Tag Archives: proportional representation

Will the UK voting system survive 2015?

Consider the following bizarre potential outcomes for the 2015 general election:

  • The SNP romp home, winning well over 20 seats. The Green Party also do the best they’ve ever done, gaining 5% of the national vote. Yet the latter party only win a single seat despite getting a higher UK share of the vote than the former.
  • UKIP do the best they’ve ever achieved in a general election, with 16% of the vote. They only win around half a dozen seats however. The Lib Dems meanwhile creep home with just 15% of the vote, yet hold onto over 20 seats.
  • Labour gets slightly fewer votes than the Conservatives. Despite this poor performance, they win more seats than their opponent. Their total vote share hovers at around 60% of the vote, the lowest combined score since 1918.
  • No single party gains a majority. More than that, no two party majority is possible, with the exception of a Labour-Conservative coalition.

I’m not suggesting that all of these outcomes are going to happen, merely that at this point in time they are all feasible. If they do all happen at once, it will be the perfect storm of electoral outcomes which will put our single member plurality voting system (“SMP”)* under greater strain than it has ever known.

This has in fact been a long time in coming. The reality is that “two party politics” is a historical quirk that has only enjoyed a very brief period of popularity. The modern political party as we now regard it didn’t even exist when the Third Reform Act was passed in 1884 enfranchising most men over the age of 21. 16 years later the Labour Party was born and we had decades of 3+ party politics until the Liberals pretty much gave up the ghost in the 1930s and 40s. In 1951, two party politics reached its apex with the combined Labour-Conservative vote reaching 96.8% but by 1974 that was down to 75.1% and in long term decline.

We can see this trend by looking at how the gap between Effective Number of Parties (“ENP”) by votes and seats has widened over the last 70 years (ENP is an academic concept used to estimate the number of parties active in an election according to their relative strengths). As you can see, the disparity between votes and seats has widened almost inexorably.

Effective Number of Parties by UK General Elections, 1945-2010 (Gallagher, Michael, 2014. Election indices dataset at  http://www.tcd.ie/Political_Science/staff/michael_gallagher/ElSystems/index.php,  accessed 1 January 2015).
Effective Number of Parties by UK General Elections, 1945-2010 (Gallagher, Michael, 2014. Election indices dataset at
http://www.tcd.ie/Political_Science/staff/michael_gallagher/ElSystems/index.php,
accessed 1 January 2015).

Indeed, it is also worth bearing in mind that the voting system itself was stitched up to reinforce this hegemony. SMP is not, in fact, the only voting system to have been used in a House of Commons election. Multi member constituencies were quite common for urban areas at first, and university seats were elected using Single Transferable Vote from 1917 until 1950. You can see how, in the first decade after single member constituencies were universally adopted in 1950, the disparity between votes and seats actually got worse. By contrast, if we had not gone down that route, it seems likely that UK elections would have done a better job at reflecting votes cast.

Josep Colomer asserts that as political systems embrace multi-party politics, they tend to drift inexorably towards proportional representation.

A crucial point, however, is that coordination failures can be relatively more frequent under majoritarian electoral systems, especially for the costs of information transmission, bargaining, and implementation of agreements among previously separate organizations, as well as the induction of strategic votes in favor of the larger candidacies. With coordination failures, people will waste significant amounts of votes, voters’ dissatisfaction with the real working of the electoral system may increase, and large numbers of losing politicians are also likely to use voters’ dissatisfaction and their own exclusion, defeat or under-representation to develop political pressures in favor of changing to more proportional electoral rules.

In other words, eventually the ability to “do politics” using a majoritarian system becomes increasingly difficult as more parties become effective agents within the system. He goes on to suggest that “above 4 ENPs, establishing or maintaining a majority rule electoral system would be highly risky for the incumbent largest party, and possibly not feasible either due to pressures for an alternative change supported by a majority of votes.”

Sadly Colomer doesn’t actually tell us how this switch will happen, but we are already seeing the current system falling apart. Of all the potential outcomes I listed at the top of this article, the biggest problem from a governance point of view is that difficulty we might encounter in forming a government. In 2010 (and despite the more fruity speculation by some), the arithmetical logic behind the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition was quite straightforward: there was simply no other way to form a two party coalition, apart from a Conservative-Labour one of course. Despite some sunny optimism about the viability of a Labour-LD-SNP-Unionist government, the fact is that such a rainbow would have been incredibly hard to maintain.

A lot of political commentators have asserted that the outcome of the 2015 general election is impossible to predict. They are only half right. It’s actually quite clear which way people are going to vote; what is unpredictable is a voting system that is so poorly suited to its purpose that the numbers that it chews out could go anywhere. That this doesn’t lead more people than it does to declare that it is time to pick another system is a sad testament of how badly let down our media and politicians are letting us down.

After the 2011 AV referendum, the No campaign declared the matter of the voting system settled for a generation. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum has already demonstrated to us how such things are rarely that simple, and it seems likely to me that the debate over whether SMP is any longer fit for purpose will kick off in a big way after this year’s election. At least, it will among the public. The question is whether civil society and the media will join that throng or allow it to peter out. It can’t be left to the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy to make the case.

