02 February 2008

My Letter to Michael Wills MP, Minister Of State

Dear Mr Wills,

I understand that you would welcome comments about the review of UK voting systems that your department has recently carried out. Here is my contribution to the debate.

It seems to me that the two main arguments used to defend the present system for electing MPs to Westminster are;

1.The need to maintain a strong ‘constituency link’ and
2.The need to avoid ‘weak’ and unstable coalition government.

This idea that there is a strong constituency link under the...
present system is fatuous. Most constituents know little or nothing about their MP, not even their name. Indeed, most of the electorate have never voted for their MP and never will. For example, George Galloway was elected by just 18% of his constituents and the average for an MP is less than 35% (less if you count the high number of eligible electors not registered). The majority of voters support candidates other than their MP, but because their vote is split, it is completely ineffective under this current system.

Most constituent’s primary concern is to vote for the party they perceive will provide a government that best shares their ideology and/or policy ideas. Even the likeability of the party leaders usually ranks much higher in importance for voters than information about any local candidate.

The most hard working and well liked MP, elected over many decades, will at most only accumulate a ‘personal following’ of a few thousand (less than 5% of constituents). Under this system this would have no effect on who is elected in over 85% of constituencies (and of the rest, the periodic change in the constituency boundaries is usually much more likely to affect the result). Effectively a ‘closed party list’ is in place, but crucially without the benefits brought by proportionality.

This explains why most people who become a ‘local’ MP have usually trawled the UK for available safe seats and have never set foot near said constituency until they tried to become an MP there. Yes, a few dozen people a year in each constituency (at most), might successfully use their MP to help sort their housing, taxation, benefit or immigration problems, but is this really the best way to offer this service (especially when an MP might already be spending his time running a government department) and does this justify having such an unaccountable and unfair way of selecting our members of parliament and government?

Finally, is it a sign of ‘weak’ governments when countries have enjoyed higher post-war economic growth, less inequality, better environmental protection, better quality public services and higher political engagement than the UK? Is it a sign of unstable governments when countries have had fewer post-war leaders and general elections than the UK? Nearly every country that has had a proportional electoral system continuously since the war has enjoyed all these things.

In times of crisis, the UK has turned to coalition government for strength and stability. Was the wartime National Coalition government ‘weak’? (Labour laid the foundations for the welfare state and Churchill led the war effort). Some might reasonably argue it was the best government we have ever had.

From Jeremy Corbyn to Alan Milburn, this government is formed from a wide coalition of views and factions. Except, unlike under a proportional system, parliament is less represented by women, ethnic minorities and working classes and more by ex public school boys, voters are denied a vote on which wing of the coalition government they prefer and have to put up with a government with a parliamentary majority on minority support.

How can anyone defend a system that gives 55% of seats in parliament to a party with only 35% of the vote and then still call themselves a democrat? Isn’t it time we let the people decide and give us that referendum on electoral reform that Labour promised?

Thanks for your consideration and I look forward to a reply.

Yours sincerely,

Neil Harding


  1. Nice one. I hope that you publish the reply!!!

    Having given this a little thought, I reckon the least-worst system is to halve the number of FPTP directly-elected MPs, and then to work out which party has got the lowest ratio of votes-to-MPs in the first round and then give the other parties 'top-up seats' (in the order of which of their unsuccessful candidates got the most votes), so that the final number of MPs reflects the proportion of votes cast.

    They have this system in other countries, it is nothing untried and untested, and is backed by people from Billy Bragg to Nigel Farage. Via me.

  2. Mark, Are you talking about the system proposed by the Hansard Society in 1976? It is like AV+ a form of AMS - like they use in Scotland, but avoids closed party lists. I like that system but I would support any proportional system over the current travesty of democracy.

    If I get a reply from Wills, I certainly will put it here. I imagine it would be a pretty mundane standard letter though.

  3. Neil, I think your letter is excellent.

  4. I don't know if there's a name for it in England.

    BTW, there should be no party list. If UKIP get e.g. 10% of the vote, they'd be entitled to (say) 40 top up MPs out of 400 in total (the maths is easier than it sounds). So whichever 40 UKIP candidates got the most votes in their own constituency (but failing to come FPTP) get a seat in Parliament.

  5. Urko: Thanks. I've looked at the arithmetic in parliament and a lot of the Labour MPs that are enthusiastic for electoral reform are likely to lose their seats under a 'hung parliament' (there are some notable exceptions Alan Johnson, John Denham). There will also be more Conservative MPs who are universally opposed to reform and possibly less Lib Dem MPs as well - who are unanimous in their support for reform.

    So overall the prospects for a referendum under a hung parliament look very slim. I think a referendum has to come from a Labour government. They are the ones who have proposed a referendum and the only party to have implemented different electoral systems - they just need a push in the right direction.

