The Independent View: A new electoral system

We all understand the disproportionate effects of first past the post (FPTP), but what about the distance it puts between voters and politicians?

The size of constituencies used in FPTP, and the even larger ones used in STV, mean that politicians can’t hear the voices of individual communities clearly. The link between voters and MP gets weaker the larger the size of the constituency they are elected in.

There is only one electoral system that will make the gap smaller and deliver proportional results, non-contiguous first past the post. For an explanation on how this works, click here. (For reference, 19% of council seats are Lib Dem, not including district seats.)

An MP is not given an easy ride in safe seats in this system, FPTP/AV constituency boundaries mean it is practically certain who will get elected. For a party to lose representation under STV, there may have to be a significant swing of many thousands of votes in a 5 member constituency of hundreds of thousands of voters. No parts of wards will go neglected, Labour parts of Tory safe seats will have representation, and vice versa. In Non-Con. voting, the majority in safe seats would consist of no more than a few thousand votes, meaning a challenger could get elected first time round, without having to build up a voter base over many election cycles. Communities will get the representatives they vote for, and parties will have a democratic mandate because they have won elections to get where they are. A fringe 5% of the vote is not the same as 50% of the vote in 50 wards.

As councillors and MPs would always be of the same political party, team building would be made easier. Councillors would be the local face of this team, meeting constituents on a day to day basis. Or, rephrased, meeting many more constituents than the Mp could do alone. They would be able to answer questions on policy that may not be made clear, or distorted in the media. For example, communication over immigration would have been made a lot easier between Labour and their constituents if voters had a direct conduit to their Mp, who is currently far too remote for many voters to access. The same message coming from a local person would have a different resonance than if it had come from a cabinet minister that spends their life in London.

This would be an important counterbalance to celebrity politics. Elections should be won on ideals and not on slick media TV debates. Months of hard work should not go to waste because of a slip-up by one person on one night. Community sized constituencies would mean a bad performance on one night would not mean electoral disaster, as one team of activists could saturate an entire constituency in one day. Voters could be met and the message that the party wants to get across strengthened.

I would like to here how you received this idea, and criticism is welcome.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

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19 Comments

  • The only people who really want to change the electoral system are a Lib Dem party desperate to taste power.

    If that wasn’t the case, then their efforts would be received in a different manner.

    So LibDem’s, this is your challenge. Defeat the war mongering and corrupt Gordon Brown and the Labour Party, for surely the LibDem’s are the only true party of the right in Britain….of course you can wave bye bye to the south east.

  • @JOn – get a life
    @Robert Draper – bizarre, arcane, unworkable. BTW learn to spell independEnt, and ‘hear’ not ‘here’ ….

  • Andrew Suffield 21st Mar '10 - 1:55pm

    Fails IIA and cloning, hugely: the way to win this election is to split your opponent’s vote as thinly as you can.

    Let’s say we have 100 wards with a quota of 10, 10 Tory candidates, and 100 Liberal candidates, evenly distributed. The Liberal candidates, between them, take 90% of the vote, and the Tories take 10%. Per candidate, that is 9% for each Liberal, and 10% for each Tory. The Tory candidates win every ward and every seat.

    In general, the winner is whoever has a position that has the least competition within the segment of the population that agrees with its views. That’s going to be the extremist parties.

    It doesn’t work. I suggest you study voting systems theory.

  • Malcolm Todd 21st Mar '10 - 2:09pm

    I couldn’t make head nor tail of this, either the system of electing MPs or the alleged link between Councillors and MPs. I think if you tried to simplify it to the point where it really made any sense, you’d find you’d reinvented the ‘best loser’ form of additional member system suggested back in the 1970s.

    Don’t waste time trying to come up with ever more clever and arcane electoral systems. No system is ever going to be perfect, and there are several workable systems in use in various countries (including the various countries of the UK). The Lib Dem preference for STV is long-established, principled and justifiable. There’s not the slightest point in diverting political energy into the geekish enterprise of inventing outlandish new ways of building a rolling locomotive facilitation device.

