Electoral ‘reform’ is back on the agenda: but do we need it?
In a major Commons statement today (10 June 2009) introducing a national debate on constitutional reform, the prime minister included the system of elections to the House of Commons in his five constitutional topics for debate and possible reform:
[L]ast year we published our review of the electoral system and there is a long-standing debate on this issue. I still believe the link between the MP and constituency is essential and that it is the constituency that is best able to hold MPs to account. We should only be prepared to propose change if there is a broad consensus in the country that it would strengthen our democracy and our politics by improving the effectiveness and legitimacy of both Government and Parliament; and by enhancing the level and quality of public representation and engagement. Mr Speaker, we will set out proposals for taking this debate forward.
The Alternative Vote
The new system beginning to emerge as front runner for Commons elections is AV — the Alternative Vote. Under AV the voter ranks all the candidates in a single-member constituency — or as many or as few of them as he wishes — in order of preference: 1, 2, 3, etc. If no candidate receives 51% of the first preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first preference votes is eliminated and his second preference votes are distributed to the rest. This process continues until one candidate has received 51% or more of the votes — his own first preference votes plus eliminated candidates’ second and third etc preference votes allocated to him. That candidate is then declared elected. It’s important to remember that AV is not a form of proportional representation (PR). There’s some dispute among the experts over whether AV is likely to produce a more proportional result than First Past the Post (FPTP) — i.e. whether the proportion of seats won under AV will be closer to the proportion of votes cast for each party. In some circumstances it’s argued that AV might actually produce a less proportional result.
In a post today (10 June 09) on Labour List, the General Secretary of the Fabian Society, Sunder Katwala, has written a persuasive case for a combination of AV for the House of Commons and some kind of PR for the House of Lords, or whatever an eventually reformed second chamber turns out to be called. Katwala includes extremely useful links to a number of other online documents describing and assessing the various systems available, including Katwala’s own Fabian Essay of autumn 2007 which argues the case for AV in greater detail. He regards it as less than ideal but the change most likely to command wide acceptance.
I can’t myself see a lot of point in AV. A candidate who fails to win 51% of the first preference votes in his constituency can’t credibly pretend that after transfers of some (not all) preference votes from other candidates he has somehow magically acquired more than 50% support when in sober fact he hasn’t — the majority of the voters actually voted for someone else. Second preference votes are manifestly not the same as first preference votes and there’s something slightly absurd about pretending that they are, by adding both kinds together in order to produce a desired result. Anyway, why transfer to the candidate with the most first preferences only the second preferences of other candidates who have been eliminated, who by definition will always be those with the least support of all? Why give special treatment and effectiveness to all the least supported candidates’ second preferences and ignore the second preferences of, say, the candidates who came second and third in the first count, were never eliminated, but failed to get elected? (At the time of the London mayoral elections, held under a simplified form of AV, I had great difficulty in convincing several friends, none of them politically illiterate, that if they were casting their first preference votes for either Livingstone or Boris Johnson, it was a waste of time recording a second preference vote for anyone else, such as the LibDem policeman, because obviously neither Ken’s nor Boris’s second preferences would ever get redistributed.)
There’s a lot to be said, at both constituency and national level, for a straightforward system under which most of the time the winner is the candidate (or the party) which has won more votes (or seats) than any other — as FPTP does. There have only been two elections since the second world war when a party winning the most votes nationally has not also won a majority of the seats in the house of commons, once benefiting the Tories and the other Labour (so swings and roundabouts…). There’s nothing especially significant about 50% in either context. Is 48% unfair but 51% somehow fine? Since 1935, not a single party has ever won 50% or more of the national vote. It can be said of every single government since the war that more people voted against it than for it. So what? Almost invariably the government won more votes than any other party and that should be good enough — and vastly preferable to any form of PR, under which the LibDems (or Labour, if it becomes the third party!) become permanent ex officio king-makers with the power to decide, by demands and threats in a private horse-trading session, which of the two biggest parties gets the keys to No. 10, along with a messy compromise policy programme forced on it by the minority party in negotiations after the polls have closed as the price for their support, a programme for which not a single voter can have voted. Katwala’s Fabian essay puts the case against PR in a nutshell: the advantage of FPTP or AV “is accountability: voters choose governments, rather than minority party leaders in some smoke-filled room having disproportionate power to decide who governs.” [Emphasis added]
The Jenkins Commission recommendations for PR
In October 1998 Lord (Roy) Jenkins, former Labour home secretary and later breakaway Social Democrat, and his colleagues, published their report and recommendations on possible changes to the electoral system for elections to the House of Commons. They proposed a complex scheme under which voters would have two votes: one under AV for a constituency MP, and another for a party top-up list that would produce an overall result of seats more nearly in proportion to votes cast. You can read the full Jenkins report here (if you have the time and the intestinal fortitude; it’s quite hard work).
Among the voices currently calling for “electoral reform” as the centrepiece of a series of mostly disconnected proposals for constitutional change, there have been suggestions that we should go back to the Jenkins report and adopt his suggested system. In my view this would be a mistake. I spelled out my reasons for this view a month after the report was published, in a commentary on my website (here). Among the principal objections to Jenkins are two, each in my view decisive: first, that it would almost always produce unstable coalition or minority governments with unpredictable compromise policy programmes for which no-one could have voted in the election; and second, that it would entail two classes of MP, one class elected in and accountable to individual constituencies and the other in effect appointed by the party machines on the basis of wider areas, different from the AV constituencies.
As I said in my commentary on Jenkins, all electoral systems have their defects and injustices: none is perfect. Any system involves a trade-off between ‘fairness‘ — ensuring that the distribution of votes is accurately (or reasonably accurately) reflected in the number of Commons seats: and pragmatism — ensuring as far as possible that most elections produce a stable government with a sufficient overall majority to put its election manifesto into effect without having to negotiate deals with other parties in order to get into and stay in office. Whether you attach more weight to stable and accountable government than to theoretical fairness in the make-up of the House of Commons, or vice versa, will always be a subjective decision. It’s common ground, even with Jenkins, that the principal function of the Commons, that which most heavily influences most individual votes at election time, is to generate and sustain a government. Personally I dislike the idea of endless coalitions in which a government which has received more electoral support than any other party is permanently at the mercy of potentially fickle and wayward minority parties (look at Israel, to quote an extreme example): not a recipe for sound (or radical) government. So I remain convinced that the alternatives to FPTP (or AV) for a government-generating chamber are worse. PR is fine for a debating chamber that doesn’t create governments, like the House of Lords.
One member of the Jenkins team, Lord Alexander, disagreed with the majority recommendation for AV, giving his reasons in a minority report, still available here. His arguments against AV seem to me a lot more persuasive than those in the majority report in favour of it. Among other things he makes the cogent point that under FPTP, whether or not a candidate gets 50% + of the votes, once elected he serves all his constituents, regardless of party — a valuable convention that would be destroyed by an STV system involving multi-member constituencies, inevitably resulting in MPs regarding themselves as serving only their own party supporters and being answerable only to them. That would surely be very retrograde. Unfortunately Lord Alexander does, however, support the Jenkins proposals for a second top-up vote to produce a form of PR.
Incidentally, we should all be campaigning against the vicious system of party lists foisted on us for European elections — more control freakery from Westminster.
It’s going to be a long and difficult national conversation!