    This report is actually good - it clearly states "One of the main benefits of PR, and in particular STV, is that voters have a greater degree of choice in elections and a greater chance of their vote counting in terms of who gets elected." (Para 6.169). Surely this alone is enough to warrant change. However the government then go and say 'FPTP is working well' and 'there is no need for change at this time'. I have never been so disheartened.

    I am beginning to think that our chance for reform could be lost for another generation. The Tories are pinning their hopes on rejigging the boundaries (gerrymandering?) and even more frighteningly hinting at enlarging constituencies more than others on the basis of low turnout (thereby watering down the value of the vote of anyone who lives there). Is this what democracy is coming to? Is our government just going to be the one who can most cleverly move the boundaries and use underhand tricks to disenfranchise voters rather than win a decent amount of votes to have a mandate (the US are way ahead on this, are we to follow?).

    Even with all this fiddling, the ERS has pointed out, the Tories have still got a difficult job, because large swathes of areas now have sparse Tory support - in the North, Celtic fringes and urban areas. Some of the more enlightened and democratic Tories are looking at PR, but they are few and miles behind Labour in organisation and support. Labour have a hardcore of support in ther membership and among MPs - it is a minority but could quickly accumulate the waverers in the middle - Brighton CLP have passed a motion for PR for example. If we can get more to follow this and if you feel as strongly as me on this issue, then getting writing to Wills, the more letters he receives, the more he will know this issue is important.

    I think the next year is crucial, Labour have left it too late to change the system for the next general election (but we could have a referendum at the same time). I think there are three advantages for Labour to do this; it would make reform a massive electoral issue, it would show a united front between Labour, Lib Dems and the minor parties (who currently command over 60% of vote in polls), and finally it would ensure a good turnout so any winner of the general election would have a difficult job ignoring the choice the electorate made - I would be confident reformers could win the referendum (even with press hostility). So all is not lost.

  6. Urko: This link (gerrymander wheel) demonstrates perfectly and simply how important boundaries are. Without changing a single vote and keeping the size of constituencies the same, you can alter the result massively. Go on have a look, it is fun.

  7. Mark, your system is a mixed system that avoids lists but still gives proportional results. All good and much preferable to what we have. The only drawbacks are the 'best loser' piggyback MPs will tend to all be based in the marginals - which means marginals will still be more important - but that is a small drawback. Basically I like it. I think it could be a good system to propose because if ex- right wing Tories like Nigel Farage can argue for it then it can command support and unlike other proportional systems it means only half the turkeys are voting for christmas. STV is the next system that MPs might accept but I worry about the complexity which could make counts seem less transparent, and I notice that women and minorities do less well than other proportional systems. Minor quibbles, STV is still miles better than what we have. The point is we have to support whatever proportional system is proposed in a referendum. This system is completely broke and we are not far off 'rotten boroughs' levels of accountability when we look at how many electors are being ignored and things are still getting worse!

  8. Good lord, Neil: you've written something that I pretty much agree with.

    Good for you.


  9. DK, Good grief! I thought you were a first-past-the-poster?

  10. Surely it is better to have 'best loser piggyback MPs' to be selected on the basis of the votes that they personally manage to get rather than party lists (albeit that they benefit from the votes cast for other PPCs in the same party)?

    Some constituencies would end up with two MPs, so what? Then you've two people you can complain to. This doesn't break the link between MP and constituency, which is one of hte good things of FPTP.

    And it's simple and it works in other countries.

    The only arbitrary decision is what's the threshold? Most PR countries (Germany e.g.) say a party has to get at least 5% of the vote. Of course, I'd like to see a threshold that allows UKIP in but keeps the Greens and the BNP out!

  11. Mark, If you are proposing the best losing candidates for each party divvied up in proportion to their national vote share then that is very proportional. I think a 5% threshold is reasonable. As I suggest in the letter I think the value of the 'constituency link' is massively over-rated. I imagine having a different number of MPs for each constituency won't skew planning decisions anymore than marginals do under the present system but it is a disadvantage of the system. Like I say I quite like your system (if I have understood it properly to be the proportional one) but it is of course possible to have open party lists that are elected by the public. You could make it a legal requirement for parties to decide their lists completely by a ballot of members. (No short listing by party hierachy where they weed out the 'undesirables').

  12. It is supposed to be proportional.

    To keep the example simple, let's assume that at next GE there is a cut-off at 10% in England, and only three parties beat this, getting FPTP seats as follows:

    Tory - 10 million votes, 150 MPs
    Labour - 8 million votes, 100 MPs
    LibDem - 5 million votes, 50 MPs.

