A Fair Voting System At Last?

Sid Cumberland

Sid Cumberland

Suddenly, proportional representation is back in the news. It’s always been a topic for heated (and sometimes arcane) debate when Liberal Democrats meet, but now it’s being proposed by government ministers (and ruled out by David Cameron).

Labour’s 1997 manifesto promised a referendum on PR, but Tony Blair’s majority was so huge that he was able to kick Roy Jenkins’ report on parliamentary reform into the long grass. Governments are always reluctant to change the system which has given them victory.

But the row over our MPs’ expenses has thrown everything up in the air. There is a feeling that more has to be done than simply for MPs to say they’re sorry, and for a few dozen of them to say they won’t stand again at the next election. We need to take apart the system which has brought Westminster to the brink of collapse, and build something new – a democratic structure which will be fair and transparent, which will enable voters to trust their MPs once more.


What is wrong with the old system?

There are several drawbacks to the system we currently use for choosing our MPs and our government.

One has been highlighted by the expenses scandal: in many seats, MPs, once selected by their local party and elected by local voters, pretty well have a job for life. This leads to complacency and lack of accountability, with results we have seen in the past few weeks.

Another problem with our first-past-the-post electoral system is that is doesn’t cope very well with more than two parties – by which I mean it produces results which don’t necessarily reflect the wishes of the electorate as a whole. If you only have two candidates, then voters can choose between them fairly straightforwardly, and the one with a simple majority wins (though we should note that even in this case the national government may not represent the wishes of the whole populace – it would be quite possible for a government to have more MPs than their opponents with fewer votes).

When we start adding third or fourth or fifth parties into the mix, things get more complicated. Imagine the following scenario: four candidates stand for election in a constituency, and votes are cast as follows: Smarty Party 29%, Arty Party 26%, Hearty Party 25%, and Karate Party 20%. Under our current system the Smarty Party win, having more votes than any other party. But – fewer than one in three voters supports them, and the other two out of three electors voted for someone other than the winner.

If this result was repeated across the country, the Smarty Party would get 100% of the seats with only 29% of the votes, leaving more than two-thirds of the electorate without a voice in parliament. Even if the Smarties and the Arties got half the seats each, that would still leave the Hearties and Karates unrepresented – despite their 45% of the votes.

Here’s a real-life example from Burnley, which has just elected a BNP councillor for Lancashire County Council (June 2009). The BNP won 30.7% of the vote in Padiham and Burnley West. Labour got 25.4%, the Lib Dems 24.6%, and the Conservatives 19.3%.

I wonder how the 69.3% of people who voted for a party other than the BNP feel now that their sole representative at county council level is a BNP member? One of the weaknesses of the current FPTP system is that it is very difficult to avoid the vote-splitting that has gone on in this ward, allowing a candidate to win who may be opposed by the vast majority of other voters.

The BNP has won two more county council seats – in each case with the backing of even fewer voters than in Burnley. They won in Hertfordshire with 29.2% of the vote, and in Leicestershire with 27.7%.

In the last election, in 2005, more than six out of ten of us voted against Labour, but they got a massive majority in the House of Commons (35% of the vote, 55% of the seats). This is largely the result of the increasing number of other parties – the Lib Dems, the Greens, and the ever-increasing number of anti-Europe parties.

In 1951, Clement Attlee’s Labour Party polled nearly a quarter of a million votes more than Churchill’s Conservatives, but the distortions allowed by the FPTP system saw Churchill form the government having won 321 seats to Attlee’s 295. It’s also worth noting that the two main parties won 93% of the vote between them. In 2005 they won just under 68%.

“Back in the 1960s one third of all MPs were elected by the vote of a majority of the electorate of their constituency. Yet today the first-past-the-post system cannot handle the increasing pluralism of British opinion. In 2001 not a single MP was elected with a majority of the electorate in their constituency.” (Robin Cook 2003)


Which form of PR?

There are many different forms of voting, and opponents of change here frequently use the more outlandish ones as examples of why we should stick with what we’ve got.

Many countries use a list system. Rival political parties compile lists of candidates, the voters vote for their preferred party, and seats are allocated in proportion to the vote received. Sometimes there is a threshold below which votes are disregarded, and sometimes lists are open, meaning that voters can express a preference between candidates of their favoured party. The most extreme version of the list system is Israel, where the whole country is treated as a single electoral division. (This is what enables small extremist parties to wield such power in the Knesset – we should note that no one proposes a system like this for Westminster.)

The biggest drawback with list systems is that the parties control who gets onto the lists, and this gives them power at the expense of the electors.

The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and the Greater London Assembly all use a system known as the Additional Member System (AMS). Most members are elected by First-Past-The-Post, with a top-up from closed lists to give rough proportionality. The proportionality is a good thing – but this system creates two classes of representative – those with a constituency and those without. And again, the political parties control the lists.

Another system is the Alternative Vote (AV). In this system, the voter gets to rank the candidates in order of preference (instead of simply marking X by their preferred candidate). If a candidate gets a majority of the votes, they are elected. If no one has a majority, the second-preference votes of the lowest-ranking candidate are redistributed, a process which continues until someone gets an overall majority.

The biggest problem with AV is that it is not proportional – indeed, it can be less proportional than FPTP. (It has been calculated that in 1997 Labour’s already huge landslide majority of 169 would has risen to 245 using AV, while the Conservatives’ total would have fallen from 165 to 96.)

