Well, that’s over. What’s ‘that’, I hear you cry? Ah, well, ‘that’ was the referendum last week in which the voters in the U. of K. were invited to decide whether they’d like to elect members of parliament in the way they do now, or by the Alternative Vote system. The voters they have spoke – they voted by around two to one to keep the system we have now. And thank goodness for that, say
all some most of us.
I should clarify, for those who don’t live in the U. of K. (Thinks – if Dr. C. E. of Vancouver can do this for Canada, I can do this for the U. of K.).
At the moment, the U. of K. is divided into six-hundred-ish parliamentary constituencies. A number of candidates stand in each constituency, and the candidate who gets the most votes, wins, and represents the constituency in parliament. Voters are entitled to vote for one candidate each, by marking a cross against his (or her) name on the ballot paper.
It’s done us well for an awfully long time, and it’s easy to understand. It’s often seen as a ‘race’, rather like a caucus race, and is known therefore as the ‘first past the post’ system, or FPTP. (Note for molecular biologists – no phosphorylation is implied by this abbreviation. Glad I could clear that one up).
The alternative (thinks: when I see the word ‘alternative’ I immediately become suspicious) we were offered was called the Alternative Vote, or AV, also known as Instant-Runoff, which reminds me of overflowing septic tanks more than the democratic process. But I digress. It’s explained pretty well here.
In the AV system, there are still six-hundred-ish constituencies, with one representative for each. Voters vote for whomsoever they want, but rather than just voting for their favourite, they can vote for as many candidates as appear on the list, in order of preference.
At the moment, under FPTP, a ballot paper in the constituency of Shagham Roughley By The Sea might look like this
Griselda Smith (Sensible Party)
Hiram Rumbletum (Silly Party)
Tarquin Q. Walrustitty (Very Silly Party) ………………………. X
Richard P. Grant (Campaign to Release Calcium from Intracellular Stores)
Miasmus Cringeworthy (Liberal Democrats)
As you can see, the voter has put his (or her) cross against the candidate they like best. In the AV system, the voter ranks the candidates in order of preference, with ’1′ being the favourite, as follows. The voter should vote for at least one candidate, but doesn’t have to vote for all of them.
Griselda Smith (Sensible Party) …………………………………. 4
Hiram Rumbletum (Silly Party) …………………………………. 3
Tarquin Q. Walrustitty (Very Silly Party) ………………….. 1
Richard P. Grant (Campaign to Release Calcium from Intracellular Stores) ……………………………………………………2
Miasmus Cringeworthy (Liberal Democrats)………………
As you can see, this voter wants Tarquin Q. Walrustitty to win, but if he doesn’t, then he (or she) should like the vote to go to Richard P. Grant, and if Richard P. Grant doesn’t win … well, you get the picture.
The problem with the FPTP system (which is what we have now, for those already paddling on the shore of the Ocean of Confusion) is that if more than two candidates stand, a candidate can be elected on a minority (fewer than half) of the votes cast. This seems unfair, as the winner was not in fact elected by even a simple majority of the voters. (Note: when I see the words ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ I immediately become suspicious: the word ‘funfair’, on the other hand, promises excitement). This is what the AV system is designed to fix. In AV, when the votes are counted, any candidate who gets more than half the votes cast is elected. If that doesn’t happen, the candidate with the fewest number of votes cast is eliminated.
Now, here’s where it gets tricky. The papers of all those voters who voted for the eliminated candidate are
dismembered re-examined, and their entrails second (third, fourth etc.) preferences are redistributed among all the remaining candidates. The votes are all counted again, to see if any of the remaining candidates has now achieved more than half the votes. If so, that candidate is elected. If not, the entrails of the next-least-popular candidate are examined, and so it goes until a candidate with more than half the votes cast is found, and that candidate is then elected.
The advantage of AV is that more attention is given to the votes of voters whose first preference has not been elected – votes that would be discarded under FPTP. But there are disadvantages, too. The system seems (to me, at any rate) to give disproportionate attention to the opinions of voters whose initial preferences were for the least popular candidates. Let’s say that in the above poll, Richard P. Grant comes last and is eliminated. Anyone who voted for Richard P. Grant gets a second chance – and they are more likely to have second (third, fourth etc.) preferences of a similar political complexion. This could have very unwelcome consequences in the campaign, as candidates for otherwise moderate parties try to woo people from the extremes. Put it this way – why should the people who voted for the least popular or muesli* candidates get such preferential treatment?
