The Independent View: Let’s make 2015 the last ever lottery election

Who could have predicted it? Who would have thought that four years after the Alternative Vote was firmly rejected by voters in a national referendum, we would be approaching the 2015 general election with First Past the Post at Westminster under serious scrutiny? Or that local electoral reform could be a realistic outcome of power-sharing talks between Liberal Democrats and one or other of the major parties (provided Lib Dems make it a ‘red-line’ issue)?

What are the game-changers? Firstly, FPTP’s supposed ability to deliver clear majority government was justification enough for many to put up with the obvious lack of proportionality.  That no longer applies. As The Economist says: “Unaccustomed and ill-adapted to multi-party politics, Britain is more likely to get weak, unstable governments. That will only fuel the dissatisfaction with career politicians in the main parties. And if the parliamentary system comes to be seen as both unfair and ineffectual, then it is in for a crisis of legitimacy.”

With FPTP stripped of its main justification, other arguments are also coming to the fore. In The Lottery Election, published last month by the Electoral Reform Society, Professor John Curtice argues that relatively small shifts in opinion could have massive effects at the Westminster level. Meanwhile, UKIP could come 6th in seats but 3rd in votes, and SNP could come 6th in votes but 3rd in seats. So far, so unfair.

Secondly, it will be much harder to dismiss cries of unfairness when potentially millions of UKIP supporters join the ranks of disgruntled Greens and Lib Dems who see no fair translation of votes into seats. The system’s impact on geographically, politically and socially diverse voters will help achieve a breakthrough denied to past reformers. There is a real chance too that UKIP and the Green Party will put their mutual distaste to one side and join forces for electoral reform. The Liberal Democrats and allies from within every other party should campaign alongside them.

Thirdly, politicians and commentators have had to accept that multi-party politics is here to stay. Every one of the last four elections has set a record for support for parties other than the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats. In 2010, 11.9% supported ‘other’ parties; this election it could be as high as 24%.

Voters are relaxed about the prospect of greater pluralism. Our poll of voters in the 40 most marginal Conservative-Labour constituencies found that – even where two-party competition was most fierce – a clear majority preferred a system where multiple parties compete for votes. Some 51% believed it is better to have several smaller parties than two big parties (versus just 27% who thought the opposite). And as the facts of pluralist politics become harder to ignore, debate rightly turns to how to respond.  As Chuka Umunna, Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, argued on LBC this week, the task now is to ensure that a ‘greater variety of views are given voice’ – with proportional voting providing part of the answer.

For long-standing reformers, this is turning out to be a remarkable election – a poll in which  unpredictable, almost random results will communicate the essentially unfair and old-fashioned nature of the way we choose our MPs. Let’s make 2015 the last ever Lottery Election. Let’s join forces on 8th May to campaign for a fairer system that ensures everyone’s voices are heard, and their votes are fairly translated into national representation.

ERS is holding a Rally for Reform at Spring Conference with LDER: Saturday 14th March, 6.15-7.15pm, ACC: Room 3a. Liberal Democrat President Sal Brinton will be speaking.

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.

* Katie Ghose is the Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society

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25 Comments

  • With FPTP stripped of its main justification

    Well no, not really. The main justification (apart form the constituency link lost by any multi-member system) for FPTP is that it is the only system which can produce strong single-party government.

    That doesn’t mean it always will: Clear, as seen in 2010 and probably this time too, under certain circumstances it will fail to do so.

    However, a PR system will never produce a strong single-party government. In nearly every PR system across the world, nearly every election is inconclusive and is followed by a period of coalition negotiations.

    So if you think that strong single-party government is good and coalitions are bad, given a choice between a system which can produce such (even if it doesn’t always) and a system which will ensure that there will never be a strong single-party government again, clearly logically you must pick the former, and stick with FPTP.

  • matt (Bristol) 13th Mar '15 - 10:05am

    Dav, the consituency link is not automatically destroyed or ‘lost’ under any mixed-member system – what is ‘weakened’ (if you want to call it that) is the single-member linkage, which has only existed in its current form since the 1890s (iirc) in our system. Before that, most constituencies had 2 members (or more) per seat.

    Total STV retains the constituency linkage, but groups of MPs (3 or more; I would prefer that the total number of MPs in an STV constituency was kept as low as practicable) are linked to the seat. In that sense, it is a reversion to the older system (on which it was in fact based).

    Also, a genuine mixed-member or parallel voting system – in which Mps are elected by more than one method – does not mean a list-PR element necessarily – it could (for eg) combine FPTP and STV (rather than list-voting)- as both are constituency, individual-candidate systems, although there would be a change to larger constituencies, and multiple MPs representing one area, ma ny elements of the current system would be retained in such a system. This would be particularly true is the proportions were (say) 1/3 elected by STV, 2/3 elected by FPTP.

