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Posts Tagged ‘Electoral reform’

No2No2AV

In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics, The Media on September 27, 2010 at 4:18 pm

David Weber

I do not have particularly high hopes for the hopefully forthcoming referendum on the Alternative Vote. My reasons are mainly that it tends to be the most intelligent, careful reforms which garner the least respect from those who are interested in them. Therefore, I would not be at all surprised if many of those who advocate electoral reform simply do not turn out, or actually vote “no” next May. To the passionate advocate of PR, all that matters is the national outcome. On the local level, the strength of personal representation, and the quality of debate during an election, are all unimportant.

However, one thing I do respect about the objections of more radical constitutional reformers is that they at least have accuracy in mind. Despite a misplaced focus, their objections are entirely correct. The Alternative Vote is not more proportional than First Past the Post. This is because it does nothing to reform the basis of the system, which is local, nor the form of representation, which is direct. Instead, it merely makes the form of these elections fairer.

So though it might be a game-changer during individual elections, it will do little to change the party system. The two parties would likely remain entrenched in United Kingdom politics. The Liberal Democrats would likely become more listened to, but only marginally more representated. Independents would be able to stand in good conscience of contributing to the debate without splitting the vote — but that is all. Moreover, extreme parties like the BNP would become more frozen out than ever from hope of winning seats, as the system of election would rely on finding broader support among the electorate.

So I respect the objections of many to AV, despite supporting it firmly myself and believing it would do a lot to improve the fairness of political discourse. It is a ‘small’ reform, the electoral equivalent of the first stage of Lords reform, designed to make a flawed system stronger without overhauling its composition. So no wonder why it is so unlikely to incur passionate support in the electorate. I doubt we would have flocked to the polls in support of the constitutional reforms of the past 13 years, for they have nearly all been the minor, careful reforms that are the proud tradition of the British Constitution.

However, if I am resigned to expecting an unenthusiastic debate at best, I would at least have hoped for an honest one. Not so, it seems. For the more verocious opponents of any change whatsoever, every argument is fair game, no matter how mis-informed or, indeed, deliberately misleading.

Or so a recent article by Matthew Elliott, chairman of the “No2AV” campaign, would suggest. In it, Elliott impressively manages not only to lower the tone of the whole political debate, but also apply the wrong arguments at every corner. Not since Simon Heffer accused Gordon Brown of trying to introduce PR have I seen someone so wilfully misunderstand one of the most simple reforms to the electoral system there is. Elliott manages to use Australia to back up his argument that AV will “lead to permanent hung parliaments”, apparently having missed the fact that Australia had only 6 Hung Parliaments in the previous century — despite having shorter parliamentary terms than the UK, at 3 years.

Elliott also claims that AV would not address what Nick Clegg calls the “scandal” of safe seats. Here is is in less uninformed company, as this is often an argument made hastily by some Lib Dems. The reality is that it is utterly counter-intuitive to suggest that AV would do nothing about safe seats, because many are won by under 50%, or barely over that mark. Bringing the threshhold of election to 50% would have the effect of suddenly making many of these MPs more wary, as they realised that a sudden swing of unpopularity in their direction and the votes of their opponents could easily stack up against them.

This brings me to an earlier point he makes, that the system violates OMOV (One man, One Vote). This is one of the most baffling criticisms of AV that I’ve come across, as it appears to confuse the act of voting with the process of elections. Under AV, anyone can fill out a full preference vote. So it is clearly not the case, as Elliott seems to think it is, that only the supporters of minor parties get to “vote multiple times”. Yet if this is not what Elliott refers to, then he can only mean the process of election, i.e. which votes “count” towards electing the winner.

If Elliott refers to the process of election, then by his own logic First Past the Post would be a far worse offender. Under AV, 50% of the votes might end up “counting” to the election result. But under First Past the Post, there is no lower limit to the amount of votes that have to “count”. So in other words, First Past the Post would be a massive failure of OMOV. The winner does not even have to gain a majority of votes, merely a plurality — one more than his nearest rival. AV is not particularly representative in terms of “which votes count”, but FPTP is dreadful. Elliott might as well claim that the 2005 Conservative leadership election violated OMOV, because some people voted for Ken Clarke in the first round and David Cameron in the last, while some people voted both times for Cameron.

Luckily, I don’t think we need accept Elliott’s definition of OMOV, because no system has yet been devised by man to allow every single vote to count toward an election result, even that holy grail of voting systems, STV. To my mind, and to the minds of most, I think, OMOV merely means giving everyone the same voting opportunities — i.e. not giving a landowner two votes more than a tenant. How they use that vote and to what advantage is entirely up to them.

