Sunday, May 31, 2015

The electoral "reform" debate

Over the last month we've had a lot of noise about the voting system. And a lot of it's much of the same old automatic assumption as electoral "reform" [sic] advocates take a moral high ground, dismiss anyone who doesn't share their obsession as ignorant or self-interested and assume it's going to come automatically.

Well people have been predicting PR for a long time. The Electoral Reform Society was founded in 1884 (as the Proportional Representation Society - anyone know when they changed their name?) and has been waiting for a bit. Slightly more recently many general elections have brought demands for change and predictions it will happen soon. Watch many of the old Election Night reruns on the BBC Parliament channel (or there's a few on You Tube) and you'll see the calls for and confident predictions that it will soon arrive. But it hasn't yet and may never come.

The moral approach is messy and tends towards the assumption that some factors are more important than others. But much of the debate is about which factors should be prioritised and what sort of outcomes are preferred. That's a political discussion about the preferred rules not a moral discussion.

As for the ignorance charge, I think there's a lot of this on both sides (both when it comes to the mechanics of determining the outcome but also some of the wildly different outcomes different systems produce) but I hope I can claim some knowledge of voting systems. I've counted or observed the counting of many elections under many systems and have written a few explanation both of how systems work and how individuals and parties can game them for maximum effect. I would totally fail at a 3am bar discussion about some of the finer details of how to divide the surplus in Single Transferable Vote but if one has to know the differences between Meek and Weighted Inclusive Gregory in order to contribute then virtually the entire discussion would evaporate right now.

As for self-interest, well this is a matter of perspective. Yes I'm a Conservative activist and local office holder and yes my party is alleged to have benefited at times from the current system. But after the majority of general elections I've been involved with, the electoral reform movement has told us the reverse has been the case this time. Locally I am based in the London Borough of Newham. The last Conservative MP for my current home address was defeated in 1922 (Leonard Lyle, one of Abram Lyle & Sons famous for Lyle's Golden Syrup), the last elected anywhere in what is now Newham was defeated in 1945 and the only Conservative MP since was when the sitting MP for Newham North East switched from Labour to Conservative in 1977 but stood elsewhere in 1979. The area of the old Plaistow constituency is one of the few places that has had a Labour MP continuously since 1906. So locally another system might be more in my self-interest.

What makes much of the discussion difficult to engage with are the sweeping assertions and refusal to respect the contrary view. So here are ten suggestions to electoral reform advocates that could help move constructive discussion forward.

1). Appreciate that there are many people who support the First Past The Post system because they genuinely believe it delivers the best available political results. Yes there will be many who support Labour or Conservatives. But also there are many who do prefer single party governments and who feel the broad church big two parties are the best way to serve the country. And they believe that a system that's easy to understand and delivers clear cut outcomes is an important part of political engagement.

2). Decide if you want to change the system because you believe it will have a positive impact on the way politics is done in this country OR if you want to alter the balance of power in favour of certain parties. Yes many people have the former motivation but at times others seem more motivated by the latter - Vince Cable's comments in the AV referendum were telling.

3). Object when your side of politics wins power as much (if not more) as when the other side does. The present Conservative government was elected with more votes and a higher percentage than the Labour government in 2005. There were a few voices of objection then but nothing like the complaints and protests now. (And I certainly don't remember war memorials being vandalised two days after an election when Labour won. Full credit to all those on the left who condemned this.)

4). Embrace those on the other side of politics who are sympathetic as allies rather than recoiling. In the AV referendum the Yes campaign didn't want to deal with Conservatives, so Michael Gove did not launch a Conservative Yes campaign and the one that did happen was just a fringe Conservative Action for Electoral Reform piece with no real link to the main campaign. The Yes campaign also didn't want anything to do with Nigel Farage and instead went for just a trendy metropolitan liberal united front.

5). Defend the kind of governments likely to arise from the preferred systems. Coalitions are not automatic in hung parliaments and there's a case for minority governments being preferred - back in 2007 a prominent Liberal Democrat wrote a book on coalitions and to his own surprise he came out against them. But whether a smaller party leader is working from the Deputy Prime Minister's office or the opposition bench is less important than the outcome of two or more parties providing the majority for outcomes. The Coalition government just gone was not universally liked in many quarters and I suspect few will want to trumpet the overall jointness at future elections. But if you're advocating a voting system that makes hung parliaments more likely then you need to address head on the outcomes and particularly the disappointment many Liberal Democrat voters had either with going into government with the Conservatives at all or with the policies the Coalition pursued.

