01 February 2008

Arguing For Electoral Reform Is Difficult.

The basics of proportional representation (PR) are simple - 35% of the vote should win you 35% of the seats. Labour currently have...
55% of seats in the House of Commons despite getting only 35% of the vote at the 2005 general election (surprised by this - please read on). Under our current electoral system, which is called 'furthest past the post' (FPTP), it is common for parties with much less than 50% of the votes to receive well over 50% of the seats.

In fact neither Thatcher, Major or Blair (at their highest points of support) managed to get more than 44% of the vote or 35% of total electors, but each received between 52% and 63% of the seats in the House Of Commons. The number of seats received actually depends more on the spread of support than the number of votes received (Major got most votes but least seats).

And that is the clue as to what is wrong with our present system. It is where you live that determines how valuable your vote is. People should be out there in huge numbers demanding 'equal votes' with the same fervor we demanded 'votes for all'. But it is not so obvious as before as to what is wrong with our democracy.

People know they are being ignored, people know something is rotten with the way we are represented - 'they are all the same' they cry, but why this is so, is more difficult for them to pin down.

The defenders of the status quo have a powerful argument that sounds intuitively correct - 'the constituency link makes our elected local MP accountable to his electors and each MP receives the most votes in any given area so they deserve to be elected' - it is a simple and very persuasive argument. Why this is wrong, is more complicated to explain.

Firstly, people generally do not vote for a candidate because they know them, they vote for the party they like the best based on what they perceive their policies and ideology to be or even on how much they like the party leader. Most people have no idea who their MP is, let alone know much about them (which is partly why their 'local MP' is rarely even remotely from their area). In fact even worse than this, most people do not vote for their MP. Yes, the vast majority vote AGAINST their MP, but because their vote is 'split', it is ineffective. How a newly elected MP can be accountable to electors when most of their constituents vote against them is a detail that supporters of the present system never have to explain (at the very least supporters of FPTP should argue for the Alternative Vote (AV)).

Secondly, deciding which area is covered by an MP is crucial to the result (see the Gerrymander Wheel). Move the boundaries and you can alter who is elected without changing a single vote or the size of the constituencies. Who decides these boundaries? Well, not surprisingly they are bitterly fought over by the main parties. Drawing them is the responsibility of unelected Quangos - The Boundaries Commissions (who organise poorly attended public meetings to discuss proposed changes) - it is a long, tedious, complicated, and no doubt costly process (pdf) taking between 8 and 12 years and it is impossible for this process to be completely fair or accurate, even if the main parties wanted it to be. This is because for the constituency link to be meaningful - geographical, community and administrative boundaries have to be taken into account. Radical and frequent reviews of boundaries (before every election) would be needed to make constituencies even in terms of numbers of electors. This would mean completely overiding the above considerations and destroying any remaining pretence of a 'constituency link' between MPs and communities. Frequent reviews were tried in the 1950s and failed miserably. How can MPs be accountable to their constituents when they might be completely different by the time of the next election? Of course with an increasingly mobile population this is becoming even more of a reality and making even the idea of a 'constituency link' out of date. Yes, it is useful for those very few people who successfully get their MP to sort out their personal tax, benefit, housing or immigration problems, but is this really the best way to offer this local service?

So the 'constituency link' is largely a myth. Even a really popular hard working constituency MP who has been in the seat for many decades may have only built up a 'personal following' of less than a few thousand (less than 5% of constituents). In the vast majority of seats (over 85%) this would make no difference to who is elected. It is the popularity of the parties nationally that should decide who wins most seats and therefore who ends up in government. FPTP gives very arbitrary results between the main two parties and discriminates against smaller national parties. We need a system that awards seats proportional to how people vote, not a system devised when there were just two ancient parties fighting over the votes of an electorate consisting of just aristocrats.

I have only just touched on the problems of constituency elections under our system. To become an MP, you don't have to win a majority of votes (in fact only 4 MPs won a majority of votes in 2005 and no MP won a majority of their electors). MPs only have to win the most votes in their arbitrarily drawn constituencies. The 'most' in some cases can be very low indeed. George Galloway only got 8% of electors. Most MPs received less than 25% of electors. Most people would be shocked by this if ever a national campaign was pushed daily by a tabloid. Even then, as demonstrated by the relentless EU referendum campaign in the Tory press, most people are uninterested in constitutional details - unless they can see close up the effect on their lives they just assume the status quo is the best available. This is what makes campaigning for electoral reform so doubly difficult (but there is hope). PR is all about details and only an anorak would find mathematical models of differing electoral systems interesting.