Elliott also characterises the current electoral system as “long-standing”. I suppose this depends on your definition, but to most historians, I suspect it would be anything but. First Past the Post was not been used to elect every single MP until after the second world war. Prior to that, there were multi-member constituencies in places, and at one time there were many. In fact, the gradual change of our electoral system from the time of rotten Boroughs to today is a great argument against the idea that the British Constitution has been successful and unchanging. All too often, it has been neither.

Nor is it the case to claim that electoral reform, or “political tinkering” was unheard of in ages gone past. One of the lesser-known measures of the 1867 reform act was Limited Voting, where multi-member constituencies would elect 3 members on 2 votes per person, thus providing for minority representation — in some ways, a simpler version of what STV attempts to do. Other ideas in the past have included STV elections for the cities and towns, and AV for the counties. And a bill to introduce AV for elections in the UK was only thwarted by the House of Lords back in 1931.

As for First Past the Post producing “clear and uncomplicated election results”, it’s surprisingly difficult to work out what those election results mean sometimes. I’m not referring, unlike Elliott, to hung Parliaments (though it is worth noting the two results of 1951 and 1974, when governments were ousted despite winning the support of more people than their challengers). But I’m referring to what election results are precisely taken to mean.

1992 is a brilliant example. When formulating their review into the electoral system, the Jenkins commission effectively made one of their criteria that the system they recommended would have delivered a hung parliament in 1992, but not in 1983 or 1987. Quite why they did this is unclear, for John Major’s conservative party suffered a mere -0.3% swing at the polls in 1992, and actually won more actual votes than they had in the previous election, 1992 being something of a triumph for turnout. The reason Major’s majority was reduced to a mere 21 is almost entirely down to the workings of First Past the Post — yet the Jenkins Commission appeared to not even consider this, because of the widespread (and false) idea that the Conservative party lost much of their support at the polls in 1992.

Or what about 1983? The triumph for the Thatcherite government, returned with a majority of 144? Not necessarily. The proportion of the voting electorate they secured had actually fallen, from 43.9% to 42.4%. The old adage is true — you can prove anything with statistics, and what FPTP actually does is to add to the confusion of election results. (It is, however, true that Labour were roundly punished at that election, losing over 9% of the voting electorate. This, more than anything, was the reason for the sweeping victory the Tories’ secured).

As for accountable government (or accountable opposition, as we have just seen), AV might not change much on the national scale, but it cannot be denied that it is a way of making individual MPs more accountable. What the Conservatives have tentatively suggested with one or two open primaries is in some ways very similar. And the way the Conservative party elects its leader is also very similar, being a series of run-off elections. AV simulates run-off elections, at a fraction of the cost. Indeed, it is ironic that, given their support for FPTP, the Conservative party is strangely lacking in exercising that system in its internal party democracy. I suppose this is no less dubious than Labour’s stance — the only party to propose the system in their manifesto, who now oppose a bill to introduce it after they were defeated on an amendment.

So to sum up, I think I would prefer it if proponents of PR were allowed to chair the No2AV campaign. Then at least we would have some real understanding of electoral reform. It would also make life easier for the Conservatives to get on with what they’ve always done at their best — outflank the opposition. There are few legitimate reasons for the Conservatives to oppose AV. It does all of what they regard as good and right in First Past the Post, better, with a few additional advantages of its own. The only criticisms that are really applicable come from quite different directions.

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Be Wary of Expecting a Hung Parliament

In Uncategorized on February 21, 2010 at 5:34 pm

By David Weber

With the Polls down to as little as a 6% gap between Labour and Conservatives, the narrative of a hung parliament is becoming ever-more-popular. There are reasons to be wary of such an argument, however.

Firstly, one has to remember the question of momentum. Despite some tentative recovering steps in the last month, and an opposition that has seen a remarkable stalling in their previously admirable PR machine, the government still remains on a knife-edge where unity is concerned. Only on Friday the announcement of James Purnell that he would step down as an MP nearly translated into another huge backlash in the media against the governing party’s unity. Although there is the question of whether the media truly does play a role in shaping public opinion with its reporting of minor upsets like this, or rather follows it, it is not a call I would imagine any party would wish to make. History is against them when it comes to the role of unity during an election campaign, as well. In 1997, the Tories called an unusually long campaign, of  6 weeks, prior to the election, and rather than this being an asset, it turned into a disaster, as party disunity accumulated even more strongly than it might otherwise have done.

