Monday, 18 April 2011

Electoral Reform

On the 5th of May this year (2011) the UK will be holding a referendum on changing the voting system from First Past the Post to Alternative Vote. I have been a supporter of electoral reform in the UK for many years. However I do not support change for the sake of change; I try to judge any proposed system on its merits.

The merit (or lack of it) of any electoral system is dependent on what you want from it. Most analysis of electoral systems comes from political parties, who tend to be slightly partisan on such matters, supporting systems that they feel will confer advantage upon them. As a voter I have a slightly different approach: I favour finding a system that will best serve the electorate, giving power to the voters to influence the politicians, and I flatter myself that I have sufficient powers of reason to figure out the best system for myself.

Under the current voting system the UK is divided into 650 constituencies, each of which elects a single member to parliament, using the First Past the Post system. Under this system every person over 18, except prisoners, lunatics and the Queen, has a single vote in one of these constituencies. In each constituency the votes are then added up, and the person with the most votes is elected to the House of Commons, the UK’s lower house. If two candidates have the same number of votes then a pack of cards is cut for the seat.

Legislation in the UK must make it through the House of Commons and the House of Lords (which is made up of a mixture of hereditary peers, life peers appointed by the government, and Anglican bishops) and be ratified by the Queen. The UK has a semi-federal system of government, with four separate nations, three of which (Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland) have their own parliaments. MPs elected from these three nations can vote on legislation that will affect England but not their own constituents, but English MPs have no reciprocal power.



There are a number of objections to this system.

1. Neither any member of the Upper House nor the monarch are in any way accountable to the electorate.

2. The Anglican Church has automatic representation in the Upper House, with 26 Church of England Bishops in the House. Other members of either house can practice any religion they like, except the Prime Minister. Who must not be a Catholic (the Prime Minister does not have to be a Christian, but if he is, then he cannot be a member of the Church of Rome). This is because as the head of the government he appoints Bishops to the Church of England on behalf of the monarch, who is the titular head of the church. The monarch does not actually have to be a member of the Church of England, but must be a protestant.

3. Since the introduction of devolved parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the votes of non-English MPs have been used to introduce a number of deeply unpopular measures in England.

4. Not all constituencies in the UK are of equal size, ranging from Na h-Eileanan an Iar (formerly known as the Western Isles & still referred to as such in the Scottish Parliament, where they presumably have no truck with all this Gaelic business) with 21,837 voters to the Isle of Wight with 110,924 voters at the 2010 election; on average non-English constituencies tend to be smaller than English ones.

5. Once MPs are elected voters have no way of holding them to account until the next election, should an MP brake his election pledges, defect to another party, or even be convicted of a moderately serious crime.

6. Few governments are elected on a majority of the votes cast, this is not necessary as long as they gain a majority of the seats. Most MPs are elected on less than 50% of the votes cast.

7. Many constituencies are considered ‘safe’ that is to say one political party has a sufficiently high following that it knows it will always (barring some terrible scandal) win the seat, so the concerns of individual voters can be ignored. Other seats are ‘two-horse-races’, two political parties could potentially win the seat, but supporters of other parties are effectively excluded.


The proposed reform is intended to address these last two problems, but none of the others.

Under AV voters in would no longer vote for a single candidate, but would number the candidates in order of preference. The votes would then be counted, and if any candidate had one more than 50% of the votes, then they would be declared the winner, otherwise the candidate with the least number of votes eliminated. These votes would then be reassigned to the next indicated preference. If at this point one of the candidates had obtained more than 50% of the votes then they would be declared the winner, otherwise the process would be repeated until one candidate obtained more than 50% of the votes.



The proponents of electoral reform within the current government coalition are the Liberal Democrats; a party who have long supported electoral reform and for whom it was a manifesto pledge. However the Liberal Democrats had previously campaigned not for the Alternative Vote system, but for Proportional Representation. This has lead to some slightly confused messages coming from some of their supporters, who don’t always seem to have thought through the implications of AV.

