Opinion: Where now on Electoral Reform? (France!)

Electoral reform is off the public agenda for now whether we like it or not, but campaigners should be planning the future.

Some argue that the deceptions of the “No” campaign means that a re-run could be won if only the honest arguments are put and/or full PR was offered. But idea that we should have “another go” at similar arguments for AV+ or STV and expect a different outcome is wrong. All the arguments against AV are even stronger so for AV+ and STV. They will be defeated by an alliance of Tory and Labour tribalists, just as AV and House of Lords reform were.

One way forward is for supporters of PR to get behind the Additional Member System (AMS, also called Mixed Member Proportional or MMP). This is the system used in Wales, Scotland, the London Assembly, and much of Europe. AMS gives voters a constituency vote and a proportional list vote. It is not an ideal solution: it gives the voter more choice than FPTP, but less than other systems; but it’s much harder to argue against and it does give proportional results and demonstrably leads to stable governments.

The problem with AMS is that it requires a big reduction in constituency numbers in order to accommodate list members in Parliament. We have seen the fight that MPs will put up to avoid a reduction to even 600, and they will fight harder against a reduction to 400 or 500. A move to AMS would require massive will by Parliament to over-ride MP self-interest, and that just isn’t going to come from Labour or Tory parties.

We need to look at the arguments against AV and neutralise them: a system that’s better than FPTP, doesn’t involve boundary changes, doesn’t involve preferential voting and isn’t more complicated for voters.

Labour has previously shown a preference for Supplementary Voting (SV) – the system that is used to elect Mayors. This is a system that causes a great deal of confusion and spoiled ballots, and is worthless unless it is absolutely obvious who the top two candidates will be. But there is a better way, in use right now just 25 miles from the UK, in France.

France uses “run-off” voting. If any candidate fails to win 50% of the votes cast, the top two go forward to a run-off. (In France the second round is also open to any other candidate who obtained at least 12.5% of registered voters in the constituency; but this is rarely taken up.) Run-off voting removes the problem of split voting, and like AV requires a candidate to get a majority of votes cast. In the UK it should help minority parties get a proper showing if they can get into 2nd place in the first round.

The only argument that can be used against simple run-off voting by FPTP supporters is that of cost, but actually the cost of the second round is very small compared to the first, as all the infrastructure and electoral roll arrangements are in place, and only about half of the constituencies will be re-run anyway.

Supporters of electoral reform should spend the next few years thinking about the merits of AMS and run-off voting. In my opinion run-off voting could happen in 5-10 years, while AMS is better but would take a generation to achieve.

* Dr Mark Wright is a councillor in Bristol and was the 2015 general election Parliamentary candidate for Bristol South.

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  • Runoff voting is in principle similar to the alternative vote (which has also been called “instant runoff voting”). The main differences are as follows, First, the limitation to the two top candidates: in practice, however, this makes very little difference, since these are usually the candidates that would benefit from AV anyway. In some cases, where three candidates are running very close to each other, it might exclude a third-place finisher who would otherwise have won by AV. Second and more importantly is that the voting base changes in the runoff election. For some strange psychological reason, people will insist on regarding the first of a series of elections as the “real” election, the one that matters. Having done their duty, they then stay at home for the runoff. This means that the runoff is decided by a much smaller number of voters, and a small but aggressive activist party who can get a candidate into the second round stands a better chance than they would under AV.

  • I’m not sure how the run-off system came about in France, but it seems to me to be a unnecessarily wasteful and restrictive version of AV. It also gives fairly perverse run-off scenarios like the one a few years ago that pitted the far right’s Jean-Marie Le Pen against Jacques Chirac. If they had looked at AV and the run-off system as potential options, picking run-off would have been perverse.
    The AMS system also has serious flaws and produces perverse outcomes. Greatest of these is of course the major flaw with FPTP in that intelligent voters in the constituency vote are compelled to vote for the person that has the best chance of defeating the contender they dislike. Any new voting system should encourage honest support for the candidate they would most like to win. Then comes the seriously undemocratic top-up lists, chosen by the parties to either give the rejected constituency candidates a back-up plan, or – as in Scottish Labour’s disastrous 2011 Glasgow campaign – give third rate politicians a condescending pat on the back for all their hard work for the party. Of course if a party going down that route have an unexpected disaster in the constituency vote you can end up with a bunch of people in Parliament that neither the party or the electorate really wanted to be there. You also have some members of a party hoping that others in that party do badly so that they might get in instead. It’s really quite messy.

    The supplementary vote again is a sub-standard version of AV that we shouldn’t entertain or tolerate.

    AV or STV really are the only serious systems that measure up to any sort of scrutiny.

  • Mark, the “more expensive ” argument, which was important in the AV election would be far truer and far worse in a two-round election, like France.

    You would have to pay all the staff to turn out twice – it would literally cost twice as much!

    You would never win that in a referendum.

    [Incidentally, if anyone wants to win a referendum, there are two approaches I can think of that might work: one is the NZ approach – offer several alternatives and let the voters pick one, then run that against the current system, All the explanations live in the first referendum; everyone knows what they’re voting for the second time. The other is to introduce the new system in parallel; everyone gets three ballot papers, an FPTP one, a PR one and a ballot paper asking which one they want to count]

  • “You would have to pay all the staff to turn out twice – it would literally cost twice as much!”

    Not literally, since not all of the constituencies would have to vote a second time. In the 2010 election, the Conservatives won 126 seats with 50%+ of the vote, Labour won 76, the Liberal Democrats 12, an Independent 1, and Sinn Fein 2 by the same criterion. Thus only 433 seats (almost exactly 2/3) would go for a 2nd round. So it wouldn’t cost twice as much, but 1.666 times as much.
    Which, perhaps, people would be disinclined to pay. But if you point out that only 1/3 of the seats are represented by an MP elected by a majority of the electors, people might start to think.

