Electoral reform 2 – Why we need proportional representation

Welcome to my second post in my section on electoral reform. In my last post, I discussed why First Past The Post (FPTP) is such a bad voting system, and that we lost out by choosing to retain it over Alternative Vote (AV) in the referendum in 2011.

However, I would argue that the main problem with our electoral system is that we have 650 individual geographical elections with one candidate elected from each. This is a problem under either FPTP or AV, or indeed any system that would elect a single candidate from each constituency.

The problem is that general elections are trying to achieve two different things: elect local representatives and also elect a national Parliament. But just adding up the local representatives is a very crude way of forming a national Parliament and, unsurprisingly, it does a very poor job, and results in a fairly arbitrary national distribution of MPs, which doesn’t represent the national vote in any meaningful manner. How close a national election result is isn’t just down to how close the parties are in total votes, but it’s also in large part down to the geographical spread of these votes.

If people’s voting preferences were more evenly spread around the country than they are now, then most constituencies would return similar results to each other at each election. This would mean that the most popular party would always be likely to win the national election with a landslide. This is regardless of whether they had 50% of the national vote, 40%, 30% or whatever. Any diversity in Parliament relies on geographical voting diversity.

The current system favours parties whose support is polarised into strong support in some areas and weak support in others, rather than those parties that have a consistent level of support across the country. A good example of this is the 1983 UK general election. Here is John Cleese discussing it. Labour received 27.6% of the national vote and the SDP-Liberal Alliance received 25.4%, whereas they won 209 and 23 seats respectively. It would even be possible for the most popular party to lose out in this way, especially if the top three were all fairly close in terms of national support, and the most popular party had consistent support across the country rather than pockets of high and low support.

Because of the importance of the geography of the votes, single-winner constituencies are susceptible to gerrymandering, where constituency boundaries can be altered to favour one party despite making no difference to the total number of votes received by any party. Here is a video to explain it.

Even if we could all agree on the best voting system for electing a single candidate in a single election, whether FPTP, AV or something else altogether, you cannot simply put together the results of 650 individual elections like this and expect it to add up to a reasonable democratic system at a national level. It simply does not work. And this is why we need a better system: specifically proportional representation (PR). If a certain proportion of the population have the same political views as each other, then they have the power to elect that proportion of the MPs together. That’s how democracy should work. PR is simply more democratic than what we have now. There are various forms of PR, each with their own pros and cons, and I will discuss some of these. But first I want to discuss some of the arguments people use against PR.

PR is unlikely to lead to strong majority government. Unless a party has over 50% of national support, which is unlikely, parties have to form a coalition if we are to have a majority government. This is seen by some people as a bad thing. However, many other successful countries, including Germany, have PR, and it hasn’t caused the world to collapse in on itself.

Watch this video by John Cleese on PR. It’s the full-length version of the video I linked to above. Some of it is out of date, but he makes some good points. In particular he points out that majority single-party governments that change from election to election result in less stability than coalitions because every time a new government gets in they are likely to make big changes, which can then swing back and forth. PR also encourages honest voting rather than just voting for who think can win in your constituency.

To have a majority government that doesn’t have a majority of the support is less democratic than PR. So, you are trading in a certain amount of democracy for your precious majority. And as I discussed in my last post, there is no guarantee of a single-party majority government anyway with 650 single-winner elections. It has become less likely nowadays because fewer people vote for the main two parties than in the past. Indeed, the 2010 UK general election failed to return a majority for any party. So if it’s not proportional and it’s not a majority for one party, what is it? It’s an undemocratic mess that no-one wanted.

It’s often argued that PR would allow extremist parties in. Well, only in the proportion that they are elected. That’s democracy. If they only have a small amount of support, they will only have a small amount of influence in Parliament. There are also many minority parties whose inclusion in Parliament could benefit the country.

The bottom line is that proportional representation is more democratic than any other way of creating a national Parliament and the arguments given against it aren’t strong enough to counteract this.

There are various systems of PR. For example, there are party-list systems, where everyone votes for a party, and each party then gets the proportion of the seats equal to their proportion of the vote. This can work at a national level to ensure a high level of proportionality by dividing up all 650 seats in the most proportional way, rather than splitting them regionally first. However, this would do away with the concept of a local constituency MP. It also discriminates against independent candidates who would not be able to stand in a party-list system. I have previously argued the case for independents being able to stand on an equal footing with parties, so I see this as an unacceptable failing.

