Yesterday saw the announcement of details of the coalition government’s plan for a voting reform referendum.
As suspected true proportional representation (PR) isn’t on the table. Instead the choice is between the current first past the post (FPTP) system and the proposed alternative vote (AV) system.
What is FPTP?
This is relatively simple, and is the current system by which MPs are elected to Westminster. Each member of the electorate has a single vote with which they can express a single preference. The candidate with the most votes wins. This is nice and simple, conventional, and results in, as its detractors would say, in a situation where the winner generally receives less than 50% of the vote. With a 3+ party system, the ‘winner’ usually has more people voting against them than for them. A further disadvantage is that minority views from the electorate are not represented in parliament.
What is AV?
This is a slight variation on FPTP in which the electorate have the ability to express a ranking preference. After counting first preference votes if no candidate has an outright majority (50%+ of the votes) then the last placed candidate is eliminated and any votes they received are redistributed according to the second preference. This process repeats until a single candidate has 50%+ of the votes (or I guess until there is only one candidate left). This system prevents a result in which more people voted against the winner than for the winner, but does still leave minority views unrepresented.
What is PR?
Proportional representation systems vary, but the intended result is to elect a candidates from parties as appropriate to the proportional vote those parties receive during the voting process. There is generally a minimum threshold of votes required, after which if a party receives 10% of the vote, they can expect to win 10% of the seats up for grabs.
This system ensures that (after the certain threshold) the views of the electorate are reflected proportionally in (for example) the House of Commons.
How could PR work in the UK?
This is the big issue. A PR system isn’t really compatible with our current system by which we have one winner per constituency, and would need to go hand-in-hand with other changes. This does present a good opportunity for wholesale democratic changes, though obviously the more you wish to change, the harder it is to get agreement.
Without going into too much detail, one way to incorporate PR into our constituency system would be to still elect one MP per constituency (based on a FPTP/AV system) and tallying up all additional votes nationally to get a sense of the proportion of the country voting for certain parties, and then to use a list system to elect parties to the House of Lords based on the proportion of the vote.
This would maintain the link between MP and constituency, and democratise the House of Lords completely. For those who object to minority-view parties being elected (by very fact that they have the minority of the vote and shouldn’t get to have any power at all – glossing over whether this is a fair perspective or not), there is some consolation that the PR elected candidates only get to provide oversight from the Lords rather than more direct influence in the Commons.
This also mitigates the problems of how to deal with a perceived mandate to govern for a wholly elected Lords – as the election occurs simultaneously with that of the Commons, it is the commons that has the clearer ‘majority’ mandate to govern. Whereas the Lords would only have the ‘minority’ mandate to make sure the views of minorities are heard and considered by government.
With the Liberal Democrats consistently being a strong proponent of proportional representation* it is very disappointing to find them settling for this compromise, especially as it does not seem like a compromise. If the Conservative element of the coalition are reserving the right to campaign for a ‘no’ vote, then why are the Liberal Democrats compromising at all?
Artificial inflation of turn-out
Another disappointment is that there seems to be more uproar over the timing of the referendum as opposed to the exact question of the referendum itself. There seems some concern that presenting the referendum at the same time as other elections is both insulting to those other elections (how?), and also will artificially inflate the rate of response. It is disgusting for elected representatives to be heard suggesting that taking advantage of a voter’s presence in a voting booth to ask for additional voter opinions is artificial. I want to hear our representatives looking for ways to increase voter turn-out, not decrease it!
Yes or No to AV?
If it becomes clear that the only choice on offer in the referendum in FPTP or AV, then it is clear what is better. You can only choose from the options available, and AV is fractionally a better system that FPTP, and as such would have by support.
*To the point where Straw recalled that Clegg, during the general election campaign, told The Independent that the alternative vote system was a ‘miserable little compromise’, and ‘I am not going to settle’ for that.