For me, though, the disadvantage lies in compromise. In general, compromise is a good thing. It’s how the world goes round. But the AV scheme seems to replace a system in at which at least some people get the candidate they want, with one in which somewhat more people get a candidate that nobody particularly wants.
But wait, there’s more.
From the foregoing, if not the fivegoing, you’ll probably have worked out that I voted against AV, along with around two thirds the electorate (which is a resounding mandate by any voting system). One of the reasons I did this was because it was not brought up in a spirit of high-minded reform, but as a compromise – and a shabby one – between the two parties in the U. of K.’s most unusual governing coalition.
Let me explain.
You will recall that in the General Election a year ago, the Conservative Party (disclaimer: I am a member of the Conservative Party and campaign for it) won more parliamentary seats than any other single party, but fell some way short of the absolute majority of the House of Commons they needed to govern the country effectively. To that end they forged an alliance with the left-of-centre Liberal Democratic (LibDem) party. This is strange for all kinds of reasons, not least because the British political system, like the one in the U. S. and A., is fundamentally bipartite, with governments having being formed by the Labour or Conservative parties, alone, for much of the past century.
The LibDems are a modern incarnation of the once-great Liberal party, long since eclipsed by Labour as an effective parliamentary force against the Conservatives, and despite their best efforts always tend to come third in a duel – their place in the political spectrum is hard to place. Thirty years ago they were to the right of the then hard-left Labour Party – now they are often to the left of Labour – a stance somewhat symptomatic of their having their feet firmly placed in mid-air. These days the function of the LibDems is as a
suppository repository, soaking up disaffected voters from the main parties. Anyway, the LibDems have been banging on about electoral reform for what seems like centuries, because it’s the only way that any party outside the Conservatives or Labour will have any chance to govern. This includes the LibDems, you understand – just to show that the constant LibDem refrain about electoral reform is not quite so high-minded as they’d like us to think.
Anyway, part of the coalition deal was that the LibDems would get to have their longed-for referendum on electoral reform, and AV was chosen as the alternative to FPTP. What worried me as a voter was that a referendum on such a fundamental issue as the way we elect our members of parliament was not the result of deep deliberation for the greater good, but a back-room deal between two parties wedded to each other just so they could wield power. Rather like – oh, I don’t know – King Henry VIII inventing the Church of England and breaking with Rome just so he could get a divorce.
As we have seen, the vote went decisively against AV, and one of the main planks of the LibDem’s raison-d’être was cut from under them. It so happened that the referendum took place on the same day that many people around the country were invited to elect representatives to their local councils (not the same things as parliamentary candidates). The LibDems have been local-council stalwarts for decades, but took a terrible beating – unjustifiably, in some cases, given that local LibDems aere hardly to blame for the antics of their leaders at Westminster. Labour, the opposition, campaigning against the austerity measures of the Conservative-LibDem coalition, did moderately well considering that they are still recovering from a pasting at the last General Election.
Surprisingly, though, the Conservatives did very well indeed, a result that surprised the metropolitan chatterati, who then reasoned thus: the Conservatives said they’d be tough on finances, and they have been, so voters at least knew where they stood. The LibDems, though, as soon as they got a whiff of power, ditched their principles. A particular bone of contention was their decision to back the rise in university tuition fees in England and Wales, when they had earlier pledged not to do this. Voters would then think that no promise made by a LibDem would be worth the candle, and voted against them.
Then the recriminations started. The LibDems, in a series of somewhat unstatesmenlike interventions, blamed the Conservatives for scuppering the referendum – when the Conservatives made it quite clear from the start that they’d campaign against it. So why were the LibDems surprised?
Some among the AV camp wondered whether the reason people voted against it was that it wasn’t ‘proper’ proportional representation, (PR) as represented by – for example – a system called the Single Transferable Vote, or STV. (Note for molecular biologists – STV is not a virus carried by monkeys which, when transferred to humans, induces an irresistible compulsion to watch the Humiliation of Obese Proles with Ant and Dec. Really, not a problem. Don’t mention it).
At first sight, STV looks very like AV. In terms of filling in a ballot paper, it is exactly the same – a voter ranks his (or her) candidates in an order of preference. If voters are voting for a single candidate in any constituency, as they do now, STV is equivalent to AV.