  • Dav says ‘However, a PR system will never produce a strong single-party government.’
    That presumes strong single-party government is good for the country. I don’t see that Germany with it’s federal structure and proportional government is better governed than the UK. Indeed the opposite! What upsets me is that just as the country is finally waking up to the need for constitutional change in terms of devolved decision making in England, we in our pre-manifesto don’t even mention it! In Manchester, 95 of 96 councillors are Labour and the other one is independent Labour! Who will scrutinise the actions of this administration? I predict poor decision-making and corruption, not because it is run by by Labour, but because this is inevitable where there is no effective opposition as in this great city. We MUST back demands from the Electoral Reform Society for PR in local elections in England and Wales as a RED LINE in any coalition negotiations. Let’s be radical again!

  • matt (Bristol) 13th Mar '15 - 10:14am

    Also, to answer Dav’s point about ‘strong’ government, most PR systems manifest themselves (as in Ireland (STV) or Germany(mixed-member) ) in alternation between 2 usually settled blocs of parties – with occasional variation – not in the ‘constant horse-trading’ we are often told that ensues.

    I would argue this is ‘strong enough’ government. I do not find people arguing that Japan’s voting system, for example, produces ‘weak’ government.

    It is not heresy to use another voting system. The sky will not fall in.

  • Whoops! Correction -‘ I don’t see that Germany with it’s federal structure and proportional government is less well governed than the UK.’ is what I meant to say

  • If only Clegg had accepted Cameron’s offer of a cross-party committee on electoral reform, the momentum for PR would by now be unstoppable for all the reasons argued by Katie Ghose above. The Lib Dems really blew it on this one – after fighting for reform for so long, when they finally got the chance to do something about it they set the cause back at least ten years.

  • Malcolm Todd 13th Mar '15 - 11:07am

    To be fair to Dav, I don’t think he actually claims that “strong single-party government is good for the country”, only that “if you think that strong single-party government is good and coalitions are bad” (emphasis added) it makes more sense to stick with FPTP than change to a proportional system. (And the existence of a rare example of an overall majority under a PR system, viz. Scotland, no more destroys that argument than does the occasional example of a FPTP hung parliament.)
    In other words, the article’s claim that “FPTP’s supposed ability to deliver clear majority government … no longer applies” is rhetoric rather than reasoned argument. However, the other arguments for electoral reform (especially in local government, as another article on the site makes clear) remain strong enough, in my view, not to need dubious underpinning.

  • Simon Horner 13th Mar '15 - 11:47am

    The argument for a voting system that is democratic should always prevail over a desire for one that will (or can) produce “strong” government.
    Of course, there is no system that can give value to every ballot but FPTP effectively guarantees that well under half of the total vote will be mathematically worthless. In 2010, the proportion was around 75%. This included all the ballots cast for losing candidates and all the excess votes cast for the winners. As in every past election, the vast majority of us will be able to look at the results on 8 May and see that our trip to the polling station was a waste of time.
    There has to be some sort of threshold. For me, it is axiomatic that any system that gives value to fewer than 50% of the votes cast is not democratic (AV just manages to creep over the line).
    We are lucky to live in a country where we can freely stand for election, vote in secret for whom we want and debate freely without fear of arrest or persecution. But that isn’t enough. If you do the maths, the conclusion is obvious. Britain is a pluralist state but it isn’t yet a democracy.

  • Eddie Sammon 13th Mar '15 - 12:16pm

    The problem is not FPTP but the way we allow constituency MPs to become government ministers. We are trying to make politics more family friendly and it is impossible if we expect anyone who wants to go far to do two jobs.

    The solution is to have a separate FPTP presidential election and the president appoints their cabinet.

    I’d probably campaign against any move to PR. It’s too complicated and makes MPs less independent.

  • Matthew Huntbach 13th Mar '15 - 1:14pm

    FPTP works as its advocates say it does only if there is a homogenous party system across the entire nation, but not too homogenous.

    If it is too homogenous, it gives not a two-party system but a one-party state. Consider the case where it is so homogenous that in every constituency Party A gets 51% of the vote and Party B gets 49%. Then Party A wins ALL the seats.

    If it is not homogenous enough, you get gross regional distortions. Consider that in region P, Party A gets 51% of the vote and Party B gets 49%, and in region Q Party A gets 49% of the vote and Party B gets 51%. Then all the MPs from region P are party A and all the MPs from region Q are party B, and that tends to have a reinforcing effect so that Party A ends up as the “Region P Party” and party B ends up as the “Region Q Party”.

