Change in the electoral system isn’t necessarily ‘reform’
A new post on LabourList provides a useful summary of the various alternatives to our current system of First Past the Post (FPTP) for elections to the house of commons currently being hawked around in much of the vaguely left-of-centre press, especially in the Guardian and the Observer. Polly Toynbee in particular seems quite unable to write a column without including a commercial for Proportional Representation. However, the advantages and drawbacks of each of the systems discussed in LabourList seem to me (and to at least one other reader of LabourList who has commented on it) to be somewhat skewed in favour of a change in the electoral system, over-stating some of the arguments in favour and omitting some of those against.
I have appended the following rather lengthy comment to the LabourList post in an effort, probably doomed, to help correct any imbalance. This can usefully be read, if anyone’s interested, in conjunction with what I have written previously on the subject:
This otherwise useful summary of the various options omits any mention of a (to my mind) crippling defect in all the systems which involve transferring votes: in AV, the only votes that get to be transferred are the second preferences of those whose first preference went to a candidate who has been eliminated (because he/she has come bottom of the list at the first or subsequent recount). In many (most?) cases, the candidates who come bottom of the poll and are eliminated in the early counts are frivolous egotists and exhibitionists, other weirdos, or candidates of far-out extremist parties or causes. It’s not clear why those who give such no-hoper candidates their first preference votes should have their second preferences given so much more weight in the eventual result than those who gave their first preference votes to mainstream candidates, and whose second preferences will never even be counted if their candidate is never eliminated. Votes cast are thus treated unequally, those for eliminated candidates given more weight (by virtue of the redistribution of their second preferences) than those cast for candidates not eliminated. This hardly qualifies as ‘fair’. The same unequal weight objection applies, mutatis mutandis, to the Single Transferable Vote system.
There are in addition serious drawbacks to having more than one MP for each constituency (as STV would entail), notably that it breaks the invaluable convention that a single MP, once elected, represents the interests of all his constituents, not just those who voted for him (or her).
There is also the obvious illogicality in all preference vote redistribution systems of pretending that first and second (or even third) preference votes are of equal weight, simply in order to be able to claim that the winning candidate has had the ‘support’ of the majority of the votes cast, whereas (unless he or she won more than 50% of the votes at the first count, in which case no second preferences need to be redistributed other than to the other candidates in multi-member constituencies) it’s obvious that on the first preference count, which is the only one that accurately reflects voter choice, a majority of the votes were actually cast against the eventual winner. The fact is that nationally, and in most individual constituencies, no single party ever commands the support of 50% or more of the electorate, and this is inevitably reflected in votes cast at elections. Fiddling around with redistributions of votes from one candidate to another can’t magically transform this reality into an apparent overall majority for a particular candidate. A voter who has cast a first preference vote for candidate A can’t meaningfully be said to have voted ‘for’ candidate B, even if B is eventually given his second preference vote when preferences are redistributed. Thus the principal argument generally advanced in favour of redistribution systems such as AV and STV, namely that they ensure that every MP has had the support of a majority of the votes cast in the relevant constituency, is bogus.
The objections to any party list system, an essential element in the horrendous proposals by Roy Jenkins and his Commission, are obvious. They put even more power into the hands of the party apparatchiks than they already have, enabling them alone to decide which politicians are included in the list and which are excluded from it. Guess which independent-minded, maverick members of each party’s awkward squad are going to make it onto the list! The electorate has no say in the matter, even if the list is an ‘open’ one in which voters are allowed to express preferences as between the various names on the party list. This objectionable system is one of the many reasons for the abysmal turnout at elections in the UK to the European parliament, conducted inexplicably under the party list system. The last thing we should want is to introduce it as part of the system for electing members of the house of commons, and thus for electing governments.
But above all the objections to any system that will always deliver coalition governments (as true PR always will) are surely decisive. It will always empower a party which has won fewer seats and votes than either of the two main parties to decide which of those two main parties is to get the keys to No. 10 Downing Street. Both the parties which come in first and second will have to bargain, after the voting has finished, with the minor parties in order to negotiate changes or additions to their election manifestos sufficient to guarantee enough support from one or more of the minority parties to secure a majority for the coalition (whether formal or informal) in the house of commons. Thus the government taking office will have a programme that has been drawn up or finalised only after the election has taken place and for which not a single voter can have voted. The majority partner in the resulting coalition is then permanently at the mercy of its minority partner(s), who can bring the government down at any time, on a whim or following a personality clash, and put the other main party into office instead, without a single voter having any say in the change of government. It’s no good saying this doesn’t happen in practice: it has happened at least once in Germany since the war and is a permanent feature of the system in Israel, where moderate centrist governments are constantly held to ransom by right-wing extremist minority parties on whom they depend for their continuing majority support in parliament.
Finally, a change in the present electoral system (tendentiously referred to as ‘electoral reform’!) is far too momentous a constitutional change to be introduced, or even to be submitted to a national referendum, without the broad agreement of all the main parties across the political spectrum. It certainly should not be imposed by one party on the rest without their agreement, for the temporary political advantage of the party in power. If a referendum is to be held, it should be preceded by a lengthy period of consultation and information in which the pros and cons, especially the cons, of each of the options can be extensively debated and publicised. Simply to ask if one is in favour of electoral ‘reform’ is almost to guarantee a Yes vote, and that’s liable to land us in an even worse mess than we’re in already.
It’s easy to pick holes in First Past the Post, but few commentators in the current febrile atmosphere seem to be willing to point out the even bigger holes in every one of the alternatives. As Churchill said of democracy, FPTP is a terrible system; it’s just that all the others are even worse.
Apologies for the length of this.