Tag Archives: electoral-systems

Comment is freer: It’s AV or nothing

I wrote an article on Comment is Free yesterday about why people need to stop quibbling and start campaigning for AV.

Regardless of what might happen in five, 20 or 50 years time, at this precise moment you are faced with a choice between AV and the status quo. There can be no fence-sitters in the debate. I have to admit that initially I was quite uninspired by the prospect of fighting a referendum on such a modest, if meaningful, change. But two things have changed my mind…


Read it all here
.

Electoral Mythbusting 1: Spotlight on Iain Dale

I guess we’ll be doing a lot of mythbusting over the next year or so, so I might as well start now.

Iain Dale has just issued a couple of posts about the Alternative Vote and Single Transferable Vote which contains assertions that simply can’t be sustained. Let’s go through them.

1. AV “is probably even less proportional than FPTP”

First of all, neither AV nor FPTP are proportional systems and the reason for introducing AV is not to make elections more proportional. Let’s by all means have that debate, but the referendum won’t be about that. So arguing which non-proportional system is more or less proportional is the world’s most pointless exercise.

We can of course talk about whether a particular election result would have been more or less proportional, but it is a pointless exercise as it involves making huge assumptions and in particular it assumes that the election is a one-off, not part of a series. So, for example, those famous bar charts that people moan about in elections are only used as an election tactic because under FPTP people have to rely on the past pattern of voting to decide how they might vote tactically – or whether to bother voting at all. Because tactical voting has become so common and that in some constituencies it has become ingrained (I am reminded of the various Cornish Labour supporters I’ve met over the years who take it for granted that they vote Lib Dem in general elections), we can’t really know how changing the voting system will change voting behaviour.

The example that is most frequently cited is 1997, in which it is generally believed that the anti-Tory swing would have had the effect of increasing the Labour majority at the expense of the Conservatives. That is probably true, but it wouldn’t have been if the 1992 election had been held using AV, in which case the pattern would have changed. And it is also the case that big swing elections like that happen less than once every general election. 2010 doesn’t compare and while the Labour and Tory seats may have changed slightly under AV this May, the main beneficiaries would have been the Lib Dems – thus it would have been slightly more proportional.

Australian AV elections are generally more proportional than UK FPTP ones but ultimately that’s irrelevant because AV is not a proportional voting system. The reason for introducing it is to give voters more choice and more competition within each constituency.

2. The winner in a FPTP election must get 50%+1 of the vote

Yes indeed, Iain Dale did indeed write that. Just for the record (I guess most politicos know this but a lot of others don’t): under FPTP you don’t need 50% of the vote or indeed any minimum number of votes. In Scottish four way marginals – and even in ones currently regarded as ‘safe’ – the winning threshold can be very low indeed.

The example Dale cites of the 1979 Scottish Parliament referendum where the threshold was set ridiculously high was one of the most undemocratic acts of thwarting the will of the people we’ve ever seen in the UK (thanks, Labour!).

3. STV “weakens the constituency link”

I’ve argued before that the single member constituency link is one of the most pernicious aspects of UK democracy, and stand by it. I’ve never heard a coherent defence of it – it just gets invoked by people as if it means something inherently profound (ironically, often by individuals like Iain Dale who are more than partial to a bit of carpetbagging themselves). But does STV, my preferred system, actually weaken the constituency link? The short answer is, it depends.

Ask any Irishman and they’ll tell you that it certainly doesn’t. Indeed, the effect of STV is to make politics in the Republic ultra-parochial. Iain Dale ought to talk to David Trimble if he doesn’t believe me.

That said, there is no question that making constituencies larger and having multiple MPs represent them will have some effect of dilution. The constituency link between MEPs and their regions is very weak indeed, although that link would be strengthened by replacing the current list system with STV. But no-one is seriously suggesting STV constituencies for the House of Commons with more than six members maximum. In Scottish local government, all constituencies have three members, although that is generally regarded as too inflexible. Personally, I don’t think it would be sensible for constituencies to, on average, be larger than four members (I would settle for three members on average, while recognising that it would not be especially proportional).

Furthermore, the flexibility of STV is such that ultralocalist candidates will still emerge if there is a genuine (as opposed for forced) demand for them. A candidate could campaign on a platform of wanting to represent a specific town within the constituency and still win, for example. It would be up to the voter to decide how localist they wanted their MPs, not the boundary commission.

There is also the question of political representation. Whether he thinks he does or not, my MP does not represent me. He is very unlikely to ever reflect my views in Parliament and he certainly can’t represent my views and my Tory neighbour’s at the same time. So where is my constituency link? By contrast, in a multi-member constituency I would have a much better chance of having my views represented.

