You can’t be a half-iconoclast

If there’s a problem with the Unspoken Constitution its that it barely qualifies as satire. The shenanigans surrounding MPs’ expenses, Carter-Ruck’s single handed attempt to rewrite the UK constitution to favour their client Trafigura and this torrid little paper sneaked out by the Ministry of Justice today (which patiently explains why Royal Prerogative powers are, in fact, all wonderful and the only thing that stands between us and authoritarianism), all amply illustrate that Stuart Weir and co’s attempt to write the famously unwritten constitution is more a reflection of reality than an exaggeration of it. A Modest Proposal is satire. Yes, Minister and The Thick of It are satires. The Unspoken Constitution is merely frank.

I have to admit to finding this week somewhat depressing in that it is clear that a great many MPs have returned from recess determined to shut down any further discussion about reform and that, to an extent, they are succeeding. The media itself has been very helpful in this respect, detailing the process almost moment-to-moment but almost entirely lacking in analysis. Let us not forget that the people who are now complaining about the unfairness of Sir Thomas Legg applying new rules to them retrospectively are for the most part the same people who attempted to keep this little scam of theirs shrouded in secrecy – in defiance of the law – for years. All the indications are that for the most part, they still haven’t learned why that was an utterly stupid and damaging thing to do.

The media, frankly, loves the status quo because it means it can write about politics on its terms. Everything can be about story; the notion that politics is about a battle of ideas takes a back seat. There has, if truth be told, always been a tension between the two, but the latter took a distinct turn for the worse 20 years ago and has never recovered.

The paucity of vision in politics today was on display at the Vote for a Change/All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Continuation of First Past the Post debate on Tuesday. I won’t attempt to sum up the debate because there wasn’t one to speak of; as Oona King pointed out very early on, almost everyone in the room had made up their mind already so what was the point? But I was struck by the number of MPs who stood up and waxed lyrical about how they regard their main role being to represent their constituents and their constituency, above all else.

Historically, that is quite a new notion and I know it is a notion that has a lot of support within the Lib Dems. But it is a dreadful one nonetheless. MPs’ primary role is to scrutinise – both the executive and legislation. Their first duty should be to the national interest, surely?

I’m not suggesting, incidently, that a sense of place for MPs is unimportant or that local issues should play no part. My beef is with the notion that this should be the priority. What’s worse is that it is a fiction to suggest that they do. Most MPs put party loyalty above parochial concerns most of the time. Local campaigns can force them to abstain or even defy their whips, but only if a lot of pressure is created. True, MPs are generally more likely to defy the whips than at any point in the recent past, but this is still the exception rather than the norm.

Either way, the notion of the MP as an independently minded individual who cares passionately about working within the system to bring forth their vision of the good society is extremely unfashionable. This is true whether we are talking about party politics or even this current vogue for indpendents; in fact, when it comes to the Martin Bells, Richard Taylors and Jury Teams of this world, ideas appear to have gone out of the window entirely – at least political parties have manifestos still. What I found on Tuesday was that the supporters of FPTP were united in arguing for this idea of parliamentary politics.

It’s a real problem for supporters of proportional representation because it is an argument that holds real resonance amongst the public. Who wouldn’t want an MP who is committed to doing whatever you tell them to do (leaving aside the fact that there will be 70,000 other constituents with competing interests for one second)? This idea of the ultra-local politician has taken a firm grip in the popular psyche; people even imagine that it was ever thus.

The problem for electoral reformers is that thus far we have failed to take on this argument. Worse, a great many electoral reformers actually agree with it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people tell me that they are a) pro-proportional representation and b) in favour of retaining the constituency link. It is one of the main arguments that people who support the Jenkins system assert.

I don’t believe we can ever win the argument for proportional representation until reformers can agree that what we need is a radically different kind of politics. Each time someone argues for essentially the status quo with a few tweaks to neutralise the worst aspects of it, they concede almost all the ground to the other side. It becomes, essentially, a narrow and technocratic argument about systems and practicalities. The moral force behind the argument for PR is entirely lost. We might as well not bother.