Secondly and perhaps more importantly, the media’s narrative so far as the electoral map is concerned is very, very simplistic. It appears to have decided on an easy to understand line that 9% is the required lead for Cameron and Co. to secure a majority, but as with most simple statements in politics, it is far from the truth. The actual truth depends very much on the electoral geography; where Cameron gains votes just as much as how many.

Stephen Wan talks in his latest article, in reply to James Langford, of the co-incidence of a more serious decline in turnout with the rise of New Labour. I hope that I am not betraying a partisan flavour when I argue that I do not view this to be entirely fair. He is certainly right to point out the correlation — unusually, the landslide change in government in 1997 took place on a significantly reduced turnout (c. 77%>71%), compared to the previous two changes in government, which had occured on an increased turnout. However, I feel very strongly that it is unfair to translate this correlation into causation, or to blame New Labour for using what methods were open to it.

The fact is that to say that spin and PR are to blame is not likely to be true. Spin and PR have been with us throughout the ages, and a natural human trait. It is far more likely to be science and technology, rather than the arts of deceit, that have progressed in the last couple of decades, leading to an alienation of the increasing number of voters who simply Do Not Matter. And indeed, one thing that was notable about the 1992 election was how many people got it wrong — the media, the polling organisations, even the parties. Though it is not likely that either party expected Labour to win, at least some Conservatives were surprised at just how many seats were lost on a net -0.3% shift in their vote, and conversely many were surprised at the extend of the “Shy Tory” factor in the polls.

Fast forward to the last decade of politics, and there is a very different picture. No polling upset, to my knowledge, has been as great since, and the last three elections have seen, according to reports, a significant advancement in the science of electoral dynamics, with people like Philip Gould and Lynton Crosby proving a huge asset to the Labour and Conservative parties respectively. Inside reports from the Conservative party have talked of the “love-bombing” of marginal voters in marginal constituencies during the 2005 general election, and if more recent polling is anything to go by, Labour have little to celebrate. A recent article in the Guardian by Andrew Sparrow reported that the Conservative lead has been consistently higher in the Marginal seats, enough to potentially translate to 20-30 extra seats — a significant number, enough to spell the difference between a minority and majority government.

It would be ironic if Cameron won, not on a huge majority of national votes, and not on an increased turnout, but simply due to an ever-more effective science of electoral geography. I sincerely hope this is not the case — not least because some of the alternatives, such as the Conservatives gaining less seats for more votes, could possibly prove a catalyst for real electoral reform — whereas more of the same, with a party winning on ever less votes, will simply lead to stagnation.

Addendum: At the time of writing, I incorrectly referred to Andrew Sparrow as ‘Anthony Sparrow’. This has now been corrected.

MP’s Expenses – Good for Democracy!

In Events, Home Affairs, The Media on February 20, 2010 at 9:49 pm

 By James Langford

Scandal has rocked the news, it’s rocked Parliament and it’s rocked democracy. After this latest landslide attempts have begun to rebuild the relationship between Parliament and the people. What exactly has happened since and what does the future hold for this country? This article will attempt to examine some of these issues and offer a wider perspective into the new world of politics.

Firstly it is a new world. The expenses scandal has been good for us – it’s brought politics alive again – while many may not be able to name Gordon Brown as leader of the Labour Party they will all be able to dub their MP a thief. They’ve all come to the conclusion that politicians are no good and that politics itself is a dead end – part of the problem rather than the art of resolution. If you don’t believe what I’ve just pointed out then I suggest you go canvassing some time in the near future – it’s all people want to talk about on the doorstep – and believe me they are angry and they want their elected representatives to know.

So that is the founding premise of this article – I’ll say it again – the expenses scandal has been good for democracy. Many things have happened since. Firstly Parliament has conducted the deepest internal audit possible with thousands being paid back and in the longer term many MPs announcing they will not be seeking re-election. This is brilliant – we will have more new faces to politics after the next election than ever before. The establishment has gone – new faces will bring a new politics.

One example that springs to mind is Sir Nicholas Winterton. He recently publicly criticized removing the first class train ticket allowance MPs currently enjoy. This desire to protect certain privileges is not the mindset we want from an MP and I hasten to add by no means representative of the modern conservative party (hence Cameron’s spokesman who quickly wished to deny affiliation with these comments).

