In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

On Electoral Reform

In the end, UKIP has a lone MP. (Edited: Guardian/Ray Shutterstock)

In the end, UKIP has a lone MP. (Edited: Guardian/Ray Shutterstock)

After the crucible of a General Election cools, the heat of electoral reform lingers. Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, told The Observer:

This election is the nail in the coffin for our voting system.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage described Britain’s electoral system as “bankrupt”.

In British politics, when the parliament is dissolved, a General Election is held. An election is put to voters in every constituency, and each constituency returns an MP (Member of Parliament) to the House of Commons. These constituency elections involve only a single ballot to decide their MP. Each voter can place a lone mark next to the person they wish to be their MP, and the candidate with the most votes becomes the representative. These MPs typically stand for political parties, and act as an electoral college to decide the government. The monarch then invites the person considered most likely to command the confidence of the House of Commons, and act as Prime Minister. Ministers are subsequently appointed by the Prime Minister, and a government is formed.

The method of election for the individual constituency elections is called First Past the Post (FPTP). In the academic argot, these are single-member elections chosen by plurality voting: each elector votes for one choice, and the candidate that receives the most votes wins. This is true even if that candidate receives less than half of the legitimate votes.

Unfair Voting

There is a conflation, probably unintended, made by proponents of electoral reform. This conflation masks a particularly elaborate form of begging the question.

Each elector has a single vote, and that vote only affects the result in the constituency election for their MP. For instance, take the voters in Witney. Those voters are not voting for David Cameron to be Prime Minister, or even for the Conservative Party; but for David Cameron, the Conservative candidate for Witney.

The Conservatives won a small majority in the House of Commons. After each election, questions about the electoral system are raised. (Source: BBC)

The Conservatives won a small majority in the House of Commons. After each election, questions about the electoral system are raised. (Source: BBC)

There is no national or regional vote in British parliamentary elections. The sum of votes for local candidates stanading for particular parties is not a meaningful number. When proponents of electoral reform point to the 3.9m UKIP voters or 1.2m Green voters in 2015, and say their respective representation of one MP each is ‘unfair’, this assumes there is a national vote. When electoral reformists comminate FPTP, it is not the method of choosing the single-member constituency elections that is under criticism, but the fact that single-member constituencies are the exclusive means to become a representative.

This is why the 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system was unsatisfactory to reformists, despite being wrongly and repeatedly labelled as ‘proportional’. The Alternative Vote proposal would have changed the methods by which the single-member constituencies were elected, from plurality voting to instant run-off voting. The AV referendum would not have changed the fact there are only single-member constituencies.

If a new referendum on electoral reform is sought, it should focus on whether this link — each voter has one constituency with one MP — should be broken, rather than making minor tweaks.

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5 comments on “On Electoral Reform

  1. stephenjohnson2013
    May 18, 2015

    There are many attractive features of the FPTP electoral process, but democracy has to be seen to be fair and inclusive because ultimately we all have to agree to be governed by the system. FPTP is no longer seen as fair or inclusive for a third of the electorate.

    I disagree that the argument is against single-member constituencies as the exclusive means to become a representative. Rather it is the conflation of the vote for the individual with the vote for the party, and the consequential unbalanced number of votes each party has in the parliament. This is not semantics.

    PR Reformers have to consider if it is fair party proportional representation they want, or a wider variety of MPs in the Parliament, or to gain a party political benefit for their preferred political philosophy.

    PR must deliver the first of these. The second is a ‘nice to have’. The third is the cause of many problems.

    You suggest that perhaps the link between the MP in a single member constituency and their electorate should be broken. This would alienate many supporters of FPTP, so making agreement on a PR system more difficult. Instead it could be added to.

    For these reasons I support a PR system which preserves the relationship between the MP and the electorate based on all single member constituencies, with easy voting and counting, which would be simple to introduce.
    see http://dprvoting.org

    • Anthony Masters
      May 18, 2015

      That is, without a doubt, the most complex and absurd system of political representation I have ever seen seriously proposed.

      It is fundamental, if all constituencies are to matter, that the vote of each elected member is worth the same amount. It is a major point of contention for ‘English votes for English laws’ that an MP cannot be devalued because of where in Britain they represent.

      Under this system, an MP would have their vote elevated or deflated, solely as a result of their party affiliation. Despite claiming it would liberate MPs from their parties, it makes MPs serve only as extensions of their party. Why else would their party affiliation act as a multiplier on their vote in the House?

      Would the multiplier be based on regional PR? If so, then two MPs for the same party, in neighbouring constituencies could have different values in the House. If not, then regional or nationalist parties would be incredibly hindered.

      Why would a voter split the choice between the candidate and the party vote? If that candidate gets elected, choosing a different party would ensure their chosen elected representative would be less effective (as their vote in the House would be worth less).

      The fact that votes in the House would depend, not on how many MPs support legislation or a motion, but who of those MPs backs it, points to the difficulty of that system. The fact that it would necessitate the existence of electronic voting in the House of Commons points to the difficulty of that system.

      “This is not semantics.” I never claimed that it was. The point of the article was that, for sensible alternative systems (such as FPTP+, MMP, STV), the fact MPs are only elected through single-member constituencies is broken. It should be questioned whether the electorate wishes that to happen. If so, a Royal Commission can ascertain the best alternatives for a later referendum. If not, then we are locked in the present system.

      • stephenjohnson2013
        May 19, 2015

        1 The logic of the system is simple, as is the voting and counting process. The system reflects the dual nature of MPs’ status as both members of the parliamentary party and constituency representatives.