6). Remember there is more to the world than Europe. We're often told we need to change the system because no other country in Europe uses it. But so what? Plenty of other countries do. India alone has a larger population than Europe and uses First Past The Post. Now next to nobody would argue we should use a system just because it's the one that India uses so why should we use a system because it's the one Germany (Additional Member System) or Ireland (Single Transferable Vote) uses? Nor does it matter if people from other countries are surprised by how we do things - we're all diverse and different.

7). Be aware that tactical voting occurs under just about every voting system. Under AV some people try to tactically vote to get into the final two the candidate best placed to defeat a candidate they hate. Under STV some people will vote in line with parties' pleas for strategic support to best distribute the vote to maximise the number of candidates elected. Under the Additional Member System some people will tactically vote for or against a party in a constituency in order to determine whether or not it gets list seats, or even split their constituency and list votes to maximise the return or even go along with parties that run split tactics (known as decoy lists or the Berlusconi trick). Even under pure lists some people will tactically vote for parties likely to be big enough to get across the thresholds and to make one party the largest of all to give it the best chance of forming the core of government. Pretending that electoral reform will remove the need is false.

8). Also be aware that over 50% is NOT always necessary to get a majority under alternate voting system. The current SNP government in Scotland won a majority with 44% of the list vote (which is the better figure to look at with the AMS voting system). In New Zealand the current National-Maori-ACT-United Future coalition or confidence and supply government was re-elected with 49% of the vote. STV is harder to quantify because of transfers but in Ireland in 2002 the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrat coalition was re-elected with 45.5% of the first preference vote. Much of this is because virtually all voting systems have thresholds and rounding effects that tend to round up so many of the larger parties.

9). Don't try to ignore either the actual voting figures here or the experience in similar countries that use other voting systems. Yes people might vote a bit differently under different systems and yes other countries are different but these are more solid cases than simply expecting us to all trust what PR advocates say. In particular be willing to address head on the prospect of a coalition government between the country's traditional main conservative party and a smaller anti-immigration populist party built around a highly egotistical blunt speaking leader and squabbling like ferrets in a sack with scandals to boot. That's the likely outcome if the 2015 election had been under proportional representation. It's also a description of the first government formed after New Zealand switched to proportional representation.

10). Advocate for a clear single system. There are some big variations between the systems, both in terms of the kind of local representation they deliver and also in the potential outcomes. In particular the number of seats some of the smaller parties would win can vary wildly - there are estimates flying around on the web that show the Greens (all three parties combined) winning 24 seats under pure list PR to just 2 under Single Transferable Vote. Some PR systems have a threshold of 5% that would deny them any seats at all. The Additional Member System usually carries a back-up option of winning so many constituency seats (1 in New Zealand, 3 in Germany) in order to qualify for list seats and this could make or break the party. Ukip's percentage is high enough to beat nearly all thresholds but again estimates vary from 82 to 38. These are not insignificant differences and it should be clear if the system really will do what it says on the tin.

The other major point of contention is the 2011 referendum that saw voters reject changing the system by more than two to one. Now yes this was on the Alternative Vote but pretty much the entire PR movement got behind a Yes vote and declared a No victory would keep First Past The Post for a generation. There was no big "AV isn't PR" campaign then. "No to AV, Yes to PR" was a tiny group with no significant backing - nobody serious believes it's David Owen wot won it (except maybe David Owen). The argument that the voters rejected AV because it was not PR does not convince. It would have needed a big and visible campaign attacking it for this reason to convince now.

It may be 2015 but we don't have time travel yet. So whilst waiting for someone to leave a suitable DeLorean around, the PR movement needs to shake off the legacy of the AV defeat, including the leaders of the campaign, in order to credibly move forward.

The voting system has been with us a long time, predating the parties which have developed and adapted to it. There is no guarantee it will be with us forever but equally there is no certainty that it will not.

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