What’s more we have gone further. Not only has every guilty MP been ridiculed by the media (the onslaught was led by the Telegraph) but those guilty of the most heinous abuses are going to face prosecution. Natural justice and the rebalancing of democracy are once again in play with public demand making inaction almost impossible. In the future Sir Christopher Kelly will redefine the scope of allowances for parliamentarians and we can be sure systemic abuse will never occur on such a scale again.

However all of these actions are to be expected. They’re not particularly interesting (although it will be something special if those MPs facing charges are convicted) and none of them really deal with my founding premise. In fact the results of this scandal (those not being reported by the media) are much more interesting. In essence democracy has been re-born, and after a baptism of fire, people are looking to see if this is the ideal which they can still idolize.

At a national level the result has been for Labour to once again explore a change of voting system. Alas, this shows that those who permanently reside in Westminster (and not their constituencies) don’t understand what is happening. A change of voting system is profoundly reckless – as I will go on to show Westminster is not where the solution to this problem lies and we must solve this problem before we go on to tackle the issue of electoral reform. This article is neither supports or challenges the need for electoral reform.

It is at a constituency level where the most interesting changes are taking place. I’ve already indicated – people are once again interested in politics. These are people who have always had ideas about what should change but now they are more willing to voice them and more willing to criticize national politics. This has re-opened a dialogue between local parties, their MP’s, Parliamentary Prospective Candidates and the people they wish to serve. They’re not talking about the big things which politicians so regularly love to get involved in – they’re talking about the local issues which matter to them.

It is very difficult to exemplify this and I am certainly not about to talk of my own experiences of this at a local level. However one example of MPs reconnecting with the people does spring to mind: broadcast on channel 4 “Tower Block of Commons” aims to show four MPs what it’s like to live in a rough urban tower block. No one could have predicted the results of this experiment and I admire the four MPs who were brave enough to take part.

The show puts MPs in some of the most difficult circumstances which many people have to endure every day. From living off benefits to finding syringes at your doorstep MPs and the wider public are offered a real insight into this lifestyle. The different MPs all adapt to cope with the situations which they face and I believe (as the program seems to suggest) that there were some real benefits to the local communities which took part in this experiment.

This is what I’m trying to get at; all of the people on this program are not talking about budget deficits or inflation but they are talking about community centers and gangs. Moreover we also get to see different reactions to the BNP – some want to vote for them while others find their presence utterly unhelpful. My conclusion here is becoming evident – the old westminster politics has to go – democracy is alive again. The best place for politics is on the doorstep and in the community – not in London. Parliament has great potential to install real change but the most effective changes are often delivered at a local level and it is here where our new parliamentarians must now focus their time.

Interestingly Labour MP Austin Mitchell who took part in the tower block of commons describes the show as an attempt to demonstrate that MPs are out of touch, with the aim of the show focused on ruining the image of MPs. In his case the show did both. He was the only participant not to live and eat with the residents he met but rather demanded his own flat and that his wife join him. He refused to live off JSA and instead was busy hosting dinner parties in his flat as well as escaping to friends for dinner. He’s certainly a great character and the work he did with the youth center was beneficial. Yet I think he failed to grasp the opportunity which so many MPs have missed. This was a show all about connecting MPs with reality and I think Mr Mitchell probably missed some of this reality by not fully connecting with the life of a resident in a tower block.

Democracy is alive my friends and we want to keep it this way. If we can once again stimulate a full revival in local politics and get it right the national scene will sort itself out. This next election is the most important ever – it’s time to transfer voter apathy into votes! If parties work together to rebuild the image of politics we can solve so many of our current political problems. We can, we will, we must!

Of Primary Concern

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, The Media on October 21, 2009 at 8:45 pm

David Weber

I have blogged on Primaries before, when it was hot on the political Radar following the Tories’ publicity scoop in Totnes, and thought then it was a very difficult issue that, unfortunately, did not avail itself to the normal simple practical level of analysis many policy questions do, but could have momentous future implications. In this respect it is a similar question to most constitutional reform ones, but unlike the electoral reform debate, a lack of such a wide variety of fields of comparison and popularity of debate mean that information is far less available and misinformation far more common.

Such as, for example, the application of the words themselves. The Tories have claimed to have been pioneering primaries around the country. However, though their recent initiative in Totnes did prove that they are at least capable of pulling off something akin to a real primary, most of the numerous events they have labelled as primaries have not actually been anything of a sort. A better term would probably be “Open caucus”.

I may be being a little cynical, but it strikes me that if you advertise something to Conservative party members, then those who turn up with registered places will be conservative party members.