And how will the political class respond? Will they embrace the tide of history in the way that they did eventually over the Reform Acts and female suffrage, or will they continue to resist it? I hope they’ll take the pragmatic, former option; if they don’t we could be looking at decades of instability. For me, it’s the only truly interesting question about this year’s general election; until we have a system which in some way reflects the settled will of the people, everything else will just be a case of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

* Personally I prefer to refer to the UK voting system as “single member plurality” and not “first past the post”. This is for several reasons. Firstly, it is a simple fact that it better describes the actual system: we have single member constituencies and you win by getting the plurality (largest share of the vote). “First past the post” on the other hand doesn’t actually describe how the system works at all – ironically, to the extent that it describes anything, it better describes the Alternative Vote system/instant run-off voting which actually has a “winning post” (50%). Secondly, it is the internationally recognised description of the system; the UK loves its quirky and confusing names for voting systems (Additional Member System instead of Multi Member Proportional for example), and it is a fairly contemptible bit of British chauvinism. Thirdly, I think that allowing the supporters of SMP to use their preferred, familiar term puts them at an advantage as all other voting systems sound alien and technical in comparison. That’s nonsense, and I don’t think we should allow them the privilege.

Clegg’s campaign: the view from afar

This is a very different election campaign for me. In 1997 and to an even greater extent in 2001 and 2005 I was up against the coalface campaigning in target seats (Oldham East and Saddleworth and Hazel Grove in 1997, agent for Leeds North West in 2001 and campaigns organiser for East Dunbartonshire in 2005). This year, my job has meant that I’ve spent most of the campaign thus far in front of a computer screen watching the campaign itself from afar.

The week started badly for me, with the news seemingly dominated by that most nauseating of phenomena, the leaders’ wags (actually, they’re all wives but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where the media, Labour and the Tories are taking their cues from. The Daily Mail going for Sarah Brown on the basis of her feet was probably a new low for journalism. Far from discouraging this kind of trivialisation, Labour and the Tories have been doing all they can to encourage it, with the Conservatives promoting “Sam Cam” to key spokesperson status.

Treatment of the public as face slapping morons continued throughout the week with Labour’s attempt to target their manifesto to that all important 5 year old demographic. Sadly, the Green Party have clearly decided that this is the way to go and so brought out their own 1970s children’s animation-inspired Election Broadcast. By the end of Tuesday it seemed like this whole election campaign was going to get drowned in trivial and patronising drivel.

And then on Wednesday things started to change… Actually, that’s not quite right because the first thing which excited me this week was Nick Clegg’s Jeremy Paxman interview on Monday. Paxo was his usual contemptuous, bullying self but what was astonishing was that he failed to land a single blow of Clegg. Throughout Clegg looked relaxed and calm and often rather quizzical, as if Jeremy had wondered in off the street from a different political era when the rules were different. Which, in a sense, he had. Watching this performance I was astonished to learn that not only had Brown and Cameron not confirmed to appear on a similar programme but that Cameron had ruled it out. Surely this clearly showed that Paxo was passed his best and that there was all to play for in securing a half-hour of prime time immediately following Eastenders? The fact that Cameron has turned this opporunity down suggests there are major jitters currently shaking CCHQ.

Anyway, back to Wednesday. I’ve been keeping a close eye on the Lib Dems’ manifesto development process so it contained few surprises for me. What was rather more surprising was the Election Broadcast. Lib Dem PEBs are something I endure, rather than look forward to. At best they are dreadful, generic vox pop affairs with “ordinary people” saying how much they like Lib Dem policies and the leader popping up at the end to say how it is really important that people vote for him. Utterly uninspired, completely dull. Remarkably similar, in fact, to this.

So I was pretty astounded when it turned out that the party had managed to come up with a broadcast that I thought was actually good:

In fact, I thought it was more than good. It works because it isn’t simply a litany of policy-bites but constitutes an argument. It puts the leader front and centre. It has striking, cinematic visuals. It avoids talking down to people or sinking into that chirpy, horrifically inauthentic tone that party films often resort to as their comfort blankets (see the Labour, Green and Tory examples above). It has a nice soundtrack (thank the gods they didn’t use that awful theme tune the party launched at conference), scored by someone who is very definitely a Lib Dem supporter. It even tickles my geek fancies. The Brian Eno track was also used in the film 28 Days Later from which the film clearly borrows some of the visuals from as well. What kind of inspired genius suggests that a major political party’s election broadcast should essay a funky, low budget horror film and actually sees it through?

Pleased as I was with that, Clegg’s performance on the ITV leader’s debate yesterday was just the icing on the cake. I thought he was doing well while I watched it but never imagined that he was getting through to the ordinary public. The ComRes poll today, showing a whopping 14% increase in the party’s share of the vote amongst people who watched the programme clearly demonstrates to what degree there is all to play for in this election and how it might yet end up surprising people.

The anti-Clegg spin today has been hilarious. In particular, I’ve been highly amused by all the Tory and Labour politicians stating that they always expected Clegg would walk it. If you put a tenner on Clegg winning (on Boylesports anyway), you would have made back £27.50. By contrast, Cameron’s odds were 4/5 and Brown was in second place at 15/8.

The other bit of spin is that Clegg can say what he likes because he won’t be in power. Yet the Lib Dems are the only party going into this election with a costed manifesto. Yet we have been staring a hung parliament scenario in the face for over a year now. If anything, Clegg had an even bigger credibility gap to negotiate than the other two precisely because he was the insurgent candidate. Yet he overcame that handicap and romped home. As a result, he could well hold the balance of power in three weeks time. Not exactly consequence free stuff, is it?

The received wisdom is that Clegg and the Lib Dems will now be under increased scrutiny and that there is no room for complacency. That is absolutely right but there are two reasons to be optimistic. Firstly, if we get attacked more, it means that more of the debate will be on our agenda which in many respects will be helpful. I’d love it if the debate focused around around our plans to raise personal allowance for example; bring it on. That combined with the fact that the audience didn’t seem to like it when Cameron and Brown went on the attack last night suggests that the best strategy of the other parties might still be to grin, bear it, and where possible ignore Clegg.