Multiple-seat constituencies are an improvement on party-list PR in some ways. Candidates can stand either for a party or as an independent, as they can in our current system. However, there would be larger constituencies and more than one MP elected per constituency. For example, it could be eight MPs per constituency. This would mean having constituencies eight times the size that they currently are, to keep the total number of MPs the same. The system normally used for this is Single Transferable Vote (STV), explained in this video. It is the multiple-winner equivalent of AV, which is why many saw AV as a stepping stone to proportional representation. Under STV, parties generally field more than one candidate in a constituency. For example, if a party has a quarter of the vote, then they would expect to get two MPs in an eight-seat constituency so it would make sense for them to field at least two candidates. Constituents would have eight local MPs that they could potentially write to, so there would be more chance that they would have at least one MP that is sympathetic to their views.

However, because there are still regional constituencies, STV only offers limited proportionality. If a party has 5% of the vote nationally, then out of 650 MPs they should get 32 or 33, but under this system they might still get none, because they need to reach a higher threshold to get a single seat out of eight, so it’s not proportional at a very fine level. It would not be feasible to make STV work with a single country-sized constituency because every candidate in the whole country would have to be listed on every ballot paper. So while it is better than party-list PR for independents, it gives less proportional results.

There are also combined “mixed-member” systems, explained in this video, where you get two votes – one for a party and one for a candidate in your constituency. Half of the seats go to the constituency candidates who are elected in the usual way, so it can allow for independent candidates. The remaining half of the seats are allocated to parties in a proportional manner, so that all parties end up with the number of seats that relates to their proportion of the votes. The proportion calculated includes the constituency seats, so it is possible that a party already has too many seats before the proportional part of the system kicks in. This system is a bit of a mess, forcing together two different systems in an ugly manner, and it is still party-centric with a bias against independent candidates in half of the available seats.

Ideally, we’d have a system that isn’t biased against independent candidates and also gives proportionality at a national level. Because of this, I think it is important that candidates should be able to stand nationally. An independent may have supporters across the country, not just in their geographical constituency. They may have enough national support to get elected in a fully proportional system, but not enough in a smaller geographical area. This is also a problem for minor parties, but at least they can field candidates in several constituencies, whereas an independent candidate only has one of themselves.

From the voters’ point of view, I also think that they should not be limited to the candidates standing in their constituency. The democratic choice available to voters varies wildly from constituency to constituency. Someone might be in a constituency with only mainstream party candidates, or they might be in the Speaker’s constituency and have very limited options, since the main parties have an agreement not to stand against the Speaker – don’t worry about voters’ democratic rights or anything. There might be a few independent or minor-party candidates dotted around the country that someone supports, and it’s just luck whether they happen to live in the right constituency to be able to vote for one of them. A fair system should not favour voters who are lucky enough to live in the same area as a candidate that they support.

We actually have 650 local elections, rather than one national election, and your democratic power is highly dependent on where you happen to live. Having a single national election would be a more democratic system. But this brings us back to the problem of having a local MP to contact.

MPs vote nationally so don’t just deal with local affairs. If I haven’t voted for my local MP (currently in my case the Conservative Brooks Newmark), then I don’t feel represented by him, and he’s not really the person I’d want to write to. I think we should be able to write to an MP that we consider to represent us, not just the one who just happens to be the most local. I will discuss the idea of local MPs further, however, in the context of what I am going to propose in the next post.

Our current system tries to elect local MPs and also a national Parliament while using a voting system that’s far too crude to manage it properly. Are you supposed to vote for the candidate who is your favourite at a local level, or the one who represents the party machine that you prefer at a national level? There’s no single correct answer to this, and people are left to their own devices to make their way through a confusing and bizarre system. We need to start again with a new system.

In summary, here are my criteria for a good electoral system:

1. Voters should be able to vote for any candidate from anywhere in the country. It would be a national election.
2. The system should be proportional at a national level.
3. There should be no systematic bias against independent candidates.
4. The ballot paper and voting system should be relatively simple for the electorate, so people can still just turn up on the day and vote as they do now.
5. The system should, as much as possible, favour a reasonable geographical spread of MPs.

And how to implement that is what I’m going to discuss in the next post.

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