Thursday, 13 March 2008

on electoral reform

The call for a move away from first past the post has been ongoing for almost 100 years, the 1917 all-party Speaker's Conference recommended a switch to a Single Transferable Vote system in the cities and large towns and the use of the Alternative Vote method in the counties, these proposals failed. Again in 1931, under the second Labour government, a bill introducing AV got through the House of Commons but was rejected in the Lords.

Returning to more recent history after the 1983 election in which the Liberal Democrats (then Liberal-SDP Alliance) polled only 675,985 votes behind the Labour Party but received 186 fewer seats, the demand for PR became one of the central planks of the party. In 1997 fearing a hung parliament Tony Blair suggested introducing proportional representation as a fig leaf for Liberal Democrat support in the event of such a hung parliament. Of course, the 1997 election was a Labour landslide and instead Blair commissioned Roy Jenkins to devise a new system that would “take into account four not entirely compatible 'requirements'. They were (i) broad proportionality; (ii) the need for stable government; (iii) an extension of voter choice; and (iv) the maintenance of a link between MPs and geographical constituencies.The system he created was AV +.

The issue with first past the post is the disparity between choice and outcome. An MP can get elected with less than 50% of his constituents support (as low as 18.4% in 2005, of constituents eligible to vote). In its report the Jenkins Commission also highlighted the 1951 election where Conservatives “although polling 250,000 less votes than Labour, won a small overall majority of 17 seats and skilfully built 13 years of power on this slender base. The irony of that result for Labour was that in terms of crosses on ballot papers it was their best result ever. Both in absolute numbers and percentage of the votes cast they did better than they had ever done before, or have ever done since - better than in 1945, better than in 1997 - and yet they lost.

First past the post therefore, is not an ideal system for a national election as it doesn’t represent the choice of the country, it represents the choice of several locally contested elections of which it is possible to win by a simple majority. To use an extreme example, a constituency contested by 100 candidates can be won by achieving 2% of the vote (and even more, this doesn’t have to be all the constituents eligible to vote), if this is then replicated across the 324 seats needed to win a simple majority in the House of Commons, then a government could win a majority in the House on only 2% of the vote nationally. An extreme example, I know.

A system of proportional representation exists in Scotland and Wales for the Parliament and Assembly respectively and for elections to the London Assembly. Focusing on the Scottish elections, If in 2007 the Scottish Parliament had been elected using a first past the post system only, based on constituency seats (of which there are 73), Labour would have won a majority (37 seats) on 32.2% of the vote (the SNP with only 21 seats had 32.9% of the vote, more than Labour). 

32.2% of the vote equates to roughly 24 of the 73 constituency seats on percentages. Using the proportional system that exists in Scotland (at a regional level), parties are penalised for already winning constituency seats within that region and as a result the SNP won 26 additional seats to Labour's 9. Thus winning the election on an average of 32% of the vote (regional and constituency vote combined) to Labour’s 31%, The SNP of course won 47 seats to Labour’s 46 (out of 129), a far more proportional reflection of voter preferene.
Summary with lots of numbers:

If contested on FPTP Constituencies only:
Labour – 37 seats (51% of the seats) – 32.2% of the vote
SNP – 21 (29% of the seats) – 32.9% of the vote
With Additional Members using the D’Hondt method of proportional allocation
Labour – 46 seats (36.2% of the seats) - ~31% of the vote
SNP – 47 seats (37% of the seats) - ~32% of the vote
Not perfect, but better.

The Liberal Democrat policy is to campaign for the introduction of the Single Transferable Vote, I personally don’t have a problem with that and AV+ would be a step in the right direction to the party receiving its fair share of the vote. Today’s announcement by Nick that he wants the number of MPs reduced seems to quash the party ever campaigning for AV+ in the near future, as AV+ may actually need a slight increase in the number of MPs to create new regional MPs alongside constituency MPs. Of course STV would require larger constituencies with more than one MP, hence no need for as many MPs.

The reason I currently choose AV+ over STV is because STV only provides proportionality in the constituency, whereas AV+ would provide greater proportionality across regions/the country.

I welcome your thoughts.

Lovely Beeb Graphics
Jenkins Commission Report
Explanation of Voting Systems
Result of Scottish Parliament Elections


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