Posts Tagged ‘voting reform’

I Just Don’t Get Proportional Representation

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

As we’re potentially heading for a hung parliament or a very closely matched parliament, I wanted in my mind to consider the idea of proportional representation as it is something that’s going to be on the table in any post-election discussions that involve the Liberal Democrats.  As I see it, the Liberal Democrats want proportional representation as they perceive it to be a fairer way to allocate power based on the proportions of votes received by each party, while the Conservatives are against it and want to stay with the first-past-the-post system as (arguably) they do better under that voting method; the Labour Party seems to be fudging their position as they are currently pro first-past-the-post but have been against it in the past.  This suggests that Labour would deal on it, so the possibility of a referendum or legislation on voting reform must rank very high.

Now in my mind, I see that first-past-the-post is a simple and logical concept.  You divide the country up into small parcels then get each parcel to vote for who they want to represent their interests politically; the smaller the constituency or parcel gets the more representative the elected person is of the wishes of the constituency until you get down to a constituency of 1 person who represents themselves.  What’s good about this system is that the constituents get who they vote for and in return the MP must look after the interests of the constituents firstly to ensure re-election and secondly as in the UK you vote for MPs and not for governments or prime ministers.  I know that most people believe that we vote for political parties and prime ministers but that’s actually not really the case as we’re electing our representative, i.e. MP, in the national parliament.

However, the third party (i.e. Liberal Democrats) argue that this is unfair as the number of MPs does not correlate back to the percentage shares of the vote.  This is because the Liberal Democrats tend to come second everywhere and so get a relatively high overall vote but don’t win comparatively many constituencies.  My quick analysis of the 2005 election is in the table below:

  First past post Seats Overall votes
Labour 55.1% 356 35.3%
Conservative 30.7% 198 32.3%
Liberal Democrats 9.6% 62 22.1%
Others 4.6% 30 10.3%
Total 100.0% 646 100.0%

So by going for an extreme version of proportional representation as you get in Israel, where there is one constituency for the whole country and then the vote is apportioned by share of total vote, the Liberal Democrats and the other parties would double their MPs within the Houses of Parliament.  The downside of this approach is that you allow the extreme parties to have positions in the corridors of power, as well as the more hippy parties like the Greens, so you get the big parties and the rough, smooth and cuddly of the smaller parties.  Also, you completely lose any linkage between voters and their representatives with your local MP being chosen from a central list – in my mind, this would be like having someone from Cardiff representing Harrogate or in an imaginary European Election having a Greek MEP looking after the Yorkshire and Humber Region.

As a consequence, parliamentarians have invented more complex versions of proportional representation that involves the idea of first preference votes where after voting for your initial number one choice the prospective candidate with the lowest score is eliminated and his/her votes reallocated to the next choice candidate on those ballot papers and so on until one candidate gets 50%.  This just seems to me to be a case of people being too clever for their own good in trying to slice and dice the voting system to get an answer that they want, rather than really meeting the needs of the people – a triumph of bureaucrats and the political class over normal people, the hoi polloi.

Then there’s the maths.  We all have been explained the iniquity of first-past-the-post versus proportional systems as in the table above.  However, there are mathematical issues with all proportional voting systems – if you read this week’s New Scientist, there is a good mathematical analysis of the voting system at    The key conundrum is that it is impossible to allocate a whole number of seats in exact proportion to a larger population, and so it is possible that, as you increase the total number of seats available, it will actually reduce the relative representation of individual political parties even when the population is unchanged.  In the end, none of the maths of any of the systems actually stacks up completely, so it simply comes down to your personal judgement about each voting system rather than anything to do with fairness or maths, i.e. no voting system is actually completely fair or perfect for running a country and we as citizens just have to live with whatever are the results that each election throws up –

“So we are left to make the best of a bad job. Some less fair systems produce governments with enough power to actually do things, though most voters may disapprove; some fairer systems spread power so thinly that any attempt at government descends into partisan infighting. Crunching the numbers can help, but deciding which is the lesser of the two evils is ultimately a matter not for mathematics, but for human judgement. (Source: New Scientist with above Internet reference)”

The way I have come up with to characterise the question is via a football team.  Imagine that you are to select a regional team to represent where you live, so I am looking for a team to represent the North East and I can pick people from Newcastle United (obviously the best, but I’m not biased), Sunderland and Middlesborough.  Now for simplicity’s sake, we have 1 player from each team for each position and there are 100 people who will decide on the team we pick to represent the North East versus a team from London, picked from Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs.  Each voter has to rank secretly each player as their first, second and third choice.  Now the way, they pick them is as follows:

