Europe, UK, Politics

Electoral Reform in the UK

Let us start with the assumption that the case for an Electoral Reform has been made. Anyone who denies that now can surely only be doing so because they have a vested interest in the status quo. I will leave you, dear reader, to work out who that might be.

Back in 2011, the UK had a referendum on electoral reform. It was rejected. So why do we need to do anything about it now? Well, the 2011 referendum was not about proportional representation (PR); rather it was about a system called AV (alternative vote). AV is not a proportional system. It could produce a result which is more proportional; however, it could also in some circumstances produce a less proportional result. It might serve a third party well (as the Lib Dems were in 2011), but is unlikely to be of much help to a fifth party (for example, the Greens). It does keep the idea of a constituency MP who is directly answerable to his or her electors, but that MP may have received fewer “first” votes than one or more of the losing candidates. Tactical voting would have become even more complex than it is today. AV works wonderfully where there is only one position up for grabs, such as in the Labour leadership election, but it is not suitable for an assembly with multiple representatives, such as the House of Commons. In short, it was a pig’s ear, designed for failure by a Tory party keen to do just enough to placate their coalition partners, and no more.

The Electoral Reform Society

The Electoral Reform Society’s favoured option is Single Transferrable Vote (STV). I do not think this system is right for the UK either; my reasons for this are the possibility for confusion, and tactical voting, which I believe any system we adopt should try to minimise, as well as the fact that it is not completely proportional, as borne out by the ERS’ own figures.

I favour an additional member system, whereby a constituency MP is elected just as at present, and a separate party vote is also made. Then a regional list is used to attempt to make each party’s representation as close as possible within that region to the votes cast for parties. This is the system used for Wales and Scotland assemblies.

The mathematics behind this was derived by a Belgian mathematician named Victor D’Hondt in the 19th century, who gives his name to the method. It is not complicated to understand (a good GCSE maths student should be able to follow it), and simply boils down to this: Within a region, the MPs returned will reflect the votes cast for each party as closely as possible.

Benefits of an Electoral Reform

As well as being completely proportional (more so than STV), according to the ERS’ own figures, this system has some huge advantages; no other system provides all of these.

Advantage 1: Constituency MP is maintained. Constituencies may need to be enlargened slightly (perhaps by up to 50% given the current split between constituency and region in Wales and Scotland), but the local MP will still be local.

Advantage 2: If you really don’t get on with your constituency MP, you have regional MPs you can turn to for help. For example, if your issue regards women’s rights, and your constituency MP is a man, you could go to a woman on the regional list if you felt more comfortable about this.

Advantage 3: Party lists for the region can be used by parties to ensure that prominent politicians, who they feel are too big an asset to the party to lose, can be found relatively “safe” seats. This could, for example, be used for party leaders, who inevitably will not have so much time for constituency affairs as most MPs. This does not mean that MPs elected in this way would not be accountable; if the party is stupid enough to put an unpopular candidate on their list, people in that region can simply not vote for the party, and they would.

Advantage 4: You get to vote for the MP you prefer, regardless of party! Counter-intuitive as this sounds, this is a wonderful feature of the system. You vote for your favourite MP, and then for your preferred party. And you can guarantee (the minor issue of region size and size of list notwithstanding) that the share of MPs returned for your party will not be affected by the fact that you voted for someone else for your local MP. For example, if you want to vote Liberal Democrat, but your local candidate for the Tory party seems far more competent, then vote for the tory candidate for your constituency, and Liberal Democrat for the party. You will have done your party no damage. How good is that?

Advantage 5: Following on from advantage 4, this system frees us from having to have a party constituency MP at all. If you can vote for who you like at constituency level, then why not an independent? Although this will have a slight effect on the party MPs returned from your constituency, it is just as likely to mean one less MP for your enemy as it is for your own party. And this advantage should be something that is welcomed by all who dislike party politics.

Would an Electoral Reform Make Sense

I believe the General Election Report by the ERS has misrepresented this system; it mentions problems with it that simply do not exist if it is run in the way currently done in Scotland and Wales. Their claim that such a system “puts power in the hands of parties and distances MPs from voters” is demonstrably not true.

Furthermore, “An Alternative Member System,” [sic: I take this to be a rather sloppy mistake for such an important report, where “Additional Member System” was intended] incorporating aspects of this system and combining it with FPTP, could alleviate some of these problems, but equally it could also incorporate the negative aspects of both these systems” is also not defended. The only real negative of FPTP is the biggie: unfairness. This is more fully addressed than by any other system that is currently being widely mentioned. I see only advantages in a regional list (additional member system), as in advantages 2 and 3 above.

I am concerned that the agenda for electoral reform is being set by people who are advocating a certain form of PR, and I do not think it is the optional solution. However, I think the time for discussion of the correct method is once we have a government who is ready to implement it. This may not be so many years away, but let’s not bias the discussion now, before we have even reached that point.