The cross-party campaigning group Make Votes Matter (MVM) has enumerated ten criteria which a ‘good’ electoral system should respect. They are:
- Equal votes,
- Local links,
- Voter choice,
- Balance of stability and flexibility,
- Sustainability and adaptability and
- Voting simplicity.
The First Past the Post (FPTP) system clearly fails to satisfy these criteria and the public mood is now behind Proportional Representation (PR). But what sort of PR? It is time for a serious discussion. I shall argue that maximising effective voter choice should be our top priority.
What is PR?
PR is not a means of preventing any future Conservative government. If you agree to the need for PR, you must accept that some people – perhaps a majority – may get elected whom you detest.
The purpose of PR can be neatly summarised as ‘to give due representation to significant minorities’. Logically, this requires multi-member constituencies, where more than one candidate is elected. In a single-member constituency, where only one candidate is elected, there is no prospect of giving ‘due representation’ to those who choose not to vote for the candidate with the most votes. Any electoral system based exclusively on single-member constituencies is therefore doomed to fail the basic requirement of PR.
With the ‘Alternative Vote’ system voters rank candidates in order of preference. In the event of the candidate with most votes not achieving a majority, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their voters’ second choices are distributed across the remaining candidates. This iterative process continues until one candidate has accumulated half the votes and is elected. This is demonstrably not PR.
PR systems fall into two groups: ‘List’ systems – all variations on a theme – and STV (the Single Transferable Vote). The former provide proportional representation of parties; the latter gives proportional representation of opinion full stop – which is the only way of ensuring that Parliament is a “mirror of the nation’s mind”, to quote Australian J F H Wright (1980).
The best known is probably d’Hondt, used for the last European Parliament elections in the UK. With d’Hondt (aka Largest Average system), each list’s votes are divided successively by 1 plus the number of seats already won, which is initially zero. In, say, a seven-member constituency the lists with the seven highest averages using this method are awarded seats. But d’Hondt is non-monotonic (= doesn’t always do what it says on the tin) because a ‘list’ can contain several parties. 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 (or list) 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.
Closed and open lists
With 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 multi-member constituency, the first candidate on that list is elected, whether you loathe or love that person. In a closed list system the voters choose how many win, but the actual winners are in effect elected by the party apparatchiks. 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. You can vote either (a) for a list(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. In any case, if you vote for individuals, the votes they receive will automatically be added to their party’s total, whether you like it or not. So, if you think Ms Smith is outstanding but you detest all her party colleagues… well, tough luck: you have unwittingly voted for them.
Some countries use a mix of FPTP and PR and this is known as the Additional Member System. In Germany, for example, half the seats are elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies. The ‘winner’ is not obliged to receive at least 50% of the votes. The other seats are allocated to party lists to ensure that the overall result gives PR of the competing parties; N.B.: parties, not necessarily opinion. There are instances of candidates defeated at constituency level who are nevertheless elected via their party list. So why waste time, money and effort on the FPTP elections?
Some list systems employ a threshold of votes which needs to be crossed to secure representation. It is hard to see what it has to do with fair elections. If you don’t want a proportional result, why not say so?
Use of the threshold clause can produce quite grotesque results. Regional elections were held in the Saarland on 27 March 2022 with a result similar to the worst of FPTP. The Saarland uses closed party lists with the anti-democratic 5% threshold. The incoming premier won 43.5% of the vote, but the exclusion of so many smaller parties – the Greens failed to reach the threshold by 23 votes – meant she won 56.9% of the seats. This is slightly more absurd than the UK election of 2019. If the 5% bar had not been in force would this have destabilised the Saarland? No, of course not. The left wing SPD had not expected to win and was planning to continue, as a junior partner, in the grand coalition with the right wing CDU, giving a majority of 25. Or it could have reproduced the Bundestag coalition with the Greens and FDP (Liberals), giving a majority of 5. While the German electoral system is streets ahead of our ‘nought and crosses’ joke system, it only really works if (a) voters don’t realise closed lists limit their choice and (b) small(er) parties obediently fail to gain much support.
In list systems the size of constituency can vary from planning region (e.g. the UK’s European elections) to the nation (e.g. the Netherlands and Israel), so there is little chance of meaningfully respecting MVM’s principle no. 4 (links between MPs and specific geographic areas are maintained).
According to the House of Commons Library political party membership up to late 2019 (the most recent figures) 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 system of PR based on party lists?
Single Transferable Vote (STV)
For the voter who is not a member of a party or who doesn’t closely identify with a party the best PR option is the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system.
Constituencies are grouped together in manageable units. For example, the six Gloucestershire single-member constituencies could be grouped together to form one six-member constituency.
The ballot paper presents you with a number of candidates, 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 ‘1’ or carry on till you have expressed a preference for every single candidate. You can vote on strict party lines if you wish, or (most people do this) you can express preferences for candidates from different parties who support specific policies. The returning officer first determines the quota (the minimum number of votes needed to win a seat. 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 ‘1’ can handle STV with consummate ease. Voters in Ireland are known to follow the count with great interest.
There is no need for party splits with STV: voters can decide for themselves which tendency in a particular party appeals most to them. Party-list systems force voters to think in terms of A versus B – a polarising effect. STV enables voters to think in terms of A and B, and why not C? – a unifying effect.
How do the different systems measure up to MVM’s criteria?
With both list systems and STV, seats will closely match votes (be proportional) and MPs and governments will represent the views of most of the voters. In both systems equal votes applies – except where a threshold clause is used. With STV – because the average size of constituency is much less than with list systems – links between MPs and geographical areas are easily maintained. Not so with a list system. As to voter choice, voters in a list system are unlikely to be able to exercise any effective choice of candidates (as opposed to parties), but with STV the voter can choose whomsoever (s)he wishes. Both systems satisfy the criterion of accountability. With closed list systems there is a high risk of fragmentation which can damage stability and flexibility. It has been argued that the fact that Ireland has MPs – or rather TDs – elected under ten different labels somehow suggests that STV leads to fragmentation. But in Malta – which also uses STV – no third party has won a seat since 1966, so why not argue that STV produces stability? Or take the adult line that electoral systems have no impact on the number of parties or stability? On ‘sustainability and adaptability’, I see no substantial difference between list systems and STV. Finally, as to criterion no. 10 – Voting simplicity – what could be simpler than STV?
A plethora of parties doesn’t mean instability. It means maximising choice. By contrast, having reserved seats for certain sectors of population (e.g. in the proposed change to the Welsh Senedd), restricts voter’s choices. So does the absurd idea of compulsory voting.
What happens next?
The people clearly want PR, but will the political parties take it on board? Labour is edging towards accepting the need for PR. The other ‘progressive parties’ are already there. Common objections from Labour party members are: ‘We’ll never get socialism with PR’, to which my reply is ‘We haven’t done terribly well with FPTP’. Then there is: ‘Yes, but PR means having to make compromises’. So what? Surely it’s better to achieve some of what you want rather than none of what you want’.
Do we need a Referendum to introduce PR? No, of course not. If PR is in the manifesto of the party or parties forming the government after the next election there is absolutely no need: it is part of their legislative programme.