  • Two-round voting WOULD cost more than AV; not twice the cost, but the administrative cost of re-running election in some constituencies would be significant. The main additional cost of AV is the slightly longer counting in constituencies where no-one gets 50% on first preferences. I agree with Ewan about the French system being an “unnecessarily wasteful and restrictive version of AV”. There is no way I could be persuaded to campaign for it in a referendum.
    And let’s be clear why AV was lost. It was lost because of an inept campaign that failed to counter the spiteful lies of the NO camp. Hell, we didn’t even put out a last-minute leaflet saying “Blunkett: We lied over the cost” when on the eve of the referendum, David Blunkett publicly admitted that they had made up the £250m figure (for which of course there was absoutely no basis in reality). He practically admitted that the NO camp considered it legitimate to tell lies to defeat a system they opposed (rather in the style of a police officer admitting that he faked evidence against a suspect because he knows the suspect is guilty and that it was therefore morally legitimate to misrepresent the evidence to ensure a conviction). Do we suppose that even if the Yes campaign was run better the result of the referendum would still have been the same? I don’t. We could have won; a more effective Yes campaign could have won. Why should we support an even more miserable compromise,and who’s to say that opponents won’t go after it in the same way — at least there is some legitimacy to the claim of significant additional cost?

  • STV/AV is sadly off the agenda for Parliamentary elections but as Mark Wright says there is another option – ‘Additional Member System (AMS, also called Mixed Member Proportional or MMP). This is the system used in Wales, Scotland, the London Assembly, and much of Europe. which gives voters a constituency vote and a proportional list vote.’ If the next election is balanced one of our red lines must be the introduction of this system for all English local Government elections. Labour are said to be more amenable to this and it would remove one-party fiefdoms where there is no effective opposition scrutiny leading to poor administration and ultimately corruption.

  • @Leekliberal: We didn’t lose the AV referendum because of the proposed system: we lost because we ran a bad campaign and the opponents ran a successful but totally dishonest one. They would have done the same if the alternate system on offer was AMS. What the AV referendum shows is that the forces of conservatism will stop at nothing to preserve the system that benefits them. ALL alternate systems are off the agenda if the choice is to be made by referendum, and if the supporters run as inept as a campaign as they did in 2011.

  • Nigel Quinton 21st Oct '12 - 10:59am

    AV was lost because of a badly run , and massively under funded campaign. We should not de doing the work of the Tories for them by arguing that this marks the end of PR.

    We should be calling for STV for local elections, which IMO should have been the red line last time round and was agreed in our 2010 special conference as something the parliamentary party would push for within this parliament, of which we have heard nothing since. It is probably unrealistic now in the wake of the AV disaster, but that is no reason to give up. It is being used in Scotland, an appears to be successful there.

  • I totally agree with Dr Mark on this (and that must be a first for me).. this run-of vote must be rather similar to the residual vote system that old style ‘independent’ shire conservatives found so acceptable for election of parish council chairs etc.
    The advantage of doing things in two public stages, rather than as a part of the counting process, is that normal people can see what is happening, feel part of it and can trust it more; opponents and media can’t then describe it as ‘complicated’.
    If anything is ‘complicated’ much of the public turn off, so it is a term used by the media as a device of negative influence when they are against something but don’t actually want to admit it.

  • And its disadvantages include the additional cost, and it encourages tactical voting similarly to FPTP, in this case in order to ensure that a disliked candidate doesn’t make the run-off.

  • Very unlikely that the country will vote for any type of electoral reform whilst it is associated with the Lib Dems. It seems the rest of us have to suffer FPTP for the broken promises of the Lib Dem leadership. I don’t think many Lib Dems have taken on board quite how much damage has been done.

  • On a more fundamental level I think the experience of coalition government will have reduced support for any proportional system that would make coalitions more common.

  • Leekliberal 21st Oct '12 - 7:29pm

    Alex McFie – You miss my point which is that in a balanced parliament in 2015 we should insist on Additional Member System for English local government elections as a redline demand for co-operating in Government. There would be no question of allowing the Labcons the opportunity to stop it in a referendum! (AMS, also called Mixed Member Proportional or MMP). This is the system used in Wales, Scotland, the London Assembly, and much of Europe. which gives voters a constituency vote and a proportional list vote.)

  • AV was never a Lib Dem proposal, it was the Conservatives who offered it. It was accepted, I imagine, because the Lib Dem leadership naïvely thought it acceptable to the Labour party. Similarly with the rather hotch potch Lords reform proposals, the Lib Dem leadership went for a low common denominator.

    The reversal of both reforms gives the opportunity for Lib Dems put a block on AV and a partially elected second chamber and to come out with clear a electoral reform position, which, I suggest, should include: 100% elected House of Lords; proportional representation in local government and national government.

    The referendum decision against AV should take this system off the agenda for more than a couple of generations.

    An idea for local government would be legislation to allow each area to choose the system for electing a local government, through a local referendum.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Oct '12 - 8:03am

    Runoff voting is simply a restricted form of AV. One issue is that whereas with AV, in each round every vote counts but only those transferred are physically counted (for the simple reason the rest don’t need to be physically counted – they are in piles already counted) goes away, under the runoff voting scheme everyone has to vote again so all votes are physically counted. Well, this counters those dim people (i.e. most Tory and Labour people and most newspaper commentators) who lacked the ability to see that AV DOES have everyone’s votes recounted in each round. However, it’s a huge amount of extra expense just because of a few dim people who lack numeracy skills. Think about it logically – what voter who supports one or other of the two highest placed candidates in the first round is going to switch to the other? Almost none. So why make them all go to that immense bother of voting again when under AV their votes are already there and counted?

    AMS is proportional representation of an inferior sort to STV. Again, the main argument for it is to satisfy dim people who can’t see why the STV system provides perfect proportional representation. Whatever, as we saw with AV, we face the problem those dim people are in control of the media and have the money to put their silly arguments, and will make up whatever argument is needed to defeat any electoral reform which challenges the Tory-Labour duopoly.

