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There is a growing realisation in the UK that we have not got the government we deserve. This is because of the way the House of Commons is elected. Back in 1935 the secretary of the Labour Party said ‘There is no greater gamble on earth than a British general election’.
What exactly is the problem?
Where to start? The current “First Past The Post” (FPTP) system has many issues. Here are six for starters:
- Firstly, most votes at a general election in the UK are wasted: they do not contribute to the election of a candidate.
- Secondly, there is no correlation between the votes cast for a party and the seats it wins.
- Furthermore, there is no possibility of choosing between candidates nominated by a party.
- Fourthly – despite bizarre claims to the contrary – there is no obvious link between an MP and the MP’s constituency. To take an obvious example: the MP for Cheltenham (sorry! Regency Cheltenham) was rejected by an absolute majority of his constituents.
- Fifthly, arbitrary redrawing of constituency boundaries, or gerrymandering, can have a significant impact on the outcome of an election.
- Finally, there is the instability inherent in any system which is dependent on the arbitrary swing of a pendulum. The UK is notorious for the short-termism of its economic policies, which look no further than the next election.
Towards a solution
Any alternative to FPTP will involve some sort of Proportional Representation (PR). The purpose of PR can be neatly summarised as ‘to give due representation to significant minorities’. This requires multi-member constituencies as opposed to the current single-member constituencies in FPTP. In a single-member constituency there is no way of giving ‘due representation’ to those who chose not to vote for the candidate with the most votes. One solution is to combine existing constituencies. For example, the current six constituencies in Gloucestershire could form a single six-member constituency. What are not viable solutions are the absurd ‘Alternative Vote’ (AV) system or the French ‘Second Ballot’ system, neither of which have anything whatsoever to do with PR.
There are only two types of PR, which actually give proportional representation. There are various ‘list-based’ systems (like d’Hondt) which provide proportional representation of opinion based on party lines. And then there is the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system which gives proportional representation of opinion full stop. Now, according to the House of Commons Library political party membership up to late 2019 was barely 900,000 people – less than the RSPB’s million. In other words, party membership in the UK is very much a minority sport – so why go for a party/list-based system of PR?
Why the list-based d’Hondt system is third-rate
First let’s look at various list systems, starting with the ‘d’Hondt’ method – named after Victor d’Hondt, a Belgian mathematician – which was used for the last European Parliament elections. With d’Hondt (aka largest average system) each party’s votes are divided successively by 1, 2, 3 etc. In, say, a seven-member constituency the candidates with the seven highest votes are awarded seats. But d’Hondt is non-monotonic (= doesn’t always do what it says on the tin). For example, suppose there are parties A, B, C and D in this constituency. A wins 60,000 votes, B 28,000, C 20,000 and D 18,000. Applying d’Hondt gives A 4 seats, B 1, C 1 and D 1. However, if B, C and D had presented a single list or had stated in advance that they were a coalition (this is allowed in Switzerland, for example) they would have received 66,000 votes to A’s 60,000 and A would have ended up with only 3 seats – for exactly the same vote share.
D’Hondt is therefore unreliable as a form of PR because it favours the largest party in each constituency. Moreover, it doesn’t use the common-sense approach, which would be to establish a quota: the minimum number of votes needed to win a seat. Under FPTP the quota is obviously the number of votes divided by one more than the number of seats (i.e. two). The same formula can be used to establish the quota in a multi-member PR election. It is known as the Droop Quota (named after Henry Richmond Droop, an English lawyer).
Closed and open lists
The d’Hondt system uses closed lists: if you vote for party A you accept that party’s candidates, in the order in which they are presented. If party A is entitled to one seat in your constituency the first candidate on the list is elected, whether you loathe or love that person. This can lead to faction-fighting and an increase in the number of competing lists, e.g. in Israel and the Netherlands. With open lists, voters can in theory alter the order of names on a list by expressing preferential votes for one or more candidates.
Luxembourg uses an interesting variety of the open list. Junglinster, the commune where I used to live, has a 13-member council. At election time you can vote either (a) tête de liste (which means you put a cross in the box at the top of the list, which receives 13 votes – one for each candidate); or (b) you can spread your 13 votes round candidates on the same list or different lists (but no more than 2 votes for any individual). If you go for option (a) you are conceding that the party knows best (a nonsensical assumption). If you go for option (b) you are in effect voting both for and against your preferred candidates. If you vote for individuals, the votes they receive will be attributed to their party. So, if you think Ms Smith is outstanding but you detest all her party colleagues… well, tough luck: you have unwittingly voted for them. Note that with this system the total number of votes cast is far, far greater than the number of registered voters.
Scotland and Wales (and Germany) use something called the ‘Additional Member System’ (AMS): some seats are elected by FPTP and the remainder are allocated to parties in such a way as to give overall PR for the competing parties; N.B.: parties, not necessarily opinion.
Some list systems employ a threshold of votes which needs to be crossed to secure representation. It is hard to see what this has to do with fair elections. If you don’t want a proportional result, why not say so?
A modest PRoposal
For the voter who is not a member of a party or who doesn’t closely identify with a party (this is true of the overwhelming majority of voters in the UK) the best option is the ‘Single Transferrable Vote’ (STV) system. The ballot paper presents you with a number of candidates, possibly arranged by party, alphabetically or in random order (it’s irrelevant). You number them in your order of preference – which is why STV is sometimes described as ‘Preferential Voting’. You can stop after one or carry on till you have expressed a preference for every single candidate. You can vote on strict party lines if you wish, or you can express preferences for candidates from different parties who support specific policies. The returning officer first determines the quota. If your number 1 preference has so few votes that (s)he cannot possibly be elected, or so many that (s)he doesn’t need your vote, your vote will be transferred to your second choice. And so on.
The point is that you, the voter, have total control of what happens to your vote.
Anyone who can count beyond one can handle STV with consummate ease. STV is, of course, supported by the independent Electoral Reform Society.
The first step
PR is not a panacea for all our problems, but it is the first step towards ensuring that we get a House of Commons whose composition accurately reflects what the electorate think.
But how to obtain it? The Conservative party has already publicly stated that it is opposed to a fair electoral system. No surprise there. But what about Labour? In 1945, ten years after the comment in my opening paragraph – after an historic general election victory – the Labour Party made no attempt whatsoever to introduce a grown-up electoral system. (The expression ‘self-interest’ springs unbidden to one’s lips).
Our best bet is for the next election to deliver a hung parliament with a minority Labour government dependent on the support of smaller progressive parties who should insist on PR being introduced for the following and all subsequent elections.
Ed: Philip Cole is a former member of the Council of the Electoral Reform Society and a former Secretary of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform
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