The realist case for electoral reform

by John Quiggin on May 10, 2005

Via Australian Senator Andrew Bartlett, I see that The Independent is campaigning for electoral reform in the UK, following Labour’s re-election with only 36 per cent of the vote.

Leading opponents within the government are named as John Prescott and Ian McCartney and the story also mentions that Many union leaders also fear it will lead to coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, and prevent Labour from governing again with an absolute majority.

I imagine that the opponents regard themselves as hardheaded realists, but it would be more accurate to view them as reckless gamblers.

Given the outcome this time, and the likelihood of an economic downturn sometime in the next five years, the chance that Labour will secure an absolute majority next time can’t be better than even money.

There’s a possibility that Labour will be forced into coalition with the Lib Dems despite the benefits of first-past-the-post voting, and in this case they’ll have to accept whatever reform package their coalition partners demand. On the other hand, if they act now, Labour can choose the kind of reform they want.

Even more significant, from the viewpoint of union leaders, is (or ought to be) the possibility of another Tory government elected with less than 40 per cent of the vote. A coalition with the Lib Dems might be mildly inconvenient, but not much worse than Blair has been. By contrast, the Tories, given a couple of terms, could easily finish the job they started under Thatcher.

I haven’t looked carefully at the numbers, but I’d guess the best reform for Labour is optional preferential voting. That makes it easy for Labour voters (since, in most constituencies, they can vote for Labour alone as in the past), while most Lib Dem voters would probably give Labour their second preference.

The Tories would get the benefit of preferences from BNP, UKIP and Veritas voters. But this is something of a double-edged sword, as parties like this are prone to demand embarrassing concessions in return for their support.

On the plausible assumption that Labour would get 70 per cent of Lib Dem and Welsh/Scottish nationalist preferences, and the Tories would get 70 per cent of the rest, I estimate a two-party preferred Labour vote of about 57 per cent.

The Tories would need a swing of more than 7 per cent to win because, contrary to the simple calculation above, the Lib Dems would win in some seats and would presumably join Labour in coalition.

The Labour apparatchiks who want to stick with FPP have either failed to do the math or are willing to pass up certain victory just to improve their chances of avoiding coalition. Either way, they are anything but hardheaded realists.

{ 29 comments }

1

Robin Grant 05.10.05 at 5:32 am

John – Crooked Timber’s London based readers may be interested in coming along to this event tomorrow evening about electoral reform – Call this democracy?

2

MollyMooly 05.10.05 at 5:44 am

John: I think “optional preferential voting” is an Australia-specific term. I think by “preferential voting” you mean the Alternative Ballot, aka Instant Runoff Voting, aka single-seat Single Transferable Vote. Optional referring to the contrast with Australian STV requirement of completing all preferences.

3

des von bladet 05.10.05 at 5:45 am

Personally, I assume that this 37% of the vote merely reflects the excellent callibration of the electorates tactics – I voted LibDem precisely because it was a luxury I could afford in a constituency with a huge Labour majority. In a tight red-blue race I would ‘ve voted differently. Which is to say that I don’t really think we need preferential voting very much: we can do pretty much the same job by hand.

But more interesting (to me) is the question of whether PR (in any form) could be introduced without a referendum. It seems mind-boggling that it could, but the British constitution often boggles my mind.

4

abb1 05.10.05 at 5:46 am

Yeah, shouldn’t this be addressed as an issue of legitimacy, fairness and common sense rather than Labour strategy? Dump the fptp, time for a plurality system.

5

lth 05.10.05 at 7:34 am

… but Charles Kennedy stated very clearly (probably the straightest answer of this election campaign) that there was no chance that he’d take the Lib Dems into coalition with Labour, under any circumstances.

6

Harald Korneliussen 05.10.05 at 7:41 am

I’ve been thinking of a simple way to secure electoral reform: Form an interest group, state your demands clearly and stick to them, then promise to vote for the biggest party that promises to implement it, and otherwise not vote. You wouldn’t have to get very many members before you’re a force to be reckoned with. And if one party is predominantly hurt by this (because its members are more likely to want electoral reform), all the more reason for them to get it into their program.

This should work both in the UK and in the US (which also needs electoral reform). It might hurt, but only the first time.

7

Peter Clay 05.10.05 at 9:42 am

Hmm. I’m in favour of preference voting, but I’m very skeptical of proposals that would break the MP-constituency link and make it harder to target individuals for removal. I’m dead opposed to party list systems, and I think at least the people of Blaenau Gwent agree with me on that. Yes, that means I’m opposed to to d’Hondt for European elections.

