Ballot Box

Ballot Box

When I started this blog, my intention was to write about radio and media stuff, and possibly beer, somehow though I (like a lot of people of late) have been somewhat sucked into politics as probably the most interesting situation to occur in UK politics since Mrs Thatcher’s ‘dethronement’ in 1990 takes shape around us.

I’m trying to avoid wittering on about coalitions, or who I think should be in charge (if you’re interested, on this issue I agree with Nick), instead I thought I’d share my limited insight into an issue which is highly likely to form a major part of any deal between the Lib Dems and anyone else, that of electoral reform.

6 years ago, when studying for a politics AS level, I wrote an essay on this subject – at the time coming down on the side of ‘First-past-the-Post’ (our current system) for a number of reasons. My views have varied slightly since, so I’ll try to set out my vision for a political system which ought to work a lot better on the grounds of fairness and transparency – whilst maintaining the simplicity and relative ease of administration of the current system.

Before I start, I’m going to assume a certain level of knowledge here – as for me to write a full essay on the subject here is a bit much. I’m assuming you’re aware that ‘Proportional Representation’ isn’t a thing, it’s a collection of things (see wiki) and that there are also hybrid systems which offer a level of proportionality on a one-seat per constituency basis. I’m also assuming you have a lose knowledge of the British constitution and how westminster is supposed to operate (i.e. one democratically elected house, of which the party with an absolute majority form the government, where no absolute majority is the case the dealings start – also a house of lords which acts as a check/balance on Westminster policies and essentially has a right of veto over policy from the first house).

Now, my strong belief is that any electoral reform has to encompas more than just the Westminster government – for one there’s the ludicrous semi-hereditary, semi-appointed House of Lords, there’s also local Government elections to be considered. I’ll leave European Elections out from this – as they already use a proportional system, which seems to be relatively effective.

The House of Commons

So, voting for the House of Commons is the key area being discussed at the moment. We’ve had first past the post for a long time here in the UK, and it’s been pretty effective, It’s nice and simple to understand, and explain to people (more votes than everyone else in your constituency wins a seat, 50% + 1 of seats makes a government), low on administration to carry out – and difficult to misinterpret the results.

The common criticism is the fact that often on both a local and national level there isn’t a simple correlation between the number of votes and the amount of influence gained. For example in last weeks election the breakdown looks as follows:

  • Conservatives 47% of seats for 36% of Votes
  • Labour 40% of seats for 29% of votes
  • Liberal Democrats 9% of seats for 23% of votes

This is patently not a fair system for the 3 major parties (look at the difference between Labour and Lib Dems on seats v. votes to see how unfair the system is). Essentially for coming second in a large number of constituencies the Lib Dems get nothing.

This seems a pretty powerful argument for something which gives a better proportion of votes to seats, but…. there are also arguments for first-past-the-post. For one, in general proportional representation means big constituencies, or even no constituencies – losing the idea of ‘your local MP’ and alienating politics from any local issues and making them more and more of an American style elite who don’t see much outside their Washington Westminster village. The constituency link is vitally important and it would be wrong to underestimate this in trying to achieve ‘fairness’.

Another argument is that proportional representation ‘lets the nutters in’ – as parties like the BNP would under a fully proportional system stand a far higher chance of achieving some influence within Westminster. I don’t subscribe to this at all – for anyone who was familiar with my role in the proposed ‘no-platform’ policy at the University of Bath will know my belief on minority parties whom appear unsavory to a large number of people loosely echoes the views of a panelist on Sunday’s Politics Show who said “These minority parties should be allowed to firm part of the political system – so they can stand up to democratic scrutiny and ultimately be defeated by an informed electorate, not ghettoised and allowed to grow through allegations of being the discriminated” (this is very much paraphrased).

Anyway, where does that leave my views on Westminster… we’ll for my mind we need a more proportional system – which still give’s MPs an area of responsibility and still gives the electorate a channel for bringing the attention of central government to issues outside London (private members’ bills are often started when an MP is alerted to an issue affecting their constituents)

Ladies and Gentlemen I present compromise, in the form of the Alternative Vote System. In short this is a hybrid system, which it’s really easy to convert to from FPTP (you can even use the same ballot papers, more or less). Which involves ranking candidates in order of preference, first choice votes for candidates move to second, third etc. preference down the paper until a single candidate has an absolute (50% + 1) majority. The best explanation of this system I’ve ever found comes from Bath Impact (AVS was used in student’s union elections at Bath) – unfortunately I can’t find this online, so here’s one from the NUJ.

Whilst the AVS isn’t idea, it will lead to people’s votes mattering far more (as even if your first choice candidate isn’t elected, it may be your second or third who gets in) – it should also do away with wasted votes as the winning candidate in a constituency will be the first, second or third preference of an absolute majority of the electorate – yet we can still maintain the relatively small constituencies which support the constituency link.

I know AVS doesn’t satisfy true advocates of Proportional Representation, but don’t stop reading just yet, my second reform should give you something to think about….

The House of Lords

It’s a bit of a joke isn’t it – all the policies of our democratically elected government are approved by a selection of musty peers and cronies of governments past before becoming law. Bizarre isn’t it.

It’s vital to have a some kind of checks and balance in the law making process, and the electorate themselves rarely act as such (apart from on the 5 yearly terms of parliaments, or in the rare case of a referendum) – the second house is one of these.

A big sticking point on an elected house of lords is the fact that if it were elected in the same way as the commons it’s composition would loosely reflect that of the commons -and thus would be as effective a check/balance as not having any check at all. There’s a simple solution to this though – elect the second chamber with a different (and more proportional) system – this would give us a very different make up of the lords to the commons under FPTP or AVS yet without the issues caused by the potential for no party having absolute power in the house (the stories of hung-parliaments leading to the downfall of the country that some areas of the press like to push). The chanber would hopefully then be able to offer real scrutiny to the executive, as well as being constitutionally divided from the commons (no member of the ‘lords’ would be able to sit as a Minister, to ensure a solid line between the role of legislator and scrutiniser)

All seems kind of logical now… (also on a totally national level, administering Party List is relatively simple Single Transferable Vote is a brain ache, especially as generally the idea of using IT for any government project becomes a massive cock up).

Council Elections

Obvious one for party lists these, as their influence is over a fixed area, everyone lists their preference and those percentages form the basis for making up the Councils.


In conclusion, I hope this has been a relatively informed ramble through proportional representation, and I’ve tried to be analytical rather than partisan with my opinions – naturally you’re welcome to comment with other ideas, or just because you think I’m talking nonsence.

I promise I’ll write a post about something for those who really aren’t interested in this whole politics thing soon…