        2 You assert that in any constituency based electoral system each elected member is worth the same amount. This is true for DPR Voting when votes are taken on non party political issues.
        You may have missed the point that the party vote system is active only when voting on party issues. Here the vote derives from the party votes.

        You may also have missed the point that all party votes in the election make a difference. They count equally wherever they are cast.

        Clearly not all constituencies are equal in size and the way they vote. All sorts of distortions are generated when each constituency has a single vote regardless of these differences and there is no mechanism to correct this.

        3 Each MP would be elected on their own merits. This gives them more independence from party patronage, not less.

        4 The calculation of the vote value would be by parliamentary party. Parties could choose whether to organise as regional parties or national. The number of votes their MPs would be able to exercise would just depend on the number of party votes they win.
        Two neighbouring MPs, assuming they were from different parties, would each have an equal share of their own particular parties vote, but only on party issues.

        Regional parties would not be hindered. Their votes (on party issues) would reflect their actual level of support. This is fairer than the current system.

        5 The Party vote: A voter has no reason to vote other than to vote for the Party they want to form the Government. The system makes tactical voting redundant because all the votes are counted together regardless of where they are cast.
        The Representative vote: A voter has no reason to vote for a candidate other than the candidate who will be the best constituency MP regardless of party, except in a few special circumstances.
        The two votes are almost entirely independent of each other. The party vote does not affect the candidate. The Representative vote does not affect the party (except in a few special circumstances).
        This gives the voter more freedom. I can vote for the party (and policies) I prefer but also vote for the strongest candidate, regardless of their party affiliation.

        6 Electronic voting is not essential, but clearly makes the voting and recording system easier and less time consuming, as it would if introduced with the present system.

        7 ‘This is not sematics’ was in support of my argument. It was not a criticism of yours.

        My contention is that the single member constituency is not broken, or incompatible with PR. In fact PR should embrace the single member constituency, as I have shown can be the case in DPR Voting.

      • Anthony Masters
        May 19, 2015

        “Simple” is a word being used in its discord to its typical definition. The full description of DPR voting is 19 pages long (and a front page).

        I did not miss the point about party and non-party votes. Currently, the House of Commons has no procedural distinction between free votes and whipped votes, as this briefing document makes clear: “It is sometimes difficult to distinguish definitively between whipped and genuinely free votes.” http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN04793#fullreport

        The full proposal says that free votes are only established through unanimous agreement of all parties, but this seems open to abuse, particularly if one party wanted to deny a numerical majority to the other.

        The issue about constituency sizes and the weight of a member’s vote in the legislature itself is being conflated. The former can be ameliorated through boundary reform.

        Ultimately, this proposed system rests upon two contradictory contentions about the purpose of MPs. In the first instance, it is desired that MPs become more independent of their parties, and so are elected representatives to the legislature. This is the reason for the split between the representative and the party vote. In the second, members are weighted according to which party they belong to. Under this contention, MPs are merely extensions of their parties. This only makes sense if, when whipped, all MPs vote in accordance with their party commands. Regular rebellions would be a consequence of “independently-minded” MPs, and thereby harming the very reason to multiply their votes in the first place.

        I would question why a voter would wish to harm the efficacy of their own MP, given that the weighting would be in place on most issues.

        The effect of this voting system would be to induce coalitions with numerically small numbers of MPs, but ones that carry large weights in the House. This would be incredibly fissile, as how those handful of MPs vote on particular issues would swing the vote’s outcome.

        When you fuse two systems together, you don’t always get Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups or caramel chocolate. Sometimes, you can reveal a chimera. Sometimes, you can get the worst of both worlds.

  2. stephenjohnson2013
    May 19, 2015

    I thought the use of the term ‘Simple’ was fair. Perhaps I should say that the logic is simple. The short description is two pages. The voting and counting process is simple.

    You are correct that the system makes a distinction between party and non party issues. The distinction is unambiguous. You suggest that a party may wish to abuse is rule. However, almost by definition, if a party wants a particular outcome, it is a party matter. Conversely if no party has a party line, why would they object to it being voted on as an apolitical matter, a matter of conscience? The logic seems clear.

    Constituency sizes. Boundary reform is always a contentious issue. DPR Voting is far less sensitive to boundary reform which is a clear advantage.

    You raise the issue of Party ‘whipping’ versus independent minded MPs. This seems to me to be a very interesting topic that applies with FPTP, and every other electoral system. There is a three way balance of power between the party whips, the individual MPs, and their constituency electorate. DPR Voting shifts the balance point away from the party towards individual MP and the electorate. I appreciate different people may have different views about whether or not this is desirable. Personally I think it is a matter of getting the right balance.

    I don’t understand your point about the efficacy of the MP being adversely affected by the individual voter’s party vote. It seems to me that a system that conflates party and MP puts much power with the party to determine who is elected. The best candidate does not always stand for the party whose policies you support. Or to put it another way how would you vote if your party has policies you passionately agree with but they put up a truly unacceptable candidate? I believe Parliament would be a better place if we elect the best individuals regardless of party, but I also believe the different parties’ votes in the parliament should reflect the support they have in the country.

    I agree that the MPs of the small parties would have extra pressure on them, and extra attention on how they vote. This is of course true in the current parliament. With DPR Voting the support for each party would be reflected in the parliamentary voting. When they vote on behalf of their party they are responsible for their actions both to their party and their electorate.

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