Note that a nationally-proportional system would probably return at least one hardcore Euroskeptic MP, who could then oppose all EU legislation that is currently implemented via the statutory instrument process. That would be an interesting mess to watch.

dvb: Voting could be abolished altogether in the UK without a referendum, if the Commons, Lords and Her Majesty were all in favour of it.

8

Andy 05.10.05 at 9:59 am

I would also imagine that any single transferable vote based system would have resulted in the British National Party securing MPs in Essex and West Yorkshire, although I haven’t had a chance to do the math on this yet.

The problem with preference voting is that lots of liberal democrat voters would actually vote Tory as a 2nd preference, which is why Kennedy explicitly ruled out any lib/lab coalition. Further, any preference based voting system would just intensify swings between Labour and the Tories. When Labour are popular and winning, 2nd preferences would go to them, when unpopular and loosing, 2nd preferences would go to the Tories.

9

JayAnne 05.10.05 at 12:00 pm

The Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament use AMS (I think London does too).

10

RS 05.10.05 at 12:05 pm

“I would also imagine that any single transferable vote based system would have resulted in the British National Party securing MPs in Essex and West Yorkshire”

And let’s face it, we only want democracy to go so far.

11

kenny 05.10.05 at 12:08 pm

“the possibility of another Tory government elected with less than 40 per cent of the vote”

Another ? No postwar tory government has ever had less than 40% of the vote in the election bringing them to power.Although labour has managed it 3 times.

12

RS 05.10.05 at 12:08 pm

“I’m in favour of preference voting, but I’m very skeptical of proposals that would break the MP-constituency link and make it harder to target individuals for removal.”

I like the idea of a pool of MPs elected proportionally for a large-ish area. Then, if you’re worried about someone being deported or something, you would have a reasonable chance of a local-ish MP who might actually give a toss about your predicament and represent your views on the issue.

13

Andy 05.10.05 at 1:50 pm

“And let’s face it, we only want democracy to go so far.”

STV is not a case of democracy going too far, but of the wrong kind of democracy. Under a PR system, an extremist party, like the BNP, could garner 10 per cent of the vote, then go into coalition with a more mainstream party and get key policies that were only supported by a small minority of the electorate and which were voted against by a far larger number enacted. That doesn’t sound like democracy to me.

14

Anthony 05.10.05 at 2:22 pm

The Tories would get the benefit of preferences from BNP, UKIP and Veritas voters. But this is something of a double-edged sword, as parties like this are prone to demand embarrassing concessions in return for their support.

Actually, the smaller parties are much weaker with respect to the large ones in a single-transferrable vote system, as there is no way for a party like the UKIP (which seems to have cost the Tories 25 seats this time around) to bargain with the larger parties after the election. UKIP voters’ party preference choices would have already been accounted for in the transfer count. The Conservative campaign would have to appeal to potential UKIP voters to gain their second-preference votes, but once the vote has happened, the UKIP leadership would be powerless, unless they’d obtained enough seats to block a majority.

The potential problem with STV is that it lowers the costs for voting for “marginal” parties – Respect and/or the Greens might have done much better if people could “safely” vote for Labour as second choice, and many Conservative voters might decide to cast protest votes for UKIP (or whatever) with a Conservative as second choice. Enough people might make such choices as to significantly increase the number of small parties in Parliament, leading to a situation where Britian becomes as ungovernable as Israel.

15

Brian 05.10.05 at 3:30 pm

Anthony, why would a large number of small parties make the country ungovernable? In New South Wales elections there are more parties than even dedicated observers can keep track of (and a lower house elected by STV and upper house elected by PR) but it has hardly made NSW (or any other part of Australia) ungovernable. I guess the problem is that we don’t have enough data points to work with, but it’s hard to think of any case where moving from FPP to STV increased instability – if anything I’d imagine it would decrease it.

If Britain moved to full PR all sorts of things could happen, but it’s hard to see how moving to STV would make any of these other parties (from Respect to the BNP) more powerful than say the SNP already is.

Any ungovernability problems are already there in the current system. Imagine a scenario (not too implausible as a 2009/10 result I’d think) where Labour drops, say, 60 seats to the Tories, and Kennedy holds firm on him promise to not enter a coalition. What happens then? I imagine we muddle through with minority Labour government. But that will be just as unstable as anything STV might bring about.

16

Chris Corrigan 05.10.05 at 3:51 pm

You might be interested to follow how this will all play out here in British Columbia. When the ruling proivincial Liberals were elected in 2001 they initiated an electoral reform process that set the bar very high. They drew 2 people from random from the voter’s list – one male and one female – and set them to work for a year in a Citizen’s Assembly. After a year’s worth of hearings, conversations and workshops, the Assembly recommended that BC switch to STV. On May 17th we will be voting on a referendum to do just that. There is a high threshold for success, but if it passes it will be amazing.