To those who might feel this to be an unfairly semantic distinction, consider what the ‘it’ constitutes. A caucus is an informal meeting, in this case open to anyone who wishes to go and contribute. But meetings in conventional buildings have a limited size, far below the capacity needed to stage a primary for all constituency members. When contrasted with a primary vote conducted by post, the distinction is even greater: for there is not even any travelling distance needed to exercise one’s popular choice. Open caucuses are essentially a lottery as to who gets to vote and who doesn’t.

This aside, consider something further: these open meetings were publicised and advertised on the local Conservative website in advance. Now, I may be being a little cynical, but it strikes me that if you advertise something the most to Conservative party members, and make it possible to reserve tickets in advance, then the vast majority of those who turn up with registered places will be conservative party members. Thus even the description of lottery is too generous — what it really is is an open conservative party selection meeting, to which keen-eyed political independents might secure a place if they’re on the ball.

Now, this sounds like enough of a deconstruction of what looked like a series of noble endeavours by the Conservative party, but there is more. Firstly, even the open primary had a narrowed-down selection of constituency candidates — meaning there had been prior selection by the inner party. This would be anathema to, say, the US system, where the system is open to anyone who wishes to stand as a party candidate (and has the funds to do so, more on that later). Secondly, and also anathema to the US system, only registered party members could stand freely for selection (and quite possibly there were other requirements as well, I am not familiar enough with the internal Conservative party politics to comment, however). This contrasts to the United States, where a formal party organisation structure does not even exist — parties are truly open (to those who have the resources to compete within them, naturally).

But still, maybe, you could argue, there is something genuinely progressive about the idea itself, however flawed the application. And many would argue this to be the case, that primaries genuinely are a positive step in electoral reform.

The fact that primaries open up choice to the electorate is beyond doubt. Even closed primaries require fairly little effort to register for, and are not in fact a complete safe-guard against “opposition voters” attempting to swing the primary, if I remember my A level politics correctly. Open primaries make the debate far less formal and far more open to the vaguaries of the electorate. Party ‘leaders’ have to truly persuade, rather than simply lead; in order to get the type of election desired on the local level, they have to inspire their supporters to come out in enough force as to render any opposition movement redundant. As the political scene in the US indicates, they transform the nature of politics into something quite dramatically alien to a tightly-run system of party selection, as operates in the UK and most European countries.

The difference to PR, which is where most electoral reformers start to back away from the bandwagon, is that primaries have enormous potential to cement the two-party system even further.

It would also be fair to suggest that they weaken the party system, albeit in a rather different way to most electoral reformers seem to be in favour of. The party system becomes far more democratic and far more open to a diverse array of candidates geographically — the US is also an example of this. In a true primary system, where party registration is unnecessary to stand for selection or to vote for it, parties become “broadchurch” entities, where voters can shape them rather than simply elect them, and can secure a minority platform even within a majority party. Though this is technically possible in all systems, it is more of a rarity in British and continental politics.

Of course, the difference to PR, which is where most electoral reformers start to back away from the bandwagon, is that primaries have enormous potential to cement the two-party system even further, despite weakening internal party systems. The reasons for this are multiple.

One of them we have already seen — as they open up the party system to a demonstrable extent, many people would not see the point of third parties anymore. If a party is broadchurch and malleable enough to a minority force, then it often becomes a far more efficient way of entering the political system than the headache of setting up a third party, risking splitting the vote, and fighting an uphill media battle. The electoral glass ceiling is impenetrable enough within first past the post systems such as Britain’s, but the addition of primaries might well institutionalise the two-party system for good — particularly if they are legislated for the two largest parties.

For there could be serious practical objections to any attempt to legislatively extend primaries beyond the main two parties. The first is simply financial. Primaries cost a serious amount of money, and if parties cannot pay for this themselves, then the only alternative is what would amount to de facto funding of the political party process, something I imagine the Conservatives might strongly back away from.

Even if one could ensure that all political parties received independently run primary elections for their selection procedures, the electorate would find themselves inundated with elections. This would raise multiple concerns about media reporting of the primary process too, for if party selection processes are being interfered with to ensure fairness and transparency, the call will immediately be made to do the same for the media’s reporting of it.

Then there is the question of how small parties would cope with a lack of demand for primaries in the first place. For ever constituency contested, there would have to be a minimum of two willing to stand for candidacy. Attempting to create primary elections in every constituency to compete with mainstream parties could squeeze the number of constituency elections small parties are capable of fighting, and thus damn them either for not having sufficient candidates to satisfy primaries, or not being able to contest the optimum number of constituencies.