Ultimately this argument applies to the reform debate more widely and brings me back to The Unspoken Constitution. Our current system has become so toxic that the time for incrementalist change is now past. We need a fundamental shift, not an attempt to meet the status quo halfway. Tim Garton Ash is correct when he says that the Lib Dems aren’t arguing for this any more and that it is a crying shame. What’s odder is that Nick Clegg’s language nine months ago – before the MPs’ expenses scandal erupted – was significantly more radical. Even Cameron comes across as more forthright on this area now, even if he is hopeless when it comes to specifics.

Maybe it doesn’t poll well, but I’m not convinced that sounding like everyone else does either. Either way, the lack of a clear iconoclastic liberal voice in this debate at the moment is lamentable.

13 thoughts on “You can’t be a half-iconoclast

  1. Massive amounts of constituency work for MPs is a phenomenon of recent decades. There have been two driving forces giving rise to it:

    – The first and most visible of these is the disastrous over-centralisation of detailed decisions in Whitehall. Every LibDem will want to see that reversed, dramatically and permanently. When that is done, most of the electors’ casework wil be dealt with by local elected Councillors, as it should be.

    – The less visible process has been the desire of the Whips, Tory and Labour, to keep their MPs busy with matters which did not get in the way of the Party Leadership deciding policy and legislation without real scrutiny by Parliament. Using constituency work for this purpose has also enabled sitting MPs to entrench their positions, generally to the Whips’ comfort. Almost very LibDem (including, I think their Whips), and many from other and no party, understand the pressing need for Parliamnetary scrutiny to to be made much more effective.

    James is right that “the constituency link” is being used in a way that is distracting from very serious business.

  2. James,

    This is a fascinating and cogent argument, but I want to take your thoughts to their logical conclusion.

    If the representation of a constituency and its population should not be so important – certainly not that important in the face of the national interest – then I agree you get a much stronger case for PR. I agree that insisting on continuing this modern fiction of great ties between MPs and their constituents is almost fatal to the case for truly pure PR, and PR advocates would do better to adopt your position.

    So the strong case for PR means breaking the link to individual constituencies and groups of voters, in favour of a representative body being representative of the political views of the whole nation.

    I’m just come out of a lecture by the former head of the US Census Bureau, and you will be aware of the debate in the US over whether the Census should still be a head count (Republican) or whether it should move towards sampling (Democrat). The question is “why would you count everyone, when you get a better representation by sampling?”.

    If you are adopting the strong case for PR, you make the elected legislature simply a representative sample of the views of those who voted on a given day. Then the questions become – why just those who bothered to take time out of their day to visit a polling station (ie why not the whole nation, whether they voted or not?) and why you would keep it to once every five years?

    If elections are nothing more than the production of a representative sample of the nations opinion at a given time, then why not do the sampling properly – ie take 1062 people and have them vote for parties and choose legislators? They are a representative sample of the population at large, and the legislature only has to be representative of the views of the population at large, so a legislature chosen by a representative sample of the population will return the same result as census of the population. In fact, by sampling, you get a *more* representative result of the views of the country at that time because you don’t have the self-selection of going to a voting booth.

    If all you want your legislature to be is to reflect the views of the population, you could have elections every six months, where the electors were maybe a 1060 voting age people selected at random and weighted demographically. It would save time and effort and money, and the legislature would (because of the statistics of sampling) be as (if not more) representative as if you polled everyone in a General Election.

    But there’s a reason we don’t do that. There’s a reason we have representation – it’s because the purpose isn’t to reflect the country, it’s to select the people we want as *our* representatives, speaking in our name. People need to feel that they own their MP, they need to feel that they have the power and authority to get rid of their MP, they need the sense that there is a person fighting specifically for them and their area. That’s what makes it a democracy, as we understand it.

    We could make the legislature more representative of the public mood in a stroke – referenda replaced by opinion polls, randomised sample groups acting as electoral colleges every few months. But it would be worse in the sense of accountability, worse in the sense of representing the individual constituent, and worse in the sense of giving people a sense that they have a part to play in politics.

    PR claims it is superior because it is proportional. But its proportionality is of competing views and parties. I don’t like PR, because I don’t actually care for views being proportionately represented. I want constituents represented, not party platforms, and if we evened out the populations of constituencies, we wouldn’t have a problem making sure that individual voters *are* proportionately represented (ratio of MP:voter). I’d rather see MPs for constituencies being more responsive to their constituents and breaking a little more from the party line – even if that goes against the mood of the nation.