The system preferred by the Liberal Democrats is the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies. Each voter gets one vote, which can transfer from their first-preference to their second-preference and so on, as necessary. Candidates don’t need a majority of votes to be elected, just a known ‘quota’, or share of the votes, determined by the size of the electorate and the number of positions to be filled.

If your preferred candidate has no chance of being elected or has enough votes already, your vote is transferred to another candidate in accordance with your instructions. STV thus ensures that very few votes are wasted, unlike other systems, especially First-Past-the-Post.

The Jenkins report says of STV:


“It is a system which has several substantial advantages. It maximises voter choice, giving the elector power to express preference not only between parties but between different candidates of the same party. It achieves a significantly greater degree of proportionality. It avoids the problem of having two classes of member, as is the case with the Additional Member System. It also avoids the likelihood of fostering a proliferation of small splinter parties, and does this without the need for setting any arbitrary threshold. It has long worked with on the whole beneficial results in the Republic of Ireland (as we have seen), a country which had previously shared at least a part of the British parliamentary tradition. It has also just produced a clear cut change of government in Malta. And STV is in addition the system which commands the enthusiastic support of most of those who have devoted their minds and their energies to the cause of electoral reform.”

One might wonder why, with such glowing report, Jenkins did not go for STV. As it happens, he judged that it was ‘too much of a leap’ for us; he was also put off by problems with geographical representation in the less densely populated areas of the country. I must say that given the strengths of STV, neither of those caveats particularly worries me. In the current climate, when people are so angry with the behaviour of their elected representatives, a leap like this may be necessary.

One of the big advantages of STV is that we could implement it without re-drawing parliamentary boundaries – we would simply need to group constituencies into fives or sixes. (Some people suggest that we should have AV in a few single seats in the Scottish highlands, just because they are already so large, being sparsely populated.)

Pros, cons and red herrings

One of the best arguments for STV is that it will make Westminster look more like the rest of the country. The current system has given us a House of Commons where the typical MP is a middle-aged, middle-class, white male. Any party which put up a slate of half-a-dozen identikit candidates for election would suffer for that in the polls. We’d be able to choose more female candidates, more young candidates, along with candidates from minority groups.

Any time PR is mentioned, a host of objections will be raised – some of them genuine, most the result of rumour, lazy thinking or ignorance.

It is suggested that PR will lead to ‘dubious coalitions and weak leadership’, often with reference to Israel and Italy. When I think of dubious coalitions and weak leadership, I think of the dying days of John Major’s second administration (elected by the old FPTP system). Major did his best – but he was trying to hold together a fractious coalition of pro- and anti-Europeans in the Tory party, doing behind-the-scenes deals with the dozen or so Ulster Unionists to hang on to power.

FPTP favours a two-party system – and inevitably those parties will tend to be coalitions – for example, both Labour and Conservative parties have pro- and anti-European factions. But the ballot paper doesn’t allow you a choice – you can take the candidate or leave them. This reduces voter choice.

In any case, I happen to believe that strong leadership is not all it’s cracked up to be. Look at Italy for a good example – would you want Berlusconi as UK PM throwing his weight around, controlling the popular media?

And it was ‘strong leadership’ which allowed Tony Blair to lead us into an unjustified invasion of Iraq (in 2001 he had a majority of 167 seats with 40.7% of the vote).

Mr Cameron meanwhile rejects any change from the current first-past-the-post system. “Proportional representation takes power away from the man and woman in the street and hands it to the political elites,” he says. “Instead of voters choosing their government on the basis of the manifestos put before them in an election, party managers would choose a government on the basis of secret backroom deals. How is that going to deliver the transparency and trust we need?”

There speaks a man who expects to gain significant personal and party advantage by sticking to the old system. And a man who really doesn’t get the idea of PR. Does he really think our current system has delivered trust and transparency? Is he not aware that the selection of candidates by local parties effectively renders voters powerless to make real choices? Does he believe that all our near neighbours have less effective democracies than we do, based on ‘secret backroom deals’? The reality is that in other European countries the parties make clear what is, or is not, negotiable in their manifestos, and the people vote accordingly. Only where there is consensus (which implies majority agreement by the electorate) are major policy changes implemented – unlike in the UK, where a government with a third of the popular vote has a big enough majority in the House of Commons to push through any legislation it fancies.

It’s also interesting to note that Cameron does not propose to give us any say in the matter – he’s decided PR is no good, and he’s the boss. One man, one vote – he’s the man, and he’s got the vote. Is that how it works?

An opinion poll in the Independent shows considerable public support for PR:

“Some 69 per cent of people support the introduction of proportional representation (PR), with 22 per cent opposed to it. Although the Tories oppose electoral reform, 63 per cent of people who support the party back PR, as well as 67 per cent of Labour supporters and 78 per cent of Liberal Democrat supporters.” (2.6.2009)

Parliament has considered switching to PR before – back in 1917 the House of Commons voted in favour of using STV in a third of UK constituencies and AV in the rest – but they were thwarted by the House of Lords, which rejected the plan five times, and no party since has had the will to undertake this change again. I wonder if the time has come for our elected representatives to try again? After all, 92 years is a long time to wait …


Sid Cumberland Rayleigh Liberal Democrats May 2009

Two interesting articles here and here.


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