And finally there is the matter of competition. Where STV is used, the effect is that elected representatives are under much greater pressure to champion local issues than they are under FPTP. The effect is that a local campaign will often find it has three champions in Parliament where under a different system it would only have one.

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves if the people of Manchester (for example) are better served by 4-5 MPs representing the city as a whole and coming from across the political spectrum, or carving the city up into 4-5 artificial constituencies. I think the former, but that isn’t a debate we will be having for the foreseeable future. And it is deeply ironic that one of the things the Tories are insisting upon at the moment is to redraw the constituency map so that MPs represent larger areas and that their constituencies are based on even more artificial boundaries. If they care so much about the constituency link, they should do the exact opposite.

4. The Jenkins proposal of AV+ is proportional

The Jenkins proposal included just a 17% top up of MPs elected proportionately. While that would mitigate the most extreme effects of using unproportional systems, its impact would be strictly limited. You could describe it as semi-proportional, but not proportional.

5. Under STV, the party has even more power and influence over candidate selection

This is the exact opposite of the truth. When it comes to candidate selection, there are two basic types of electoral system: there are ones in which the party chooses the candidates (however democratically) and there are ones in which the party chooses a shortlist of candidates from which the electorate chooses. Single Transferable Vote and open list systems do the latter. Closed list systems, of which first past the post is one, is in the former category.

It really is one of the most monstrous lies of the Tories to condemn proportional systems for using closed lists when that is a different issue to whether the system is proportional or not, and that they endorse closed lists themselves.

STV gives the party dramatically less control over candidates. Indeed, the candidates of each party effectively compete with one another, and that can cause tensions. That’s why people like John Prescott fought tooth and nail against it being introduced for the European Elections in 1998. That’s one of the reasons why politicians are wary of it in Ireland – and why the voters in Ireland like it so much. There is an issue that parties have the option of only fielding one candidate if they want to, but that is no worse than under first past the post, and it is more likely in small constituencies – which is what Iain Dale endorses.

We’re going to see a lot more of this forked tongue bufoonery over the coming months – especially since the debate on which electoral system we should use for the House of Lords will be sparking off soon. It is going to really try my patience.

Bercow and burying bad news

It is quite telling that on Monday the Tories opted to a) announce the membership of their new Euro grouping and b) announce the resignation of Ian Clements. Burying bad news? I should coco! At least James Cleverly has the decency to admit it, however obliquely.

There isn’t much more I can say about the Euro grouping that hasn’t already been said elsewhere. Suffice to say, the fact that they could only muster two other parties with more than one MEP to join is all too telling.

I know the Tories like to bang on about how the other European Parties have their fair share of oddballs (I’ve never had the names of the guilty ALDES parties mentioned but no doubt someone can point me to them), but this is a grouping of ALL oddballs. Forming a grouping like this is to make a statement and the statement I hear from this is that the Tories do not consider environmental issues or gay rights anything close to a priority.

The Ian Clements incident is gobsmacking. Boris hasn’t been any better than Ken in terms of appointing his own cronies. The difference is, Ken’s ones tended to be more honest – or somewhat smarter at least.

Meanwhile, the Tory reaction to Bercow’s election is one of the least gracious spectacles I’ve seen in a long time. This, let us not forget, is from people who were complaining at how Michael Martin had politicised the role.

The objection to John Bercow from the Tories is not that he is a swivel-eyed racist, but that he isn’t one any more. An odd statement to broadcast to the nation. Dan Finkelstein rightly gives his team a good ticking off. Praise is also due to Douglas Carswell who was one of the first voices of calm this morning. Not only that, but he admitted to voting for Bercow himself (thereby scotching Nadine Dorries’ theory that only two other Tories voted for JB), and voted for my own first choice Richard Shepherd (you see, I love Tories really).

As for the result itself, personally I would have been happy with either Bercow or Young. I’m delighted the speculation surrounding Margaret Beckett’s shoo-in proved to be utter nonsense. I suspect that the hostility shown towards Bercow has been whipped up by a bunch of headbangers in the party and will dissipate fairly quickly. It is certainly the case that nothing like all of the Labour Party voted for Bercow – given that it seems most Lib Dems did a sizeable chunk of Labour MPs must have shored up Young’s vote.

I do wonder however if the electoral system they have used is the best one for letting a “consensus” candidate emerge. The downside of an exhaustive ballot/AV procedure is that it doesn’t always help build consensus. In this case, with one candidate clearly despised by a minority (how large that minority is remains an unknown quantity), it just looks like majoritarianism.

How different would it have been if they had used Modified Borda Count, where lower preferences would have been counted, or Majority Judgement? With both these systems, being despised by the minority would have counted against Bercow (this assumes that most Bercow voters would have minded Young winning less than the other way around). Enough to affect the outcome? I couldn’t say, but it certainly would have narrowed it.