But the second thing is that it is clear from what we’ve seen throughout this week, starting with Nick’s assured performance on the BBC, followed by the much more astute messaging in the manifesto and election broadcast, that the leader’s debate was part of a wider strategy that he is getting right and not just a fluke. The messaging is clear and it links together seemlessly with Nick’s style and narrative.

Contrast Clegg’s consistency throughout the week with Cameron flailing around with a wide variety of different messages and themes. One minute he’s doing this “big society” thing, the next he’s talking about “broken Britain”, the next he’s talking about “all being in it together”. He’s got plenty of slogans but they don’t add up to a particularly clear message and he tends to use them interchangeably rather than focus on one. The result is a mess. Brown to his credit does have a much clearer message, although his narrative (stay the course) and his sloganeering (a future fair for all) are totally different. Once you get past the Mr Men stuff, their actual election broadcast with Sean Pertwee is actually quite effective – I don’t understand why they haven’t made it a more central part of their campaign. And even if they were to sort this out, their fundamental problem would still remain: Gordon Brown.

So there is everything to play for, but nothing is going to be easy. As I finish writing this, YouGov have just released their latest poll:

* Conservative: 33%
* Labour: 28%
* Liberal Democrat: 30%
* Others: 9%

Sounds great, but when you put those numbers into the BBC’s swing calculator, you get the following result:

* Conservative: 245 MPs
* Labour: 276 MPs
* Liberal Democrat: 100 MPs
* Others: 29 MPs

So even if Labour get bashed down into third place, they will still have the plurality. The next time an interviewer presses Clegg on whether he would work with the party with the most votes or the party with the most seats, let them chew on this.

STV is beautiful

uk09stv_smallDenis Mollison has an article on Next Left about how STV would work in practice. He also shows off a map of how the UK could be divided up into multi-member constituencies.

I really like what Mollison has done here. He hasn’t simply drawn lines on the map but created constituencies based on local authority boundaries. Ironically this would mean that people would identify with parliamentary constituencies more than the largely artificial ones we currently use (if the Tories get their way and replace the current system for drawing boundaries with a more technocratic one based on number of voters, this problem will get even worse). His model would also result in 140 fewer MPs.

I’m sure there are decisions here and there that you could poke holes in; the London boundaries in particular are likely to prove controversial. But this is valuable work as it instantly changes the debate around STV from a very abstract one to one of practicalities.

And, fundamentally, it makes a pretty picture. Any chance of a hi-res version to put up on my wall?

Open Up: any candidate you like, so long as they are gleaming white.

Another day, another TWO new big ideas for solving the deep problem inherent in our electoral system. Without, you know, actually solving the deep problem inherent in our electoral system.

First we have Geoffrey Wheatcroft who proposes annual elections. Because, you know, the Chartists did. Imagine that. Political parties in permanent election mode – even more than they are now. I guess it is one of those ideas you either think is genius or stupid and no-one is going to persuade you either way. Needless to say, I come under the latter category.

Second, we have Open Up, a new campaign to persuade ALL the parties to hold Open Primaries in ALL constituencies before the next general election. Again. Once you have gone down the route of such mental decrepitude, there is probably no helping you.

I will however point out a little fact. On their FAQ, they state the following:

Of course, it will cost money to hold Open Primaries. But what price better government?[1] From the financial crisis to the expenses scandal, it’s obvious that our system must improve. As taxpayers we pay a lot now, and we’re going to pay more. We need the best people to be the stewards for our money and our future. Against this background the extra cost of Open Primaries seems very small.[2]

On top of this consider the costs of a General Election…where we don’t have a choice in our candidates:

o The Department for Constitutional Affairs estimated the cost of administering the 2005 general election in England and Wales was approximately £71 million in public funds. (House of Commons Written Answers for 25 May 2005)
o Spending for the three main parties in 2005 was more than £40 million. (Electoral Commission, “Election 2005: Campaign Spending”). This is in addition to the £71 cited above.
* Conservative Party £17,852,245
* Labour Party £17,939,618
* Liberal Democrats £4,324,574

[1] Is there any evidence, at all, that this will lead to better government? Where is it?

[2] Since they have given us some costs to look at, let’s look at the cost of holding primaries for all 628 constituencies in Great Britain (I’m excluding Northern Ireland here for the not unreasonable reason that the three main parties do too):

Sending a second class, franked, letter costs 25p these days. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that if they are mailing the entire British population of voting age (approx 40 million) they could get a discount down to 20p. That is still £8 million – nearly double what the Lib Dems spent in the last general election (including the unlikely to be repeated dodgy donation of £2.4 million from Michael Brown).

Assuming that the voters won’t be expected to pay to vote, and also assuming a LOW turnout of 20%, that adds another £2 million to the bill.

The cheapest I can find C5 manilla envelopes on Viking Direct is £24.99 for 125. Assuming that the party can get envelopes at HALF that cost, the total envelope cost (one to send out and another to get back) will be another £8 million.

So even before we get into paper, printing and distribution costs (which are much harder to estimate) we are looking at a low estimate of £18 million, or more than either the Tories or Labour spent nationally in 2005.

Throughout the summer I’ve heard vague assertions that if all this were done at the same time, these costs could be brought down, but even if they were halved that would still mean each party shelling out £10 million that most don’t have.

