05 October 2005

The Conservatives and the electoral system.

This is my open and honest response to this excellent article on Labour bias in the electoral system by Paul Davies at Make Votes Count (MVC).

I am a Labour supporter, so it might surprise you that I found this article very depressing reading from a Labour party point of view. I passionately believe it is in Labour's interests to change to a more proportional system and I also think the Tories reluctance to embrace change is because they see the long term advantage the current first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system gives them. I will explain why;

A lot of the points in Paul's article confirms what I have been arguing with FPTPers for some time.

The depressed vote in deprived urban areas is caused by a realisation by the voters of the 'reduced value' of their vote in a safe seat but also because the parties can afford to ignore these voters when making policy, precisely because their vote is of less value.

This is most damaging to the Labour party in the long term because these voters are more likely to be left of centre Labour supporting voters.

The longer the FPTP system continues, the more the Labour party will be forced to ignore these voters in favour of the 'special' more middle class voters in marginals and the more right wing Labour's policies become as a result, the more turnout will drop in urban areas.

The longer this spiral of decline continues, the more difficult it will be for parties to win back these voters, and the more this country will become like the US.

As these 'lost' voters were more likely to be left wing and support Labour, it is the Labour party who will be damaged the most in the long term, especially when the Tories enlarge and manipulate the boundaries (see below).

Although the present system's bias 'may' be enough to help Labour win the next election, I am thinking more ahead than 8 years to what will become once again a right wing Tory hegemony under FPTP. Like death and taxes, it is not a case of 'if' the Tories win again but 'when'.

Paul, you say it is 'impossible' to change the boundaries in the Tory favour, but this is where I disagree. It 'may' be virtually impossible with boundaries at their present size, but not if you increase their size and also take away the onus on the boundary commission to respect natural boundary considerations in making their decision. Look at how gerrymandering has been made into an art form in the US, where no restrictions are made on boundary shape or size.

This could easily be made into a vote winning move by the Tories. With the help of the Tory supporting majority of the media, they could get 'sympathy' votes by playing up the unfairness of the boundaries of the present system and also get votes for promising to reduce the number of MPs, always bound to be popular with the electorate.

Paul, the reason you are 'smashing your head up a brick wall' with the Tories, is not because they don't realise the bias in the system but because they know the lower turnout in urban areas will favour them in the long term.

The Tories are a lost cause as far as electoral reform is concerned. There may be a few who accept the 'moral' argument that it is good for democracy but most are looking for 'party political advantage' arguments not 'moral' arguments. This is why not a single Tory MP supports PR.

The Labour party however is a different matter. Already over 100 Labour MPs support PR and they are the party in power who can make the change. Pressure on them to honour their referendum pledge and persuade them to see how PR benefits Labour in the long term, is where MVC should be concentrating all its efforts.

There are far more Labour supporting votes to be made count under PR with an increase in turnout than there are Tory votes. This is the biggest single fact that is going to get this government to change to PR and we must make this point relentlessly.

If we don't, not only is the Labour Party heading for an even more right wing future, the country is heading for the travesty of democracy they have in the US, we can't let that happen. Labour have to change the electoral system now from a position of strength not waste another generation or more on Tory extremist government in the inevitable future under FPTP.


  1. The depressed vote in deprived urban areas is caused by a realisation by the voters of the 'reduced value' of their vote in a safe seat but also because the parties can afford to ignore these voters when making policy, precisely because their vote is of less value.

    That looks like a circular argument to me. You seem to be saying that some people are unlucky enough to find themselves living in a "safe" seat, even though the seat is only considered safe (the term is meaningless in practice, since party votes start at zero, and are not merely rearranged from last years' pile) because of the actions of voters at the last election, or current opinion polls. Or in other words, because of those same people. Surely it's entirely within their own hands to make the seat less safe, requiring only education rather than a change of voting system.

    Also, you haven't shown how those votes are of reduced value. Surely they have greater value, if only 13000 of them are needed to win what might have required 18000 in a seat with greater turnout.

    Also, we can see that those who do bother to turn out in low-turnout seats generally back Labour, but who can possibly say what those who didn't turn out would have done: are they anarchists, or the hidden middle class?

    Finally, there's a problem with the "marginal seats are more middle class" theory, due to things like: tradition of local support, regional affinities, etc. Furthermore, the theory that the "middle class" can only be wooed by right-wing policies depends entirely upon your interpretation of what right-wing policies are: if you mean extending home ownership, then you're implying a relationship between A and B when they're just different names for the same thing. That's a logical fallacy. If your definition of right-wing is more like "compulsory repatriation of immigrants" then the relationship totally falls flat. Try campaigning on that in a middle-class University seat and see how you get on!

