03 March 2008

Is It Time For Labour To Ditch first-past-the-post?-

There is a Progress event at the House Of Commons tomorrow at 6pm debating this, involving Michael Wills, Polly Toynbee, Stephen Twigg and others.

The difficulty for...
Labour in this, is that any change in the electoral system at the present time is going to be open to the justifiable claim that it is only being done to 'save Labour's skin' because Labour fear they are going to lose the next general election. This is why it was so disappointing that the Labour tribalist old guard won out over the principled Labour ministers, in denying the promised referendum in the first term - when any accusation like this would have been farcical.

There are two answers to this conundrum, firstly the present system is still heavily biased in Labour's favour - so any change can be shown not to be beneficial to Labour in terms of seats - it would worsen the result for Labour in the short term and secondly, Labour should propose to hold the referendum on PR at the same time as the next general election.

The advantages for holding a binding referendum at the next general election would be fourfold; this would ensure a better turnout, neutralise the 'saving Labour's skin' attack, ensure the support of Lib Dems and other parties - thus boosting Labour popularity and finally place the Tories in an awkward situation during an election campaign - when the general public are finally confronted with the facts about the travesty of democracy that is first-past-the-post and the myths of PR are busted, the cynical Tory defence of this archaic system would be finally exposed. Also of course, more important than any of these things - having a referendum on PR is the right thing to do for democracy.

Even if the Tories did go on to win the general election, which would probably be made less likely by having this referendum - as it would be clear they supported such an obvious, unpopular, anti-democracy position on this - then the Tories would then be faced with either honouring the referendum or seen to be the anti-democratic party they are.

The main Tory argument will be that first-past-the-post is not completely broke, just needs adjusting by fiddling the boundaries back in their favour. They will mention the Isle of Wight a lot and the fact that Tory constituencies look like they have more voters. As Paul Davies (at makevotescount) explains here, this is in fact a red herring - the real bias is in 'differential turnout' and 'inefficient vote distribution' (which favours Labour) and un-registered voters (which favours the Tories). None of which can be fixed by moving the boundaries (see the gerrymander wheel). It is the system itself that is broke - we cannot keep tolerating minority elected government and plummeting turnout. Most people are getting to realise their vote is useless.

I know any campaign on 'boring' constitutional issues is never going to get a million people to march for it (even a unified national press banging on every day has failed to build much enthusiasm for the Euro Constitution referendum), but really PR should get more interest than the Iraq War.

This issue is the Iraq War, Inheritance tax, Devolution, Euro referendum, English Parliament, ID Cards and Road Pricing (and every other issue) rolled into one. This is about how we allocate power - it is time to make this issue interesting and get people interested. The march against the Iraq war failed to stop that war, but electoral reform wouldn't need that many people to turn heads, maybe a hundred thousand people could make the difference on this - we have more time - but the longer this referendum is delayed the less chance we have of ever getting it. Now is the time to act because one thing is sure, the Tories are currently dead set against.


  1. Your headline says it all...

    Shouldn't it be down to ALL 'stakeholders' (to borrow a Labour euphemism) to decide on the electoral system this country uses?

  2. MU: Well, yes it should be, but it isn't is it? When the government is elected by just 21% of the electorate and people are not rioting in the streets about it - it is unfortunately down to one of the two main parties to make the change. Labour are the best hope, because they have many MPs in favour and did promise a referendum. I haven't given up hope, yet for a referendum on PR that really matters not a referendum on a European Treaty that only upsets a few media barons. Unfortunately people believe what they read in the press!

  3. I agree the system should be changed. I would suggest the Thai system: a balance of FPP and party list MP's. However this will not happen, perhaps not ever. Why? Because Labour and the Tories know they would lose out to smaller parties. You seem to have a lot of trust in Labour. I don't. I promise you they will not change things while they are in power.