    FPTP makes it hard for small parties to get anywhere, but that’s only if the small parties have their vote evenly spread across the country. A party which is small because all its support is concentrated in one region does not suffer the FPTP barrier against small parties. That is just what we are seeing now in the UK with the Northern Irish parties and the SNP.

    The deleterious effects of these various distortions can be seen in many of the former British Empire countries where we left them FPTP as our legacy.

    So, anyone who insists we must have FPTP and the main reason for that is that it leads to one-party government, and distortion of representation is fine if it’s for that reason needs to move on. Rather than FPTP which gave us one-party government due to how the UK party system used to be, they should be considering what those who thought much the same way about how good one-party government is and how bad coalition with all its compromises and discussions in Italy in the 1920s proposed with the Acerbo Law.

  • The argument for a voting system that is democratic should always prevail over a desire for one that will (or can) produce “strong” government

    Depends on what you think the voting system’s for. If you have a procedural view of democracy (ie, you don’t think there’s anything magic about a democratically-elected government [it’s not more likely to be correct than another form, and it doesn’t have some mysterious quality called ‘legitimacy’] but that what makes democracy good is that it provides a procedure for choosing a government which everyone accepts, even those who lose, and therefore stops civil wars and coups from breaking out) then no, there’s no reason that you should prefer a system which is ‘more democratic’.

    I mean, if people would agree to abide by the results and not stage a coup if they lose, you could even choose cabinet ministers by drawing lots instead of having elections. That’s what the Athenians used to do, and indeed it’s been suggested both seriously and semi-seriously as a mechanism for selecting people to sit in the second chamber, if the House of Lords is abolished.

    So actually, provided you don’t think there’s anything magic about an elected government that makes it in any way special but agree with Winnie about democracy being simply the least-worst form of government yet tried form a practical point of view, then no, there’s no reason to prefer a ‘more democratic’ voting system over one which does better at producing a government.

  • Simon Horner 13th Mar '15 - 2:44pm

    Correction to my post of 11.47. The second line of the second paragraph should obviously read “well over half of the total vote” (not “under”)

  • Of course, whether “strong, single-party government” is actually a good thing is a key part of the PR debate. You only have to look at the policy excesses of the Thatcher and Blair governments, and the bullying approach of the Salmond administration, to see strong cases that it is not.

    Stuart has a good point – in so many ways 2010 was a missed opportunity for fair votes. An introduction of STV for local government would have been a relatively simple start, and could easily have been pitched to the Tories as a compromise over AV (certainly in Scotland the Tories have not been quick to demand a return to FPTP.) There is a danger that a commission would simply have buried the issue, and I could accept that as a reason for not doing it.

    For me, the other big thing about a PR system (and STV in particular) is that it removes the “negative vote” or tactical vote – i.e. voting against a party you disagree with rather than voting for a party you do agree with. Take, for example, the movement in Scotland to try to vote tactically against the SNP, rather than vote constructively for a party which you support. That will cause further distortion of results, whereas with STV you would feel more able to give your first preference to the party which you support, and a second or third preference to the party which might stop the SNP. (In my area it’s a moot point – the second placed party is the Tories, and I’d vote SNP before I vote for them!)

  • Denis Mollison 13th Mar '15 - 5:46pm

    Eddie Sammon -“I’d probably campaign against any move to PR. It’s too complicated and makes MPs less independent.”

    From the voters’ point of view it’s simpler, because you can vote for your genuine preferences rather than tactically.

    It only makes MP’s less independent if you go for a list system – Italy is a particularly bad example.

    Do look at the STV system we got voted on in parliament in February 2010 ; proportional representation voting for individuals not party lists, with constituencies respecting local authority boundaries – and quite a few other advantages I can’t fit into this quick post before dashing for the conference rally.

  • Eddie Sammon 13th Mar '15 - 5:50pm

    Hi Denis, thanks for explaining further. I’ll have another look at it, but either way it is not a red line issue for me.

  • Denis Mollison 13th Mar '15 - 5:51pm

    Sorry, the link doesn’t seem to have got in – http://www.macs.hw.ac.uk/~denis/stv4uk.pdf

  • @Katie Ghose
    “It will be much harder to dismiss cries of unfairness when potentially millions of UKIP supporters join the ranks of disgruntled Greens and Lib Dems who see no fair translation of votes into seats.”
    Which is what many supporters of electoral reform were trying to tell you and others at the top of the ‘Yes to Fairer Votes’ campaign as UKIP was sidelined and with it the votes of those potential millions.
    At least any future campaign, be it at a national or local level, would have to avoid the services of Lord Sharkey and his advertising chum Paul Bainsfair, after neither chose to appear at the Electoral Reform Society’s AGM in 2011 and explain why their campaign strategy produced such a disastrous result.