Position First choice Second choice Third choice
1 Newcastle Middlesborough Sunderland
2 Newcastle Middlesborough Sunderland
3 Newcastle Middlesborough Sunderland
4 Newcastle Middlesborough Sunderland
5 Newcastle Middlesborough Sunderland
6 Newcastle Middlesborough Sunderland
7 Sunderland Middlesborough Newcastle
8 Sunderland Middlesborough Newcastle
9 Sunderland Middlesborough Newcastle
10 Sunderland Middlesborough Newcastle
11 Sunderland Middlesborough Newcastle
  Newcastle/1st Middlesborough/2nd Sunderland/3rd
Overall vote 45% 35% 20%

Under first-past-the-post, you pick the the team based on the First Choice, which is a mix of Newcastle and Sunderland with a Newcastle Captain.  Under first preference choice, you would pick a team of all Middlesborough players with a first preference vote of 55% (i.e. 2nd column vote + 3rd column vote), and under proportional representation you get 5 Newcastle players, 4 Middlesborough players and 2 Sunderland players. but note that you really are after them in order 4.95 : 3.85 : 2.2, but people and positions do not divide up into neat integers.  In fact, true proportional representation is weirder and you have to vote (in this case) for the team you want but without knowing the players, so in the end you just vote partially, i.e. I vote for Newcastle etc, and then the players are selected from a list that has the top Newcastle players, top Sunderland players and so on in order of preference, so you end up with a team of perhaps 7 forwards, 2 goalkeepers and 2 midfielders, which wouldn’t be much cop. 

Clearly you should go for a team of the best players and then really choose the best captain, so first-past-the-post is the right system while the other two are fraught with problems.  Not least of these issues is which players do you actually choose to represent you after you know that you need to squeeze them in to accomodate the voting quirks.

Now this issue of who represents the constituents is a big one for me.  There is nothing I hate more than to have a centrally chosen candidate foisted on me – I will always choose a local candidate over a centrally chosen candidate or will abstain from voting.  I want someone who knows and cares about the area, an ex-councillor is ideal; someone who will actually come back to the constituency and care about his/her constituents whatever the flavour of political party.  Our MP used to be Phil Willis of the Liberal Democrats and he was ideal – ex local teacher, ex councillor and then put up against Norman Lamont of the Conservatives, who lost resoundingly; under these so-called fairer voting systems Norman Lamont would have won. 

A proportional respresentation system will give you people you don’t know or want to represent you as your MP, plus you’ll never get rid of the leaders or inner cabals, because however the percentage votes are cast you will always get the senior party candidates being given their seats first and then the favoured central party people second, so it is the new blood and interesting non-standard candidates that will not be given seats.  In the end, the candidates will all be London groomed, party groomed and all the mavericks and free thinkers refused seats, so your politics will become greyer and unchanging except for an overhyped moving of the political deckchairs. 

What first-past-the-post gives you is candidates that need to look after their constituents and the chance for us – the electors – to kick them out (especially with changes expected to be put into place after the election) – every election giants are felled by their constituents and this election will see many political giants banished to the wilderness of the real world, or Europe, or the House of Lords.  Under proportional representation these political heavyweights cannot be easily removed, so you ossify a political oligarchy into place.  It is the crude cruelty of first-past-the-post that professional politicians hate as it creates a sort of lottery where the electors can punish sitting MPs and remove them, while political leaders like to be able to plan ahead and know that their key MPs are guaranteed to win, which is what true proportional representation does and so to a lesser extent does the first preference system.

Finally, while the politicians kid themselves that it is the political system that’s the issue, I think it’s the policies and the parties.  In the end, as a elector, I don’t like everything about every party, but rather bits and pieces of policies from each party.  So I like the Liberal Democrats over all, but believe in nuclear energy being important, I like a nuclear deterrent of some sort and hate proportional representation, while I am intrigued by the potential of genetically engineered crops; I like much of Labour’s policies but in the end I believe that an individual should be free and able to chose to keep most of what he/she earns to spend as they wish and then to pass on to future generations, with the individual and family coming way before the state; for the Conservatives, I like their starting point of individuals and families first then the state, but I hate their immigration policies as I come from a family that fled from Denmark from the invading Germans in the 1850s and I don’t know what this Big Society idea is really all about.  My ideal would be a patchwork party that doesn’t exist and I am not convinced that voting reform will create this fictional party, because my views on policies are not up for negotiation.

In the end, if it ain’t broke then don’t change it, so I think it’s best to leave the current system alone.  If the politicians do want to fiddle with our political system, then they must not just change the basic electoral system but they should look at the whole system of governance in the UK in its totality, so they must look at the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the Council Systems and the European Parliaments, including the Council of Ministers (all curently unelected), which of course they won’t do – will they?