  • Malcolm Todd 21st Mar '10 - 2:11pm

    Also, what Andrew said…. (By the way, Andrew, what’s IIA?)

  • Andrew Suffield 21st Mar '10 - 3:10pm

    Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives: the principle that adding more losers to the election should not change the outcome. Independence of cloning is closely related: the principle that adding more identical candidates – same party with no distinguishing features, for example – should still not change the outcome. Regular plurality voting doesn’t meet either criterion, which is one of the biggest problems with it, but doesn’t fail anywhere near as badly as this one. (You can’t get IIA to work in a voting system that doesn’t have other serious flaws – Arrow’s theorem – but it’s still useful to look at how well or badly they handle that case)

    Lets say there are 100 wards and you need 10 wards to form a constituency. If there are only 10 Tory candidates, and if the Tories won in every ward they stood in, they could take a maximum of one seat.

    How do you fit 10 Tories into one seat? Are they supposed to dogpile? That doesn’t make any sense.

  • “The size of constituencies used in FPTP, and the even larger ones used in STV, mean that politicians can’t hear the voices of individual communities clearly. The link between voters and MP gets weaker the larger the size of the constituency they are elected in.”

    I think this is overly presumptive. With currently sized constituencies MPs manage to connect with individual communites, and with multi member STV MPs would be forced to connect with individual communities to keep their job. Remember that the larger STV constituencies would have multiple members allowing individual communities a greater opportunity to contact an MP than if they had only one.

  • After some deliberation, and a bit of guesswork, it seems that the best that could possibly be said is that this proposal is seriously lacking any understanding of what elections involve or the nature of democratic representation.

    (1) How can an MP effectively represent a constituency made up of seven or eight different council wards which are nowhere near each other, and who have nothing in common apart from the party allegiance of the councillor which represents them?

    (2) How can parties and candidates effectively select candidates for MP when they wouldn’t know the size or shape of the constituency they would be seeking to represent?

    (3) How and when would elections for Westminster actually work? Either the size and shape of constituencies for Westminster elections would be fixed at some point, which would allow elections actually to be held, or they would be entirely fluid, depending on the party allegiance of local councillors.

    If it was fixed, and allowed (as it would need to do) three or four years’ time afterwards so that parties could campaign properly, and ensure that their candidate is known, liked and trusted by local people, then by the time the election is held (let alone during the MP’s term of office) then another set of council elections will have been held and no doubt the political composition of representation of council wards would also change, which would defeat the entire purpose of the system.

    However, it is also possible that an MP’s constituency could change shape during their term of office if council elections happened, or they might also effectively be removed from office because of council elections, if the party entitlement dropped because the party lost council seats. Is it fair or reasonable for an MP no longer to represent the area with the main local employer, or main local services, or even their own house or constituency office, simply because local people chose to elect a councillor from a different party? What happens to an elected MP if one councillor defects to a different party, or becomes an independent – would the MP be automatically removed from office? That would not only hand enormous power to individuals who may bear a grudge against them (for example, because they sought but lost the selection contest against the MP for the candidacy for Parliament), but would disenfranchise voters who know and like their MP but have no influence over them losing their position.

    What happens for people who live in wards which have a councillor whose party allegiance is not well enough represented locally to entitle them to a single MP? Would they have no representative in Parliament at all? If not, who gets to decide what happens to them?

    What happens for rural areas where there are lots of independent councillors – who would choose an independent candidate for the MP?

    What about Scotland, where STV wards have 3 or 4 councillors for the same area, and not a single ward in the country has all of its councillors from the same party? Or indeed those metropolitan boroughs who have three-member wards, each elected under FPTP, where there are also sometimes councillors from different parties?

    Would there even be Westminster elections any more, or would MPs be chosen by small committees of councillors?

    How would the size and shape of constituencies be determined if there were enough council wards represented by the same party in an area to entitle that party to two MPs?