    PR is about making sure that parties/political views get proportionate representation. FPTP (if we made seats equal in population) is about making sure that voters are proportionately represented. If you think that MPs are there to represent a place on the political spectrum, by all means support PR (though I don’t see the benefit of General Elections over elections by a randomised sample of voters). If you want voters represented, then you need them to be able to call an MP “my MP”, and PR does that less well.

    Anyway, just a few thoughts.

    Morus

  3. “But it is a dreadful one nonetheless. MPs’ primary role is to scrutinise – both the executive and legislation. Their first duty should be to the national interest, surely?”

    When I did A level politics, we learnt about the three functions of Parliament (Scrutinisation, Legislation and Representation). My understanding was that none of these three should be superior to the others. Personally, my opinion is that surely good representation is in the national interest?

    “It’s a real problem for supporters of proportional representation because it is an argument that holds real resonance amongst the public.”

    One thing I’m interested in is what supporters of STV in the Commons (which is, I assume, what you refer to) think of how the House of Lords should be reformed? I have long thought that the House of Lords should not be elected in the same way as the Commons, because of the simple fact that no voting system covers all requirements of representation adequately, and thus the Lords should complement the Commons in its election. Personally speaking, I would be quite happy with a House of Lords mostly elected through STV, capitalising on its current strength in that no party has overall control, keeping a small amount of crossbenchers appointed by the House of Lords commission, and with boosted powers of revision and scrutiny. If that were the case, I would be quite happy with a House of Commons with the constituency basis unchanged, but with AV used to elected single members rather than the far inferior FPTP.

    “Each time someone argues for essentially the status quo with a few tweaks to neutralise the worst aspects of it, they concede almost all the ground to the other side.”

    I’m not sure I agree with this. As we’ve seen with Wales and Scotland, even AMS which is tilted in favour of established parties can have a very real transformative effect. The whole concept of PR, even when it isn’t an additional member system, is corrective — because of the party mechanism, which basically looks at collective outcomes as superior to individual ones on the representation front. The exception to this is STV, which has an individualist base, which is why the democratic audit survey we discussed the other week (which predicted that Labour would have gained a majority of 44 under five-member STV) came out against STV as a proportional reform.

    “The moral force behind the argument for PR is entirely lost. We might as well not bother.”

    Surely the moral reasoning behind arguments for PR is that collective outcomes are wildly distorted by direct representation systems? From that angle, I think the argument for corrective top-up is just as strong as the argument for list PR, and the argument for STV (well, more or less). Each have different drawbacks: List PR both dilutes the local connection, is the most prone to parties overwhelming individual candidates and is a clumsier way of achieving party equality than AMS. AMS creates the “two types of MP” distinction, and also creates a system which can be manipulated by minor parties because of the two-way system of election. STV has the advantage of incorporating what is seen as a strength of non-PR systems, the individual base and a lack of party mechanism, but isn’t truly proportional and also dilutes the local connection. The problem with the Jenkins’ commission recommendation to PR campaigners, as I see it, is more the fact that the “corrective” element was very slight (15-20%, far below even Wales), and thus it was a far cry from a truly proportional system, rather than the fact that it uses a corrective mechanism — as the democratic audit study showed, mixed-member systems are among the most effective means of ensuring proportional outcomes.

  4. Sounds like you finding it boring this week.

    I don’t know, I recoil from both ‘change for change’s sake’ and ‘no change at any cost’ because I know there are advantages and disadvantages to all positions and all effective choices are as much between the lesser of two evils as they are the greater of two goods.

    As the opportunity for change comes around rarely the prospect of an imperfect reform is as likely to have equal if not greater costs than no change at all. By all odds change is a gamble, so you’d better have the balance of probabilities worked out and all the angles covered if you’re going to go ahead.

    I’m quite happy for the constitutional debate to stultify for the moment because I don’t think there is enough imaginative leadership being shown on any side to reconcile the opposites just yet.

    Why does anyone presume that the different functions are mutually exclusive? PR and the constituency link are not binary opposites, just as strong leadership and coalitions aren’t, or not necessarily.

