Electoral Systems For The UK (Part 2)

…This follows on from last week’s blog

Are these systems used in the UK?

First-past-the-post (“FPTP”) is the system that has been central to British voting in elections for many years and remains the status quo method for General Elections in the UK and local elections in England.  Alternative Vote (“AV”) is the main system used in Australia and for by-elections in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and is the proposed alternative to FPTP being proposed for UK General Elections.  Party Lists (“PL”) is used in Britain for European Elections, i.e. to elect MEPs.  Single Transferrable Vote (“STV”) is used for most elections in Northern Ireland and has been used for local elections in Scotland since 2007, as well as being the main system used in the Republic of Ireland.  STV is also the preferred system of the Electoral Reform Society.

Is it easy to understand?

Complexity is one of the arguments used to argue for the status quo.  However, I feel that it is an intellectually arrogant position to hold and which effectively says most of the electorate is too dumb to understand some of these alternative systems, so we must not use them; football league tables, betting odds, the rules of cricket, Strictly Come Dancing and how to use a mobile phone are all mysteries to me, but no-one has ever said that they should be stopped. 

From my point of view, the FPTP is undoubtedly the simplest system, but it is also a result the crudest – a truly blunt instrument.  However, I understand the rationale for AV, PL and STV and what these electoral processes are aiming for, and I can work out simple scenarios for how individual constituencies could play out, even if I would not want to work out the detailed algorithms.  Therefore, while the detail can get a bit complex, I do not think that the concepts are that difficult, and isn’t a bit of sophistication in order for such an important influence on our day-to-day lives?

Linkage from representative back to constituency

For me, this is an important one, and even though many MPs have no genuine affinity back to their constituents, it remains for me one of the crucial strengths of FPTP, and so would be of AV.  However, while I originally felt this was a make-or-break point, I now feel that it is really a matter of balance, so I would not want to see vast multi-member constituencies as in Israel where there is one constituency for the whole country nor would I want to see a closed party list where voters cannot make a choice for a particular individual, albeit we don’t really ever know that much about them in the UK anyway.  Whereas I am no longer averse to having two or three member constituencies that better reflect the political views of most of the people within a geographic area.

Are votes valued?

This question covers a number of issues, but at its heart is a very important problem – while we are all told it is important to vote, most members of the electorate believe that their vote has no real influence on which party wins the election.  This is because under FPTP the winner takes all, even if the winner gets less than 50% of the votes (in fact almost all MPs are elected on less than 40% of the vote); therefore, the views relating to the “losing votes” are discarded and their votes “wasted”.  Therefore, even if a party consistently wins 20% of the electoral votes across the country, it may get no MPs into parliament if it comes second or third in every seat.  This results in general dissatisfaction with the whole political system, but also creates many of the undesirable side effects of FPTP:

  • Small amounts of votes can have big impacts on election results, so many policies are targeted towards capturing these marginal “floating” voters rather than the greater body of public opinion, while boundary changes take on special political poignancy and can encourage “gerrymandering”;
  • Tactical voting can become the order of the day, whereby voters vote against who they dislike rather than for whom they actually want, i.e. voting becomes negative rather than being a positive choice.

Therefore, if voting is so important, it then must follow that everyone’s vote should be valued.  As a result, FPTP cannot be advocated as the most desirable system, because it ignores the majority of votes in almost all constituencies.  The questions then move on to which system best balances the need to give value to each vote, and so most voters political viewpoints, while keeping some physical link back to a geographic place.

There are many detailed points for and against individual systems, but the above are the key criteria for me, and I feel that the debate boils down to the following key questions:

  • Do the various proposed systems work? Yes
  • Can the logic of the systems be explained in relatively simple terms? Yes
  • Are most votes valued? No for FPTP, but yes for the other three
  • Is there a link from a geographic location to representative? Yes for FPTP and AV, and can be for PL and STV
  • Should we have a single member constituency or multi-member? Now this is the real question and this is where the political debate should really be, rather than on which system is best.  My own view is that we should have multi-member constituencies of three MPs which would give all parties the potential to get a seat in each constituency, so each part of the country would be worth fighting for.  More than this and you start to lose the linkage back to constituency.  But in the end it becomes a matter of individual judgment.

The big negative against PL and STV seems to be the argument about unstable governments and that you do not get a definitive result for one party.  However, my counter-arguments would be that surely it is more important to have votes that have value and are not wasted than governments that are voted in on low percentage votes of the electorate, and that the coalition in Britain at present happened under the FPTP system and it seems an eminently mature and sensible bunch of politicians.  My biggest issue with the STV and AV system is that I personally do not think that your second or third preference votes should have as big a weighting as your 1st preference, but then there follows a hair-splitting debate about by how much?