    The main argument put against AV in the referendum was actually an argument against proportional representation. People were led to believe “electoral reform means coalitions are more likely, so vote against it to vote against this coalition”. Well, ok, but as I keep saying that means in effect voting to say “I’d rather have a majority Tory government now then a Tory-LibDem coalition”. I can see why Tories might like that, but how come so many Labour voters were tricked into voting this way? The really strong argument for electoral reform is that the current government with its overrepresentation of the Tories and weakness of the LibDems comes about because of the way the current system distorts representation against third parties (apart from those like the Northern Irish ones whose votes are concentrated in a small area) and in favour of the biggest party – so if you don’t like what you see now, vote for electoral reform. The case against electoral reform was scuppered because Clegg and the Cleggies were unable to use this argument.

    The case that should have been put is that the current coalition comes about because the current system grossly overrepresents the Tories as the biggest party and grossly underrepresents the LibDems as the smallest party. That distortion also ruled out a Labour-LibDem coalition which would have been perfectly viable under a proportional system as the Labour and LibDem votes combined were more than 50%. So therefore if you don’t like the coalition in its current state, you should vote for electoral reform. But putting this line would have meant going against the Clegg tactic of over-stating our role in the coalition and going against the Cleggie tactic of making out the coalition was a coming together of ideological allies rather than forced on us by a party balance in Parliament that ruled out any other. So the strongest line in favour of electoral reform was thrown away.

  • donald simpson 22nd Oct '12 - 10:04am

    the AV referendum was wrongly conceived planned executed it should never have been held. ER is not off the agenda I totally reject the resukt of the AV referndum as fraud was used as the Yes campaign. If the next election was a hung parliament with labour and LDms able to form a gov then surely it would be ba ck on ?

    Why do pople say that Oh AMS woud not win the HoC as the 400+ SMCs would be unpopular with curren MPs that is v old news. IN Germ,any etc they never had the HoC system as we use AMS was never a real flyer and look at London the system is laughabl mess not to be repeated.

    A Tuffins plan to get STV for English Welsh Loc Gov is the ightsort of way to go

  • Old Codger Chris 22nd Oct '12 - 12:47pm

    Two round voting has one advantage over AV and the Supplementary Vote – in constituencies where no candidate achieves 50 percent every voter has the chance to cast a decisive vote, instead of only those voters whose first choice was among the least popular. But, of course, it’s still not proportional.

    Certainly the Yes to AV campaign was an object lesson in how to guarantee failure. But with AV decisively rejected, AV Plus has no chance.

    I favour a version of AMS (with FPTP not AV) but I admit it won’t be easy to sell. STV would be even harder to sell and with good reason – just look at the rule book for deciding who is elected and who isn’t and then try to prove a genuine link between voters and the candidate elected on the umpteenth round of counting. And the requirement to list candidates in order of preference would be meaningless to most voters.

    DPR intrigues me. Could it actually work? What if the proportional vote forces parties into coalition when one of the partners has too few MPs suitable for Cabinet?

    Electoral reform of the Commons must go hand in hand with a partly-elected upper chamber and a method of bringing in a larger pool of talent – not just MPs and a few peers – to serve in government subject to parliamentary approval and scruitiny. The two Houses of Parliament must be considered as a whole.

  • “We need to look at the arguments against AV and neutralise them: a system that’s better than FPTP, doesn’t involve boundary changes, doesn’t involve preferential voting and isn’t more complicated for voters.”

    This is the nub of the argument – not the merits of various PR systems, but how to win over those who would otherwise vote for FPTP”

    But what are you going to do about the fact that the Lib Dem Leadership has contaminated any electoral reform by association? It’s not, as some one said above, that Labour supporters were tricked into voting against AV. They were voting against anything that Nick Clegg spearheaded. And whilst we are talking about something that is possibly in the far future, is anyone stopping Vince’s plan to rob workers of their rights in return for worthless shares? From what Danny said recently, it’s a done deal. Another nail in the coffin of Lib Dems.

  • Alex Macfie 22nd Oct '12 - 1:04pm

    I see Stephen Johnson has got back on his hobby horse, namely the idea that instead of ensuring the numbers of MPs are proportional to parties’ share of the vote, we should instead achieve proportionality by weighting the votes of the MPs elected under the existing system. This makes a neat example of lateral thinking in the style of Edward de Bono, but it would not work (which is probably why it has never been used anywhere).
    It undermines the MP-constituency link through the implicit assumption that MPs are expected to vote en bloc according to party. Maybe that tends to happen in practice, but to institutionalise it would be undesirable.
    It also makes constituencies unequal: those constituencies with vote-heavy MPs (i.e. from parties that are numerically under-represented) have more influence than those with vote-light MPs: an individual vote-heavy MP who turns against his party has a disproportionate effect on the outcome of the vote.
    It ignores the fact that there is a lot more to an MP’s job than voting in the Chamber. It is difficult to see how the system of weighted votes could be translated to the Select Committees, which is where the real work of Parliament is done (rather than the pantomime that is the floor of the House). If party proportionality is important in the plenary sessions, then it is equally as important in Committee. But committee members are selected for their expertise and interest in an issue; again, having the weighted votes in the committee would give disproportionate influence to vote-heavy MPs, as these use their voting power to push their individual interests and points of view. Additionally, due to the small size of a Select Committee, you are dealing with awkward fractions when totting up the votes; manageable perhaps for a chamber of ~600 members, but not when it’s about 30 members.
    While DPR may give a numerically under-represented party its deserved voting strength, the party would still have a problem once it has successfully negotiated a coalition deal, due to the limited pool of talent. You may be able to weight votes, but you can’t weight ministers. You can’t have a Cabinet with1.5 of Danny Alexander and 0.9 of George Osborne (sadly). So if the last election had been run under DPR and a ConDem coalition formed, then literally all Lib dem MEPs would have to have ministerial jobs simply because of the number of jobs available. And in the extreme case of the 1983 election, there wouldn’t have been enough Alliance MPs to fill the ministerial jobs to which they would be entitled: they would all have to double or triple up. This is simply not practical.
    Mr Johnson is wrong to suggest that constituency reviews would not be needed under DPR voting. Constituencies are not redrawn to maintain party representation, they are redrawn to equalise sizes while retaining natural communities. If the constituencies were to be left indefinitely. they would gradually cease to be natural communities and would have wildly different sizes, and we would eventually end up with rotten boroughs again; this is no more acceptable just because MPs’ votes are corrected for party representativeness.