    Personally I think resisting electoral reform at this time is a good tactical move because it will give Cameron all the more rope with which to hang himself, thereby creating a more conducive situation when he falls (which is more likely to be 5 than 10 years). That is, if the tories get in.

    But if the tories don’t then the balance changes again. In a hung parliament it will be inescapable, and if Labour hangs on they will have to seriously consider looking at saving their party, rather than just their individual seats.

    So I think what this non-debate demonstrated was that there is an ongoing strategic retreat awaiting bigger, more decisive battles down the road.

    Although you may set great store by PR as a personal crusade, I see it as a means to an end and therefore my support for it is conditional – the facts on the ground remain what matters to me.

  5. Morus,

    I’m not sure the census sampling analogy is particularly appropriate here, or that you have applied it the right way.

    I perhaps should have made myself clearer in that I don’t support any electoral systems which don’t offer the voter a choice between candidates. That’s one of the reasons I detest FPTP. That’s one of the reasons I regularly argue to colleagues that we ought to focus on abolishing closed lists from the UK so as to shut down this non-argument against PR (one of Brian Donohoe’s arguments on Tuesday was that it is unfair for a candidate who comes fourth in a constituency election to get elected in Scotland due to the regional top up. The solution used in Wales was to scrap dual candidacy which has other perverse effects. The best solution short of STV would be to have open lists so that all MSPs can claim to have a personal mandate).

    Sampling wouldn’t work with a system that gives voters a choice between candidates. By contrast it would work like a charm with FPTP. Indeed, if we are going to spend huge amounds of money running elections where the result is a foregone conclusion in 70% of seats, the logical conclusion is that we should go down that road.

    By contrast, by making all votes count the argument that we might as well use sampling breaks down because the margin of error will almost always make all the difference.

    Since you have brought up surveying however, could you answer a question for me? I was surprised to discover that Jury Team didn’t appear to run an open caucus or primary process to select John Smeaton, their candidate for Glasgow North East. Could you explain how that worked in practice and why Jury Team is going down this “sampling” route?

    The logical argument of your vision of “constituents first” politics is, not to put too fine a point on it, pork barreling. For all its faults, the strong party system has limited pork barreling in the UK and a very good that is too.

    It also assumes that you can filter down local opinion until you end up with a single candidate who represents the lowest common denominator. They are essentially communitarian and intolerant of diversity. If we are entirely honest, you couldn’t do that with 1,000 local representatives, but at least PR systems offer a degree of political pluralism.

    Clearly we will have to agree to disagree here, but that’s fair enough. My concern is that a lot of people agree with your argument but still think you can reconcile that with PR. There certainly is some trade off, after all look at the parochialism of Irish politics, but we are unlikely to replicate Irish political culture here because the country and the constituencies are so much larger.

    I hope people don’t interpret from all this that I don’t believe there is a place for politics with a local focus. I do; I just think it should be in the (more powerful) local council.

  6. Putting it simply, I don’t see why we can’t have both PR and FPTP in a bi-cameral system.

    It just means reform of the Lords has to complement electoral reform in the Commons.

    But in doing do two problems arise.

    The first problem is how to decide primacy and enable legitimacy of leadership.

    The second reflects the importance of accountability to the electorate.

    Given their names, my preference is for the Commons to be elected by a form of PR and the Lords to be elected by FPTP (depending on the constituency boundaries and whether non-spatial communities and a range of specialist interest groups are to be given equal representation ie unions and business, religions, the law, the armed forces, educators and academics, age groups etc).

  7. David Weber:

    Personally, my opinion is that surely good representation is in the national interest?

    It depends what you mean by “good representation.” I would love to have an MP who represented my views in Parliament. That isn’t the same thing as my MP representing parochial concerns. PR would enhance representation in many respects but it would reduce the representation of those swing voters whose main concerns are less about the broad direction of policy and more about ultra-localist concerns.

    I would be quite happy with a House of Lords mostly elected through STV, capitalising on its current strength in that no party has overall control, keeping a small amount of crossbenchers appointed by the House of Lords commission, and with boosted powers of revision and scrutiny. If that were the case, I would be quite happy with a House of Commons with the constituency basis unchanged, but with AV used to elected single members rather than the far inferior FPTP.