More at http://www.citizensassembly.bc.ca/public

17

RS 05.10.05 at 4:57 pm

“STV is not a case of democracy going too far, but of the wrong kind of democracy. Under a PR system, an extremist party, like the BNP, could garner 10 per cent of the vote, then go into coalition with a more mainstream party and get key policies that were only supported by a small minority of the electorate and which were voted against by a far larger number enacted. That doesn’t sound like democracy to me.”

No a system where a party gaining only a minority of votes is given total legislative power sounds much more democratic to me. Seriously, if that’s your objection, that you don’t like the idea of representatives being forced to reach compromises without monolithic blocs holding power, then surely a Presidential system is better. Otherwise you’re just arguing against democracy – if the coalition partners allow the policies of an extreme group in return for their support then that is politics, and, I’m afraid, democracy.

18

McDuff 05.10.05 at 5:38 pm

If we’re whining about democracy, we should look to the Lords as well. Much as I, like most other English people, have a stab of pride every time I realise that our political system is utterly ludicrous and yet still manages to keep us on a remarkably moderate and even keel, all things considered (true, we had Thatcher for Reagan, but we then had Blair for both Clinton and Bush), I don’t think we need to do away with the black rod or the woolsack or the silly hats in order to make the Lords actually democratic.

Personally, I would have the Lords elected on a PR list basis for the same terms as the commons, and keep the MPs representing individual local constituencies.

19

Anthony 05.10.05 at 7:26 pm

Brian (#15) – How many of those parties in NSW make it into parliament? How many parties ever get 10% of the seats in parliament? How much swing between the major parties is there in elections?

In Israel’s case, the problem is that there are 15 to 20 (or more?) parties in the Knesset, that the Big Two consistently get about 1/3 each of the seats, and that there are several mid-sized parties, none of which alone is usually enough to make a government in coalition with one of the major parties.

In the UK, under STV the Conservatives and Labour would likely be receiving between about 30% to 35% of the vote. If due to second-choice votes and the vagaries of the electoral system, one or the other were usually able to form a government alone or in coalition with similarly-minded parties or occasionally the LDP, things wouldn’t change much. However, if the share of the vote, or more importantly, the seats, which the big parties received under STV eroded, the parties filling the gap wouldn’t be just the LDP, despite Kennedy’s fantasies. There would be a plethora of parties with mutually incompatible platforms, making it rather difficult to form a coalition, and rather easy to break one.

20

charlie b. 05.10.05 at 10:58 pm

36%? 37% Just for the record, the Labour share of the vote in the UK was 35.2%. In England Labour came second. In England South of the Wash-Severn leaving out London they came third. With London they came second by 1.4 million votes.

21

Brian 05.10.05 at 11:05 pm

Anthony, I think you’re confusing STV with PR here. I don’t see any reason to think that under PR any party that doesn’t currently have a seat would get one. And the change in representation in the current small parties (SNP, PC, Respect, assorted independents) would be pretty minor.

Can you point to any constituency in England where STV would have changed the result from one of the three big parties to a smaller party, even allowing for some change in voting behaviour? (I’ll restrict this to England, because I wouldn’t be surprised if STV helped the SNP and PC in some parts. Obviously the effect on Northern Ireland would be irrelevant for these debates.) As far as I can tell, STV would make it somewhat harder for UKIP to win a seat, and effectively impossible for the BNP or Respect or Veritas to win one, assuming the major parties did the right thing and didn’t send any preferences their way. There are dozens of seats the LDP could expect to pick up from both Lab and Con, but it’s hard to find seats where any other change could be expected.

22

RS 05.11.05 at 3:57 am

“As far as I can tell, STV would make it somewhat harder for UKIP to win a seat, and effectively impossible for the BNP or Respect or Veritas to win one, assuming the major parties did the right thing and didn’t send any preferences their way.”

I think you are underestimating the boost STV would give minor parties (we’re talking AV here right?). It does this by reducing the cost of voting for them. Now you can vote Respect because you want a party further left than Labour, but still have your vote count for Labour when Respect are eliminated. Thus you don’t split the vote by going more extreme. This makes voting for minority parties more attractive, and would have an effect in some areas. Obviously, if voters were tactical, they could prevent extreme groups being elected by having their vote end-up with some less extreme group they still disagree with (i.e. Tory votes ending up with Labour), but I don’t think voters are that sophisticated.