So let’s look at a practical example.  For my own benefit, I have assumed that you merge my three local constituencies and I have used the 2010 results:

2010 results for Thirsk, Skipton/Ripon and Harrogate/Knaresborough

  Thirsk/Malton Skipton/Ripon Harrogate Total
                 
Conservative     20,167 53%     27,685 51%     24,305 46%     72,157 49%
Liberal Democrat       8,886 23%     17,735 32%     23,266 44%     49,887 34%
Labour       5,169 14%       5,498 10%       3,413 6%     14,080 10%
UKIP       2,502 7%       1,909 3%       1,056 2%       5,467 4%
Liberal Democrat       1,418 4% 0% 0%       1,418 1%
BNP 0%       1,403 3%       1,094 2%       2,497 2%
Independent 0%          315 1% 0%          315 0%
Youth 0%            95 0% 0%            95 0%
Currency 0%            84 0% 0%            84 0%
      38,142 100%     54,724 100%     53,134 100%   146,000 100%

The first thing you notice are the variations in number of voters, however Thirsk & Malton was a quirk in that this constituency was more like a by-election in that voting was one month later, and so after the result of the General Election in 2010.

The second point is that while it is strongly Tory in this rural area, the Liberal Democrats do get a very good section of the electorate and are especially strong in Harrogate & Knaresborough.  So if you were to divide the enlarged constituency up to give 3 MPs, you would definitely give 1 to a Conservative and another to a Liberal Democrat, giving each one-third an MP to voice their political views, whereas currently you have 3 Conservative MPs.

The final point is what do you do about the third MP.  Now that’s where you need to get a mechanic that is fair in the distribution of the final chunk of votes.  Under STV, the balance of Conservative votes over the threshold (36,500) would be transferred to other candidates, which would go where?  There’s the rub, as they might actually all go to UKIP rather than Labour.  Under the PL system, I would have thought that you would get 2 Conservative MPs and 1 Liberal Democrat MP, but please correct me if I am wrong there.

Overall, I am pleased that I have looked in more detail at these different electoral systems as my point of view has changed.  Whereas I was an advocate of FPTP, I now feel that it is a broken system that must be changed.  However, I also think that this referendum is a waste of time, because while the sop is that this is potentially the start of changes to the electoral system, I feel that the questions being asked are wrong and do not really address the core issues.  Furthermore, I do not think that the detailed mechanics of the electoral system is actually something that should go to a referendum, rather it should be hammered out, debated and equations worked out by a committee of experts.

I think a referendum is needed, but that the question should be different, but absolutely fundamental to how Britain is governed.

All the major electoral systems have been devised and work, plus many of them are practised in the UK and other parts of the world.  Similarly, all systems have their issues, but none of them insurmountable, and while they are interesting for politicos, they are pretty boring for most people and (I believe) not crucial to the debate.  Therefore, whichever system is chosen can probably do a good job, so long as fair and sensible criteria are set for determining which system to chose.  So the electorate should not debate the intricacies of each system, but they should be asked to set the agenda for the bureaucrats.

So the question comes down to what should be the brief.  I feel that some of this has already been debated by the 1998 Jenkins Committee, which was set the following eminently sensible criteria:

  • The maintenance of a geographic link between MP and constituency
  • The need for stable government
  • The desire for broad proportionality
  • An extension of voter choice

I am not convinced by the last point as I feel that voter choice is pretty wide already, rather the issue is that, because of lack of proportionality and wasted votes, minority views do not get representation.  So I would change extension of voter choice to “minimisation of wasted votes”.

So you might ask what is there left to debate by the electorate.  Well there is one fundamental question and I feel this is the key question: 

  • “Does the electorate want multi-member constituencies, or not?”

We all want fair elections.  We all want our votes to mean something.  But the key systemic debate is should we have single or multi-member constituencies.  And while I believe multi-member constituencies would help fairness and proportionality, it would be a big change, from which would flow how best to run an election. 

A vote for single member constituencies would mean a debate between FPTP or AV, while for a multi-member system, the debate would be PL or STV.  Once you have decided on this key point, therefore, it becomes simply a matter of mechanics, so while the Electoral Reform Society prefers STV over the PL system, both work, are fair and provide proportionality, so would be better than the status quo.

My own view is for three member larger constituencies, but thereafter I am not especially concerned about whether we vote via the PL or STV system, so long as these work, which they do.  I find PL easier to understand, but am really fairly ambivalent between PL and STV.



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