per electoral district, the greater the chance that a representative from a small minority will be represented, and hence the greater the chance that the minorities’ views will be taken into account. Conversely, with the views of a minority shut out, they may resort to other means...
"Based on impressionistic data, it seems noteworthy that countries with relatively high district magnitudes are also the countries with the highest number of ethnic minority MPs and local government representatives... Conversely, there is some evidence to suggest that the low representation of UK Muslims (a country with an extremely low district magnitude) was in part to blame for the radicalisation that has occurred since the late 1990s." (p. 9)
The author concludes:
"In political science terms, there is a very strong correlation between having a proportional electoral system (either STV or list PR) and having a political system that is associated with consensus government... which, in turn, is correlated... with lower levels of terrorism...

"Thus by choosing an electoral system there is a high chance that one may change the political system, and thereby indirectly contribute to a lower risk of terrorist incidents. Political institutions matter. Discussions about electoral systems are not just the preserve of anoraks and theoreticians but can have a real impact on the safety and security of citizens." (p. 11)

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