  2. It is not as clear a paragraph as I would like. Its certainly not a circular argument (although the way I've written it, I can see why you think that), I was just trying to demonstrate the downward spiral of alienation.

    Voters in safe seats have 'reduced value' votes for several reasons.

    Have you ever heard the phrase; 'they could put a donkey up around here and if it has a red rosette it will win'. This has an impact on voters attitudes. Why bother voting when a certain party are going to win anyway. Of course the paradox of this is if everyone thought like that...but in practise it is this that partially explains depressed turnout.

    The latest ERS survey (which I highly recommend you read because it explains things in far more detail) shows that the 'lost' voters are mainly urban ex-Labour voters.

    If the Labour party has a policy that loses them thousands of votes in a safe Liverpool seat but gains them hundreds in an ultra marginal in Watford, then they will pursue it because the Watford votes make a difference to the result but the Liverpool votes are surplus votes in seats that are won anyway. That is precisely why the Liverpudlians vote is of less value.

    This is hardly controversial, psephologists have known it for ages.

    Of course the longer this situation goes on the deeper the alienation of these dis-enfranchised Labour voters and the more difficult it becomes to turn around this drop in turnout.

    PR will benefit Labour because these disaffected voters will be unlocked and become just as important to the party because they make a difference to the result. We will then design policies for them and in turn they are more likely to turnout, especially as they know under PR their vote matters. This creates a positive spiral of increased turnout demonstrated by the increased vote of the Labour party in New Zealand under their PR system. They have increased the numbers of people voting for them at each of the 3 consecutive election victories and this increase has been over and above the overall turnout increase, because it is left wing urban voters where the turnout is increasing the most.

    Its a benefit to the Labour party because there are far more of these urban left wing voters than there are of the more middle class voters in marginals. It will tilt the balance back towards poorer voters who generally are much more likely to vote Labour.

    The reason this differential turnout is bad news for Labour in the long term is; although it wins us seats with less voters now, the more of these latent Labour voters that are turned off by the voting system and the rightwards lurch of the Labour party, the more it loses us seats when the boundaries are redrawn by the commission or gerrymandered by the Tories.

    I am going to write more on this and the Tory plans for the abolishment of the boundary commission and computer graphic gerrymandering imported from the US. And don't believe they won't do it, remember how they decimated local govt in the 1980s. If they can abolish the democratically elected GLC because they don't like it, they certainly can abolish the boundary commission.

    The Tories with press backing will say it is 'only fair' to gerrymander the boundaries to 'correct' the present unfair Labour bias, which they will use as a pretext and to win 'sympathy' votes. They will also win support for seat enlargement(which was in their last manifesto) by going on about the reduction of the number of MPs it will bring, always bound to be popular with the public.

    This seat enlargement is where the depressed turnout in urban areas will hit us hard as it will mean more Tory held marginals as low voting urban and high voting rural areas are combined. The only way to stop them is PR.

    Generally the definition of left/right I am thinking of is self defined not my definition, see this poll. Notice how Labour and Lib Dem voters peceive themselves as left wing on the scale from -100 to +100, they are -22 and -23 respectively (we are fighting over the same ideological ground in the voters minds).

    It is a fact that as you rise up the income spectrum, Labours vote share decreases. Crucially as you move from urban to rural, Labour vote share decreases as well. This is why these urban poor are vastly more likely to be dissaffected Labour voters. A lot was made of the rise of the Tory vote share amongst the working class at the last election, but when you look at the numbers, they barely rose, it was the fall in the working class Labour vote that caused the Tory share to increase.

    I'm going to break this down into more precise points and go on indepth about the boundary commission in my next post, drawing on the ERS report.

  3. Neil, thank you for your comment at Oncemore. A most refreshing opinion from the otherside!

    However, whilst Labour would potentially increase their urban vote under a new voting system, don't they also run the risk of losing a significant number of MPs representing more rural parts of Wales and Scotland!?!

  4. Cheers. Good debate going on there. Good to see this issue being discussed.

    Maybe Labour would lose some seats in Wales and Scotland, but overall the centre-left voting preferences of the majority and the increase in turnout that happens under PR will benefit Labour the most, like it has under PR in New Zealand, where the largest increase in turnout has occurred in deprived urban areas who are traditionally left of centre.

    I'm currently working on a summary of the arguments on your site and others that I hope to have up by tomorrow, watch this space.

    At the end of the day, whatever political persuasion, we shouldn't want gerrymandering to decide who governs us. It is detrimental to all of us in the long run.

  5. nice, cozy place you got here :)..

  6. The rural areas in Wales & Scotland vote LibDem, Plaid or SNP. Thus, reducing the representation of rural areas would not harm Labour that much.

    Scottish Labour MPs tend to come from the urban "central belt" not from the north.

  7. Anon, assume you from Scotland, Good points, totally agree.