The realist case for electoral reform (repost)

by John Q on May 11, 2010

While we wait for the dust to settle following the 2010 election, I thought I’d repost this piece from the aftermath of 2005, suggesting that Labour should introduce electoral reform. My predictive record is a mixed one, but this piece looks pretty good, I think.

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.



Naadir Jeewa 05.11.10 at 1:55 am

An amazing prediction.


Peter Whiteford 05.11.10 at 9:05 am

Let me put in my support for the Australian federal political system – compulsory voting means that well over 90% of the adult population actually vote and most people put in valid votes. The preferential voting system (the AV system) then means that you are very unlikely to get into government unless more than half the voting population prefer you to the main alternative.

In combination, compulsory and preferential voting means that governments don’t get elected unless at least 45% of the total adult population over 18 years would prefer you to be government.

In contrast in this election the Conservative party got 36% of the 65% who voted or about 23% of the adult population.

What this means is that the Australian political system drives political parties into the centre. Both the labour party – as we call it here – and the liberal party – our name for the conservative party – are much more middle of the road than UK political parties.

Mrs Thatcher’s policies would have been impossible to implement in Australia (as would have been Mr Foot’s I suspect). Or rather they would have implemented their policies and then lost the next election.

This effect is reinforced by having an upper house that is elected on a different timeline and through proportional representation, plus having states that have more constitutional separateness and powers. Australian politics is therefore more boring than in the UK, but probably less dangerous.

A good example of this is the fact that since 1901 only two Australian Prime Ministers have lost their seats in general elections, John Howard in 2007 and Stanley Bruce in 1929. In both cases, they introduced radical changes to labour market regulations and then lost the next election and their seats.

Where the Liberal Democrats would be under an Australian style system I have no idea. I suspect that they would do better than any Australian third party because they have a longer lasting brand.


Kenny Easwaran 05.11.10 at 11:46 am

Don’t the Australian Liberals have a coalition partner, called the Nationals or something like that? Would Labour and the Lib Dems in the UK end up in a stable coalition situation like that?


Kenny Easwaran 05.11.10 at 11:47 am

Also, the ellipsis in your first link seems to have broken it. I appreciate the entertaining 404 message though.


Alex 05.11.10 at 6:24 pm

Veritas voters

Yep, very prescient.


Alex 05.11.10 at 7:30 pm

Every forecast has a standard error, and that’s a remarkably negligible one.


John Quiggin 05.12.10 at 1:30 am

Kenny, ellipsis fixed. The Libs/Nats are a permanent coalition, and don’t normally contest seats against each other. Especially in the light of today’s news, I can’t see UK Libs and Labs getting that close.


Modicum 05.17.10 at 4:11 pm

@Peter Whiteford:

The Alternative Vote system, used in Australia, is an improvement but it does have some of the same flaws as “first past the post”.

For example in the 1998 election John Howard lost the popular vote but became prime minister anyway. (Labour got more votes but less seats).

This kind of strange, undemocratic outcome will happen from time to time under any system based on single seat constituencies.

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