    The Tories have got 1 MP for every 66,666 votes. So Labour's votes (8 million) divided by 66,666 = 120 MPs, they get 20 top up seats. The LibDems' 5 million divided by 66,666 = 75, so they get an extra 25 seats. We end up with 345 MPs.

    Final result:
    Tory 43% of vote, 43% of seats
    Labour 35% of vote, 35% of seats
    LibDems 22% of vote, 22% of seats.

    I'd hate there to be a Lib-Lab coalition, but hey, that's life ...

  13. Mark, That method is quite cool, I like it. It's simple to understand, doesn't ask too many MPs to vote for Christmas, keeps things simple for the voters and those doing the count, avoids party lists that people are suspicious of (although I suspect, like today parties will still manipulate their favoured elite into the safest seats), but best of all is completely proportional! You say, there are countries that already have this system - which ones?

    Also I think you might have to propose something like 500-600 MPs to win the backing of parliament for it.

    You wouldn't have to worry about the Lib Dems - they are a motley crue - they would soon splinter into little groups or join the main parties. I reckon after a couple of elections for the system to settle down, the votes might look something like this;

    Labour 25%
    Tory 25%
    Liberal 10%
    UKIP 10%
    Green 10%
    Socialist 5%
    Nationalist/Others 15%

    I think the BNP might initially gain a few seats but then disappear as people realise what idiots they are. I don't think the media would be so friendly to the BNP as they now are. The race card is used by the Tory press to boost the BNP and split white working class voters off from voting Labour, but under a system that rewards minority parties with seats the tactic would be pointless.

  14. Neil, thanks, I know that they do this in Germany (certainly at State level, not necessarily at federal), but Billy Bragg is the expert, I read an article by him a couple of years ago where he suggested something like that but a tad more complicated. Doesn't he have a web site or something, or maybe the electoral reform chaps?

    I started off with 300 (England has 529 MPs) so that once we add in top up seats, the final number doesn't get too big. I should have started off with maybe 450 to get back to 529.

    Of course Wales and Scotland would have their own system and their own 5% threshhold, or else SNP and PC wouldn't stand a chance in the UK as a whole.

  15. Mark, Yeah I wondered why you had put 'England' and not 'UK'. Separate thresholds for Wales and Scotland makes sense.

    Germany has a mixed member proportional (MMP) system. Which is also called an Alternative Member System or AMS. To be precise it is a FPTP/party list system. It is the party lists that decide half of those elected - a proportionally closed system not what you are proposing (which I think is probably better for the UK - well your proposals would keeps the 'anti-party list' people happy anyway).

    Interestingly, I notice the two main parties in Germany get 32% and 38% - pretty similar to what happens here and the far right fail to get the 5% needed to be elected. They also have a similar number of parties in their parliament (except with proportional numbers of seats which is much fairer). So this dispels some myths about PR being fragmented and helping the far right.

    As for Billy Bragg, the last I heard was that he was a supporter of FPTP for Westminster. He also has this complicated system for electing the Lords that would be 'sort of' proportional-ish, but if you want a 'secondary mandate' (as he calls it) for the Lords, why not just stick all the 'best losers' there. It's a lot more simple and just as effective at giving the Lords an oppositional nature without threatening commons primacy.

    Personally I would like to see the Lords half elected through 'professional constituencies' i.e representing each job area of expertise, e.g. bricklayers, engineers, doctors, scientists, plumbers, etc. etc. and the other half by lot (like jury service) - with 15 year terms. This would provide the right people to properly scrutinise bills, make ammendments and propose legislation, and long enough terms for them to know how to properly hold the government to account.

  16. Mark, Just noticed on wikipedia, your system - which is the Hansard 1976 proposals, is in use in the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg. So you were right, sorry about that.

  17. Here is a link to Baden-Wurttembeg electoral system. I particularly like the fact how the one vote is used for two purposes. All we would need to do is slightly enlarge our constituencies, keep voting exactly the same, just as easy to count and bingo totally proportional!! Perfect.

  18. Good research. The one I was thinking of was Bavaria (where I used to live, which is a tad more complicated), but the B-W system is even better as you say. I mean no system is perfect, but that's as good as we're ever going to get.

  19. Mark, Well yes, no system is perfect, but this system is good, The only drawback is that women and lower socio-economic groups are still discriminated against in becoming candidates - party lists are best for addressing this, but that would be too big a change for the UK and are disliked because people do not trust internal party democracy (this of course could be addressed with new laws to ensure proper elections of candidates by parties). The Baden-Wurttenberg system is about twice as good at representing women and minorities as FPTP but half that of party lists. The most important thing for me though is the proper representation proportional to votes. Also the fact it is as simple to vote and count as our current system which the single transferable vote (STV) is most certainly not. STV is also worse in representing women and minorities and not as proportional. Of course STV is still miles better than FPTP.