15 May 2007

Brown's nod towards electoral reform is very welcome.

I am not currently a fan of Gordon Brown but that could change if he finally fulfils Labour's promises on electoral reform.

I suspect that Gordon's comments that he is not closed to electoral reform but also wants to keep the constituency link means he is warming to the Alternative Vote.

I'm not closed to electoral reform at all, but what I would say is this: I would not like to lose the link between a member of parliament and the constituency. I think it's a very important part of what I'm saying is that anybody who is a representative has got to be involved and engaged in that constituency.

Although AV is not a proportional system, it at least means that MPs will have the majority of constituency voters backing them, unlike at present where barely a third of MPs have such backing. No MPs had the backing of the majority of their electorate at the 2005 general election.

Brown of course goes on to qualify his comments on reform by highlighting his doubts over PR due to the recent election fiasco in Scotland and also emphasising his foremost commitment to other 'constitutional reform' before electoral reform.

Now of course the PR system has been proved in different areas of the country to be quite complex [laughter] and there are all these issues to discuss as well. But in the broader sweep of constitutional reform I would start with two things: the accountability of parliament and the executive to the people, where we need reform and I've been suggesting ways we can do that, and secondly enshrining the rights and responsibilities of citizens in a way that is more meaningful for the future so that people can understand what it is to be a citizen of Britain, what the responsibilities are but what the rights are too. And I think that is part of the civil liberties debate, is also a very important element of moving forward and I think people in this country are ready for what is an open and transparent debate about how they can participate more in the decisions that affect their lives


  1. A cynic might suspect that Gordon has run the numbers and realised that under the current electoral system, he's losing the next election, which means that it's now time to change the system.

    The Alternative Vote is far inferior to Ranked Pairs, but is probably slightly easier to explain to the electorate. A cynic might suspect Gordon Brown of assuming (perhaps with some justification) that some form of transferrable vote will move a lot of 3-party constituencies from Tory wins to Labour wins, and therefore provides a means of keeping him in power.

  2. "slightly easier to explain to the electorate"

    Any change of the electoral system is going to be problematic in the transitional period. This has to be taken into account - so the system used has to be as simple as possible.

    The one (and probably only thing) that our current 'first-past-the-post' system has in its favour is the 'simplicity of inertia'.

    People are used to 'one cross next to one candidate' and the candidate with the most votes wins irrespective of how low the percentage of votes they get or if a majority preferred a different candidate or if slightly different constituency boundaries would alter the result.

    This is simple to understand even if it gives grossly undemocratic results.

    Simplicity however is important.

    From reading the wikipedia explanation of 'ranked pairs' - it looks a nightmare to vote and count.

    This is important for the following reasons.

    To increase turnout voters need to trust the result and to do this they need to understand the counting method and have faith that it is done properly.

    Because people vote so rarely (once every 4-5 years) it needs to be understandable 'in a second' - one error robs that person of their franchise for years. People do not get to 'practise' their vote. It is hard enough getting them to the polling booths yet alone explaining a new way of voting to them.

    For this reason even simple ranking methods (1-2-3 etc.) like the alternative vote and the single transferable vote could increase the number of spoilt ballots (although ironically in the recent ballot in Scotland there were less spoilt papers in the STV ballot than the FPTP ballot).

    Any delay in the counting process increases possibilities of fraud and error and fosters distrust(which is why I prefer Open List PR over STV).

    Personally I would keep the 'one cross next to one candidate' voting method and use the results to rank candidates regionally - each party would be allocated a number of MPs proportional to their regional vote share but the order of their list would be determined by which of their candidates got the most votes (open list PR).

  3. Neil:

    The voting is exactly the same in ranked pairs and AV - you just list the candidates in the oder that you prefer them - 1, 2, 3 and so on.

    All the differences are in the way that the ballots are counted. If you do your count on a computer, all methods are easy. If you want to shuffle bits of paper around on a table, AV is manageable (although a royal pain in the arse - pretty much anything except stone-age FPTP is a pain to count with piles of paper) and ranked pairs is impossible to do just by shuffling piles of paper around - it requires you to tabulate the results either by hand or by computer.

    My approach is a little different from yours. At the moment, we have a simple system that people understand, although it might not be ideal. If we're going to change the rules (and if we are, we're going to change them once, and will then be stuck with them for at least the next hundred years), I'd rather do it right, rather than settling for an easier second-best.

    AV isn't Condorcet, which rules it out for me.

  4. I agree AV is pretty crap, but I'd rather AV for the next election than no change in my lifetime which is probably what would happen if we wait for 'ranked pairs'.

    Open List PR can keep 'one cross one candidate' voting and could be counted in exactly the same way as FPTP. The difference being the most popular candidates for each party are elected in a region rather than just one candidate per seat.

    Has there ever been a 'ranked pairs' election in any country or big organisation?

  5. AV+ all the way.

    Largely echo your thoughts on Brown, Neil.