Of course the real question is where do second preference Tory and Lib Dem votes go when they’re eliminated? If Tories and Labour go Lib Dem then I presume the number of Lib Dem seats skyrockets, but who knows where Lib Dems voters will go?

23

Andrew Shuttlewood 05.11.05 at 5:14 am

What’s wrong with minority parties?

A lot of people I spoke to about the election weren’t happy about either party – they want more of a plurality of choices. Labour state that they have a mandate – yet their election missives warned people that if they voted for any minority party then the Tories would get in – this is negative campaigning at the end of the day.

I think that people have to decide what they want – STV makes more sense if you consider the MP the important person – in which case I would favour a reduction in the strength of parties as they’re far too powerful now. PR makes more sense if you want a purely party based system. Perhaps a mix with multiple houses would be the best approach – although I know some people feel this would lead to less effective government.

I don’t want to be forced to appear as if I support a party if they are my second choice – if some party gets in I want them to know that they were just considered the lesser of two evils and to govern based upon this rather than claiming some sort of mandate.

24

soru 05.11.05 at 7:00 am


Can you point to any constituency in England where STV would have changed the result from one of the three big parties to a smaller party, even allowing for some change in voting behaviour?

If that’s the case, wouldn’t that actually _increase_, rather than decrease, the difference between the proportions of first-preference votes and MPs per party?

Instead of the Greens saying ‘we have 1% of the vote and no MPs’, it would be ‘we have 10% of the first preference votes and no MPs’.

STV avoids many of the perceived problems of true PR, but also doesn’t have many of it’s merits.

soru

25

Brian 05.11.05 at 8:29 am

RS, voters don’t have to be that sophisticated, their parties do it for them. When you have an STV system you invariably have each party with a representative by each ballot box providing a recommendation for how to fill out the complete ballot. Between 70 and 90% of voters will comply with what the party says in the vast majority of cases. If the Tories say to put Labour ahead of Galloway (and they should, for all sorts of reasons) most of their voters will follow. Maybe LD wouldn’t do the same, but if they did, King wins easy on preferences.

I agree Soru that STV won’t help the really small parties, and may exaggerate their problems. The main difference it would make would be to the LDP.

Andrew, the Australian system of having STV for the House of Commons (or its equivalent) and PR for the house of review (in this case the Lords) has been (at least for the last 30 years) reasonably effective in balancing the need for stable government with the ideal of minority representation. It would probably work as well as anything in the UK, at least as a foundation.

26

Anthony 05.11.05 at 8:59 am

Brian (#21) – I don’t think it will happen immediately, and it may not happen at all. But it is a prospect – if enough people defect to smaller parties. Many parties in Britain seem to be geographically concentrated, even the big three; small parties which represent regional or geographical interests under the cover of ideological interests may do quite well.

As a sidelight, I suspect the LD leadership will be rather dismayed to find just how much of their vote goes to the Conservatives under STV.

27

Anthony 05.11.05 at 9:07 am

Andrew Shuttlewood (#23) – One issue with STV is in the details of its setup. A properly democratic STV does not require ranking all candidates or parties. So a “true-blue” Conservative could vote for the Conservative candidate first choice, and no other candidates. If the Conservative is eliminated, her vote goes nowhere (just as it does if her candidate loses in the current system).

If I remember correctly (I’m too lazy to look it up now), Australia has some sort of god-awful system where you have to rank each and every candidate (or party?) for the Senate, when there are tens of candidates. Parties then offer “lists” – sets of ordinal rankings – and rather than making one’s own choices among all 60 candidates or so, one can choose from among 150 pre-registered lists instead. Having 100+ candidates for Governor here in California wasn’t that bad, but only because I only had to understand what about 5 of them stood for. If we’d had an STV vote, I’d have researched perhaps another 5 or 10, and ranked about 10. I wouldn’t want to have to rank all 100+.

28

Brian 05.11.05 at 11:12 am

Australia used to have the system where you had to rank every candidate for both the House and the Senate. That’s been dropped, and you now need only rank candidates as far as you like.

For the Senate, you have a choice between ranking by hand as many of the roughly 100 candidates as you like, or picking one of about a dozen pre-assigned party lists to vote for. Most people choose the latter.

29

Roy Badami 05.15.05 at 11:07 am

Re coalitions: The LibDems did indeed state that they would not enter into a coalition with Labour, but that doesn’t preclude them lending their support to a minority Labour government under a political agreement.

AIUI, the Lib/Lab pact was like this; it involved a minority Labour government rather than a coalition government.

I’ve also been told that the Labour party constitution forbids it from forming a coalition government anyway.

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