The coalition’s electoral reform plans for the Commons

As today’s Evening Standard reports, the government is planning to put both an AV referendum and reducing the number of MPs in the same Parliamentary bill, thereby making it harder for any possible rebels to unpick this part of the coalition agreement compromise.

For many the Conservatives, reducing the number of MPs and accompanying that with a speeded up boundary review which is completed before 2015 is an important consolation for the risk (as they see it) of the voting system being changed. That’s because on many estimates the net effect on the proportion of Conservative MPs of the boundary review and AV will be pretty much to balance out with the gains from the former matched by the loses from the latter.*

Agreeing to reduce the number of MPs is the easy part; working out how to speed up the usual boundary review process so that the reduction comes into force by 2015 is harder.

Boundary reviews are one of those processes that seem obviously far too slow. We’ve just had an election with new boundaries – which were drawn up in a process starting with data from 2000. However, working out how to speed up the process without either risking its impartiality or freezing out meaningful consultation is not a trivial task.

It is a task the Conservative Party has been working on the details of for several years. That work included consulting academic experts ahead of the general election and even provisionally sounding out other parties on what processes might or might not get cross-party agreement (even if there is disagreement over how big or small the Commons should be).

That preparatory work should now pay dividends not only for the Conservatives but also for those who want an AV referendum to happen.

* Myself, I’m very sceptical about any estimates made of how parties will perform under AV because the introduction of a new voting system means the public may starts behaving in different ways. For example, when the London Assembly was introduced in 2000 with its regional PR element, people’s voting patterns changed significantly as pe0ple became much more willing to vote for minor parties on the PR list ballot paper. Similarly, knowing what people currently say their second preference would be under AV is a pretty poor guide as to whether faced with a campaign fought under AV their first preferences will stay the same or change.

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  • Andrea Gill 7th Jun '10 - 1:50pm

    I share your scepticism, I really hope there will be polls using an AV style system to give a more accurate reflection of this before too long.

    I am also very much hoping that if we do get AV through, there will be much more focus on the candidates’ plans and qualities as opposed to slagging off other candidates in the same ward.

  • Andrea Gill 7th Jun '10 - 3:26pm

    @James – good point, this would really rather encourage much more amicable and positive campaigning which can only be a good thing!

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Jun '10 - 3:47pm

    Under AV we will need to run “It’s a three horse race” second-party squeeze leaflets. The aim will be to get supporters of the second-placed party to make the tactical choice of putting us first place, their favoured party second. The argument will be that if we are eliminated, their favoured candidate will not pick up enough transfers to win and the one they least like will win. If their favoured candidate is eliminated, but we come in second, then we stand a good chance of winning on second preferences. In any case, if we still remain third despite picking up their second preference, their vote will transfer to their favoured candidate anyway, so why not do it, it’s win-win?

  • paul barker 7th Jun '10 - 4:14pm

    Mat H, no, no & no. This is our oppurtunity to bin all that tactical crap & talk to people about ideas instead of wasting space with bar-charts.

  • Andrea Gill 7th Jun '10 - 4:16pm

    @Paul – Completely agree

  • Paul, so how do you attract the second choices then, which will – in most seats – be required to win? For example, you’re in a Scottish seat about 5000 or so votes behind the Labour winner, with the SNP and Tories a distant third and fourth. There’s no point campaigning in 2015 for the Labour second choices, since they won’t be got – so you have to get the Tory and SNP second choices, while still holding on to enough of their first preferences to keep yourself in the race. Unfortunately, the “tactical crap” will become even more important under AV than it is now.

  • I’m a bit surprised so many Conservative MPs seem enthusiastic about a process that will reduce their number by 10% – seems like turkeys voting for Christmas! I also wonder what MPs (of all parties) think about having a significantly increased constituency caseload, which would clearly be one consequence of these proposals. Won’t this mean a poorer service to voters in terms of responding to letters etc.?

