An Ideal System?

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I have an interest in electoral reform that long predates the current debate, but I have nonetheless had trouble engaging with it. Rather than a debate on how the mechanics of our democracy should be structured, in typical British fashion, the debate has been turned into a conflict. Rather like what we are used to with Tories vs Labour, but with an added element of cross party backstabbing. I have been particularly aggrieved by the smear campaigns that have come out, with each side taking turns to dress the other up as Holocaust Deniers or worse still, in cahoots with Nick Clegg.

All this is very nice of course, except for the fact that there are many more alternatives to FPTP than AV, most of which are considerably more popular among reformers and more relevant to our democracy. Indeed, there is no night and day difference whatsoever: AV is incredibly similar to FPTP. They are both “majoritarian” systems which twist results to hugely favour the larger parties. They also both preserve the farcical situation whereby parties pander to a handful of middle England swing seats to decide elections, rather than the views of the whole electorate. True, it gives us ‘stable government’ with fewer coalitions, but at what cost? Over the last few decades, ‘stable’ governments have dragged us into illegal wars, passed incredibly unpopular legislation- anyone remember the poll tax riots?- and been elected with as little as 35% of the vote. It’s a situation famously described as ‘elective dictatorship’, and you can see why.

However, if we are going to change the system, we first have to identify what we want from a voting system to begin with. For me, an ideal system does not favour some votes over others, is broadly proportional, maintains a constituency link and produces stable and productive governments, which are accountable to the electorate. Some of these ideas may seem incompatible, and I will concede that there is no perfect system, but that should not stop us identifying some better ones.

The simplest, most widely used and most proportional system of all is the party list system, but such a system would probably not work in Britain. Firstly, it comes at the cost of the local link between an MP and his/her constituents; which despite the strong trend towards partisan voting is still useful and relevant. Furthermore, list systems often encourage the careers of MPs who tow the party line, as candidates rely on their standing in their party, rather than individual talent or popularity, to ensure a safe seat at the top of the list. This is already a real problem in the UK and I am not interested in seeing it exacerbated.

Another alternative is a hybrid system like Multiple Member PR (or MMP), which is used in Scotland and Germany.  IN MMP constituency MPs are retained, but with a proportional element in the form of “top up” representatives, usually elected via a regional list. MMP is an improvement on the systems discussed so far, a good compromise between some of the strengths of FPTP and PR. However, it can also be seen as a worst of both worlds as it is not truly proportional, yet consistently produces coalitions. It also does not tackle the problem of safe seats at all and there is also only marginally more voter choice than under FPTP.

Meanwhile, the longsuffering Electoral Reform Society recommends a change to my personal favourite, the Single Transferable Vote, or STV, a system almost as old as FPTP (it was first used in 1856). This has a number of advantages over the current system. It is far more proportional than FPTP, though not technically PR, and favours parties with a broad base of support. Multi member constituencies ensure there are no “safe seats”, and voters get an unparalleled level of choice as they express a preference not only for a party but an individual candidate within that party. So is this the perfect system for Britain?

Well, the main problems with STV are practical rather than theoretical. The Jenkins Commission, which was set up by the Blair administration in 1998 to investigate a new UK voting system, complains that it is too complex and that voters are more interested in voting for parties than candidates. I would have to concede that there is some truth to this. Even if we are not as stupid as some advocates of FPTP would have us believe, I suspect the majority of voters do indeed see politics in terms of parties rather than individual MPs and this mentality would be tough to change overnight. STV also very rarely gives a majority verdict, which is problematic because coalitions have a reputation, only somewhat deserved, for indecisive government. It is hard to know whether this will happen in the UK, but this problem is solvable in other ways.  We could, for example, separate the executive from the legislature, making our PM simultaneously more accountable and better placed to respond quickly in times of crisis. That is, though, perhaps an idea for another day. In short, there is no easy fix, but as long as we are willing to put the effort in, STV is as ideal as we can reasonably expect.

Article by Joe Williams. Edited by Anna Dewhurst.