16 December 2005

John Maples and rotten boroughs.

Democracy in the UK (and other First Past the Post (FPTP) countries) is in a terrible state.

How can any government claim that 21% of the registered electors votes is enough of a mandate to rule? Especially when you realise how the low registration of the electorate puts the percentage who support this government much lower than even that derisory figure.

In my debate with Martin Keegan over this; he has asked the question 'how is proportionality more important than constituency accountability?'. I felt to do this massive question justice, it would be better to start a new post rather than leave my answer in the comments.

Martin feels that a change to the Alternative Vote (AV) would be enough to solve the democratic deficit, whereas I feel only a truly proportional system will do the job.

"Parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom should be seen as a referendum on the performance of sitting MPs, not merely as a snapshot nationwide opinion poll determining party voting weights for the next Parliament. The electoral system affects the degree to which voters may hold their representatives to account for their actions in the previous Parliament; changes which would diminish this accountability mechanism should be resisted."

This is a fine sounding statement but it assumes that FPTP is actually any good in terms of this accountability mechanism. The following suggests it is not;

Taken from ERS general election report.

68% of the electorate didn't vote for their MP.
78% of the electorate didn't vote Labour.
81% of the electorate didn't vote Conservative.
87% of the electorate didn't vote Lib Dem.
Looking at the the least supported MP;
82% of George Galloway's constituents didn't vote for him.
Even the most supported MP had;
54% of Gerry Adam's constituents whom didn't vote for him.

According to MORI, "only 41% of the public can name their MP"

If your MP decides to go against the wishes of his constituents, they can contact him and say, "Hi, your majority at the last election was 2000; we, the undersigned 1001 who voted for you last time will vote against your party next time unless you buck the whip on this issue we care about." The easier it is to do this, the more likely the behaviour of an MP will reflect the wishes of constituents.

The problem with this is it only applies to the 40 or so seats out of 646 where MPs have a majority this small. For the other 80% of the electorate there is virtually no accountability. In fact I could absolutely predict the results of at least 3/4 of the seats at the next general election in 2009/10 and no bookie in the country would take a bet on any of them, such a dead cert it would be. Call that accountability?

This whole debate with Martin started around his mentioning of John Maples Parliamentary Constituencies Equalisaton Bill.

The following stats are taken from this ERS report.

The ERS has the following to say on the subject of boundaries;

"The boundary changes do not justify the hopes placed in
them by some optimistic Conservatives.
The estimated effect would be to increase the
number of Conservative MPs by around 7."

In 1970 when the Conservatives won, the electoral bias was much less despite Tory seats being 10,278 bigger on average than Labour, in 2005 it was 6,078 but the overall bias was much greater.

The costs of equalising boundaries would be massively detrimental to the accountability of the system. To equalise boundaries would require the following;

Very frequent reviews: probably before each general election. The disruption this caused was the reason the reviews were lengthened in the first place.

Knock-on disruption to innocent seats: for example changing the boundaries for St Ives would affect as far away as Devon.

More artificial seats: constituencies that have no link to administrative or geographical boundaries would be much more common.

More complex review process: ignoring natural boundaries makes administration and decision making more difficult and controversial to agree.

Risks of more gerrymandering: In the US, this is off to an art form, with parties employing computer programs to design boundaries that favour them the most.

The main reasons for bias are actually;

Differential turnout: Turnout in urban Labour seats is lower than rural Tory seats.

Inefficient Vote Distribution: Labour voters are clustered more effectively, maximising their number of seats.

These issues can only be addressed by a move to proportionality. When Martin argues that accountability is damaged by PR, he is really referring to closed list PR. Open List PR and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) maintain direct accountability. In fact compared to the vast majority of safe seats we get under FPTP, these systems actually improve MP accountability.

As well as this, Open List PR completely removes the dangers of gerrymandering, while STV reduces the possibilities.

While I support AV as a first step, it's lack of proportionality would still mean negative campaigning is too attractive and the disincentive to vote in safe seats would remain.

In Australia, they have tried to get around the low turnout associated with plurality systems like FPTP and AV by introducing compulsory voting. The problem with this for me is it is very difficult to administer fines and it acts as a further disincentive to register to vote.

A much better way to address low turnout would be incentive voting. This is where we have a financial incentive to compensate people for the expenses of voting. This would have the advantage of encouraging poorer people to register as well as vote, these are the people who turn-out least at the moment. It would also avoid the problems of compulsion, so is better from a libertarian point of view.

18 comments:

  1. Paying people to vote is a terrible idea: it costs nothing and poverty didn't still people going out in the 19th Century, even if they worked under conditions that wouldn't be allowed now.

    Ultimately, if people won't go out for some combination of party, ideology, candidate, community spirit, or democratic duty, then there's a problem that compulsory voting would only cover up.