I’ve heard suggestions that primaries could be held on the same day as local elections with the ballots being held at polling station, but this idea couldn’t work for Open Up’s campaign who want candidates installed before next year’s local elections (it isn’t for that matter clear how it would work otherwise since local elections all take place on different days and it would mean essentially putting candidate selection into the hands of the state – a radical measure to say the least). I’ve even heard wacky suggestions of all the primaries being held online, along with all the scary potential ballot stuffing that would imply. Presumably Open Up wouldn’t be in favour of that as former ORG Director Becky Hogge is one of their key supporters.

Either way, there is no running away from the fact that what Open Up is calling for is an exclusive club in which only the wealthiest parties are allowed to participate. Any party not able to participate will be clobbered to death for hating democracy. Cheekily, they use the existence of safe seats as a reason for justifying their campaign. The idea that safe seats themselves might be the problem isn’t even entertained. In another video, weirdly, they claim that the Spanish electoral system is corruption free. Spain uses a form of proportional representation but significantly also uses closed lists – giving the electorate very little in the way of a choice in candidates. I’m not sure this is an especially wise assertion to make two weeks after the imprisonment of Francisco Correa.

I’m not fundamentally opposed to primaries, although I do think they are a distraction which in practice will have very little effect on the nature of our politics. I certainly think that the open primaries idea being spelt out by Open Up would lead to more identikit politicians, with Labour candidates under even more pressure to be Tory-ish and Tory candidates under pressure to be Labour-ish (and of course Lib Dems to be all things to all people), but since it has no chance of happening – less of a chance, I’d argue, than Gordon Brown introducing PR before the general election – why worry?

I worry because the anti-politics rhetoric that is informing this campaign (and others) is leading people up the garden path. Instead of embracing the opportunity to shout loudly for pluralist politics and for moving beyond politics meaning little more than voting every few years, people are grasping at ideas that don’t even amount to half measures. There are people out there who seem to believe in both primaries AND pluralist politics, but they have chosen to emphasise the former because somehow they imagine it would be easier to introduce – I will certainly concede that it is easier to explain. But this fatal lack of confidence seems to be leading us towards a system of politics where you have to be richer than ever to participate in and preferably entirely self-sufficient because that way you won’t have to ever claim for any troublesome expenses.

Open Up itself is overwhelming dominated by people with a PR or media background. In short they represent a subtler, more insidious form of corruption – the kind which has told us for years that citizenship is a defunct concept in a brave new world of consumerism. And now, proudly marching around with their Che Guevara t-shirts, they are here to tell us all to be good little revolutionaries and to embrace a politics which looks remarkably like shopping. Choice of whatever brand of washing powder you choose, all of which are exactly the same. It is the ultimate grand joke.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the party leaders’ contributions to the Speakers Conference today. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to tell apart the establishment and the insurgents in this debate; they all seem to be arguing along the same lines and I don’t like any of it. Maybe I should just accept that my views are just too unfashionable to even contemplate.

Who killed the rainbow?

An unseemly spat has broken out between Bethan Jenkins and Peter Black on Twitter:

PB: @bethanjenkins you were considering rainbow option weeks after LD exec vote. Your rejected it. Nothing delusional about that.
BJ: @peterblackwales- your party refused it before that.
PB: @bethanjenkins no it didnt Bethan.My party voted for it. Stop rewriting history.
BJ: @peterblackwales i think you are the one doing that.
PB: @bethanjenkins not at all. Review the events not the myths generated by your spin doctors.

…and so on. Speaking as an outsider, what surprises me is that this is even a matter of debate. The timetable of events is quite clear:

24 May 2009: Rainbow Coalition talks in disarray after Lib Dem NEC rejects the proposal on the chair’s casting vote.
25 May 2009: Rhodri Morgan reelected first minister unopposed.
26 May 2009: Special Lib Dem conference overturns executive decision.
27 June 2009: Labour and Plaid form “One Wales” coalition.

Now, you could argue a lot of things here. The first thing would be that the Lib Dems were badly split, chaotic, unreliable and not exactly broadcasting their fitness to govern. You could argue that Plaid were only doing the sensible thing from both Wales’ and their own best interests. If you did, I’d be inclined to agree with you. What you can’t argue however is that the Lib Dems were the ones to kill the rainbow coalition talks – that responsibility rests with Plaid and Plaid alone. If you read the quotes from both Mike German and Nick Bourne at the time the deal was struck, it is clear that both of them considered the Rainbow deal to still be on the table. It was Plaid who walked away.

I simply don’t understand why Bethan is denying responsibility here instead of taking pride in walking away from a deal which I sniffed of stitch up (at least from the Tories’ point of view – they hardly seemed to be negotiating at all). I suspect it has something to do with the fact that she doesn’t feel particularly proud of Plaid’s record in office.

But the other thing about this whole debacle worth noting is that what was bad for political parties was very good indeed for democracy. One of the common criticisms of proportional voting systems is that they lead to government being stitched up by people in the proverbial smoke-filled rooms. What the 2007 Welsh (and for that matter, Scottish) experience shows is that this is far from the case. The Welsh negotiations were held in public – too public for a lot of people’s liking. They took place over a period of weeks and the challenge was to sort out an agreement that best reflected how Wales as a whole had voted.

Contrast that with FPTP. Normally there are no formal coalition deals, to be sure. But since all parties are coalitions of interest, that isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of negotiations going on behind the scenes. But ultimately, as the typical Labour backbencher will agree (off the record and out of the earshot of the whips), their power is strictly limited. The real power lies in the party funders and the pollsters. With so much focused on winning those all-important swing votes in those all-important marginal seats, the number of people who have a real say in proceedings is just a handful.