    Without getting involved in the minutiae, I’d like to go further (don’t get me started on crossbenchers) but if Labour were to offer such a package then that would at least be something. I could see us ending up with that to be honest. That doesn’t mean I don’t think we could have something better and I’ll continue to argue for it.

    I’m not sure I agree with this. As we’ve seen with Wales and Scotland, even AMS which is tilted in favour of established parties can have a very real transformative effect.

    My beef is not with AMS but with the call for AV+. Essentially this is AMS without the proportionality and AV without the exaggerated swing. It is a mishmash which would achieve very little (I will concede it would be better than FPTP) yet many people are fixated with it.

    The problem with the Jenkins’ commission recommendation to PR campaigners, as I see it, is more the fact that the “corrective” element was very slight (15-20%, far below even Wales), and thus it was a far cry from a truly proportional system, rather than the fact that it uses a corrective mechanism — as the democratic audit study showed, mixed-member systems are among the most effective means of ensuring proportional outcomes.

    I wouldn’t die in a ditch over STV. If we had a system of AMS in this country I would consider it job done. The only qualifier to that is that I’d want an open list system so individuals will be held to account.

  8. “PR is about making sure that parties/political views get proportionate representation. FPTP (if we made seats equal in population) is about making sure that voters are proportionately represented.”

    FPTP isn’t, though, in that it allows vote-splitting and is only fair if a maximum of two candidates are being elected, which is a fairly basic flaw of a single-member system. Single-member systems are designed to operate as you argue, but some are better than others, and FPTP is one of the worst (AV, Condorcet voting and Borda Count are all better systems IMO).

    Also, Malapportionment might be a problem, but it pales in comparison with many other nations. It’s also not the only problem that can exist with single-member systems, see: gerrymandering (a problem that thankfully we don’t really suffer from in the UK).

  9. “I perhaps should have made myself clearer in that I don’t support any electoral systems which don’t offer the voter a choice between candidates.”

    This is an often cited argument in favour of STV, although to be fair, it can also be applied to AV. Both arguments are flawed, though obviously more so when it comes to AV than STV.

    They’re flawed because in a free STV system (whether AV or multi-member), not everyone uses all of their “transfers” or preferences. This means that parties can easily field too many candidates, and there are practical examples of this having happened in Northern Ireland.

    Which means that though under STV you might get a choice between two or thre candidates, it’ll still be an artificial choice, often drawn up out of a range of different candidates in the pre-selection stage (depending on the party).

    Essentially, though, under any system you have a choice between candidates. Some systems are, however, more conducive to choice — and preferential systems tend to be inherently better than simply plurality ones.

  10. “It depends what you mean by “good representation.” I would love to have an MP who represented my views in Parliament. That isn’t the same thing as my MP representing parochial concerns.”

    True, but essentially my belief is that representation should acommodate both. I’m sceptical when it comes to multi-member constituencies because of a friend from the English Democrats I regularly debate this with, who seems quite happy with the idea of a Labour voter going to their Labour representative in the region, and a Conservative likewise.

    My problem with this reasoning is twofold: firstly, it encourages an MP to discriminate in favour of his “voting base”, which could quite feasibly give all MPs a ready-made excuse to treat people who came to them unequally. Of course with the secret ballot this would be guesswork, but it’s still a relevant danger.

    Secondly, if that way of thinking is encouraged, then what about people who truly do vote for minority parties, ones to small to get in? What about those people who want to lobby against a cross-party consensus? The single-member system has the potential to create a local focus point for that, whereas a multi-member system could theoretically dilute this.

    Of course, as Jenkins pointed out, the local connection does seem to be stronger with some STV-based political systems, so this may well be a moot point. It’s certainly open to a number of other factors, such as strength of local government, representation in the House of Lords, etc..

    “Without getting involved in the minutiae, I’d like to go further (don’t get me started on crossbenchers)”

    Oh, please do. Btw, I’m not of the opinion that crossbenchers are particularly representatively appointed or anything, or entirely divorced from party politics, I just see more of a case for them rather than the majority of appointed Peers, who are party political appointees.