  4. R%W: We shall see. It definitely won't happen under a hung parliament or the Tories - so it is Labour or nothing. I too favour a mix of FPP and PR for Westminster - I think it is the best step we can hope for when turkeys won't vote for christmas - the baden wurttemberg system is the best mixed system I have seen and seems ideal for Westminster to lessen the pain of transition - it maintains the same simple one vote method and easy count and all MPs are elected in constituencies by the electorate without party lists.

    "Each voter has one vote under this system, which he casts for a candidate in his district. However, this vote is counted twice, once in order to determine the number of seats going to a party in Parliament, and a second time to determine the candidate of a party to whom these seats will be allocated. The total number of direct mandates is one from each of the electoral districts. The other mandates are secondary, allotted to those candidates who, while not winning a direct mandate, obtained the largest number of votes in a district in relation to their party's other constituency candidates".

  5. Good post, not sure if I follow it all, not sure if there is any chance it will happen, ever. THe Party in power is always the one that benefitted from FPTP most, so as you say, it is only a government on the way out that might support it, but they then get accused of trying to lessen the blow of defeat etc etc.

    But yup, that old Baden Wurttemberg system has to be the model!!

  6. Why change the system when all three parties offer teh electorate so little variety!?!

    I frankly couldn't care less if the Conservatives win or lose the next election.

  7. Snafu, it's for the benefit of the large majority of voters who live in 'safe' seats and to prevent politicians focussing purely on marginals. Under the B-W system there are no marginals.

    Agreed tho' that it will make bugger all difference which of the Big Three are appointed as HIgh Commissioners for the EU sub-region formerly known as 'The United Kingdom'.

  8. Snafu: I would have thought you were a natural Tory (Daily Telegraph reader moaning about taxes and immigration). What don't you like about the Tories?

  9. Mark: Even if Labour lose the next general election, the bias will help them in terms of seats, just as it helped Kinnock in 1992. The Tories won that election by 7% but only by 27 seats. Cameron could get a similar result if everything goes well for him (or rather things go badly for Labour). Labour tribalists cannot see past this mathematics, to see the damage it is doing to Labour in the long term and the damage it will do to the country by keep having minority elected dictatorships (especially Thatcherite ones). The Tories have announced they are going to change the boundary commission recommendations to take local administrative and geographical considerations out of the equation. This was tried in the fifties and proved disastrous as soon as you get used to an MP you find he has been moved for the next election - it makes a mockery of the 'constituency link' the Tories like to crow about. Their claim this is 'fair and equal votes' is laughable. This won't fix differential turnout (urban seats that Labour win have less turnout so Labour win with less votes than Tories in rural seats), unequal vote distribution (Labour's votes are more lumpy - they have votes in more seats they win rather than spread out across the country which wins no seats)- which is the main cause of the current bias. And it won't stop parties being elected with 55% of the seats on 35% of the vote. The Tories really should be taken to task for this 'fair and equal votes' claim. Roll on the baden-wurttemberg system which really would make everyone's vote count and the boundaries could then be drawn to reflect local communities (no matter where you happen to live your vote would be counted).

  10. Snafu: I wonder just how similar parties would end up being when a system is adopted that celebrates and accentuates difference

  11. Go on then Neil, enlighten me.

    How is the issue an English Parliament?

    I can see that PR would mitigate the West Lothian Question, but that's hardly an English parliament.

  12. Neil, I am a natural Tory but the current Conservatives aren't Tory! They appear to be doing everything they can to appeal to floating, left leaning middle class voters in South East England. Stuff the rest of the country!

    The only good thing about the Daily Telegraph is Matt, give me The Thunderer any day!

    PS I do moan about immigration and taxes, I also moan about the poor quality of education available to the masses but without success! The tories offer no alternatives and the shadow cabinet scares me!

    My rule of thumb is that I could only support a Conservative Party despised by Labour luvvies and their union brothers and sisters as it has to mean they are onto achieving something worthwhile for the country at large!

  13. Neil, good research etc, I couldn't agree more (having done similar research myself, although not as far back as the 1950s!).

    Now do another of your statist bansturbatory posts to keep us on our toes!