  • Philip Rolle 13th Mar '15 - 11:58pm

    Who would have predicted it? Six months after wanting to leave the country, the Scottish Nationalists want to run it.

  • Philip Rolle 13th Mar ’15 – 11:58pm……Who would have predicted it? Six months after wanting to leave the country, the Scottish Nationalists want to run it………

    A fairer assessment of the situation… after being assured that they are “Better Together”, those MPs representing Scottish voters might expect a say in how the “Together” is run…

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 14th Mar '15 - 9:38am

    The problem I have with ‘strong single-party government’ is that it becomes dictatorial, myopic even, and usually doesn’t resonate with voters for the next 4-5 years. Usually a single winning party has a maximum around 35% of voter support and is therefore not democratically elected and cannot represent the full voting population. Rather than uniting it tends to divide and rule.
    I prefer the German system of coalition government which represents a German voting majority. Seems strong enough. But I must make the point that the various coalition partners should make their policies clear regularly, and vote on them likewise, or in a coalition the voters lose the focus on the different party’s principles – hence the decline of the co-called Liberal vote in Germany and in UK [by not keeping their differing principles clear].
    Isn’t good government also about compromise for the good of the nation? That doesn’t mean passive agreement on almost everything as LDs *appeared* to do 2010-2014 – I exclude the recent Con-LD divide which is clearly for election purposes but should have been apparent all along. Britain is now a multi-party state because single parties cannot maintain sufficiently wide political views in the diverse world we live in. Therefore a single-party-government and its general policy is bound to seem insular and oft irrelevant to the majority of the population. [I’m a member of ERS which has members from every UK political party – all are valued in open discussion and policy-making]

  • @Simon Horner
    ” For me, it is axiomatic that any system that gives value to fewer than 50% of the votes cast is not democratic (AV just manages to creep over the line).”

    No it doesn’t. For every 2% of voters who do not express a preference for one of the top two candidates, the vote share required for victory goes down 1%. For instance, if 20% of voters vote this way, the winning candidate would need only 40% to win (or more strictly, 40% + 1). Some experts at the LSE estimated that over 40% of UK MPs would still be elected with less than 50% support if we had AV.

    The last time this was discussed here, a couple of people suggested (absurdly in my view) that it would still be legitimate to say that the winner of such a contest enjoyed “50% support”, on the rather spurious grounds that the 20% of voters who did not back one of the top two candidates had effectively excused themselves from the last round of counting, so their votes could be treated as if they did not exist. Honestly, some people said that! But to use your own terminology, if a vote that is disregarded in this way does not have “no value”, I’m not sure what would.

    The idea that we can design a voting system in such a way that 50% support is guaranteed for the winner is, when you think about it, clearly an impossibility. In many constituencies, there simply wouldn’t be a candidate for whom 50% of the voters would be willing to say they “supported” them. You can’t invent support where none exists, and I’m not sure why you’d want to try. Some people claim that you can achieve this with an Australian-style system where every voter is required to rank every single candidate, but clearly it is ludicrous to suggest that such rankings equate to “support”. If such a law were brought in, and I was compelled to rank my local Tory, UKIP and BNP candidates, I’d take great exception to anybody claiming that I “supported” any of them.

    I’m all for PR but opposed to transferrable/preferential votes, as I think they are unnecessary and make votes unequal. You can have perfectly good PR without them, as the Germans have proved for many years. I very much favour the German system as it’s a pretty much unique mix of the benefits of FPTP (i.e. MPs representing local areas) and PR (with party lists being used as a balancing tool to ensure PR).

  • Denis Mollison 14th Mar '15 - 7:51pm

    Stuart – To the contrary, the basis of STV is that every vote counts equally and fully, as opposed to all the wasted votes in FPTP, or in both the levels of the German system you advocate. And both levels of the latter are riddled with pressure to vote tactically if you do not want your vote to be wasted.

    The Additional Member system also leads to conflicts within parties between list and constituency candidates: the SNP have very sensibly reacted to this by making up lists largely from constituency candidates – while in Wales standing for both is (at Labour’s behest) now not allowed.

    I could go on, but that’s enough disadvantages of AMS for now. The Arbuthnott Commission that reviewed its use in Scotland concluded that STV would be better, though it then lacked the courage of its convictions to recommend immediate implementation.

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