Rob Brown commented in a recent post on the usefulness of Primaries in terms of furthering electoral reform, however, and it is this which I find most interesting, and wish to consider. Could it be that, despite the practical limitations on the scope for legislating for primaries, they satisfy both the criteria of improving the electoral system, and boosting interest in further, more comprehensive electoral reform?

As we have seen, despite practical considerations, the germ of an idea in theory looks to be a hugely beneficial, corrective of a democratic deficit that exists in safe constituencies, open to greater voter choice and, critically, participation. I clearly agree with Rob of the need to treat the idea of primaries seriously, and that the recent attempts to suggest them have been lacking and, possibly, cynical.

I also consider his argument, that primaries could be a way of cementing interest in electoral reform, to be a compelling one. It is certainly true that it cannot be stated with confidence that introducing primaries would “kill off” the idea of electoral reform, as it would move it high up on the radar, and be certain to stimulate debate, of a quite new kind in British politics, which would be impossible to call. I perhaps think that it is a risk, and that a Conservative government in power could be looking seriously at the prospect of arguing primaries as a way of influencing the electoral reform debate in favour of its own interests, as I have blogged before.

One thing that I perhaps feel very strongly that those on the left (which I make the assumption, perhaps erroneously, that the author of the previous article might broadly include himself with) should feel very cautious about the long-term implications of primaries, in terms of the basis of electoral politics. Now, the left in general, and I am probably stereotyping quite dangerously here, have tended to stress the important of social equality of access and opportunity, particularly recently, with the movement of politics away from the post-war consensus into more liberal territory over the last few decades. Not just social mobility, but an equal start for all groups in society to attain the same opportunities, has been an important theme. The levelling of a playing field that might be tilted at birth, if not culturally loaded against certain social groups.

This explains why argument for electoral reform has tended to be greater among those on the left than those on the right until recently, for the basis of our electoral system is already individualist in structure (with constituencies being directly, individually represented in theory, with no institutional mechanism of party driving the process). Granted, there is a lot more to the debate than this — the system also invariably results in governments to whom the idea of electoral reform is politically undesirable, and the predominance of conservative governments in the latter half of the 20th century doubtlessly also has something to do with the predominance of the debate among the left.

But it is equally undeniable that the broad structure of the debate has tended to be a contrasting of PR against the current system, despite the fact that there are many more nuances to it which often go ignored. Hence the confusion of the media as to exactly what the Alternative Vote is, with Simon Heffer pronouncing it to be a grand plan of Gordon Brown to stay in power through PR, a nonsensical argument. And most systems of PR, and even other alternative systems such as STV, fundamentally change the individualist dynamic of the electoral system, either subjecting it to collective correction in the form of a party mechanism (PR systems), or securing far more moderate outcomes within which collectives can play a more dynamic role (STV).

Both of these corrections enable one crucial thing: they greatly increase the ability of collectives (parties) to ensure greater social access for under-represented social groups. They greatly increase the scope for corrective representation, though naturally they do not guarantee it, for I am sure that certain parties, such as the BNP, would not be interested in furthering this goal. But even there, one could argue that a PR or Moderate Representation system would correct the nature of political representation through the BNP, as one could argue that fascists and racists are under-represented in our national parliament. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is an argument one rarely hears from advocates of PR.

So it is understandable, and in fact natural, that those broadly on the left should favour electoral reform in the direction of PR or similar alternatives, for it has enormous potential to ensure greater social access and equality of opportunity through the political system. The effect of primaries, however, could be in the opposite direction; for primaries open a huge can of worms when it comes to social opportunity and the electoral system.

Firstly, primaries greatly lengthen the election process, immediately adding a burden that will fall disproportionately onto candidates who come from the most disadvantaged circumstances. Though one could argue that this might potentially increase the willingness of parties to direct resources at securing representation of these sort of candidates, this strikes me as grasping at straws, and having far too much faith in the nature of parties, particularly if they were opened up American-style.

Secondly, primaries are problematic from the campaign finance perspective. If you impose strident caps upon individual candidacies, then it is difficult for the primary to be a meaningful one, as candidates will struggle to make themselves heard. In this case, it is quite possible that candidates from disadvantaged circumstances will still disproportionately suffer, as in an election of style and not substance, they could quite forseeably find it hardest on average to appeal to a broad base. Indeed, one could make the case that such candidates would need to spend considerably more than more conventional candidates to receive the same chances, meaning a simple cap upon campaign spending would not be sufficient to level the playing field.

