Monday, February 21, 2011

Electoral Reform

Ever since I've been old enough to vote (and possibly before) I have believed that the First Past The Post (FPTP) system of voting for Parliament was deeply flawed. In days gone by when essentially 2 parties fought general elections, it was probably not too unjust, but the 1983 election showed the flaws. The SDP-Lib alliance got over a quarter of the votes, but 3.5% of the seats on offer. It's an election usually referred to as a Conservative landslide, but in fact the two main opposition parties got 11% more of the popular vote.

The problem is what you change to. The Jenkins Commission recommended "AV+" in 1998, but the promised referendum never came. It was a system that aimed for greater proportionality, but would have required massive constituency changes and a second type of MP. The more complex STV system is said to provide a better proportional result but again requires change to multi-member constituencies.

So Alternative Vote (AV) is the only practicable choice from FPTP. It isn't perfect (what system is?) but I think it has some features that commend it. In constituencies where one party is unlikely to win, under FPTP a party's supporters are faced with tactical voting or staying at home in despair. Under AV at least they can vote for the party they actually believe in as their first preference. And candidates would need an eye on the 2nd preferences, so negative campaigning would be less effective - which would be welcome.

Oddly, one of David Cameron's points against AV was its disproportionality. In fact it's an unknown what effect it would have, as we don't really know how people's voting would be shaped by a new system. It would probably exaggerate a landslide situation, but would certainly not permit government by a party which didn't have some consensus of popular support. If Cameron really wants a proportional system, I would welcome him introducing a bill to achieve just that, but I suspect his enthusiasm would fade pretty quickly!

One factor may be that the current Conservative administration thinks it would be disadvantaged by AV, but that's not necessarily true. It all depends on the political climate at the time. In the 1980s, 2nd preferences would almost certainly have gone Lab to Lib/SDP and vice versa, but we can't guarantee that now. The 2nd preferences of LD voters may go different ways depending on whether it's a LD-Lab or LD-Con fight (and you can work out the other permutations). It seems to me that no party has necessarily anything to fear from AV; however they will need to present their case and campaign in a different way.

The main objection to other voting systems is that they are indecisive and produce unstable government. I think the most recent general election proves that nothing is certain whatever the system, so why not go for one which might actually more accurately reflect the overall preferences of the people?


Revsimmy said...

Having never in my life lived in a constituency where my vote helped to elect an MP (with the exception of one General Election when I switched allegiance for tactical reasons), I personally think that the sooner we ditch FPTP the better. I fear it may not be this time around, though.

Steve Hayes said...

For our last four elections in South Africa we've had proportional representation. Advantage: smaller parties get representation. Disadvantage: no concept of "My MP". MPs are accountable to their parties rather than to the voters.

Neil S Hamilton said...

Good balanced article Mike!

I think Steve's right though, the "My MP" concept is changed somewhat, and it means that "protest" parties who really shouldn't have a seat will end up with parliamentary representation, which is a bit daft if they were just there to prove a point.

I think we should go for a dictatorship instead - that's clearly the answer ;-)

Anonymous said...

Mike, I was going to do something like this, but yours is better so Ive just linked to it!
Hope all is well. Mark

Steve Hayes said...

I'm not sure why Neil thinks that minorities shouldn't have a voice. That is one of the big advantages of proportional representation. The problem with it is accountability being to parties rather than voters.

Mike Peatman said...

Thanks Mark! Good to hear from you too!

The plus side of AV is that it retains the idea of "my MP". However, it's not always completely proportional, which is why the "Jenkins" plan went for AV+, which had 500 constituency MPs and an additional corpus of MPs taken from party lists to make the overall representation more proportional.

The Electoral Reform Society site is pretty good at spelling out the pluses and minuses.