The next powerful and simple argument used by those protecting the status quo is that PR means 'coalition' government and 'coalition government is obviously weak and indecisive and means more of those tiresome elections'. They give Italy as an example to back up their claim.

In fact Italy has had only 15 post war general elections compared to our 17. Admittedly Italy has had 24 post war leaders (PMs) compared to our 12 PMs, but this is largely to do with the unique political instability there and the extremely (even by our own press standards) undemocratic nature of their media. Germany for instance has had only 8 post war leaders (Chancellors) under a PR system and Sweden also only 8 PMs since the war (and one of them - Olaf Palme, would have served longer if he hadn't have been assassinated by the CIA). Canada under the same FPTP system as us, has had 20 general elections since the war and 12 PMs. Canada's last 16 general elections have produced 8 'hung parliaments'.

Which brings me onto the nature of what constitutes a coalition and which coalitions should be viewed as bad. This view that one party rule is not a coalition government is a fatuous one. Any political party, Labour, Tory or whatever is a coalition of views. There are different wings to the parties and sometimes very different ideologies. The voter under our system gets no choice between which wing of the party they support and if they support any other party except Labour or Tory, they have virtually no chance of ever being represented in parliament (let alone government!). Whole swathes of viewpoints are ignored under our system (most voters live their whole lives in safe seats effectively disenfranchised). Members of political parties tend to be drawn from very narrow and unusual sections of the community. Policy is decided by a small cabal of these people and influenced mainly by editors of newspapers rather than people's real concerns. Manifestos themselves tend to be vague and not necessarily implemented and of course anticipate nothing about future events. Most of government policy relies on decisions behind closed doors - with little or no input from the electorate. A single party government is a coalition formed in these strange circumstances that attracts only minority support from voters. How is this better than a coalition that is formed by parties voted for by the majority?

The best way to demonstrate how the majority's views can be ignored under FPTP, is to use a simple mathematical model. Imagine the parties have the following manifesto pledges and vote shares.

A; Tax cut 10%, War with Iran, Gay sex illegal = 40% of vote.
B; Tax up 10%, No war, Gay consent at 16 = 35% of vote.
C; Tax up 5%, No war, Gay consent at 18 = 25% of vote.

Under FPTP, Party A wins a majority and implements policies that 60% of voters totally opposed and explicitly voted against.

Under PR, a coalition government has to be formed between two parties to get over 50% of seats, this is most likely between parties B and C (their policies are most similar) who would negotiate a tax rise between 5% and 10%, have no war with Iran and put the age of homosexual consent between 16 and 18 - which is close to what the majority wanted. Even if the coalition was between say parties A and C, the policies implemented would still be closer to what the majority wanted than under FPTP.

For simplicity I have limited the number of policies, but try it yourself, change the policies and percentages and see which system works best - it is always PR, which is not surprising since it is the system that takes more viewpoints into account. i.e is more representative.

In practise, it is usually well known which parties are going to form coalitions under PR well before the election takes place. This means voters are given a much more nuanced choice than they would be under FPTP. Under FPTP, the one national protest party (dustbin refuge for the permanently disenfranchised) usually has to be coy about who they will form coalitions with as this might be a once in a generation opportunity. Under PR there are far more coalition possibilities but any deviance from what the electorate wants and expects would be punished in the long term.

Not only do voters get to vote for the party they like best without worrying whether they live in the right area for their vote to count, they find that they are represented by far less white middle class men, as a more widespread cross section of society is represented. The reason for this is that when only one candidate is selected in each area - parties tend to play it safe and any racist, sexist or other prejudice is exaggerated in importance. Under PR, as a selection of candidates is needed, it makes sense to have a 'balanced ticket' to have more widespread appeal.

But what about PR producing 'weak' and indecisive government?