    And perhaps PR is a partial solution (I just find it such a boring subject...)

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  2. Just for the record, I not agree with the following characterisation of my position:

    "Martin feels that a change to the Alternative Vote (AV) would be enough to solve the democratic deficit"

    Neil, I'm getting a bit sick of this. If the cost of debating and discussing things with you is the increasingly prominent misrepresentation of my views, then at some point it will cease to be worth it.

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  3. Martin, I didn't mean to mis-represent your position. You have mis-represented mine on occasion as well.

    Let me put it another way; you prefer AV to PR. I worded it very badly, sorry. I didn't mean to say you thought AV was a solution to all our democratic problems, just that you though it (along with FPTP) the best electoral system.

    I notice you haven't answered any of the points in my post.

    B4L, Why is paying people to vote a terrible idea?

    It is redistributive.

    It encourages the very people to vote (i.e the poor) who vote the least.

    It encourages people to register to vote (20% of people in London are not registered, the majority are poor people and ethnic minorities in rented accomodation).

    If these people start voting, then political parties wouldn't be able to ignore them anymore.

    Unlike compulsory voting, (which I'm not in favour of) it is easy to adminster, and it doesn't discourage registration. It is also libertarian, as nobody has to vote or even register.

    Voting does cost. It costs time and sometimes it costs money. The poor are the very people this hits the hardest. Time costs them money or some of their precious leisure time or both.

    Finally, PR may seem boring initially, but it is actually about how we distribute political power, and that affects every issue. That is why it the THE most important issue and very interesting indeed.

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  4. carry bag man17/12/05 5:24 pm

    Neil,
    while I am broadly sympathetic to your approach I fail to see how paying people to vote would become a solution.

    We live in a "rights" based society and the forgotten constituency of politics seems to be responsibilities.

    The basic responsibilty to vote is simple and not onerous...the electorate seem to care little about fptp,atv or pr systems so a few populist changes

    spread voting over several days
    general election day becomes a bank holiday
    introduce a "none of the above candidates section for those disenchanted with mainstream parties.
    improve citizenship education in schools

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  5. carry bag man: I agree with all your suggestions to improve turn-out. But you haven't addressed what harm incentive voting do?

    It seems to me, it has a lot of pluses. Nobody has pointed out what would be detrimental about incentive voting.

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  6. carry bag man17/12/05 8:30 pm

    I suppose it depends on how you view voting.
    personally I would see it both as a right and a corresponding responsibility.

    would you still incentivise voting if we had a citizens income ???

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  7. "Martin, I didn't mean to mis-represent your position. You have mis-represented mine on occasion as well."

    Apologies tend to come across as more sincere if they don't disclose some attempt at justification; but of course it's not a justification for misrepresentation that someone else might have been doing it, so this is a self-serving equivocation rather than a justification.

    Any misrepresentation I may have made of Neil's position will have been unintentional. But since he doesn't identify the alleged misrepresentation with any specificity, he accuses me without providing me the means to defend myself. Nice.

    "I notice you haven't answered any of the points in my post."

    If you want a debate, treat the people you're debating with a bit more respect in future, and don't expect me to participate in any case. It's got beneath my dignity.

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  8. Martin, you have misinterpreted me again.

    I have never deliberately misrepresented anyone and I wasn't accusing you of doing so either.

    It is sad if you don't want to debate with me anymore, but that is your decision.

    I'll just assume you have no answer to the valid points I make.

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  9. Carry bag man: "I suppose it depends on how you view voting.
    personally I would see it both as a right and a corresponding responsibility."

    You are of course absolutely right. But we don't live in an ideal world.

    Do you agree it's a good idea to give people expenses for attending job interviews?

    This is exactly the same thing. More poor people don't vote partly because of the expense in time and money. Incentive voting would compensate for this.

    It is in society's interest that unemployed people attend job interviews. It is their responsibility to attend the interview, but there is nothing wrong in helping them financially to do so. Voting is the same.

    Most people have a gut reaction against 'bribing' people to make the effort to vote. It is against their principles. But when I ask them specifically what it is they don't like, they are stumped for an answer. Remember people are not being bribed to vote, just bribed to make the effort to vote, which is different.

    People can vote 'none of the above', they can even spoil their paper or write BOLLOCKS in large letters right across the ballot paper. I don't care, as long as their register their opinion.

    The best answer I've had to explain why they don't like incentive voting is that; 'they would feel part of the establishment, as if the establishment was somehow buying their soul'.

    Principle's are great things as long as they are backed by facts. What I can't argue against is people who say they are against something in principle but can't explain why. Principle's that are not backed by facts are the same as religion in my opinion.

    "would you still incentivise voting if we had a citizens income ???"

    Why not? Or failing that, we could make receipt of that week's CI conditional on voting.