To be sure, parties are dependent on funders and pollsters in elections regardless of the electoral system, but their role is much more limited. Parties have to fight for every vote instead of being forced to take most of their core vote for granted and the party or coalition which goes on to take office has to have a mandate from at least 50% of the electorate.

The negotiations surrounding the running of Wales in 2007 were not very attractive, but there is little doubt that process was a robust one.

This blog doesn’t make polling predictions, but if it did…

…they’d be pretty sucky. My roundup of polls on Wednesday turned out to be pretty flaky. I’d like to use the excuse that I was only reporting them, not endorsing them, but that’s for the birds.

First of all, turnout: Mat B correctly predicted that YouGov were probably over-estimating and he was spot on. This raises an interesting question: how can YouGov be so right on the polling figures themselves (Anthony Wells has hailed them as the closest pollsters) and yet so wrong on this statistic?

Secondly, the state of the parties in the North West. Here I’m on safer ground as I really wasn’t making a prediction and I didn’t turn out to be that wrong anyway. The Greens were quite close to beating the BNP (although technically, the “tactical” vote was to vote UKIP as they came closest to denying Griffin – the Green tactical vote message was indeed bogus as predicted by almost everyone) and the blanket media coverage of the latter compared with fact that the former were ignored was almost certainly a factor.

Does the European election result vindicate PR as I suggested? Yes it does. I’ve yet to see a council-by-council breakdown of the figures but it will almost certainly show pockets where the BNP were strong and which, under FPTP, they would have been able to target with impunity. They’ve got where they are today through their electoral success in local authorities around the country using the FPTP system to their advantage. It is disingenuous at best to suggest that if we didn’t have PR we wouldn’t now have BNP MEPs.

At the same time, it is incumbant on me to point out that if the election had been run under the STV system, the BNP probably would have been denied. 263,000 votes in the North West didn’t go to any winning candidate which would potentially have been counted if the voters had been able to rank candidates in order of preference. With the exception of the English Democrat voters, the majority of them would have gone to pretty much anyone but the BNP. And with less than one-ninth of the vote, the BNP would have needed those transfers to win. This is one of the great features of STV: it is anti-extremist but works by including more people into the process rather than less.

Regardless, it is clear that the public (at least the ones who voted) are starting to enjoy the flexibility that PR gives them. Almost exactly 2 in every 5 voters supported a party which is not represented in the House of Commons. It would be nice if in 2014 we didn’t have quite so many vanity projects running at once (Jury Team, Libertas, the Socialist Labour Party, NO2EU and the Christian Party all seemed to be living examples of what happens when you mix excessive quantities of self-importance and money together) but fundamentally there is no going back to bad old days of zero choice and foregone conclusions in European elections. What’s more, the appetite for genuinely competitive elections can only increase.

Ironically, the biggest losers in this election would have been Labour if it had been fought under FPTP. They’d have been wiped out (more precisely, their last vestiges would have been eliminated following their disastrous 2004 result). The Tories meanwhile would have won a massive majority of the seats despite only enjoying the support of 1-in-4 voters. That ought to chill any true democrat to the bone.

And what about the Liberal Democrats? Well, we did pretty indifferently. On the ground the party seemed to hold its own in target Westminster seats and ignore everywhere else. This is probably fair enough. What was missing was anything like a decent air war to rally our support in the rest of the country.

The party’s internet operation was stronger than in the past and the mealy-mouthed, look-both-ways stuff about Europe seemed to be less in evidence than during the past two elections. But the campaign was not wildly pro-Europe and failed to frame the debate in any way to our advantage. Much of that couldn’t be helped because of the tsunami that was the expenses scandal; we’ll never know how the campaign would have been different if that hadn’t got in the way. But there does seem little to suggest that Clegg was preparing to articulate a clear, provocative message about the Lib Dems’ attitude towards Europe in the way that he has been very good at doing of late (e.g. his position on the recall of MPs and expenses reform).

Some argued that what the party should have done is come out all guns blazing in calling for the UK to adopt the Euro as soon as possible. I’m a little ambivalent about the Euro (I’m not anti the Euro per se but I was sceptical of unbridled monetarism before it was fashionable and wonder how big the EU budget would have to be to ensure the Euro doesn’t unduly disadvantage whole swathes of its regions), but I can at least see the logic behind it. A core 30% of the UK population is consistently pro-EU and yet no party will engage with them for fear of alienating the other 70% who are either anti or (mostly) utterly indifferent. FPTP makes it difficult for us to engage with this constituency; PR makes it crucial if we are ever to break through this glass ceiling that we seem to be bouncing against.

Fundamentally, if no-one else is prepared to talk up the EU we are truly doomed. The UK cannot afford to leave the EU yet seems to be slowly arguing itself into a corner. Sooner or later this is going to come to a crunch; the quicker the Lib Dems find their voice on this issue the more manageable this situation will be in the longer term.

Ultimately though, we only ceded a little bit of popular support in this election in the most extraordinary of circumstances. It is hard to be too critical of the Lib Dem campaign when even the Tory, UKIP and Labour campaigns were being drowned out at the same time. Somehow however, we need to find a way of articulating a popular form of European integrationism by 2014. Any ideas?