    I leave the last word to the late Roy Jenkins, who (in his shelved 1998 report) described the system as “more likely to inspire mockery than enthusiasm, and .. incompatible with the practical working of a Parliament.”

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Oct '12 - 1:34pm

    Old Codger Chris

    Two round voting has one advantage over AV and the Supplementary Vote – in constituencies where no candidate achieves 50 percent every voter has the chance to cast a decisive vote, instead of only those voters whose first choice was among the least popular. But, of course, it’s still not proportional.

    Er, this is precisely the innumerate objection to AV I was arguing against earlier.

    It is simply incorrect to say that in AV the only votes that count after the elimination of lower placed candidates are those that were for the eliminated candidates. ALL votes count again, but there’s no need to go physically through all the ballot papers of those who voted for candidates still in the running because there they are already piled up and counted with those candidates.

    If this isn’t clear, let’s try an example. Suppose we have votes cast as follows

    Conservative 20,000
    Liberal Democrat 15,000
    Labour 8,000

    The Labour candidate is eliminated, let’s say the second preference votes go 6,000 to the LibDem and 2,000 to the Conservative.

    If what you said was correct, only the Labour transfers would count, so the LibDem would win by 6,000 to 2,000. But that is not what happens. The existing LibDem votes are counted again as well, and the existing Conservative votes are counted as well, leaving the Conservative winning by 22,000 to 21,000.

    What you are arguing for is that instead of just counting the existing Conservative and LibDem votes as Conseravtive and LibDem votes, those voters should be able to vote again. Why? Just who is it who is going to say “Well I voted LibDem first preference, but now Labour has been eliminated I wish to switch the the Conservatives”? or “Well I voted Conservative first preference, but now Labour has been eliminated I wish to switch the the LibDems”? What logical argument would there be for that? How many people would be thinking that way to the point of it making sense to have a whole new election day just to accommodate them?

    On AV not being proportional, correct. However, the arguments the “No” campaign used were the arguments that would also be used against a proportional system – that is, it is likely to strengthen the position of third parties and so more likely to lead to coalitions. That is why most people saw the vote against AV as ruling out the introduction of any proportional system in the near future. Had there been a substantial portion of the “No” side saying “Vote No to AV because it isn’t proportional – we want a more thorough-going electoral reform”, then the argument that the referendum really was just against the specific AV system rather than a rejection of any reform would be easier to make. David Owen and a few LibDems made this point, but it was obvious early in that a rejection of AV would be seen as a rejection of any electoral reform, so only David Owen carried on with that line, and who listens to him now?

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Oct '12 - 1:58pm


    But what are you going to do about the fact that the Lib Dem Leadership has contaminated any electoral reform by association? It’s not, as some one said above, that Labour supporters were tricked into voting against AV. They were voting against anything that Nick Clegg spearheaded

    Yes, but are you capable of using logic to see what you are actually saying here?

    What you are saying is that it’s better to have the existing system which distorts representation so that the biggest party usually gets a majority even if it did not have a majority of the votes. So what you are actually saying, Phyllis, is that “I would prefer we had a purely Conservative government right now”.

    OK, so perhaps you don’t personally think this way, but it is the logic of anyone who says they don’t support electoral reform because they don’t like the coalition. If you don’t like having a coalition, then what you want is government by just one party, and if you support a system like FPTP which distorts in favour of the largest party, in the 2010 general election, that’s the Conservative Party.

    So it seems to me entirely correct to say that any Labour voters who voted “No” to electoral reform on the grounds the don’t like the coalition was tricked unless they really did understand that what they were voting for was to have a purely Conservative government right now. The only LOGICAL position of anyone who says “We should always have a government of whichever is the largest party, so we should have a system which distorts representation to give us that” is that the LibDems should just ALWAYS vote for whatever the Tories want as that would give us the same effect.

    So, Phyllis, is that what you want? Are you complaining that the Liberal Democrats are bad people for stopping the Conservatives having their own way? No. Although plenty of Conservatives ARE using that line and arguing against electoral reform on those grounds.

    Your complaint is that the Liberal Democrats are weak in the coalition. Yes, but why then argue for an electoral system whose principal benefit according to its supporters is that it weakens the LibDems and strengthens the Conservatives? Your line is that because of dissatisfaction with what the existing system gives us, we should oppose changes to it.

    The LibDems would be able to stand up much more strongly against the Conservatives if the representation of both parties was in proportion to their votes. The Conservatives would then have one and a half times as many MPs as the LibDems instead of five times as many. Don’t you think that perhaps what you are objecting to about the LibDems in the coalition would then be less likely to have happened? Not only would the relative balance of the two parties make the LibDems much more able to exert an influence, it would also mean a Labour-LibDem coalition would be possible so the LibDems could use the line with the Conservatives “If you don’t give in to us, we’ll form the alternative coalition”. Thanks to the distortions of the current system that line cannot be used as there are not enough Labour and LibDem MPs to add up to a majority.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Oct '12 - 2:05pm

    stephen johnson

    AMS/MMP measures the support for the different parties by having both a party vote, and a constituency candidate vote. This is a simple and straight forward concept.

    It’s neither. How many people realise that because it’s the party vote which gives the number of seats, the constituency vote is irrelevant? All that happens if you work hard to get a constituency candidate elected is that you get one list candidate elected. Now you might say that sort of enables you to express a personal preference between the list and constituency candidates of the same party, but isn’t that better done using a proper preferential system?

    What tends to happen in the AMS system is that people think the party list vote is some sort of second preference. Because of this common misbelief, people are tricked into casting what is really their ONLY vote that counts into a vote for a party which isn’t the one they support most.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Oct '12 - 2:07pm

    Alex Macfie

    I see Stephen Johnson has got back on his hobby horse, namely the idea that instead of ensuring the numbers of MPs are proportional to parties’ share of the vote, we should instead achieve proportionality by weighting the votes of the MPs elected under the existing system.