Of course, allow candidates to spend freely in an effort to make the primary process more meaningful and debate-driven, and you have all of the strings that come attached with high-spending primary campaigns, last year’s US presidential primaries being a good example, with Barak Obama backtracking from a campaign promise concerning campaign spending. Another alternative could be complete party funding of primary candidacies, which is problematic from two angles: it would deliver parties an inordinate amount of leverage over the supposedly independent campaigns of the candidates, and it would be unfeasible to think of legislating to such an intrusive degree — and it is incredibly unlikely that all parties would take up such an approach.

And even if neither of these drawbacks existed, there would still be the problem that, in a US open-party style system of primary selection, the process would become far more mainstream and parties would have fewer resources to use the selection process to correct social deficiencies of representation, meaning that the electoral process would become more closed off to candidates from disadvantaged circumstances, and thus disadvantaged social groups would be fighting an even more uphill battle to secure political representation. Thus the problems with primaries appear not only practical but also ideological, and could conceivably have long-term consequences for representation, opportunity and collective opportunities within the electoral system.

Introducing Primaries will not Halt Electoral Reform

In Constitutional Spotlight, Home Affairs on October 12, 2009 at 5:45 pm

By Rob Brown 

First I should say that I believe in democracy and hence I believe in shifting as much power as possible to the electorate; for me this means that electoral reform, primaries and a whole host of other reforms. The reason I address this is because a post by Julian Ware-Lane (who I tend to agree with on constitutional issues) suggests that the introduction of primaries will hold back the introduction of electoral reform.

Julian’s post is focussed on whether primaries are a good thing. That is not the aim of this post, but I must quickly say that the selective way in which primaries have operated in the last few months has been a disgrace; they should be considered and implemented in a way in which they engage everyone; not in a way designed to gain publicity for the resulting candidate.

There is an argument that some change can appease reformers and let constitutional conservatives regain a foothold. For example with the House of Lords, we were told that the original reforms were only the beginning, that soon we would be rid of all the hereditaries and see real movement on the idea of an elected Upper Chamber; no further changes have occurred and a dismally undemocratic House of Lords has become more active with a renewed mandate.  Essentially the argument states that a little change is worse than no change, that to reform we must go the whole hog at once.

I do not think the example or indeed the argument is relevant to this debate because electoral reform and primaries are independent changes, to change primaries would have no necessary bearing on electoral reform. In fact we now have an appetite for constitutional and institutional change among the electorate, this could ensure that once we see primaries run properly, momentum may be built up and the electorate could call for more change.

“We now have an appetite for constitutional and institutional change”


 Another argument, and one Julian makes in the comment section, is that there is no point establishing a system of primaries, if we are to move to a different system, with a different method of selection. There is an element of truth to this, if we were to turn to a system that had multi member constituencies, primaries would become unfeasible, and reduce the role of parties in elections too much. 

However I had my first lecture on political science recently, a point was made by the lecturer that I thought was particularly insightful. He suggested that a judgement in political science is only useful if it has a possibility of actually impacting change (or the lack of it). I would take this logic to a practical level and say that there is no point in suspending primaries in the expectation of the systems that make them untenable when those systems are not going to be adopted in Britain. The only way we will see electoral reform is if Labour win the next general election, which looks unlikely. If they win, then act on their policy and it does not get stopped by the various institutions (three major provisos) then we will likely see one of the following: AV, AV+ or possibly AMS all of which would, in my view, benefit from primaries. The likelihood of getting STV or something similar is tiny and hence makes the point about the irrelevance of primaries irrelevant.

I think primaries will let the public see that constitutional change does not have to be dangerous, since a referendum has been promised on electoral reform this is a particularly important factor. Primaries will enhance the idea of change, enhance the idea of choice and most importantly put power on the hands of the public. Primaries will only work if they become votes on policy and trust not votes based on name recognition or inflated campaign funds. They must be implemented for all constituencies, the major parties for that constituency should all organise them, although that could not be legislated for. Julian mentions cost, an argument I have little time for because the cost of not having primaries is safe seats for life; democracy is worth a bit of money.

“Democracy is worth a bit of money”


In conclusion I think it is clear that the introduction of primaries will not hamper the progress of other reforms, including a change to the voting system. I also don’t treat a change in the voting system as a sort of Holy Grail like many other reformers, it is no more important than the many other democratic changes we need. I want a combination of reforms; rather than aim for a fairer voting system, I would aim for greater devolution. Not just geographical devolution, but devolution of all power to the lowest sensible level. Primaries are integral to the choice the electorate want at election times, while the voting system needs changing, it must not prevent us from moving forward with democracy in other, more obtainable, ways.