Europe, turnout, the BNP, the Greens and fair votes

I’ve just got back from an hour’s stint on LBC talking about Yurp. Myself and fellow guest Hugo Brady from the Centre of European Reform were both under the impression we were there to discuss how the European Parliament works and the elections themselves. Instead we found ourselves being asked to mount a full frontal defence of the EU itself, covering everything from the CAP to auditing budgets. Not an easy task when you aren’t prepared (and as a non-expert of the subject I probably wouldn’t have gone on on that basis, but there you go).

For the record, incidently, I would quite happily scrap the Common Agricultural Policy. It’s appalling. If you do think that however, and you actually care about people unfairly affected by it in developing countries (as one of the callers purported to do), then the single worst thing you could do is pull out of the EU and allow the opponents of reform to have it entirely their own way. I don’t like a lot of UK policies and want UK political reform, but if you heard me calling for us to pull out of the UK on that basis you would consider me to be an utter loon.

What I didn’t get a chance to discuss were the poll findings that Vote Match/Unlock Democracy unveiled yesterday suggesting that tomorrow’s turnout could be an all time high for the European Elections. 50% in our YouGov survey said they were definitely going to vote (another 11% gave an ‘8’ or ‘9’ incidentally), which YouGov advise suggests a nominal turnout of 43-45%. That’s pretty unprecedented.

It is clear that the reason for this potentially (and comparatively) high turnout is not a hard fought contest about the European Parliament itself (if only) but MPs’ expenses and the subsequent meltdown of the UK Parliament. In short, the public are out to give the political classes a bloody nose. But it is also interesting to note both the generational and gender differences. Simply put, younger voters will be turning out in much fewer numbers and are not doing so because they simply don’t know what the elections are about. Older voters are, unsurprisingly, most likely to turn out. But it is the middle-aged voters who are most likely to abstain because of the expenses scandal itself. Women are likely to turn out in comparative numbers to men but their reason for not doing so again has more to do with not knowing enough about the elections than it has to do with scandal.

YouGov have also done an eve of poll for the Telegraph, suggesting that Labour may be pushed into third or even fourth place. As Anthony Wells has been chronicling, the polls are all over the place at the moment – the pollsters’ rules-of-thumb assumptions which they use to weight their data appear to have been blown wide open by the collapse in Labour support. We live in unprecedented times and it remains to be seen which pollster emerges with the most credit.

Nonetheless Anthony makes a good fist of an argument that YouGov are likely to be more accurate than most and for all their critics they have tended to be quite accurate. Either way, it looks terrible for Labour, with the Tory and Lib Dem levels of support staying at around their 2004 levels. The Greens look like their vote will be up while UKIP could either be significantly up or a bit down.

The Telegraph report that the 5% figure the YouGov poll gives the BNP suggests that they may well make the breakthrough they were hoping for in the North West. We only have the national figures to look at right now but unless the North West specific figures say something different, I’m not so sure. Based on the national swing, that puts the parties in the North West at:

Conservative: 23% (-1%, 2 MEPs)
Labour: 20% (-7%, 2 MEPs)
Lib Dem: 16% (-, 2 MEPs)
UKIP: 14% (+2%, 1 MEP)
Green: 10% (+4%, 1 MEP)
BNP: 6% (-, 0 MEPs)

Those figures come with a health warning, not to mention the fact that national swings are pretty spurious at the best of times. But it does highlight one aspect of this election which has been criminally under-reported: the resurgence of the Green Party. The psephology behind their Stop Nick Griffin campaign is entirely spurious but there is no escaping the fact that every vote for the Greens in the North West will make it harder for the BNP to get elected (where they are wrong is where they claim that a tactical Green vote is better than a vote for the Tories, Labour, Lib Dems or UKIP in this respect). And with a poll leap of the scale that every pollster appears to be reporting will result in a quite healthy haul of Green MEPs. This is a big deal – certainly a bigger deal than the possibility that the BNP might win a single seat. Yet by and large they have been ignored.

If I have one prediction to make about these elections it is that they will be a vindications of the proportional voting system. I dislike closed list systems but even closed list-PR is better than closed list-FPTP.

Would we be looking at such a dramatic result if we still used FPTP for the European Elections? In one sense, we would. The story right now would not be “will the BNP gain a seat in the North West?” but “will the BNP gain seats in East London, the Potteries, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire?” All of these areas are places where FPTP has enabled the BNP to gain a foothold – often gaining swathes of seats with remarkably small shares of the vote. The BNP would have a much easier time targeting four old-style Euro-constituencies than they have targeting a whole region. Far from making it easier for the BNP then, PR has actually made it tougher.

But overall, it would have lead to business-as-usual. PR has given the public a means of punishing the political class (which as a whole, completely deserves it). Without PR, we would be looking at a repeat of 1989 where the Greens got 15% of the vote and not a single seat. Now maybe it is time the Greens (and UKIP) got their act together and learned to target but the electorate shouldn’t have to wait for them to get their tactics right in order to express its displeasure (and targeting is at best a necessary evil in any case).

Face the facts: under FPTP, we would not now be looking at as high a turnout and the main parties would be sitting pretty. The public would have no outlet to vent their frustration. That would have been a dangerously unhealthy state of affairs.

It is certainly frustrating that the last thing this election is being decided upon is what it is osensibly about – the future direction of the European Union. But if what we get in exchange is the first real opportunity for the public to fully express itself in a UK-wide election, that is a price worth paying. Now: let’s replace it with an open list system or STV so it can be even better!

So where do we go from here?

The most fascinating aspect of the expenses scandal is how quickly the debate has moved onto a debate about meaningful democratic and constitutional reform. I have to admit, I didn’t quite see it coming, and while there have been rumbles within what you might call the “democratic reform community” about making a big push in the run up to the general election, it seemed to be more driven by the need to be seen to be doing something rather than a belief that it would actually happen.

