10 June 2009

The Worst Of All Possible Worlds?

You probably would expect me to be happy that the PM is today going to propose changes to the Westminster electoral system.

Well yes and no, this could end up being a disaster for the following reasons:-

1. Gordon Brown remains PM and is incredibly unpopular - anything he puts his name to is bound to be doomed by association.

2. If I have heard right - we are not even going to be offered a proportional system. The Alternative Vote, or even worse the Supplementary Vote, is not radical reform, it is a slight improvement but will do nothing for the 56% of people that voted neither Labour nor Tory.

It wil allow voters to express their preference but not to elect any MPs - so looking at the Euro results, UKIP would have got 100 MPs and the Greens 60 MPs under a proportional system but none under first-past-the-post and none under the Supplementary or Alternative Vote. Amused Cynicism argues that 56% of voters have voted for choice in the Euros to accomodate their views means a modern proportional system is needed.

3. A new fresh face could have offered fresh policies and been listened to and undoubtedly could have offered more radical choice than the Alternative Vote.

4. Having a referendum on the Alternative Vote will put us true reformers in an impossible position - to campaign for a system that is slightly better but is not proportional, so will not address the main unfairness of the system. It will be a waste of our energy to get so little reward and probably make it all the more likely we will lose, because there will be so little to argue for.

5. Even if we win the referendum, knowing Gordon Brown, he will probably only make it indicative rather than binding and the incoming Tories will just ignore it.

If either Alan Johnson, John Denham or Jon Cruddas has resigned over this, they would have finished Brown and made their objective of getting a proportional system much easier. They decided they didn't want to be the assasin and instead we end up with an electoral fudge that will get us nowhere and may waste the best opportunity for reform for a generation. Groan!


  1. Neil, when it comes to it, what people don't like about PR is that parties would have more power (which I dispute - larger parties would have less and smaller parties more), so my new plan is multi-member constituencies with one-man-one-vote and the top three individual candidates to get seats (from whatever party).

    Unlike FPTP with top up seats, not every vote would count, of course, but far more than now.

  2. Mark, that system is called single non-transferable vote. They used to use it in Japan.

  3. And haven't the japanese got some of the most corrupt MPs in the world?

  4. Mark Wadsworth: Not necessarily - it all depends which system you are talking about. With STV the parties would have LESS power, and the voters more. It is precisely because STV takes power away from the party machine and gives it back to the elector that the parties don't like the idea. STV is the nearest thing to an "anti-party system": it would also work perfectly well if every candidate stood as an independent.

  5. PZT: I think STV is a good system, obviously much better than FPP. But I do have privisos.

    In Ireland rural constituencies are only 3 member, which gives an effective threshold that is very high, so smaller parties are excluded. Only the top 3 parties have a chance. Whereas in urban areas it is 5 member, which allows the Greens and others to get seats.

    This aspect of STV worries me. The argument in favour of 3 member seats in rural areas is that otherwise a constituency would cover too big a geographical area. But I think it is an important principle that every vote is equal. It is also important not to have thresholds that are too high. For this reason I would want 5 member STV installed right across the country.

    Another aspect of STV that worries me is the comlexity of ranking the candidates in order 1-2-3 - not only does this make the counting laborious (not really a problem) it makes the counting process very difficult to understand.

    Depending on the order of the count - you can get different results because it affects the transfers. How do we resolve this?

    Do we stipulate that all candidates are numbered or do we allow the voter to decide how many they rank? (even if this means their vote is not as effective). I know it sounds patronising to say that voters might struggle to rank candidates when they can fill out complex betting and lottery slips, but voting is different to other activities. For a start you only get to practise it once every 2 years - if you get it wrong there is no-one with you to explain why.

    All these reasons are why I prefer list PR to STV. It is easy to understand and count (more important than you might think). You only need put one cross, as at present, thresholds can be as low as you want - 5% is reasonable, and because parties have to be more democratic and open, parties ranking candidates is less of a problem. It is also possible to allow voters to order the candidates - open list PR.

    The big test of an electoral system for me is how unequal the society is. The US and UK under FPTP have more inequality than Australia which uses AV, which has more inquality than Ireland which uses STV, which in turn has more inequality than continental Europe which predominantly uses list PR. The more proportional the system, the more the poorest and weakest are represented and not surprisingly the more power they have to get progressive policies on tax and public services. That is why I support the most proportional systems.

  6. Neil, all systems have advantages and disadvantages, or what might be seen by some as disadvantages.

    I find STV infinitely superior because it doesn't confine itself to the party issue where proportionality is concerned, but allows the voter to express preferences between different candidates, whether of the same or different parties, on the basis of whatever issues the voter, not the party, thinks are important, including issues like Europe which cut across party lines.

    I agree 3-member seats should be countenanced only in the most sparsely-populated areas - principally the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, in the UK case. (In Ireland, Fianna Fail have somewhat perverted the system in this respect, having failed to get it abolished altogether.) The Electoral Reform Society has a plan ready to go for all such questions. (I declare an interest: in the 1970s I was a member of its Council.)

    The Irish don't seem to have any trouble understanding the voting or the count.

    You don't require the voter to fill in all the boxes. Just a single choice will do. If they put an X (as long as it is only one X) it counts as a 1.

    There are slightly different versions of the rules that you can adopt for the order of the count. The differences in outcome are pretty marginal. See Enid Lakeman's book.

    If we can't have STV, I would much rather have the Luxembourg/Switzerland version of an "open list" system, which maximises voter choice between candidates, than AMS or AV+, both of which create two classes of MPs (which has already proved a problem in the Scottish Parliament). AV+ isn't actually very reliably proportional even in narrow party terms.

  7. pzt, 2 principles - that every vote is equal and if a party wins more votes they get more seats, STV fails both. In Scotland labour got more votes than SNP but less councillors. I want a system that is fair and easy to explain. The Canadians just voted to keep FPTP rather than switch to STV mainly because they couldn't understand how it works. If i say, 25% of votes gives you 25% of seats people can see it is fair. If i say 'well a party with less votes can get more seats depending on 3rd, 4th prefererences' then people start scratching their head. I want to win a referendum and get a system that gives people a fair vote no matter where they live.

  8. pzt, just to clarify. I want a system that is easy to explain and obviously fair that even the Tory press would find it hard to beat. Voters that fail to rank all the candidates get a less value vote under STV. Voters that live in rural areas get less choice and minority parties that get millions of votes will still be unrepresented by STV. That is why an open list is better. As long as the lists are ranked by voters it is much better. This fear of 'the party' stems from the undemocratic nature of British parties. I would pass a law that party candidates are completely determined by members, and that no member can have their voting rights taken away. Under PR, this probably wouldn't be necessary anyway because competition betwen parties will force them to become more democratic automatically.