If we define 'weak' indecisive government in terms of low levels of economic growth, quality of life, political engagement, environmental protection, quality of public services, international diplomatic influence, etc, then the UK is far weaker than say, Sweden in all these areas, Germany in nearly all, and even Italy in most. In fact as I have argued here, all the countries that have had PR electoral systems continuously since the war, have outperformed us in all these areas.

Finally, lets ignore the myriad of other advantages that PR has over FPTP, in terms of higher turnout, geographical, social and financial equality, lower crime rates etc etc. I come to perhaps one of biggest stumbling blocks for proponents of PR and there is a certain irony to it.

There are an infinite number of electoral systems and no electoral system is perfect. That is sometimes used by opponents to suggest that 'there is little difference' between systems. That is not the case at all. Some systems are clearly preferable to others and FPTP is much worse than any PR system (even closed lists - see below). Without explaining any of the technical differences in detail, I will list my preferences (in order) and just state simply that I would support a proposed change from FPTP to any of these systems. One of the biggest problems with proponents of electoral reform is that few of us agree on the system we want. And these minor differences have been used to divide and rule us by the FPTP supporters. There is a certain irony to this. Anyway here are my favoured systems in order of preference.

Open List PR, Single Transferable Vote (STV) (minimum 5 seat constituencies gives reasonable proportionality under STV), Additional Member System (open list 50/50) (AMS), Closed List PR, Alternative Vote Plus (AV+), and finally the non proportional Alternative Vote (AV) which at least allows preferences to be shown even if they have no effect on the result. In fact a system invented by whoshouldyouvotefor called Cellular Constituencies is probably my favourite but is too little known at the moment to be a serious contender.

I would argue there is little to call between the first four systems. I think STV counts are too complicated and therefore lose transparency and the trust of voters (though this is nothing in comparison to the con that FPTP is) and closed lists would also engender too much suspicion from voters (though in practise this is ill founded). AV is such a minor change (but worthwhile) that a referendum would not be needed in my opinion. The rest most definitely would need referendums.

I have tried to avoid making things too complicated - but as you can see from above that is difficult. Electoral reform is like quantum physics to most people (except less interesting) so I guess anyone who got this far is already a convert to the cause. Welcome comrade! To those who say why concentrate on electoral reform and not inequality, environmentalism, anti-war, anti-nuclear or whatever. To that, I answer electoral reform is concentrating on all of those things simultaneously. Electoral reform affects everything - it changes the rules of the game for the better. I agree with Chicken Yoghurt on this - anyone who prefers FPTP to PR is either not a democrat or doesn't understand democracy.


  1. Great article, have been going in to much of the same sort of ting (with less detail) over on my blog. There really does need to be a consensus, but unfortunately I can't see a truly representative answer coming out of anything but a referendum on which system people would prefer (using STV of course ;)

    If I were all powerful then I'd be making the Ministry of Justice start the process of reform to run alongside the House of Lords reform...no reason for one reform to hold up another. A comprehensive set of citizen juries/assemblies need to be set up so that localities can be informed and discuss the varying systems and put forward their recommendations. These results should be collated to find the most popular alternative system and then that system alone should be put up in a referendum against FPTP before the next election.

    Alas I know in my gut that we'll have to have one more completely unrepresentative FPTP election before any change can happen.

  2. Lee, thanks, it is not looking good for reform at the moment. Labour have finally ditched their promises of 1997 and 2001 (where was the outcry? and it shows how much manifesto promises are worth). Citizen juries would be a great way to educate and allow the public to choose the system they like best and be put forward to a referendum. Lets hope one FPTP election is all we have to wait. Alas if the Tories win next time - it will be two at least and probably a lot more. I hope you are younger than me and get to vote for a government that truly represents us. As I have said New Zealand finally persuaded turkeys to vote for christmas, so there is hope.

  3. Woah! "First-past-the-post", shurely?

  4. Mark, I wondered if anyone would spot that. I put that in deliberately because I think 'furthest past the post' is more accurate. At least a horse has to reach the end to win. In our electoral system the finish line moves depending on how the other candidates do. So governments can get majorities on ever lower percentages. 35% of the vote, just 21% of electors, how much lower can we go and still have politicians pretend they have a mandate?