    Not a single one of these questions is answered directly or by inference in the description of the system. My conclusion is this: a hell of a lot more work would need to be done to turn this idea into a coherent proposal and, even then, it is likely that the obvious flaws and deficiencies would make it utterly redundant in any serious comparison of systems. It is often said that no electoral system is perfect – this one seems to me to be as far from perfect as it is possible to imagine.

  • Andrew Suffield 22nd Mar '10 - 12:48pm

    100 council wards which are represented in Westminster parliament by 10 Mps, 10 conservative council candidates who stand in 10 council wards, if they all won, the Tories would have 10 wards that would become a single constituency and would send one MP to Westminster. They would have 10% of the Westminster seats, not 100%.

    10 MPs standing, not 10 councillors.

    What you have to realise is that every time you take a subset of the population (say, a voting district), and say that the majority of that district will have the authority to represent everybody in the district, you’re discarding the votes of some of the population, and hence making the system less representative. This is how Labour managed to get a majority in Parliament with only 35% of the popular vote. The proposal here does it twice (once per ward and then once per MP), which makes the effect significantly worse, allowing tiny fractions of the population to select the government. It’s basically the opposite of proportional representation.

    Any realistic voting system needs to discard less votes than plurality voting, not more.

    The biggest advantage of STV is that when it does break down (as every voting system must), it does so in a manner that is not particularly worrying. STV’s failure mode comes when the voter preferences are arranged such that there is a group of candidates that are all about equally preferable, and that group is larger than the number of seats available to them. When this happens, STV will pick candidates from that group in an erratic and unreliable manner, and not necessarily include the one who would have won in plurality voting. Since they were all about equally preferable, this is not a serious problem.

    Illustrative example: suppose we have candidates A, B, C, D, E, and three seats. Individual approval rating of the candidates is: A 86%, B 33%, C 32%, D 32%, E 5%. STV would be expected to elect A plus two of {B, C, D}, but might not pick B as a winner – depending on exactly how people voted.

    Very few voting systems perform quite this well. There are some interesting methods that are a little bit better than STV (mostly trying to satisfy the Condorcet criterion as well, which says that a candidate who pairwise beats every other candidate must always be elected), but they’re substantially similar and just nail down the failure cases a bit more firmly.

    It is often said that no electoral system is perfect

    It’s worth noting that this is not an aphorism, it’s mathematically proven. We have a very detailed understanding of ways in which voting systems can behave badly, and ways to design systems that are resistant to them.

  • Malcolm Todd 23rd Mar '10 - 10:41pm

    Well, I’ve had a look at that pdf. I think I just about understand what you’re proposing, and I think you should give it up! Some problems:
    — Voters in a minority in their particular ward are as completely ignored as under the current system. (Which means, as MatGB has pointed out, that if you live in a very safe ward in an otherwise marginal seat, you’ve become an irrelevant voter with this change – a serious downside.)
    — If I’ve understood your last Q&A answer correctly, it appears you really are proposing that winners of wards who don’t win a constituency form a sort of electoral college, which makes democracy even more indirect.
    — Council wards have boundaries that are pretty much as arbitrary as FPTP parliamentary constituencies, which makes them a pointless basis for the sort of conjuration you’re doing.
    — If you’re going to get rid of the ‘local link’ for MPs, then just do it, and have regional or national constituencies – you could have AMS if you wanted. There’s no point in a system in which people from different wards get lumped in with other wards on a scattered geographical basis, just because a plurality of people in each ward happened to vote for the same party. Some people believe MPs have a genuine role as local advocates; others believe that their proper function is purely as national legislators. If you believe the former, then scattering wards around in unpredictable ways destroys the effectiveness of the MP in that role; if you believe the latter, then there are much, much better ways of determining the allocation of seats to parties.

    If nobody had invented STV, or regional open list PR voting, then your proposal would be an interesting contribution to a developing discipline of electoral systems. As it is, much better systems exist, and yours does not solve any problems with those other systems that could not be better solved in another way. Given how difficult it is going to be to ever get a change from the current appalling system to one of the much fairer systems that exist, inventing a new system with no discernible advantages can only impede the cause of much-needed reform.

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