There the similarity ends, for STV is conventionally used for constituencies in which more than one representative is elected – which is entirely foreign to the entire constitution of British parliamentary democracy in modern times (note – a century or so ago, some parliamentary seats did return more than one representative, but this practice has long since been in abeyance). The mechanics of STV are very well explained here. The complexities are such that I simply cannot believe that anyone would seriously advocate offering a referendum on a simple choice between FPTP and STV. The reason is not that the system is complex (it is) and therefore incomprehensible (it isn’t), but that so many parameters need to be adjusted. For instance
- The entire constituency map of England and Wales would presumably need to be redrawn, possibly by a parliamentary commission;
- The commission would have to recommend on the constituencies that would return multiple candidates, and, if so, how many;
- Under STV, candidates that achieve a certain quota of the vote (based on the numbers of votes cast and the numbers seats there are to fill) will be elected, but the particular formulation of the quota would have to be decided;
- If the leading candidate has accrued more votes than the quota, the surplus votes are transferred to second-preference candidates, though the precise method of transferring votes would have to be determined;
- If this transfer does not produce another candidate with more than the quota of votes, the least popular candidate is eliminated, and their votes are transferred.
- This process continues until all the available places are filled.
This system makes better use of surplus votes than AV in that candidates are elected more or less in proportion to the votes cast, and there are none of the distortions inherent in AV such that the voters for the least popular parties get more of a say. STV certainly has its attractions. However, as I have said, it would require a much more radical transformation of the British electoral system (not least the requirement for multiple candidates) than could, or perhaps should, be decided in a yes-or-no plebiscite engendered by a deal between two political groups hungry for power.
As I noted above, some critics of the referendum result suggested that had something like STV been on offer than AV, then the referendum would have been a better test of opinion, but I disagree – an almost two-to-one vote against AV would hardly be swayed by a different choice of alternative method, especially one that was more difficult to explain and that required such a transformation of the way parliamentary politics is carried out. In view of the referendum result, suggesting that people would have liked STV more than AV is a bit like suggesting that voters would prefer square wheels if they were painted blue rather than yellow.
When I started this post I thought I’d be as against STV as I am sceptical about AV, but in reading up for it, I find I am more sympathetic. One could imagine, say, a parliament of around 200 constituencies, each returning three elected members. In North Norfolk this would mean a LibDem, Conservative and Labour member being returned, in that order, so everyone would get a member of parliament they liked. The views of electors would be more fairly represented. And that has to be a Good Thing. Hasn’t it?
However, as STV requires even more careful thought before implementation than AV, I would probably have voted against it nonetheless in a referendum, because I don’t think a referendum is a suitable way to decide such things. Schemes for any form of proportional representation should, if they are to be proposed at all, be part of party manifestos, and then the promise should not be for a referendum, but for a commission that would carry out thorough research and then report back to the government – a commission that might decide that, in the end, for whatever reason, FPTP is best after all. As electors we deserve nothing less than such careful deliberation- which is why I think the LibDem’s promise of a referendum on any form of proportional representation is more an expression of self-interest than a proposal that deserves mature consideration.
Even were we to have some form of proportional representation, the problems start when one is required to form a stable government. The omens from abroad are not good. I advance in this case the state of Israel, familiar to Dr S. C. of This Parish, which uses a form of PR. Governments lurch from one febrile coalition to the next, and the balance of power is often controlled by very small parties with rather extreme views, such as the ultra-religious parties. The result is that a once proud secular democracy is being turned into a theocracy by a very small, unrepresentative minority – now, that’s neither fair, nore proportionate. I shudder to imagine what might happen were PR to be instituted in the U. of K. To be sure, it would give a much more representative picture of the electorate in that more LibDems would be elected, as well as Greens. But it would also give more of a voice to, let us say, less wholesome elements, who might be in a position to exercise a disproportionate amount of power by playing the better-represented parties off against one another.
In the end there is a balance to be struck between fair representation and stability. At one extreme is proportional representation, in which more people get a say, but in which governments are often weak. At the other extreme is one-party dictatorship, which creates strong governments but in which almost nobody gets a say. For me – and that’s just me – I prefer the British way, that of moderation. FPTP is far from perfect, but it allows a lot of people to have a say, and governments are moderately stable.
Perhaps it’s not just me, though. The British have always gone for pragmatism rather than idealism. If the system you have is tolerable, then there’s no need to fix it. It might not be perfect, or even entirely fair, but then nothing in life ever is.
I think the problem, at root, is what we mean by ‘fairness’, but that’s a topic for another time.
* muesli – full of nuts, fruits and flakes