Proportional Representation works like this. Everybody has one vote in a national election, but instead of voting for a candidate, they vote for a preferred political party. These votes are then counted for the whole nation, or possibly a few large regional constituencies. The votes are then added up, and seats in parliament handed out according to the proportion of votes one by each party. If a party wins 30% of the votes, they get 30% of the seats. If they win 5%, they get 5% of the seats, etc. This better reflects they voting preferences at party level, but removes the ability of voters to prefer a particular candidate.

Also worth mentioning at this point is the Single Transferable Vote system (STV). Under STV the country is divided into a number of large regional constituencies, and voters asked to list candidates in the same way as under AV, but with the intent of electing a number of representatives from the region. Historically the terms AV and STV have been somewhat interchangeable, so some older (or non-UK) literature talking about STV may actually refer to AV.

The other political party in the current coalition government, the Conservative Party, oppose any form of electoral reform, though some members do support change. The main opposition party, Labour, voted narrowly to back the introduction of AV just before the last election, though many members still oppose it, and are actively campaigning against it. So we have a referendum on an electoral system supported by an opposition party, but not the government who are proposing to introduce it, and some of the government will be supporting the system, which they oppose, whereas some of the opposition will be opposing the system that they support. To confuse matters a little bit more, many commentators are urging people to vote one way or another as a mark of approval or disapproval on the coalition government; however not everyone can agree on whether a yes or a no would be better for the coalition.

Having identified the problems with the UK electoral system (as I see them) it seems sensible to look at how the current, proposed, and any other conceivable system might address them.

1. Neither any member of the Upper House nor the monarch are in any way accountable to the electorate.


No amount of tinkering with the way MPs are elected to the House of Commons will alter these issues. When Tony Blair was elected in 1997 he pledged to replace the House of Lords with an elected Second Chamber. However after replacing the majority of Hereditary Peers with Life Peers (i.e. ones he could appoint) he seemed to lose interest in reform. Similarly Nick Clegg campaigned on the basis that he would seek to introduce an elected Second Chamber, however since the election he has withdrawn from this position somewhat. He is currently looking into replacing the current house with a chamber made up of 80% elected representatives, and 20% religious leaders, an expanded figure that will also include Roman Catholic bishops and some other religious leaders. It is not clear if this will ever be put to the electorate.

Under the current political system all MPs are obliged to swear allegiance to the Monarch to take up their seats, so no party is able to campaign on a republican ticket, with the exception of Sinn Fein, an Irish party who also want independence from the UK, and pretty much that the rest of us can go to Hell. Sinn Fein do not approve of Parliament, and never take their seats up anyway. This is of little use to anyone who does not live in Northern Ireland, or who wishes to remove the monarch without breaking up the UK. Other that that a few Labour politicians over the years have been acknowledged republicans, but there has never been any likelihood of the Labour Party becoming officially republican. There is a Republic Campaign outside of parliament.

2. The Anglican Church has automatic representation in the Upper House, with 26 Church of England Bishops in the House. Other members of either house can practice any religion they like, except the Prime Minister. Who must not be a Catholic (the Prime Minister does not have to be a Christian, but if he is, then he cannot be a member of the Church of Rome). This is because as the head of the government he appoints Bishops to the Church of England on behalf of the monarch, who is the titular head of the church. The monarch does not actually have to be a member of the Church of England, but must be a protestant.


Both Tony Blair and Nick Clegg promised to remove Bishops from the House of Lords before they were elected. Tony Blair forgot this promise once he was in office, and Nick Clegg appears to have done the same; he is even apparently considering increasing the number of Bishops in the Upper House.

Former Conservative leader Ian Duncan Smith is openly a Catholic, and stood for office as Prime Minister as such. Had he won a popular mandate it is probable that we would have had to drop the requirement that the Prime Minister should not be a Catholic, or at least had a serious debate about the issue. Tony Blair apparently secretly converted to Catholicism, either while he was in office, or before hand. By doing this, rather than being open and honest about his beliefs, he removed the possibility of a proper debate, and left a lot of people in the UK rather more suspicious of the Catholic Church than they had previously been. This was not helped by an education policy that encouraged the expansion of faith schools, and the appointment of one-or-two Cabinet Ministers whose main qualification appeared to be their (Catholic) faith.