The bottom line is that while we have a system which tends to ensure that a single party has a majority in the Commons, it is that majority that will get to pick the speaker. The convention of picking an opposition party speaker went out of the window in 2000. A system that at least softens the harder effects of that brute fact is at least worth considering.

Electoral Russian Roulette

One of the most remarkable things about the Labour Party is why it persists with an internal electoral system that has served it so badly. We can all remember the scandalous 2000 selection for a Mayoral candidate when Ken Livingstone won overwhelmingly amongst the membership but was blocked by a combination of the MPs and union block vote. The deputy leadership contest was nearly a repeat of this, albeit less so.

The figures, which someone has now helpfully posted on Wikipedia, tell the full story. In the final round Harman won more than 56% of the membership vote and around 52% of the combined membership and affiliated organisations’ vote. Yet, even assuming all 371 cast their votes, if just 5 MPs or MEPs had given her a lower preference over Johnson, she would have lost. Indeed, Johnson was consistently and comfortably beaten by Benn in the membership college right up to the point until the latter was excluded. We’ll never know, but it is entirely possible that Benn was robbed.

Cruddas’ vote is also interesting. He didn’t do terribly well in the membership college, yet did brilliantly amongst the affiliated organisations (I couldn’t help but laugh when I read the comment from a Cruddasista on LabourHome that their candidate had lost due to the “Soviet” electoral system – if the system was less Soviet, Cruddas would have got less far than he did!). Unlike the Livingstone debacle in 2000, all the unions and other affiliates now ballot their members, yet it is clear that the steer from the union leadership still has a significant influence in a way that CLP support does not. It would be interesting to see what the turnout for this college was: I suspect that it was quite low, indicating that a large number of union members are technically affiliating to Labour (and giving the party cash) while not identifying with the party in any way.

What we’re left with is a system that I simply fail to see is justifiable in 2007. The fact that the MPs and MEPs get a whole third of the vote to themselves is appalling, especially when you consider that they already get to pick the shortlist and get to vote in both the other colleges as well. The affiliates’ college is easier to justify, but even then it leads to a situation whereby the number of times an individual gets to vote is only limited by the size of his bank balance. Instead of this current system of one-member-one-third-of-a-vote (or alternatively one-member-however-many-votes-one-can-afford), why not simply aggregate the memberships of all the affiliate organisations and members together? If the trade union-Labour link is so vital, this should be a no-brainer. But then, the voice of the individual trade union member has always been a low priority for both the Labour Party and the trade union leadership themseles. Why else are they currently embarking on this mad rush for mergers and acquisitions?

Will VoIP kill Eurovision phone-ins?

A simple thought: with VoIP services becoming ever more popular, will the price savings make it viable for mass cross-territorial voting in the Eurovision Song Contest?

Imagine if a campaign were to be run in a country the size of, say, the UK, to stitch up the Balkan states’ votes? In the short term, those desirable 8, 10 and 12 points might be out of reach, but it could certainly guarantee a better position than joint 22nd.

Malta has come out against the Eurovision phone-ins, possibly the first among many. If we want Eurovision to remain democratic, instead of a phone-in, why not have a deliberative citizen’s jury? Each country could still have a phone-in a few weeks before, but the entrants would be chosen by lot to sit on the judging panel. They would have to supply proof of residency in order to take their place.

A final question: how can you blame Scooch for doing so badly? The Great British Public voted for them – the Great British Public have no-one to blame but themselves.

Okay, okay, I’ll try to shut up about Eurovision now. Yeesh!

Scotland decides, er, what?

Okay, I admit: the Scottish results have got me stumped.

It was the list results that did it. My expectation was, and the polls appeared to back me up, that the Greens were on course to get about the same share of the vote that they had before. Instead, they were wiped out. The Tories were down on list seats as well. So, of course, were the Lib Dems. What stopped the Lib Dems from making no losses was a whopping 4% dip in the West of Scotland, which apparently cost us an MSP.

Why was this? It was already being mooted that the new ballot paper design would harm the smaller parties as people might think they had to vote for “Alex Salmond” AND “SNP” rather than split their ticket. This may well have been a large factor, and the Greens (and other) may need to reconsider their strategy of only fielding list candidates. But in an election with 100,000 spoilt papers, one can’t help but suspect that they were robbed.

The final scores on the doors at least means that the Lib Dems have been spared one particularly nasty decision: the combined SNP/Lib Dem vote is 3 short of a majority. Even if the Greens threw their lot in, that would mean a majority of 1, which isn’t exactly a delicious prospect. Adding Margo Macdonald to the mix might help, but her price would no doubt be pretty high. I could be proven wrong, but I can’t see Nicol Stephen wanting to join such a precarious executive. That doesn’t however mean the SNP wouldn’t be able to negotiate a multi-option referendum, which if they want an independence vote is pretty much their only option now.