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  10. carry bag man18/12/05 11:31 am

    neil,

    you are quite happy to argue in favour of a position that is not backed up by facts.

    can you quantify where and when incentivised voting has been introduced and worked ???

    as for "poor" people not having the time or money to vote
    1, my suggestion of a national holiday for voting and spreading voting times over several days covers that point.
    as for not being able to afford to vote, polling stations are invariably local so expenses need not be incurred.
    scrawling obscenities on a ballot paper simply spoils the paper and does not demonstrate dis-satisfaction with the mainstream parties suppose a majority in a constituency voted for none of the above. the election would then have to be run again with more suitable candidates.
    the fundemental point of principle in all this is voting is a human right and a civic reponsibility and is not reducible to monetary reward.

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  11. "can you quantify where and when incentivised voting has been introduced and worked ???"

    As far as I know, it has not been introduced anywhere. But what potential difficulties would there be? It would be easy to implement.

    "as for "poor" people not having the time or money to vote
    1, my suggestion of a national holiday for voting and spreading voting times over several days covers that point."

    The 'lower socio economic groups' ('poor' is shorter) are more likely to work bank holidays and not get the time off.

    "as for not being able to afford to vote, polling stations are invariably local so expenses need not be incurred."

    True, but people are more likely to turn out in cold or rainy weather if there is a financial incentive.

    "scrawling obscenities on a ballot paper simply spoils the paper and does not demonstrate dis-satisfaction with the mainstream parties suppose a majority in a constituency voted for none of the above. the election would then have to be run again with more suitable candidates."

    I want this option of 'none of the above' on the ballot paper as well.

    "the fundemental point of principle in all this is voting is a human right and a civic reponsibility and is not reducible to monetary reward."

    Yes, but what EXACTLY is wrong with offering a monetary reward for an activity that is beneficial to society as a whole?

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  12. Douglas Clegg19/12/05 4:36 pm

    Neil, I don't have a handbag so I can't join the handbags at dawn bit of this debate, but I do think that low voter turnout is the root problem and that voting sytem is a second order problem. You describe incentive voting. Here is an alternative incentive.

    At every election, general and local (but not by-elections), in addition to the vote for the elected representative, there would be three referendum style questions.
    The result of these would be presented both on a constituency (ward in local elections) and total basis, but would not be binding on the elected government.
    Each political party would be able, and expected, to state its position on the questions. This would mean being clear not just about which outcome it supported, but also whether it would feel obliged to go along with the public view, or whether it would simply allow itself to be informed by the public response.
    The clarity of each party’s position on the referendum questions would be able to be challenged and tested during the campaign by the media and the public. And, in time, government response to previous questions could be challenged.
    Could this simple change reinvigorate our electorate, the turnout, and the sense of involvement for individuals in the political process? Would it really differ from the incessant opinion polls we are subjected to?
    This would be an opinion poll in which everyone would be able to participate and one where the questions were debated in public, not just a phone call out of the blue with a question to a random but balanced sample. It would be an opinion poll that politicians would be obliged to respond to. It would allow the public view on key issues to be tested independently of the vote for representatives. Each voter would feel that their “vote” on this would be heard and would count.
    So why not make it a binding referendum? As a result of not being binding, it permits leadership to stay with the elected representatives. It will challenge the political parties to be really clear during the election campaign about the issues dealt with in the referendum questions, but in the final analysis, will allow them to exercise the leadership which our constitution expects.
    Who would pick the questions? This is an implementation issue, but one possibility at national level would be a process involving the House of Lords. It would be a splendid challenge to the second chamber to allow it to demonstrate that it could rise above short term politics, and a challenge to which I am sure many members of that House would be proud to respond.
    And, above all, since there is no compulsion, there is no major constitutional impact. The current government has discovered on numerous occasions that any new law becomes rapidly subject to the supreme law of unforeseen consequences. So what might they be in this case? They are, of course, unforeseen, but why worry? The change could be undone as quickly as it was implemented. Where is the downside risk?

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  13. Douglas Clegg, if you have ever seen a US ballot paper, you will understand why your idea is a non-starter.

    US ballot papers in some states are like books, with dozens of referenda and info on various issues.

    The result? If anything, these relentless referenda put people off. Just 110m votes out of 250m adults, pretty crap really. If you want to increase participation, you make things as simple as possible. This idea is just too complicated.

    Pay people to vote, you incentivise the lower socio economic groups that participate the least and it would be redistributive in the bargain. It's simple and it would work.

    Voting benefits everyone and the more people that vote the better.

    I think that most people's objections to a financial incentive to vote are that they think it will dilute the number of informed votes.

    This is an argument that dates back to J.S Mill, who wanted educated people to have more votes.

    This is also the argument used to justify the unelected house of lords and argue against representative democracy altogether. It is of course, complet rubbish.