  • Andrew Suffield 7th Jun '10 - 5:06pm

    This is our oppurtunity to bin all that tactical crap

    Sadly, it isn’t. STV would have got rid of most of it, but this is just IRV, which only hits one specific form. There’s still a lot of scope for annoying insincere voting strategies.

    However, in the notable case where there really are only two serious contenders – which happens in a great many UK constituencies – it doesn’t apply. No amount of faffing around will matter there; all the minor candidates will be eliminated and you’ll be left with a straight comparison of the two major parties based on the pairwise preferences expressed by the voters, which is exactly what you wanted.

    In a 3-way near-tie, which does happen in a few places, IRV tends to encourage people to insincerely promote the “compromise” choice in their ballot – rather than place their first preference at the top, they put the choice which is most popular and still acceptable to them, in order to prevent their least-favoured choice from winning.

    Bottom line, IRV does the right thing if you’ve only got two serious candidates, and doesn’t really help in any other cases.

  • Andrea Gill 7th Jun '10 - 5:11pm

    @KL – Simple – by highlighting where our policies are similar to those of the other parties standing, and highlighting our achievements in government, in particular where they overlap with past (broken) promises in other parties’ manifestos etc.

  • Andrea Gill 7th Jun '10 - 5:13pm

    @John – It was in their and our manifesto.

  • @John

    I agree. In 2001, according to the census the approx population of the UK was 59 million. It is estimated that in 2011 it will be 62 million. By 2015 the population will probably have increased even further. We therefore need more M.P.s not less. The people who will benefit the most from the boundary changes will be the Tories. As for A.V. I do hope a second preference will not be mandatory. I wouldn’t want my ballot paper invalidated because I only voted for one candidate. I can see many instances where it would be anathema for one to express a second preference.

  • Reducing the number of MPs is one of those populist policies which should have been thought about more carefully. I bet neither of the coalition leaders think their constituency should be increased in size by 10%. Similarly, Tory proposals to equalise the size of constituencies seem to be based on ignorance of the process by which boundaries are drawn up. There is a presumption that constituencies should be the same size anyway, but any attempt to achieve that also has to take into account things like community ties and geographical and political boundaries which inevitably frustrate numerical parity. Constituency boundaries could be drawn up without any public participation which would result in much faster response to population changes which obviously over the period of time it currently takes to go through the process of altering boundaries mean that by the time they are implemented significant distortions can have arisen, but would we (and the Tories) really want to give up the right of local people to present their case to the Boundary Commission?

  • You would think that a strand of conservative thinking about electing an MP would be having a MP who champions a local community. Conducting a boundary review with strict equalisation before each general election will act against this. Having constituencies of equal size will mean more funny boundaries which cut across and divide local communities. This coupled with boundary reviews at every election will mean electors having to adjust to a new MP just because they are affected by boundary changes. If only the conservatives could be persuaded to adopt STV – then you could have “natural” constituencies like Cornwall or Sheffield which can last for decades or in Cornwall’s case a century or so. Just before each general election you could allocate the number of MPs each constituency would return by a strict mathematical rule. You would expect each constituency to have some MPs who remained from one general election to another and therefore each of these “natural” communities would have some consistent local champions. Just the sort of thing you might expect the squirearchy to appreciate.

  • Andrea Gill 7th Jun '10 - 7:18pm

    @Kehaar – by “rebels” they’re referring to ‘rebels’ they are talking about backbench MPs

  • Andrea Gill 7th Jun '10 - 7:35pm

    @Kehaar – are you seriously suggesting that party “rebels” such as Nadine Dorries or Dennis Skinner accurately represent the population as a whole?

