Electoral reform

Suddenly there is a big conversation going on about electoral reform, something I’ve always been in favour of, but not because so many MPs have been caught out over their expenses. (I think the expenses row is a little out of hand, but only a little – largely because I think there has been a sort of Mrs. Doyle culture – as in Father Ted, and her catchphrase, ‘Oh go on, go on, go on.’ If you have people telling you that expenses are pay in disguise, and are even prompted to claim by the regulatory fees body, it falls a bit short of criminal.) All the same, I am glad to see that one of the politicians to whom I pledged admiration a few weeks back (but none of the others) has come out with her hands completely clean: Sarah Teather. In a sane world, we would overlook Chris Huhne’s trouser-press (for God’s sake) and just elect the Liberal Democrats. Their hands are bit grubby, but not covered in the brown or black stuff like their opponents. I suspect they may do slightly better than people expect, but then I have been wrong about this several times in the past. It may be that David Cameron, whom I mistrust as I would almost anyone of his background (including me – takes one to know one), has it stitched up. I do hope not.

Electoral reform might well appeal to me because it has a slightly nerdy, mathematical side (I liked algebra as a child), as do most elections. I think the ‘strong government’ argument for ‘first past the post’, in which winner takes all, and the party with the most constituency winners goes into government, is a recipe for violent changes of policy, as Mrs. Thatcher proved, and as Major and Blair (Mr. Blajor, as I think of them) also proved. The Blajor revolution was a bit more subtle. It involved creating hundreds and hundreds of documents, all of them unreadable, and the mass processing of initiatives. The irony of Blair and Major is that, individually, their images were of ‘the common man’ – Major with his soapbox, and his lounge suit, Blair with his chinos and his matey mug of tea.

Anyway. Electoral reform can take many shapes. I once conducted an experiment with a group of about 80 students. It might not have been a very sizeable sample, but wait for the results. I gave them a bunch of ballot papers, and asked them to fill them in, ranking candidates in order of preference, in a reasonably random way. We then counted the results – obviously, in first past the post, we ignored the ranking, although I had designed it so that there were four constituencies – by three different methods – FTTP, The Alternative Vote, and the Single Transferable Vote. The Alternative Vote requires you to eliminate the lowest scoring candidate, redistributing the votes to subsequent choices, if any, until you have one winner. Single Transferable voting asks you to do something more complex in a multi-member constituency, in which a quota is set. Each time a candidate reaches a quota, their excess votes are redistributed proportionally according to their subsequent choices (that’s the bit that takes the time). They use STV in the Irish Republic.

The Alternative Vote is touted because it preserves the idea of the member and the constituency. Actually, so does STV, it’s just that you have (say) four members for a larger area. There are other, top-up systems, in which about a third of MPs are given places, usually from lists prepared by the parties, in proportion to votes for the said parties, to redress any imbalance caused by the first round. This is the system in Germany. It means that there are two sorts of MP – members and additional members. (There is a threshhold set, usually, to prevent micro-parties gaining a pointless toehold.)

The Alternative Vote (like Home Rule for all Ireland) was slated to be introduced just before the First World War, but was abandoned because of the business of organising battalions for slaughter. But my test with the students showed that, although more ‘voters’ could say that they had contributed to the result, there was a tendency for the initially second-placed candidate to win after redistribution. In other words, many people at least got their second choice. It was a bit of a fudge, and not proportional at all (there were freak victories). Only STV – in which nine out of ten found that they’d had a say in one of the winners – satisfied the students’ sense of fair play.

But anything is better than the current lottery. In Scotland, one seat was once won with about 17% of the electorate (it was a four-way split). In 1951 and 1974 – the first one – the losers polled more than the winners, as happened in the Presidential election ‘won’ by Bush over Gore, and probably when Kennedy beat Nixon, such was the corruption in Chicago, on which it all hinged.

I would like to change the system now. At present, you only imfluence an election if you live in a marginal seat and you are prone to change your mind. That’s no way to elect representatives.

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