I can’t see them getting a majority in favour of Local Income Tax either, unless they come up with some kind of compromise. Imaginative municipal finance reformers might want to consider a package that includes the localisation of a proportion of the existing income tax combined with a land value tax to keep the Greens happy. But maybe that is me disappearing into a Georgist Wonderland.

I suspect the promise to scrap the Graduate Endowment has rather more chance of getting through, which is a shame because I happen to think the Scots don’t know when they are onto a good thing here.

In short, compared to what was widely predicted, it is Labour that seem to come out as the unlikely winners of the Scottish election. Going from 50 seats to 46 is nothing in the grand scheme of things. They can now spend 4 years in opposition making life as difficult for Salmond as possible. Either way, every single decision made by the Scottish Executive will be subject to a degree of scrutiny that we are simply not used to in the UK. That can only be a good thing.

Credible Politicians

I was on Five Live’s Julian Worricker programme briefly on Sunday, making my nomination for most credible politician as part of their Political Awards (the piece was on at around 12pm, so about 2 hours in if you want a listen).

My nomination was for David Howarth. I have to admit, I struggled with this category (cynicism can be quite disabling at times), but I nominated David because of his work in exposing the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. Specifically, I interpreted ‘credible’ to mean a good Parliamentarian.

It was a shame therefore that much of the discussion on the programme was concerned with linking ‘credibility’ with the idea of being a good constituency MP, i.e. doing casework, listening and representing constituent’s concerns. The rise of the community-focussed MP has gone hand in hand with the diminution of local politics. As local government has been centralised and sidelined, so MPs have adopted the role of super-caseworker at the expense, it seems to me, of actively taking an interest in the work of Parliament itself. This has been helped by the anti-politics prejudices of the media, which has a confused notion of wanting to see MPs being both the proxies of the communities they represent while at the same time berating them for being mindless automatons.

The problem is, no individual can ever represent the diverse range of views to be found in even the smallest of rural constituency. Yes, I doubt that even the Western Isles has a Fascist Hive Mind – and the fact that it’s a hotly contested two-way marginal would tend to support that view. So, representing the community’s view is simply an impossibility. What we have instead is, at best, an MP that works to represent the views of a vocal minority.

And yes, I do accept that the Lib Dems share a large amount of responsibility for this sort of corruption of parliamentary politics. I don’t blame ‘community politics’ a concept which, at least in the Greaves and Lishman sense, I strongly support. I do however blame the way this idea has become the abiding strategy of the party and has influenced a new generation of politicians, particularly people like Grant Shapps. The key problem is, what is a perfectly laudable aim of involving people more in decisions that affect them has, via our political system, become a zero-sum race to the lowest common denominator.

There are two policy outcomes we ought to consider about this. The first is, but of course!, proportional representation (specifically STV in multi-member constituencies). No-one would advocate creating a system which abolished constituencies altogether. Indeed, my own preference would be for just 2 or 3 member constituencies in the Commons. Even just having 2 member constituencies would have a massive impact in terms of bringing an interest in political principle back into the Commons.

The second, more controversially, would be a massive curtailment of how much MP’s can spend on carrying out their constituency work. This has grown massively in recent years, yet all it does is replicate (undermine even) local government and the customer relations side of public services. Worst, it has created incumbency protection into our system, giving MPs a platform which they can use to help their re-election campaigns.

I’m a supporter of state funding of political parties (or at least incentive based mechanisms such as matched funding), and I’ve noticed that many of the critics of such proposals are in fact broadly supportive of existing funding mechanisms; nopublicfunding describes the existing financial relationship as “sensible and necessary“. The more I’ve debated with such people, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that the status quo does indeed need rethinking. Apart from anything else, it would stop the hypocrisy of politicians setting up Chinese walls between their constituency and partisan work.

An accident waiting to happen

My first response when reading about Forward Wales’ plan to field both party and ‘independent’ candidates in the next Assembly elections was, “what took them so long?” The Electoral Commission appear to have now woken up to this, but really it is too late.

This is the real danger of the AMS system, not the “dual candidacy” bugbear which Labour have banned. Indeed, were it not for the fact that they would pay too high a political price for doing it, on paper it is Labour that would have the most to gain from playing this kind of game. That said, it has the most to gain from the status quo as well: if may struggle to get list candidates elected, but FPTP gives it such a disproportionate advantage in Wales, that hardly matters to them.

The only real solution is to have candidates elected under a single system. Hopefully this will be one more nail in the coffin of this system, but it won’t be surrendered without a fight, especially given that the Welsh Raj Peter Hain has already pledged to veto any attempt by the National Assembly to get its own house in order.