As Deputy-Prime Minister Nick Clegg is free to practice whatever religion he chooses. However prior to the last election he made some show of being a secular atheist, and expressed opposition to presence of Bishops in the House of Lords and the expansion of faith-based education in the UK. Since the election he has become a supporter of the expansion of faith based education, started sending his children to the same exclusive Catholic school as Tony Blair, and is considering introducing automatic seats for Catholic Bishops in the House of Lords. This does little to allay the suspicion that the Catholic Church’s involvement in politics is a bit sinister.

Ultimately the only body that can address this is the Catholic Church itself. In order to gain the respect of the majority of the public, and official equality in parliament, it needs to make sure that Catholic politicians are open about their beliefs, and make it clear that it will not welcome political favours, whether from Catholic or non-Catholic politicians.

Beyond that there are a number of organisations that campaign for the separation of the Church and the State, most notably the National Secular Society, the British Humanist Association and Ekklesia. These oppose the presence of Bishops in the House of Lords, and the connection between the Church and the State. If this link were to be broken then the PM would no longer be responsible for the appointment of Anglican Bishops, and so could practice what religion he liked. In most other countries Episcopalian Bishops are elected by their congregation, an idea that is welcomed by many secular Christians (secular non-Christians tend not to worry about how Bishops are appointed).

3. Since the introduction of devolved parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the votes of non-English MPs have been used to introduce a number of deeply unpopular measures in England.


Again, changing the way in which MPs are elected will not alter this. This problem only dates back to the 1990s, when Tony Blair’s New Labour government introduced devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each with slightly different sets of powers. It was also proposed that a number of English regional devolved authorities be created, again each with differing powers. These proposals were put to referenda, but whereas the Scots, Welsh and Irish welcomed devolved authority, the English were by-and-large suspicious of having their nation divided up under different regional authorities and rejected this (not all regions ever got to vote at all, the first referenda went badly and the rest were dropped). Instead the government set up a number of unelected regional development authorities (which were on the whole loathed), and retained much control over English legislation in the national parliament, where Scottish, Irish and Welsh MPs could vote on it. Here MPs belonging to nationalist parties have tended to abstain from voting on English legislation, but MPs from national parties representing seats outside England have often helped to push through legislation deeply unpopular in England.

There is no easy solution to this. The most logical solution is that the powers of the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland be equalized, and that an English Parliament also be created; there is a Campaign for an English Parliament, which advocates just that. Opponents of this idea fear that the creation of an English Parliament would hasten the disintegration of the UK. They favour either retaining the current system (unpopular in England), removing the regional assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (unpopular outside England) or creating a two-tier system whereby only English MPs can vote on English legislation (messy). Nationalist politicians in Scotland, Ireland and Wales favour the break up of the UK, which would solve the problem, albeit in a rather drastic way.

4. Not all constituencies in the UK are of equal size, ranging from Na h-Eileanan an Iar (formerly known as the Western Isles & still referred to as such in the Scottish Parliament, where they presumably have no truck with all this Gaelic business) with 21,837 voters to the Isle of Wight with 110,924 voters at the 2010 election; on average non-English constituencies tend to be smaller than English ones.


The Alternative Vote system, which would not in itself change the nature of the constituencies, is no different from the First Past the Post system in this respect (Proportional Representation would have addressed this issue, but it is not being offered as a choice in the forthcoming referendum). However the government is also legislating for changes to the boundaries of UK constituencies, which could potentially remedy this problem. The full details of this reform are not yet available, but we do know the following:

• The total number of parliamentary constituencies will be reduced, from 650 to 600. 31 constituencies will be lost in England, 7 in Scotland, 10 in Wales and 2 in Northern Ireland.
• Na h-Eileanan an Iar will remain as a constituency with the same boundaries, the Isle of Wight will be divided into two constituencies.
• Most constituencies will contain between 72,810 and 80,473 voters. This will not apply to Islands or sparsely populated regions (most of which are in Scotland)
• Unlike the proposed change to the voting system, boundary changes will not be subject to a referendum.