    Indeed. Any system of weighted voting power for MPs falls on the grounds that it assumes all an MP ever does is vote. It would work for an electoral college, but not for a chamber which has an existence for many other purposes and whose members perform many other roles.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Oct '12 - 2:21pm


    And whilst we are talking about something that is possibly in the far future, is anyone stopping Vince’s plan to rob workers of their rights in return for worthless shares?

    The answer to that question is “Yes”. Haven’t you seen all the debate about it in LibDem Voice? Haven’y you seen the petition against it within the party that’s featured here?

    From what Danny said recently, it’s a done deal. Another nail in the coffin of Lib Dems.

    I think it would help if people from outside the Liberal Democrats gave some support to those of us within the party who are arguing against its leadership, instead of joining our discussion group to do nothing but abuse ALL of us for what the leadership is doing, even those of us who are putting a lot of effort into trying to pull the Liberal Democrats away from the drift to the right under the current leadership. If we inside the party arguing against the leadership could demonstrate we have popular support, we would be able to achieve more. Instead, because people like YOU Phyllis abuse us all indiscriminately, the leadership is able to use the line against us “No-one cares what you say, politics these days is all about public image, and if you argue against your leaders you are damaging the public image, so just shut up and do what you are told, because that’s what looks good and wins votes”.

  • Something along these lines might be workable: an election run along the same lines as the present FPTP system, but where the numbers of MPs awarded to each party was determined by the proportion of the vote. Thus, the Liberal Democrats won 23% of the vote, therefore they would be entitled to 149 or 150 MPs, chosen not by a party list but by a “list” of the 150 Liberal Democrat candidates who did best in the election (either in terms of total vote, or in terms of % in the constituency). In cases where this would elect multiple candidates for the same constituency, the candidate with the higher number of votes would be chosen, and the next candidate on the “list” would move up. Obviously, this would result in the election of a large number of MPs who did not win the most votes in their constituency.

  • Old Codger Chris 22nd Oct '12 - 2:44pm

    Matthew Huntbach – In your example of AV (posted today at 1.34pm) you quote a three-cornered contest. Many of today’s contests have more than three candidates and if my first and second choices are both eliminated I have no further voice under AV or the Supplementary Vote. With two-round voting I can choose between the lesser of two evils. That said, I wouldn’t advocate any single-member constituency system as being fit for purpose, and British voters would never agree to being asked to vote twice within a fortnight or so.

    Alex Macfie – Thanks for explaining so well why DPR is rubbish.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Oct '12 - 4:07pm

    Old Codger Chris

    Matthew Huntbach – In your example of AV (posted today at 1.34pm) you quote a three-cornered contest. Many of today’s contests have more than three candidates and if my first and second choices are both eliminated I have no further voice under AV or the Supplementary Vote

    Yes you do under AV. You can list all the candidates in order of preference. So if your first and second choice are eliminated your vote goes to your third preference. The “Supplementary Vote” system as used in Mayoral elections in the UK limits choice to two, which I find very annoying in the London Mayoral elections as in none of the elections so far have the two leading candidates been my second or even third preference.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Oct '12 - 4:20pm

    Cllr Mark Wright

    Matthew, you are right that AV is better than run-off voting in every sensible aspect. The problem is that the public have been convinced that AV is defective in some un-sensible aspects. Run-off voting is better than AV when it comes to these un-sensible aspects!

    Yes, and it is a mark of the uselessness of the “Yes to AV” campaign that they couldn’t even demonstrate that. Instead of engaging clueless celebrities and meaningless slogans to try and win support, they should have used people who have professional experience teaching algorithms to explain in simple words how this thing actually works. It is a sad mark of the innumeracy of the British commentariat that the arguments put against AV were mostly illogical nonsense which ought to have been answerable by someone with GCSE Maths, yet they were let go because “Duh, it involves numbers and a bit of abstract thinking, I can’t cope with that”. Why is it that in this country being innumerate is something you boast about? Why is it not considered in the same league as being illiterate? If I were to go out in public and admit not to being illiterate but just not to having much knowledge of e.g. Shakespeare and other arts stuff, I’d be laughed off if I were trying to seek public office or make a postion for,myself as a media commentator. But politicians and journalists were queuing up to say proudly how understanding the AV system was beyond them.

  • Paul McKeown 22nd Oct '12 - 4:52pm

    I think all of this is missing the point by a furlong.

    A plebiscite will be held in Scotland on independence. It will fail, but the upshot will be that the Scottish Parliament will be given much greater powers. The UK is heading for a federal structure. 2015 will see political will to reach a lasting settlement for the United Kingdom, which will include wide ranging tax raising powers for the devolved administrations, one of which ought to be an English Parliament. Westminster should end up dealing with a much narrower range of issues. Treating it as a federal parliament which also deals with English tax and spend matters makes no sense whatsoever, as it leaves all the West Lothian questions unanswered and unanswerable.

    The Lib Dems should concentrate on their views for this new settlement. If I remember rightly, I heard Ming Campbell talking on television about this (reference was made to old Liberal “home rule” proposals from a century ago, iirc) at the time of the recent Lib Dem Conference. Issues of electoral systems are of secondary importance to what is to be written into this federal constitution; the Lib Dem should propose a bold agenda for constitutional renewal.