Yet things have moved on very quickly. I’ve been amazed at the number of Labour politicians who have come out of the woodwork in recent weeks and professed support for, not merely electoral reform, but actual proportional representation. It is fair to say this has been rumbling on for a while now. Compass, and with it Jon Cruddas MP, came of the fence a couple of months ago. Today we see Alan Johnson out himself as well.

Just six months ago, the orthodoxy amongst electoral reformers in the Labour Party was to bang on about Alternative Vote as being the only option – a ludicrous notion since it would cost almost as much pain to achieve but with almost none of the benefits of full electoral reform. Johnson and others are still talking about the Jenkins proposals – a failed and rather complex fudge designed to keep Tony Blair happy which I am sure Roy Jenkins himself would have disowned by now had he lived long enough. But either way we are a long way from having to decide precisely what system should be used; the call at this stage is for a referendum to be held on the same day as the general election to establish the principle.

The important thing that needs to be emphasised is that mere proportional representation is not enough. Peter Kellner (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/politics-the-only-way-is-up-1690137.html) is half right when he says PR has “nothing to do with probity.” Mark Thompson has done a splendid job demonstrating how the first-past-the-post system and expenses abuse are inextricably linked (this is a brilliant example about how a single blog post can influence a national debate, given the number of times I’ve read or heard it referred to by people in the mainstream media over the past week).

Most PR systems in fact do increase probity, but it isn’t the proportionality that does this but the way they allow voters to choose between candidates within a single party. The list system used for the European Elections does not allow for this and we ought to rule it out for Westminster elections straight away. The Additional Member System used for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly is an improvement but is still limiting (the Welsh Assembly rule against ‘dual candidacy’ gives voters even less choice).

While my personal preference would be single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies, I would be content with any open list system that allows voters to select from candidates rather than parties. The size of the constituency matters too. As we saw in the Scottish local elections in 2007, three member constituencies don’t really allow for much competition within parties at all.

For many people, including some Liberal Democrats, talk of PR is intolerable because it threatens the “constituency link.” The “constituency link” is in fact one of the most pernicious aspects of modern politics. Of course MPs should have a sense of place, but the idea that they should all be responsible for their own relatively small parishes is ludicrous. As Simon Jenkins has cogently argued, as MPs have transformed themselves into caseworkers over the past few decades, they have conspired to strip local government of its authority. And as Andrew Rawnsley puts it, the Liberal Democrats bear a large amount of responsibility for this. Our use of “pavement politics” (which isn’t the same thing as community politics, but rather a perversion of it) as a tool for gaining MPs has made a lot of sense in terms of narrow party interest but has actually hurt the causes for both decentralisation and electoral reform. With the political system in flux and Chris Rennard no longer in the captain’s chair, we have a real opportunity to rethink this.

The biggest irony is that the MP-constituency link is at its closest in the Republic of Ireland, where they have STV. Indeed, Conservative peer David Trimble spends his retirement in the House of Lords railing against it for precisely the opposite reasons that his leader opposes it. To be fair, he has a point, but while Ireland has an average of 26,000 people per elector, in the UK it is closer to 90,000. Irish politics is dominated by two parties divided by history rather than ideology – a state of affairs which is gradually breaking down over time. In the UK, the main thing that causes parties to fight on similar ideological ground is FPTP. In other words, while STV would inevitably lead to more accountability in the UK, we have no reason to expect that the parochialism of Irish politics will come along with it.

Electoral reform is the sine qua non; the one thing that seperates the genuine reformers from the people simply attempting to profit from the debacle – no wonder the Telegraph is in such a flap about it (electoral reform? Fuck! No! More Tories! That’s the answer! Honest!). But won’t be sufficient in my view and will be subject to a full onslaught by the Tory press. For that reason, reformers need to arm themselves with a number of other reforms too. The question is, what?

I don’t think the time has come for a full written constitution to sort everything out, although I do think we’ll have one within 20 years due to a number of factors (if you want to know why precisely, you’ll need to read Unlocking Democracy: 20 Years of Charter 88 and in particular its concluding chapter). Short of that, there have been a lot of suggestions doing the rounds, some of which are better than others.

I’m all for reducing the number of MPs (something which the Tories are demanding, despite the fact it would weaken their precious constituency link), but one of the practical problems the Lib Dems’ Better Governance Working Group came across when we considered this in 2007 was the impact it would have in increasing the dominance of the payroll vote in the House of Commons. Ultimately, I think David Starkey is right: we need to seperate the legislature and the executive entirely. In the short term however, we could simply get rid of the convention that ministers must also be parliamentarians. It is a nonsense in any case which has lead to the Lords being stuffed with placemen despite the fact that their Commons shadows can’t actually ask them any questions. Worried about democratic accountability? Then let them address the Commons regardless of their membership and subject appointments to parliamentary scrutiny.

I’m all for lowering the barriers to get involved in politics and introducing primaries, but let’s not kid ourselves that it will lead to any great increase in participation. If the low level of participation in US primaries (other than major contests such as the presidential nomination) doesn’t convince you, then what about the tiny level number of voters who took part in Jury Team? Opening up the selection of party leaders would be a positive step forward but for parliamentary candidates it would be little more than a figleaf. In any case, the effect of electoral reform would be to introduce a system which in effect combines the functions of both a primary and election.