MR, DR and PR

In Uncategorized on September 25, 2009 at 9:35 pm

For the first time in a while I have decided to not just begin, but finish a note about voting systems. I have not done this because it is a breathtakingly exciting topic. Indeed, it is academic and dry. Rather, I wish to address what I regard to be some misapprehensions about the subject.

When approaching the issue, most people divide it into a debate between two broad categories of system: Majoritarian, and Proportional Representation. One of these categories is too vague, the other too specific; for the roles most people cast them in.

What people normally mean by majoritarian systems is systems which often grant a majority to the “winning” party, rather than a system of majority rule. These are usually single-member systems such as First Past the Post (FPTP, used in Britain), Alternative Vote (AV, used in Australia) or a two-round system (France). Other systems exist, such as Block Voting, but these are rarely used and for the sake of simplicity we will not focus on them.

Single-member systems do not always grant a majority to the party with the most votes. Indeed, they occasionally grant a majority to the 2nd party (cf. United Kingdom general election, 1951), and extra seats won by a party depend very much on the votes won being in the right areas. For example, in 1992, John Major’s Conservatives lost 40 seats despite only losing a net total of 0.3% of the vote, from the previous election.

This is because the basis for single-member constituencies is Direct Representation (DR) – it is not actually to provide a majority for the winning party. However, these systems most often provide excessive swings for any party that secures a significant lead over its rivals, so the description is fair, if not entirely accurate.

However, when people use the term Proportional Representation, the problem is the opposite: that they are using a specific term to describe a broad variety of systems, some of which are not actually PR in the slightest. One of these is a favourite bugbear of mine: the Single Transferable Vote (unfortunately abbreviated to STV).

Those of you who have heard me on this subject know that I do not consider STV to be PR. I am increasingly of the opinion that it is unhelpful to regard it so.

This is because STV elects individuals, not parties. And the moment the electorate decides to stop voting on party lines, any semblance of party proportionality will be lost.

And if there is one thing common amongst all true PR systems, it is that they must elect parties. As for a system to deliver truly proportional outcomes for parties, then parties as institutions must drive the process. It is for this reason that analyses have found AMS to be far more consistently proportional than either STV, or even any List system which utilises smaller multi-member constituencies. For any form of local or individual basis for a voting system is liable to frustrate the noble ideals of proportionality, because PR is an inherently anti-individualist theory of representation.

What STV actually sets out to achieve is to elect representatives that reflect the broadest possible range of opinion in a community, and minimise so-called “wasted votes”. It must be said that certainly from a mathematical point of view, it does this very successfully. But this theory of representation is certainly nothing to do with parties as institutions, and would be more usefully termed “Moderate Representation”, or MR.

To those who think that this is only an academic point, a technicality, I ask you to take a look at this survey: http://www.democraticaudit.com/download
/mvc.pdf
. In 1997, Labour would not only have still gained a majority on a minority of the vote (admittedly reduced to 44) under STV, but the Conservatives would have won even less seats – compared to the current system, which they were already under-represented by! This struck many people as a surprise, because they had been led to believe STV to be PR – but as STV is actually nothing of the sort, the widespread unpopularity of the Conservatives party and the widespread consensus that Labour was the preferable alternative, even amongst non-Labour voters, conspired to deliver something that was not even vaguely describable as PR.

Thus we have at least three schools of representation that lie at the basis of voting systems, DR, which seeks to elect representatives that directly represent localities, MR, which seeks to elect representatives that broadly reflect the range of opinion in a community, and PR, which seeks to elect party representatives.

Some systems fall into more than one of these categories, and some frustrate all of them. Borda Count is a Direct Representation system that seeks to elect the most consensual candidate, to the extent that a candidate with a majority of first preference votes can be defeated – the only system I know of which can do that. Such a system could be said to be both Direct Representation and Moderate Representation. On the other hand, Block voting is a multi-member, winner-takes-all system which is certainly not MR, and is arguably an example of a more true majoritarian (or more accurately pluralitarian) system.

So it is clear that these categories are inadequate, but this method of analysis already serves us better than the old binary, divisive method, as it looks at the basis of each voting system as well as its outcomes. It is clear that for the sake of accuracy, it is in need of qualification; but I believe that this is a good place to start from when assessing the most common modern voting systems, as it shows somewhat more clearly the variety and range in need of consideration.