An election about elections

On Thursday we’re having an election. You may have noticed. It’ll be held under our ‘First Past the Post System, the worst electoral system ever invented. If we get the voting right this time we should be able to change that system and make this the last election to be held in this fundamentally stupid way. Below I outline why it’s so bad and how we can ensure it gets changed. If you’re already convinced of the need for electoral reform skip to the bottom for some suggestions on how we might change it.

The Broken System

The BBC’s website has a great tool. Its allows you to input projected shares of the vote each party might get and see roughly how many seats they would receive from this. The results are rather startling. Lets, taking recent opinion polls, assume that the Tories get 34%, the Liberal Democrats 29% and Labour 28%. You’d assume that the Conservatives would get the most seats, and the Liberals would have slightly more than Labour, right? Wrong. The Conservatives would get 255, Labour 283 and the Liberal Democrats 83. Labour could easily have the most seats whilst coming third in vote share, and the Liberal Democrats will almost certainly get no more than half the seats that their vote share suggest they should. The most extreme example of this came in the 1983 election, in which the SDP (predecessor to the Liberal Democrats) got 26% of the vote but just 2.6% of the seats in parliament. The majorities of voters voted against Margaret Thatcher, the system delivered a whopping majority for the Conservative. So how the hell do these distortions happen?

Despite the fact that our government is national, making central decisions that apply over the entire country, our electoral system prevents us from voting nationally. We vote 646 local contests, the outcome of each being entirely independent of the others, as if we were a collection of islands seeing ourselves as fundamentally separate but occasionally agreeing to pool sovereignty. This uber-localism makes some sense when citizens feel strongly attached to a local unit for historical reasons, such as the American states. UK constituency boundaries however have no meaningful status, they frequently change from election to election, and most of us have no idea where one ends and another begins. So how does the constituency system so monumentally distort the national vote?

Imagine 3 constituencies, each with 10 voters, and each with the same 3 parties competing for their votes.

Seat 1 : Party A 5 Votes, Party B 4 Votes, Party C 1 Vote

Winner: Party A

Seat 2: Party A 0 votes, Party B 4 votes, Party C 6 Votes

Winner: Party C

Seat 3: Party A 5 Votes, Party B 4 Votes, Party C 1 Vote

Winner: Party A

So Party A wins 2 seats and Party C wins 1. Within each seat that seems totally fair.
If, however we add together the total votes from the 3 seats, a very different picture emerges.

Party A    10 Votes
Party B    12 Votes
Party C 8 Votes

Part B thus gains the most votes but gets no seats because its voters are spread out across the 3 seats rather than concentrated in 1. This model demonstrates what can happen across the whole country. That’s the basic distortion of the system, but here’s some particular problems it throws up.

Safe Seats

It is a peculiarity of the UK’s elections that certain seats are deemed ‘safe’ because the majority of one party is so strong. In the UK around half the seats are safe ones, thus around half of the population is effectively disenfranchised. This has contributed to great political corruption; if as an MP you know that your majority is impregnable you are unlikely to be responsive to your constituents. It is also partly responsible for low turnout, if for example, you are a Labour supporter in a hugely safe Conservative seat, why bother to vote at all?

Lack of Real Choice

First Past the Post strongly encourages 2 party, as opposed to multi-party politics, thus limiting the choice available to us. If you are a smaller party, say UKIP, it is no use chalking up 10% in every constituency in the land. Only if you have concentrated support in one constituency of at least 30% might you win any parliamentary representation at all. As a result UK voters have been denied choice, and political parties have looked increasingly similar to one another. Under a more representative system we could expect to see: a strong Green party, a genuine Socialist Party, and Libertarian Party and many others. At present when parties like these stand they have next to no chance of getting elected – we should be able to vote for the party of our choice without it being a wasted vote.

Some Votes are More Equal than Others

As at least half of the seats are safe, elections are decided in a relatively small number of ‘swing seats’ that regularly change hands, usually numbering no more than 150. Voters in these constituencies have disproportionate power, and can entirely direct the political direction. For example, the New Labour project was largely based on winning votes in the south east of England, and ignoring Labour supporters in Wales, Scotland and Northern England. These voters were more prosperous and more conservative than Labour voters elsewhere, and the need to win their votes is an example of the electoral system directly affecting the direction of policy, against the wishes of a majority of voters.