  • Alex Macfie 22nd Oct '12 - 5:40pm

    Steve Johnson
    To answer your points in order:
    1. Irrelevant: The issue is that MPs voting strengths are determined by party vote, so constituencies with vote-heavy MPs have more influence than those with vote-light MPs.
    2. You CANNOT have two or more different ways of counting votes in parliamentary divisions. Simple as that. It is not acceptable under any circumstances, because groups will attempt to have it counted in a way that will produce their preferred outcome.
    Whether an issue is considered “party political” by parliamentary parties is merely a matter of convention (and incidentally, this convention of having free votes on moral issues is not necessarily applied in other countries). And whipping itself is not a matter of parliamentary procedure; but only of internal party discipline, and an MP can choose not to follow a whip or even renounce it entirely. Whether parties whip their MPs into line is up to them; on some issues one party may do so and another doesn’t. There is no set of issues that can be objectively defined as “non-party political”: even on issues that are treated as such in the UK Parliament, there are patterns: Labour and Lib Dem MPs are more likely to be pro-choice on abortion than are Conservative MPs, for instance. There are degrees of adherence to and enforcement of party lines: it is not black and white, but some number of shades of grey.
    What you propose would institutionalise whipping, leading to an implied expectation that in whipped votes an MP must always follow their whip. In which case you might as well do away with divisions altogether and have the Chief Whip cast the party vote on behalf of his entire delegation, in the manner fo the Labour Union block vote of old.
    3. Lib Dem MPs would also be vote heavy. But you also ignore the issue of diversity: I mentioned this before in the context of the pool of talent problem that a numerically under-represented party has in choosing ministers in a coalition government. But this is just one example of the political diversity issue. If all the Green Party vote in Parliament goes to Caroline Lucas, with some inflated vote, then there would be no discussion because there would be no Green Party group to discuss it with. It is an example of oen individual wielding disporpoportionate influence, and that is not good.
    4. You say the MP “represents all their constituents”; but in point 3 you have Caroline Lucas representing the whole Green Party vote UK-wide. You can’t have it both ways. And anyway it does not work because voters not in Ms Lucas’ constituency have no way of voting her out: she is not their MP.
    5. You haven’t actually given an answer to my point about this. How do you propose to maintain party balance in select committees without giving a disproportionate voice to particular individuals?
    6. I don’t think I’m making any assumptions, only observing what would happen if you introduced this system. How do you propose to resolve the issue of ministerial jobs for numerically under-represented parties?
    7. While you have a point about boundaries not making a difference to *party* representation, there will still be resistance from individual MPs, for whom any boundary change will eliminate the incumbency advantage.

  • Paul McKeown 22nd Oct '12 - 7:08pm

    Mark, thank you.

    Unionist politicians of various hues are falling over themselves with promises of new devolved powers for Scotland, so there is certainly will in that direction. However, they typically neglect to deal with the asymmetry of relations within the United Kingdom. Scotland has its Parliament; English representatives at Westminster have little say over devolved matters, however Scottish MPs have little reticence about voting on English matters. This leads to a perception of unfairness in some quarters in England, whilst keeping Scottish voters interested in matters in England which should be none of their affair.

    All in all, it is a ridiculous state of affairs. Which leads to the question, if it is all so ridiculous, why is nothing done about it? The answer is the same as why MPs resisted change to the voting system for the Commons and why MPs and Peers resisted reform of the Lords. They like their jobs. If you want to change things, you have to take this into account.

    An English Parliament makes perfect sense when Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have their own devolved administrations with powers jealously guarded and more sought. A starter for ten, might be an assembly elected by AMS, with 400 constituency seats and 100 top up seats, with an absolute guarantee that any party that gains 1% of the English vote should return at least one member. That way you don’t get the absurd situation where the Kippers poll close on a million votes, for absolutely zero representation. This might well also return some fascists or other ugly characters to the Parliament, but you either believe in democracy or you don’t. I don’t see England as having much of an appetite for radicals of any stripe, so any such representation will be token. The powers of the English Parliament would be the basic tax and spend issues that exercise most voters, NHS, welfare, etc..

    In that case the reserved powers at Westminster would be sharply reduced and concomitant to that the Commons and the Lords should be vigorously culled. Perhaps 300 representatives and 100 senators. How to persuade MPs and peers to write their own P45s? Bribe them. One off platinum/rhodium/iridium plated pensions starting the day they are booted out, with continuing access to the Lords dining facilities, library, whatever sweeteners seal the deal. The LDs really didn’t think though how to overcome the resistance of vested Westminster interests in this Parliament, a mistake that David Lloyd George would not have made… Oh – and the proposals must not be seen as Lib Dem “obsessions”, something guaranteed to raise hackles to the left and to the right. Let the Prime Minister of the day take credit for such boldness. The Lib Dems will not form a majority government in the next Parliament, but there is no reason they cannot put the present day in touch with the reformers from their radical Liberal past.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Oct '12 - 8:27pm

    Matthew Huntbach

    All that happens if you work hard to get a constituency candidate elected is that you get one list candidate elected.

    Just to clarify, that should be one less.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Oct '12 - 8:40pm

    Cllr Mark Wright

    Matthew – I think a large section of the commentariat would argue that they cant find their own mouth without a mirror, if it was in their interests to promote mirrors.

    Yes, but if they do this they have opened themselves up to being made to look stupid.

    With the claims that AV was impossibly complex for your average Oxbridge-educate commentariat person to understand, the remedy was to explain it to everyone else to show how ridiculous they are – either if they really did not understand it, or if they were deliberately misrepresenting it our of self-interest.

    But the “Yes to AV” people REFUSED to do this – I know, because I asked them and they effectively said “No, no, we know better, running a campaign based on facts and explanations won’t work”.

  • Old Codger Chris 23rd Oct '12 - 1:44am

    Matthew Huntbach (22nd Oct at 4.07pm) Sorry Matthew the old brain is failing, you’re obviously right about the cumulative possibilties of AV, made me question why I didn’t like it.

    Now I remember! The 3rd, 4th etc preferences of those voters who favoured the least popular candidates may decide the outcome and I don’t rate such low preferences very highly. Of course the same can happen with 2 round voting, as when French voters who detested Chirac felt compelled to vote for him, but at least with a second round the choice for all voters is crystal clear.