    “My beef is not with AMS but with the call for AV+. Essentially this is AMS without the proportionality and AV without the exaggerated swing. It is a mishmash which would achieve very little (I will concede it would be better than FPTP) yet many people are fixated with it.”

    AV+ as a general system, rather than the Jenkins commission’s specific recommendations, is much the same as AMS, only with AV constituency elections rather than FPTP ones, which is why I think it’s an inherently better system. The problem was the ratio the Jenkins commission recommended, which was basically as low as possible to make a meaningful difference. It’s worth pointing out that not all AMS systems are as proportional as Germany’s (50-50), Scotland’s is 56-44 (IIRC), Wales’ is 66-33.

    I agree with you on the last point regarding open list with AMS elections, though it is worth pointing out that this could actually act against the interests of proportionality, particularly if you do not require people to vote for the same party in the constituency as they do for the corrective top-up list, and if parties are allowed to stand only for constituencies or only for lists — I think I’m right in thinking that there are examples of parties attempting to exploit the arbitrary nature of the “second election”, though I don’t remember details.

  11. James,

    I was, I confess, working on the presumption of your recommending a pure PR system with closed party lists. You are correct that the sampling analogy doesn’t work if you are recommending keeping candidate choice, and that also solves my concern about direct representation of people as well as views.

    The general point still stands though – if you were simply doing closed-list national PR, there would be no reason not to just run a sample every 6 months. 10,000 people would get MoE down to 1% which would usually be fine – in fact *preferable* for being more representative that then self-selecting sample who actually vote in GEs.

    I’m still no convert to PR (I like the idea of radical changes in government, and no coalitions – though nor am I entirely wedded to FPTP either) but I agree that if proportionality is to be achieved, the constituency link is an element that PR enthusiasts just have to accept isn’t fully consistent. Good luck pursuading them to drop it, because we’ll get a horrible mishmash if they win before you’ve done so.

    On pork-barrells – I agree. It’s finding a happy medium between doing everything for the private gain of your constituents and doing absolutely nothing for them. We have the latter, and I would like MPs to be a little more sensitive to their seats – something that works pretty well in the US where seat geography trumps party whip.

    On the Jury Team, I have no idea! I left the campaign a few weeks before the European Elections, and moved to New York so I’ve not even been in touch. I’m always in favour of Open Primaries, but I suspect there might be cost reasons (using the cellphone technology to select a byelection candidate vs economies of scale if they go for the GE). But don’t really know.

    Anyway, must dash – be in touch.

    Morus

  12. They’re flawed because in a free STV system (whether AV or multi-member), not everyone uses all of their “transfers” or preferences. This means that parties can easily field too many candidates, and there are practical examples of this having happened in Northern Ireland.

    The opposite is also true. In 2007 there is a fair amount of evidence that most parties fielded fewer candidates than they should have. The exception was the SNP who generally played the game well and swept up extra councillors as a result.

    Oh, please do [wax lyrical about having STV in the Lords and AV in the Commons].

    Trying to be as brief as possible:
    I actually think the logic of the role of the two houses points to the Upper House being elected by AV and the Commons being elected by STV. This is because AV is the less representative system and thus it is reasonable for the chamber which uses it to be less powerful. Electing members of the second chamber in thirds by AV would also lead to very large constituencies and harder elections. Thus the winners would be more worthy of being referred to as a “senator” or whatever grandiose title you want to call them.

    Meanwhile, the Commons would set the direction of policy, which would be better served by a proportional system.

    But to be honest, I’d prefer a proportional system in both houses, partly because I just think that all single-member constituencies are deeply flawed out of principle and lead to lowest-common-denominator politics, and partly because I think the main thing is not the electoral system but the role each house has. The fact that the second chamber would be elected in thirds, for longer terms and with much larger constituencies is different enough for my liking.

    As for crossbenchers, I’d want to see an electoral system that would make it as easy as possible for noteworthy independents to get elected – thus STV. Appointing them is unneccesary. If we want expertise to be used in Parliament (and of course we do) then the second chamber (and arguably the first) should be empowered to co-opt experts to committees on a temporary basis. It is the committees where expertise is sorely needed, not the floor of the main chamber in which their role is little more than to make a speech and sit down.