So what are the counterarguments? What arguments are made in favour of First Past the Post?

FPTP is tried and tested; we should stick with what we know

Forms of proportional representation are already used in the UK, in the elections to the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the elections to the European Parliament

FPTP gives stable government. Proportional Representation produces coalitions

Firstly, an electoral system doesn’t ‘produce’ anything; it simply reflects the votes cast, in ways of varying quality. In any system a party getting more than 50% of the vote will gain an overall majority. The question is what happens when no party reaches 50%. FPTP produces ‘strong government’ by artificially distorting the result, so that a party winning 38% of the votes can win 60% of the seats. Strong government maybe, but is that what you call democracy? The notion that coalitions = weak government is a nonsense. Many Western Democracies function very well under coalition governments – Ireland, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy, Austria, Canada….. Besides, strong government can produce some pretty ugly results: the Iraq war, ID cards, the poll tax, detention without trial…………..

FPTP connects MPs to their constituents. PR severs that link and gives all the power to party managers who control the lists.

Some forms of PR do maintain a local or regional connection. In the elections for the European Parliament for example, we vote within ‘London’ or ‘The North West’. One of the best forms of PR, STV, is used in Ireland. In it, each constituency elects several members, and you rank the parties, and candidates within the parties, in order of your preference. This makes MPs very responsive to voters, as they compete as to who can serve their constituents best.

It is true that some PR systems do not have a local link. The most proportional system of all would be for each party to produce a list of candidates, and if your party got 25% of the national vote, than the first 25% of your candidates would be elected. But the lists need not be controlled by the party leadership. You can mandate that party members vote on the candidates list, so that the ordering of candidates reflects their popularity within the party. Such a step would arrest the decline in party membership, and encourage civic engagement. The link to locality is not essential – our politics is national, and issues that are genuinely local should be covered in council elections.

So there you have it. Out system is broken, and the few arguments in its favour are very weak.

How we can make the change happen

It is a clear that either a Conservative or Labour government would not grant meaningful electoral reform. It’s clear that a majority Labour government isn’t going to happen, but a majority Conservative government is a genuine possibility. The Conservative would not only refuse to implement electoral reform, but have promised to cut the number of MPs by 10%. What appears to be a cost – cutting move is in fact a disgraceful piece of gerrymandering, designed to rig the system in their favour.

Only a coalition government, in which the Liberal Democrats hold the balance of power will introduce electoral reform. There are two possibilities, Con-Lib and Lab-Lib. The Conservatives have made it extremely clear that they are adamantly opposed to any electoral reform, and would prefer to be a minority government than concede this to the Liberal Government. The Labour party on the other hand, would almost certainly accept a referendum on electoral reform as part of a coalition deal. It already supports a mild form of electoral reform (Alternative Vote) and several cabinet ministers, such as Alan Johnson, support Proportional Representation.

So to get electoral reform we need a hung parliament that produces a Lab – Lib coalition. How can we achieve this?

1. Don’t vote Conservative. A conservative majority will block electoral reform, and push it off the agenda for a generation. Even if they’re just short of a majority, they’ll do a deal with the DUP in order to form a government.

2. Vote tactically for whichever candidate is most likely to defeat the Tories in your constituency. Mostly this will be Labour or Liberal, but occasionally SNP, Plaid Cymru or the Greens, all of whom support electoral reform.

3. In 3 way marginals or Lab- Lib contests vote with your heart, but remember if Labour come third in the popular vote, there will a tremendous amount of pressure on the Lib Dems not to do a deal with them, thus dashing electoral reform. The most likely conditions for a Lib-Lab coalition are if Labour comes second in the vote and has a similar amount of seats to the Conservatives

How do you know which party is best placed to defeat the Tories locally? This requires a little research,

You can look at UK polling report here, which gives the results for 2005, notional results for the new boundaries, and an active comments board for each seat, that is quite revealing.

Here is a guide to the 100 most important seats where tactical voting is likely to be effective. If it covers your constituency then lucky you. If not…

Here are the betting odds for Ladbrokes and William Hill for every constituency. It’s perhaps the most reliable guide, as it features the most up to the minute information.

Admittedly tactical voting may lead you to vote for parties that do not represent your top preference. However if we get this right we may never have to vote tactically again. This is the best opportunity for electoral reform in 30 years, and if its supporters vote carefully in this election we can force a change that will transform British politics forever.

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