Recall is problematic. Without electoral reform it would be pernicious, making MPs in marginal constituencies even more vulnerable while leaving MPs in safe seats relatively untroubled. Nick Clegg’s proposal of only allowing recall if the MP in question has been caught breaking the rules is equally problematic: who decides if they broke rules and wouldn’t a vote be little more than a formality if they were censured in such a way? Why not just go straight for a by-election.

With electoral reform however, on reflection (you’ll notice I’ve changed my mind here), I can see it working, if the recall petitions are for recalling all the MPs representing the constituency in question rather than just one of them. That way, it can’t be used simply to force out minority parties.

Finally, there is the question of party funding. There are, in my view, strong arguments for incentive-based funding systems (e.g. small donations up to £50 get matched by state support on a pound-for-pound basis, thereby encouraging parties to collect comparatively small donations from a wide base), but I am under no illusions that now is not the time to win that argument. What most certainly does need to be introduced is a cap on donations so that rich people and union chiefs can’t simply buy the system. Both Labour and the Conservatives have at various times over the past few years claimed to support this in principle but both are totally compromised by a dependency on, respectively, the unions and Lord Ashcroft’s cronies.

The Lib Dems have a window of opportunity to force this issue. As I wrote last month, the party should unilaterally impose a cap of its own. The Michael Brown story rumbles on and Clegg’s defence looks pretty thin. It is time we did something to signal that we have learned from our mistakes (and they are mistakes – I don’t care how many checks you make, you should never take millions of pounds from someone who you’ve only known a couple of months).

Anything else? Lords reform would be nice, but must take a lower priority until the Commons is sorted out first in my view (12 months ago, when the prospect of Commons reform was a distant possibility, the calculation was different). I’d still like to see us move towards agenda initiative and veto. Without a written constitution however, a full system of citizens initiative and referendum would be highly problematic. It would be mistaken though to think we can fit every reform anyone has ever wanted into this narrow window of opportunity. The good news is that if we can fix the Commons, the prospect of more democracy further down the line can only be increased.

Anoraks and PR

I’m still trying to be on my best behaviour by not commenting here on the London elections, but I can’t let this comment by Lib Dem Voice’s resident troll Laurence Boyce go unchallenged:

Please allow me to provide my own advice for London voters.

First preference: State your first preference for Mayor of London.
Second preference: State your second preference for Mayor of London.

Because it really is as simple as that.

I didn’t comment on Laurence’s previous advice on electoral politics as he was clearly on a massive wind up. After noon on 1 April, it ought to have had a “don’t feed the troll” neon sign hung above it and can be summed up thus: “me, me, me, me, me, me, me.” I don’t however question that his opposition to proportional representation is genuine. It is however one thing to oppose any electoral system that would prevent tactical voting; quite another to claim – as he has done today – that it is an irrelevance.

The May 1997 election would not have been as spectacular as it was were it not for tactical voting on an industrial scale. This isn’t the eighties (don’t be confused by Laurence’s designer stubble); tactical voting is no longer a controversial electoral tactic. All parties encourage it or discourage it according to what happens to be to their personal advantage in every election. The electorate intuitively understand this and exercise their preferences accordingly. Of course, all this negativity has a corrosive effect on our political system, but it is a product of the system not something individuals trying to make the best of a bad job ought to feel particularly guilty of. If you hate it so much, change the system, don’t whinge.

To claim then that the SV system is as simple as giving your ideal two choices a first and second preference vote is somewhere between laughably ignorant and criminally misleading. As an opponent of electoral systems that would dispense of such tactical voting, Laurence simply can’t be allowed to have it both ways.

Opponents of PR like to accuse its proponents of being anoraky. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes at an Electoral Reform Society AGM can hardly disagree, but when the debate moves beyond the merits of individual systems and instead focuses on broad principles, it is the other side who start to sound distinctly hairy palmed.

I might prefer STV as an electoral system but I’m really not personally that fussed so long as it achieved three things:
1. The overall votes cast should broadly reflected in Parliament. A minority party with 35% of the vote should not be sitting pretty on the government benches with 56% of the MPs.
2. Voters should have a choice of candidates, not just parties. I’m realistic that in most cases the electorate will simply vote on party lines but bad eggs should not be unaccountable simply because they are high up on some closed party list.
3. Voters should not be forced to choose between stating a genuine preference and having their vote count, or between voting positively for a party and voting negatively against one.

Any system which achieves those aims is fine by me and I will happily refrain from getting too bogged down into the details. Yet when I talk to opponents of PR, they bombard me with weird arguments about why Parliament should reflect the popular vote, why the public should be denied a choice of candidates (a feature of the first past the post system – which is just as much a closed list system as the one used for European Elections) and either that tactical voting is an irrelevance or some beastly thing that people should somehow be prevented from doing – and ultimately the only way to achieve that would be to outlaw any political party beyond the first two.

All those arguments are intensely complex and downright weird. They genuinely involve patiently explaining the logical equivalent of black = white and that all swans are purple. Terribly clever these fellows, far far too clever for their own good. Blessed with exceptionally flexible spines and neck muscles, they can disappear up their own sphincters on a whim. They are capable of the most obscurantist argument the collective membership of ERS can only dream of.

Asking the most hardcore electoral reformers to focus on broad principles rather than detail is an exercise in futility, but the next time some Tory calls you an “anorak” simply for believing that votes ought to count for something, ask them why and hand them a raincoat.

Finally, back to Laurence for a second, it is probably a good thing he isn’t a Londoner. A committed atheist, it is hard to see how, out of principle, he could vote for any ticket other than Unity for Peace and Socialism.