  • Alex Macfie 23rd Oct '12 - 1:23pm

    Stephen Johnson:
    You are very naive in your idea that we can just make this ‘one little change’ to the first past the post voting system so that MPs’ votes are weighted to compensate for lack of party proportionality, but fail to acknowledge that this apparently simple change has profound implications for how parliament and government work. You skate over these or pretend they don’t matter because you only see things from the perspective of your idealised view of the system, in which it only has the effects that you intend it to and there are no unintended consequences.
    So you don’t properly answer my objections, or you co-opt them and pretend that they make your point when actually they say the opposite. You are treating your argument for “DRP Voting” as a sales pitch, resorting to sophistry rather than real argument when people raise objections.
    I think Matthew H hit the nail on the head when he says that weighted votes work for electoral colleges. A parliament is not an electoral college. MPs are elected as individuals, not as party delegates who pledge to follow one party line or another. Having two votes for MP and party are fine; that’s how AMS works in Scotland. But distributing the party vote among existing MPs by weighting distorts their role as individuals by giving some MPs more power than others to fulfill their mandate as INDIVIDUALS . You are just PLAIN WRONG in saying that the party vote and constituency vote is not conflated, because an individual MP’s vote weight (and thus their power) depends on their party. And having a vote-heavy individual IS, by definition, disproportionate influence of an individual. To pretend otherwise is just sophistry. How do you know that the party has democratically reached a decision that the one vote-heavy MP will follow in the voting chamber? I don’t want one MP with 4 votes, I want 4 MPs with 1 vote each, so that there is some chance of discussion among them, and if there is dissent then they might vote different ways. Please stop pretending that the two things are the same, they are NOT.

    When I say that free votes are a matter of convention, what I mean is that there is no formal distinction between free votes and whipped votes in Parliament. Votes are votes are votes. You propose to create a formal distinction, and worse, to have them counted differently. This is, again, absolutely unacceptable. All votes have to be treated the same, and counted the same way. What you propose would also give a formal role to whips in Parliament, thus reducing independence of MPs (not increasing it as you claim).

    As for the ministerial posts issue, what you are saying is that it doesn’t matter if one party in a coalition cannot get its share of minsiters in the government due to lack of MPs. So in 2010 we would not have been able to get a government that properly represented the Lib Dems despite their proportionate voting strength, and you think that doesn’t matter? You don’t have an argument here. That it wouldn’t be worse than under FPTP isn’t the point: having proportionality of voting strength is supposed to make it better.

    Look, there is little point in discussing this any further; you haven’t thought it through, as is obvious because anyone who has done has rejected it because of the obvious issues. I feel like a Dragon on Dragon’s Den some time ago when he sent an entrepreneur away saying “I hope it doesn’t succeed”. FPTP is a system that works, but not in the way I would want it to. DPR actually has so many flaws that I would not want it to gain any traction; I very much doubt it ever will, because anyone who understands even a little how parliaments work can see the problems; but if it did I would be very worried. It would be bad PR for PR.

  • Kevin Colwill 23rd Oct '12 - 4:42pm

    Every voting system is a compromise. Preference voting is pants in my book because I don’t care if the candidate I like third best gets in or not. Call me old fashioned but I want the party I think will best run the country to get into power and I’d like my vote to count towards getting them an MP… or two.

    I’ve always favoured lists over preference voting and the Additional member System seems by far the most saleable approach. It means my vote is not pointlessly adding to a huge majority that can’t ever elect more than one MP and also means I’ve also got some sort of chance that a vote for a minority candidate would count towards getting someone elected.

    Trouble is there’s still far too many of you wedded to preference voting and even if there weren’t voting reform is so far off the ordinary person’s agenda as to be electoral poison in itself.

  • Alex Macfie 23rd Oct '12 - 5:30pm

    Old Codger Chris: But those 3rd and 4th preferences DON’T “decide the outcome”. They can only add to the totals of candidates who have not yet been eliminated. The candidate who wins must have received enough first preference votes to avoid early elimination; if that candidate does not, then lower preferences of candidates who ARE eliminated early cannot help them at all. You are again pretending that the slate is wiped clean at each round: it is not.

  • Old Codger Chris 24th Oct '12 - 6:49am

    Alex Macfie – Surely those 3rd and 4th preferences can make the difference between which candidate is elected and which isn’t.

    I agree with Kevin Colwill, preference voting makes little sense in electing a parliament or any other kind of assembly where the chief purpose of the vote is to elect an administration. A non-preference form of semi-PR gives fair representation to minority (but not fringe) parties. I suppose there’s a place for preference voting in the election of an individual such as a police commissioner or the president of France, in order to elect the person with the most overall approval.

  • Alex Macfie 24th Oct '12 - 9:44am

    Old Codger Chris: Yes, but those candidates would have had to be electable in the first place. It is NOT a matter of the 3rd and 4th preferences on their own deciding who wins.
    I don’t agree with you on non-preference semi-PR and fringe parties. The regional list system for European elections is such a system, and got two BNP MPs elected. I doubt these would have been elected under STV, as they would have got few transferred votes from mainstream party candidates. Preference voting benefits candidates with a broad base of potential support, and is unkind to those with limited appeal outside their core vote.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Oct '12 - 11:07am

    Old Codger Chris

    Now I remember! The 3rd, 4th etc preferences of those voters who favoured the least popular candidates may decide the outcome and I don’t rate such low preferences very highly.

    Yes, but had those least popular candidates not stood in the first place, those who would have voted for them instead would vote for the more popular candidates, so their votes would still be a deciding factor.

    All AV does is give what the election result would have been had the eliminated candidates not stood in the first place. So why should whether candidate A wins or candidate B wins depend not just on the balance of support between A and B but also on whether candidates C, D and E manage to get themselves nominated or not? And if I happen to prefer B to A, but think that E would do an even better job, even though E is a unknown candidate with little money behind him so he can’t effectively get that message across to many people and won’t win many votes, why should I feel forced to vote for B rather than show my personal support for E (and so help E make progress in future) because by not voting for B I run the risk of “splitting the vote” and so A gets in?

  • Old Codger Chris 24th Oct '12 - 1:27pm

    Alex Macfie – your point about the BNP in European elections is a good one, although the uncomfortable fact is that they polled 8 percent and 9.8 percent in the constituencies concerned – only 5.3 percent in the 2008 London Assembly elections where the length of the list assisted their cause. I would suggest a Welsh Assembly style AMS – 8 FPTP constituencies to 4 top-up seats, but with voters able to select their own order of preference between candidates on the list.

    Matthew Huntbach – I think we must agree to disagree on the value of lower preference votes, at least so far as voting for a parliament or assembly is concerned. Not splitting the vote is the obvious argument for AV but we’re told it can be even less proportional than FPTP. And I simply distrust the processes necessary for candidates to reach the Quota at an STV count.