  • Paul McKeown 7th Jun '10 - 8:25pm

    I would be surprised if the idea was to utterly marmalise large rural seats in Scotland or those based on natural geographic boundaries. The Western Isles would appear to be a sensible constituency, for instance, without amalgamating them with something else. But there is remarkable variation in the population of constituencies in Lowland Scotland, Wales and England. Wales has, in particular, some constituencies with remarkably low populations. Jack Straw’s point about unregistered electors was well made; I’m sure it will be taken on board. Liberal Democrats are what it says on the tin. Democracy, even to our own tribal disadvantage. What we hope for is simply fairer votes. If Cameron wants to do a Disraeli, introduce STV and enfranchise all those disaffected voters (and non-voters) in safe seats, which would be the largest enfranchisement since the vote was extended to women, then we would cheer. As he currently doesn’t want to that, we should trust Nick Clegg to do his best for everyone to maximise the fairness in the electoral system within the constraints of the coalition. We should, of course, remain alert and let him know if he is failing in his duty.

  • Paul McKeown 7th Jun '10 - 8:30pm

    STV could take another generation: but it will come. History is on our side, on the side of enfranchisement.

  • Wouldn’t less M.P.’s save a lot of money in M.P.’s expenses?

    If the Conservatives want to keep their argument about the M.P. representing local people (the one they use against PR), how can they merge the large area rural constituencies? If you start trying to make the population numbers equal, you utterly lose the “local” element there.

    @Kehaar “MPs’ duty is to hold the Government to account.”
    Is this even if they are in the governing party? Is it regardless of what their constituents think?

    @Paul McKeown Yes, absolutely.

  • To paraphrase yes minister

    A Government has about 350 MPs to choose from

    one third are too old or have already failed as ministers or don’t want to be ministers

    one third are too new and inexperienced or just unsuitable

    which leaves one third to fill 120 governemnt posts – i.e. no choice at all. Look at Gordon Browns last reshuffle and “Government of all the talents” – then try and think of any of them with any decernable talent !

    On constituency size – AV doesn’t help at all. What does happen to the Isle of Wight ? It is entirely artbitary which part might be hived of to go with part of hampshire and entirely arbitary which part of hampshire it in lumped togther with. (Portsmouth ? Southampton ? The New Forest ?) For local government boundaries the target is 10% variance, with upto 20% or more in exceptional circumstances – but anyone who as actually done a review knows that it is based on existing electorates and projected figures – which may or most usually may not turn out to be correct. This is particularly the case ion areas of rapid population growth or fluctuating voter registration levels.

  • “The equivalent of, my guess is, another one’s salary. Three or so millions turns into six or so millions. Not much.”

    Strange how few people regard it as “not much” when they are convinced that just one M.P. has ripped them off tens of thousands.

    @Kehaar – “Is it regardless of what their constituents think?”
    “Even the safest seat is going to have 30% or so who didn’t vote for the incumbent.”
    Yes, I did not vote for mine, but then you do not have to have voted for an M.P. to be entitled to their service, and if 90% of the residents around here want our representative to vote with the Government on a certain matter, I expect her to bare this in mind – so does the system, since if she wants to keep her job, she has to be re-elected.

    “And what if their constituents wanted the death penalty?”
    Well it is quite simple, that M.P. needs to bare in mind that the majority in their constituency want the death penalty, or they could lose their job – as explained in my previous answer.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Jun '10 - 10:54pm

    Paul Barker. of course I would like us to be campaigning on ideas, but I’m just pointing out that AV doesn’t abolish tactical considerations in voting. This may come as a surprise, because many people, thinking of the “split vote” issue in FPTP, think AV does mean the end of tactical voting. As I’ve pointd out, it means a different sort of tactical consideration comes into play in different situations.

    Of course it shouldn’t be our main appeal, but would we entirely ignore it in a close fight? Is the tactical consideration I’ve suggested simply too complex to explain to voters? We did sort of try it in the London Mayoral election, but it didn’t come off. Partly this is because the commentariat take pride in being innumerate, so I can see them reacting to this “Aagh, it involves a bit of maths, go away, my brain hurts”.

  • I think that the mere fact that tactical voting becomes more complicated under AV at least means there will be less of it. Plus, there should be less negative campaigning as candidates aim to win second votes. IMHO these are quite significant improvements on the situation as it is now.

  • If a campaign was established to persuade people not to use their second vote an element of First Past the Post could be retained within the AV system.

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