This will go some way to equalizing the size of UK constituencies, but will still leave some glaring inconsistencies, in particular that Scottish constituencies will remain smaller than English ones, which combined with the ability of Scottish MPs to vote on issues that will effect England but not Scotland, is likely to be unpopular. Some people are suspicious that the boundary changes will unduly favour the coalition parties.

5. Once MPs are elected voters have no way of holding them to account until the next election, should an MP brake his election pledges, defect to another party, or even be convicted of a moderately serious crime.


At the last election both Nick Clegg and David Cameron publically stated that they would back the introduction of a system of recall for UK MPs. Both seem to have forgotten this, and there are no plans to introduce any such system, so the only option voters have is to wait until the next election to remove MPs. Under proportional representation even this option could disappear, as a candidate unpopular with the electorate, but close to his or her party leadership, might be placed to far up the party’s list to be removed easily.

6. Few governments are elected on a majority of the votes cast, this is not necessary as long as they gain a majority of the seats. Most MPs are elected on less than 50% of the votes cast.


Alternative Vote will go some way towards addressing this, as in order to get elected an MP would need to gain 50% of the votes cast in his or her constituency, even if not the first choice. This will remove the situation where a candidate backed by 40% of the electorate but loathed by the other 60% gets into power because two similar candidates net 30% of the vote each. It will also make it possible for voters to vote for smaller parties that where they might otherwise have feared wasting their vote and letting in an unacceptable candidate. This can be important if voters wish to register their views on certain issues. For example the Green Party gained about 1% of the vote in most UK constituencies at the last election, but it would be unwise (or disingenuous) to believe that 99% of the UK population are uninterested in environmental issues.

Proportional Representation would also have addressed this issue, but in a slightly different way. Under PR parties are allocated seats on the basis of their proportion of the votes cast. Thus a party would need to get more than 50% of the votes to gain an overall majority. This generally leads to far more coalitions than under other systems, since parties seldom gain more than 50% of the vote. Cynics have suggested that the Liberal Democrats support for PR stems from their status as the UK’s third largest party, with a position on the political spectrum between the other two main parties, which could potentially make them a more-or-less permanent party of government (although it is far from clear if they will remain the UK’s third party at the next election, given the high levels of public disapproval for their performance in office). Opponents of PR tend to dislike the potential for coalitions, pointing out that election pledges are easier to forget in a coalition government, and that small fringe parties may hijack governments.

7. Many constituencies are considered ‘safe’ that is to say one political party has a sufficiently high following that it knows it will always (barring some terrible scandal) win the seat, so the concerns of individual voters can be ignored. Other seats are ‘two-horse-races’, two political parties could potentially win the seat, but supporters of other parties are effectively excluded.

The Alternative Vote system is intended specifically to address this, though it cannot help where a very large proportion of the electorate are unswervingly loyal to a single party. In other cases the possibility of listing candidates means that people may feel able to back smaller parties, at least registering their opinions, and that the option of doing this may in time break down large majorities in favour of more pluralistic voting.

However the best way to strengthen the power of voters of over parliament is to reduce the size of the constituencies. Where there are less voters in a constituency the MP must be more careful not to upset them. In a larger constituency the MP can afford to alienate a few voters. Under the Proportional Representation a candidate’s position on the party’s list could be more influential on their chance of election than their ability to please voters; this is likely to increase the power of party leaders over MPs at the expense of voters.

It is not always generally appreciated, but the British voter was at his (& I mean his) most powerful in the eighteenth century, when parliament was dominated by Rotten Boroughs. At this time only landowners had the vote, and a landowner who owned all the land in a constituency could effectively appoint both its MPs (constituencies used to each have two MPs); a wealthy landowner could potentially own several constituencies. This made voters very powerful, though it didn’t do much for the millions of people who lacked the vote.

Decreasing the number of constituencies (which is being planned by the government) means that in almost all cases the size of constituencies will rise, this decreases the value of the individual vote. It seems paradoxical but the best way to reduce the power of the UK’s politicians might be to radically increase their numbers.

No comments:

Post a Comment