  • Charles Beaumont 24th Oct '12 - 2:45pm

    The debate about relative merits of different systems is important, but the really key issue is broadening the call for electoral reform beyond just the Lib Dems: as was correctly noted, the AV campaign failed (in large part) due to the unpopularity of Nick Clegg (I would also argue that it isn’t a good system and lots of progressive-minded people knew that, so it failed on two counts). We need to work on the fact that increasing numbers of peole are turning to minor parties (all of whom support PR in some form, most of whom we can work with – obv not BNP). There needs to be a broad coalition for electoral reform, not just the Lib Dems who are suspected of trying to feather their own nests.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Oct '12 - 11:07pm

    The AV system is not proportional, and it’s far inferior to STV in multi-member constituencies. However, it’s all that was offered, and in fact had the advantage for opponents of more thorough-going reform that it was very little different from the current system, with its single-member constituencies. The point is that its rejection was not seen by anyone as a rejection because it was not a big enough reform, it was taken as a rejection of ANY reform.

    I don’t think the case for it was properly put, that was in part because of the power of the vested interests who opposed it, but also due to the utter uselessness of those running the “Yes” campaign. As I keep saying, it was quite remarkable that people angry with an unrepresentative government and a weak third party should have used that anger as an argument for voting to retain a system whose supporters said its main benefit was that it distorted representation to give power to parties which lacked true majority support and weakened the influence of third parties.

    Suppose electoral reform had been pushed forward with the argument “Vote to change the system so we never again have such an unrepresentative and extremist government as the one we have now”? Would it have gone the same way? For me, one of the most attractive arguments for AV is that it enables independent challengers to the candidates of the main parties to stand and make their case. It does this by taking away the argument “You have to vote Labour/Conservative otherwise you’ll split the vote and let in Conservative/Labour”. Under AV someone who is inclined to the same sort of policies as Labour but wants to challenge the complacency and arrogance of the local Labour Party (swap “Conservative” for “Labour” here, the argument is the same) can feel free to stand, because they will not split the vote – either their challenge is successful with those decided to stick with Labour choosing the Labour-inclined independent as second choice, or the challenge is unsuccessful, but never mind, it won’t lead to the Tory getting in because the second choice preferences of the independent Labourish person will go to Labour. Are the people of this country really so fond of their political parties that they wouldn’t want to see a system in place that enabled them to be challenged more effectively? Or is it simply that they did not have the case for AV put to them in this way so they never knew that was how it could work?

  • Alex Macfie 25th Oct '12 - 9:25am

    stephen johnson: I apologise for the personal attacks; those were unjustified. but I stand by my comments on the issue, which can be boiled down to the one sentence, “The only practical way of running votes in a parliament (as opposed to an electoral college) is by One Member One Vote.” But I think we shall just have to agree to disagree on this.

  • I have no real problem with run-off elections except that they are expensive, and not as good as AV or STV at empowering voters. If you want to do them properly you have to go through the agonising process of eliminating candidates one by one, a bit like Strictly Come Dancing.

    Our manifesto for 2015 should include STV in regional and local elections and the Lords, AV for elected post-holders such as mayors, and a referendum on STV for the Commons (with AV as the alternative).

    AMS combines the two worst systems:

    – so-called first-past-the-post (even though there is no post) which favours the two tribal parties, and
    – the party list which favours faceless single-interest parties like UKIP, the Greens, and the nationalists.

    AMS is not properly proportionate as we discovered when it gave the SNP an artificial majority in Scotland last year. Both its components effectively give the power of selection to parties rather than voters, and strengthen the power of the whips. It is illiberal and undemocratic and we should fight it all the way.

  • Old Codger Chris 26th Oct '12 - 2:21pm

    Thanks to Paul K for mentioning the 2011 Scottish elections – he prompted me to look them up on Wikipedia. I favour a semi-proportional system which gives a modest bonus to the most succesful party(ies) at the expense of the least sucessful and that’s basically what happened in Scotland – admittedly to an exaggerated degree but that was caused by the huge gap between the SNP on around 45 percent of the combined vote and second placed Labour on around 30 percent.

    STV isn’t fully proprtional either. And parties will always select their candidates – STV does have the advantage of giving voters the maximum choice but they have to make an often (usually?) artificial distinction between their first, second, third preferences etc which – combined with the arcane counting procedure – makes it a bit of a lottery with a blurred connection between votes cast and candidates elected.

  • Old Codger Chris 26th Oct '12 - 2:45pm

    Postscript to my post above – Voter choice under STV only exists if parties offer a choice. I believe that in Scottish council elections parties only contest one or two seats in multi-member STV constituencies in order to avoid the danger of their candidates eliminating each other.

  • Keith Sharp 28th Oct '12 - 4:33pm

    There is a harsh but crucial lesson for us reformers that was evident in both the AV referendum and the Lords reform campaigns: we did not undermine the credibility of the status quo. Take House of Lords reform: if our answer was ‘a democratically elected Lords’; then what was the question or problem we awere aiming to fix? It is all too obvious that the British public is suspicious of elected politicians and therefore the democratic process, so demanding more democracy as an end in itself was never going to be a sufficient argument. Similarly in the AV referendum: the damage done to our Society by First Past The Post never surfaced; instead the Yes campaign was on the defensive from the start, trying to defend an admittedly ‘half-way’ house of a system.

    Now is not the time to cast around for a system that we hope will be more palatable to the opponents of reform — they will do their best to stamp on any change that they perceive threatens the existing poltical power structure anyway — but to renew our arguments and campaigns to get across how the ‘ person in the street ‘ is damaged by the current electoral arrangements they have to live with. Regarding systems, I believe we should retain our support for STV, because we believe, not just in party proportionality, but in greater voter power — but let’s hold that for now and ensure that next tiime (and there will be a next time) we’ve learned the lessons of last time and not let the opposition get away with false claims about the systems we are stuck with today.

    Keith Sharp is a Liberal Democrat and also a Council member of the Electoral Reform Society

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