    If we are going to have democracy, it should be as all encompassing as possible, the more people represented the better.

    Of course, there is a need for better education and for better politicians, there always will be, but that is not an argument for not trying to increase turn-out.

    Anything that increases turn-out and doesn't compromise the result should be tried.

    Compulsory voting is expensive to administate and discourages registration.

    New technology and postal voting increase fraud and reduce auditing of the result.

    PR will help by between 5 to 10%.

    But the simplest and most effective way to increase turnout would be a financial incentive.

    What would be the harm of trying it out in a trial?

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  14. Forgot to add.

    We have a catch 22 situation at the moment.

    Poorer voters vote less because they are ignored.

    Politicians ignore the poorer voters because they vote less.

    We need something to break this cycle. Incentive voting is the answer.

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  15. Douglas Clegg20/12/05 6:10 pm

    Neil, I can see why you get into these “handbag at dawn” debates, and I’m going out to buy a handbag. Please don’t dismiss other people’s ideas as non-starters. Give us a break.
    You can see that I did not suggest dozens, I suggested 3 (my preferred first one would be “should Alan Shearer be given an ASBO”.
    The second would be “Would you like to have an identity card”
    The third would be “Should faith schools be funded by the government”. But I would not be the one doing the choosing.
    By the way, says he, trying to sound nonchalant, how big will my incentive payment be?
    I do think that we agree on the big thing, ie that turnout is the issue and the root problem, not voting system. The chances of the UK adopting PR in the next 20 years are pretty slim, and even then it has the downside of delivering governments that 0% of the electorate voted for.

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  16. douglas, my dear friend. It's so frustrating this blogging thing but I like to be direct, sorry if that is handbagging.

    Your last comment about PR I want to answer first, delivering government that '0% wanted' is a common dismissal of PR, but it is a total mis-representation.

    At the moment we have a coalition government. It is a coalition of Labour MPs elected by 21% of the electorate. This coalition makes decisions for everyone.

    Decisions are still decided behind closed doors, either of the parliamentray party before an election or afterwards in the cabinet.

    When people vote for a party, that does not mean they agree with EVERY single policy, it doesn't even mean they agree with a majority of their policies. It just means that that party BETTER represents their views than the alternatives on offer. FPTP reduces these alternatives and reduces transparency and accountability of someone's vote.

    By having PR we have the chance to choose a party that better represents our views and we also have a better chance of that vote actually not being wasted.

    To have a PR coalition government between parties and a FPTP coalition within parties
    is the same thing except that the first has the support of a majority whereas the second, only a minority. Obviously the first is more democratic.

    I'm sure your next missive would be 'but we can hold a party to account and vote them out under FPTP'.

    The problem is FPTP is not accountable. As I have demonstrated. It's very difficult to vote an MP out. 68% of people vote against their MP under FPTP.

    FPTP is unpredictable, it's like playing russian roulette. Did the 31 constituencies where Labour voters switched to Lib Dem really want a reactionary pro-war Tory MP, despite the Tory vote staying static? A lot of these voters would be horrified, but this is exactly what this system gave them.

    PR fine tunes government rather than FPTP which gives big changes in government on minor vote changes between parties (sometimes unconnected to what these changes indicate). There is plenty of eveidence to suggest that FPTP has been detrimental to our economy since the war. PR countries have experienced higher growth and have better social provision, probably because they haven't had constant and more violent changes of direction on policy which is destabilising to the economy.

    I'd compare PR and FPTP's effect on the economy to cooking with gas and electric hobs respectively. With Gas (PR) you can adjust the heat with minor alterations, whereas electric (FPTP) it is more difficult to judge because of the delay in heating up, leading to more violent changes of heat.

    On your other point about referenda. By all means have the referenda if you want, this is a minor issue. It will have little or no impact on turnout in my opinion, it might like I say be detrimental.

    Incentive voting would definitely work. I would suggest around 10 pounds each, but it could also be entry to a lottery with a national jackpot of a million or something. This might be just as effective but a lot cheaper and easier.

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  17. "Your last comment about PR I want to answer first, delivering government that '0% wanted' is a common dismissal of PR, but it is a total mis-representation."

    Surely, a "proportional mis-representation"?

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  18. Douglas Clegg30/12/05 1:33 pm

    Neil, I agree about incentive: £10 would be a minimum and would still end up costing £500m +. Far better and administratively cheaper to offer one number for each of the next 10 weeks into the Saturday Lottery draw.
    By the way, I have no idea whether an opinion poll question on the ballot sheet would increase turnout. My main point is that all the other ideas have little chance of being implemented in the next ten years (reasons of cost, implementation complexity, constitutional impacts, ie difficult to roll back) and so the only way forward is to try some things and see if they work.

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