  14. Off topic, Neil, why no mention of the stunning success that is the lottery system by which pupils are allocated to poor quality education on your doorstep!?!

  15. Yes, Neil, that would be ideal subject matter for a pro-Big State interventionist post!

  16. Toque: PR is about an English parliament in the sense that it moves power away from the elected and towards the electors. If there is enough demand for an EP, under PR you would be more likely to get it.

  17. Although not from Brighton, from what I've seen I admire the lottery system. Much better than letting middle-class and rich people buy their way into a better school. Seems like the next-best alternative to bussing.

    I don't want to see PR, though. I don't know of any PR system anywhere in the world that works well. I don't know of a PR system that isn't more likely to result in coalitions decided by politicians after the elections and which no-one has voted on. I like governments that can do things, with the power to carry out the manifestos they were elected on, and as far as I can see that means FPTP.

    Perhaps at the next election we should trial compulsory voting in a select number of seats, or expand all-postal voting, or do more voter registration drives, all of which would raise turnout. But I don't think there's any quick fix to reverse falling turnout - a better quality of candidate would help and that can only be achieved by people in political parties putting in the work to recruiting more members and encouraging more of them to stand. BME-only shortlists and more AWS would help, too.

  18. Mark: "Now do another of your statist bansturbatory posts to keep us on our toes!"

    All in good time, my dear friend.

    Snafu, Mark, I have written on the lottery system before, but was planning a round up of local news in my next post- I've been a bit lazy on local stuff.

  19. Tim F: Where do I start? Why do you think there is less inequality in PR run countries? Why do you think PR countries invest more in their public services and infrastructure? Why do you think most PR run countries have had higher post-war economic growth and better environmental protection? Why have Germany and Sweden (and most other PR countries) had less post-war general elections and less post-war leaders? Why has Canada (under our system FPTP) had so many general elections? Why do Scotland, Wales, Germany and Scandanavian countries have over 40% women, more MPs from ethnic minorities and lower socio-economic backgrounds in their parliament? Why do you think PR countries have higher turnout?

    BME and AWS are just sticking plasters on a broken system. Look at the facts rather than just repeating the myths. Even the 'constituency link' is a myth - over 60% of people cannot name their MP let alone know anything about them and have certainly never voted for them - it is a guessing game of russian roulette proportions to try and decide who is in with a chance of winning even in the small number of marginals where your vote really counts - I could tell you the results now in 80% of the seats at the next general election and the bookies wouldn't take my bet - so sure is it. But if you do want a constituency link then the baden-wurttemberg system preserves that in its entirety but also gives proportional results and as simple a count.

    This is not about perfection - but our present system is one of the worst electoral systems we could have.

    And I am not saying, that turnout will rise drastically, and governance will be vastly better - just a lot better than it is at present. No democrat can surely defend a situation where 35% of the vote gives you 55% of the seats or where most councils are run by a party who received a minority of the vote - a lot of councils are run by the party that didn't even get the most votes. What a joke of a system!

    Every party is a coalition of views and factions, it is now where policy is decided behind closed doors amongst a small number of party members - under PR the coalition will be transparent as people will be able to see the joins - pro- European Tories will get their voices heard, rural Labour supporters, left of Labour supporters, urban Tories. Instead of 60 year hegemonys of Labour councils in the north and Tory councils in the south on a minority of the vote - with all the inept and corrupt governance that brings - people will get what they vote for and know that their vote is going to count towards who is elected. Coalitions are obvious under PR - it is the unrepresentative coalitions under FPTP that are weak and hidden - because they do not represent what people voted for.

  20. Snafu: You say youthink the Tories are not 'Tory enough' for you. I think that is the impression they are trying to give, and Lee Grifin makes the point that it is our electoral system that encourages this centre muddle appeal, but I actually think there are massive differences between Tory rule and Labour rule, they both however play these differences down to appeal to the 'chosen few' voters in the marginals. Under PR, both Labour, Tories, Lib Dems and others wouldn't have to hide their policies to win seats. This is more honest and transparent for voters.