    What we do at the moment is appoint an expert – say the astronomer royal – and then ask them to vote on the 99% of issues where they have no expertise whatsoever. This is clearly ridiculous. It is also patently ridiculous that we can’t make use of the biggest experts in the country without giving them a peerage first. A more flexible system of co-option would lead to MORE expertise being employed.

    The problem was the ratio the Jenkins commission recommended, which was basically as low as possible to make a meaningful difference.

    Ditto. Even if the system were as low as 66-33 I’d have little problem with it.

    The low ratio in Jenkins actually undermines it in another way in that it would make boundary changes incredibly difficult. By contrast, you could create boundaries with a 50-50 ratio simply by just doubling up constituencies and organising them into “regions”. It could be done in a matter of months (or an afternoon if you happen to be bored).

  13. “The opposite is also true. In 2007 there is a fair amount of evidence that most parties fielded fewer candidates than they should have. The exception was the SNP who generally played the game well and swept up extra councillors as a result.”

    Ah, sounds interesting, do you have any links? I’d mainly been basing my logic on a few examples from NI that timrollpickering pulled up on another forum, so I can’t claim a great amount of logic on this. I did think it was reasonable to assume that if a party fielded too many candidates, it would suffer, because of the effect of those who didn’t make a full preference vote.

    “wax lyrical about having STV in the Lords and AV in the Commons”

    Well, I admit a leaning towards this idea, because I’m quite conservative, with a small c, towards Constitutional Reform. I think it needs to be careful not to jeopardise the current strengths of the system, and to try and build on them where possible.

    “I actually think the logic of the role of the two houses points to the Upper House being elected by AV and the Commons being elected by STV. This is because AV is the less representative system and thus it is reasonable for the chamber which uses it to be less powerful.”

    I draw opposite conclusions, though I don’t disagree that it seems reasonable. I think in practice, the chamber using AV is likely to be the more powerful, due to the fact that AV rewards broadly supported and established alliances, whereas STV results in far more moderate outcomes, which though undeniably more fair, would be harder to form a government from.

    I also think the momentum would be against such a change. Firstly, this country has a reasonable (though overstated) tradition of majority governments. It certainly has a strong tradition of *single-party* changes of government. Thus the idea would be a reversal of the way the system is seen currently.

    Equally, the Lords has settled into the constitutional role of revising chamber, and moderate representation is crucial for the success of a revising chamber. One elected by AV would be disastrous, it would likely be dominated by one party and thus subject to far greater influence by majority whips (note: the chamber, not the parties individually). Under such an arrangement, if the governing party had control of both chambers (which is perfectly likely), you’d likely get a more rigorous process of scrutinisation of legislation in the lower rather than the upper chamber.

    Basically, in theory, the chamber elected by single-member representation is the less legitimate to form government from, but it is also the practically easier to do so through. I mean, from a purely party-proportionality perspective, the Lords is already more proportional than the Commons. And again, a PR-chamber might be the more suited to fairly setting the policy agenda, but it would probably be the less practically able to do so.

    But I accept your point that there are other ways in which to contrast the means of election to each house — staggering and larger constituencies would certainly result in very different dynamics in the upper chamber. What do you think of the idea of electing Peers for single-terms only?

    As for STV and independents, though I agree with you that it’s the most independent-friendly system, what is the actual record of countries with STV with regards to independents? I wasn’t under the impression it was all that great, despite the nature of the system — I just don’t think people are all that inclined to elect independents. When it comes to coopting experts into committees, I strongly agree with that, and I blogged about that a couple of months back. I also agree that it’s probably a better way of coopting expertise — though there may be advantages to appointment, such as people dedicating time on a more consistent basis, and thus settling into the role of legislator better.

    I can see how a 50-50 basis could be done quite easily, although having read an opinion on the workings of the boundary commission, it seems that they have a lot more to take into account than just the raw mathematics of borders and population. It’s for this reason that I’m slightly sceptical of the idea that you can draw up STV constituencies just by lumping together existing constituencies, particularly when you look at how the rules of London boroughs and constituencies made the process the Boundary commission had to go through somewhat ridiculous.

    Apologies for being rather long-winded, but this is a fascinating discussion.

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