The opportunity for electoral reform

In the present political turmoil, there is increasing recognition that our present electoral system should carry much of the blame, Amber Rudd being the latest convert to this point of view.  If the opportunity to replace it suddenly opens up, we need to be ready to seize it.

Fortunately, the kind of proportional system for Parliamentary elections that the Liberal Democrats have long believed in has the added advantage that it could be implemented quickly. Constituencies for elections using the Single Transferable Vote (STV) can be based on local authority areas, mostly electing 3 to 6 MPs, as the attached map illustrates.

Aligning constituencies with community boundaries in this way helps maintain a strong local connection: it is good for both voters and representatives, avoiding division of responsibility and duplication over local issues.  And while some will regret the loss of having a single local MP, there will be many others who rejoice in at last having at least one MP they actually voted for, and a choice of whom to approach over any specific issue.

Another advantage is that boundaries would need to be changed only very rarely; changes in the number of voters can instead be accommodated by changing the number of MPs for the constituency.  And the scheme is very easy to keep up-to-date, using the current year’s electoral register.

All this, together with STV’s well-known advantages of voter empowerment, minimising wasted votes and any need for tactical voting, should make it the highest priority in constitutional reform, especially as it could be implemented quickly.  It should – like revoking Article 50 – be a Manifesto commitment to be introduced without the need for a referendum.

* Denis Mollison is Chair of Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform, and has been a member of the party since joining the SDP in 1981. Here, he writes in a personal capacity.

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  • An excellent article that highlights all too clearly what is wrong with our current electoral system.
    I wholeheartedly agree that electoral reform should be a key priority in the next manifesto alongside the party’s policy on brexit. The first past the post system is well past it’s sell by date and should be put out of it’s misery as soon as possible!!! The only beneficiaries of it’s continued existence are the Tories and Labour!

  • John Marriott 14th Sep '19 - 3:05pm

    The best chance for reform of the voting system came during the 2010-2015 coalition and, quite frankly, the Lib Dems blew it. The ‘Yes to AV’ campaign couldn’t even get what was basically a non proportional system across the line. The ‘No to AV’ campaign, masterminded by Cummings’ mate Matthew Elliott, possibly in a rehearsal for a far more momentous referendum a few years later, took the ‘Yes’ campaign to the cleaners. Instead of relying largely on social media and ‘events’, featuring enthusiastic young things sporting special T shirts, the ‘No’ lot concentrated on scare leaflets, many featuring the photo of Clegg following Cameron into No 10, with the obvious inference of ‘do you want him as your PM?’ My house got at least three leaflets from ‘No’, all, I seem to recall, featuring the same photo. And from ‘Yes’? Nothing at all!

    It’s a bit like advocating another referendum. Be careful what you will be unleashing. You see, unlike the Lib Dems, not everybody plays by the rules. You can slip a switch to PR into a potential manifesto if you like, together with all the other stuff. At least, if you get a chance in future to bargain support in a post GE situation, make sure that you don’t ask for another referendum on it, unless you are prepared to mount an effective campaign to bring it about.

  • I fundamentally agree with Denis that the Lib Dems and others need detailed plans in place so they are ready to pounce when the moment is right. The history of failed bids for electoral reform is littered with the refrain, “Let’s work the details out later.”

    However, one problem with this kind of conventional small-region STV model is that it makes it very hard for near rivals (like the Lib Dems and the Green Party) to coexist in the same constituency below quota.

    This is unlikely to be wise in the context of a unity government implementing electoral reform.

    You would be telling local Lib Dem parties and local Green parties up and down the country that the key to the future success of one would be winning an either-or contest against the other.

  • “Another advantage is that boundaries would need to be changed only very rarely; changes in the number of voters can instead be accommodated by changing the number of MPs for the constituency.”

    Don’t worry the Liberals are already doing their bit to keep constituencies stable. They refused to vote for the recommendations of the independent Boundary Commission in 2013. As a consequence we now have the country held to ransom by a gerrymandered parliament. Our constituencies are still based upon the population distribution in the year 2000. Had they been updated to reflect the more recent distribution of population then Mrs May would have entered office with a majority of 32 rather than 12. The Liberals have no right to complain about anyone else who fails to respect our current constitution nor should they be lecturing us on democracy.

  • Geoffrey Dron 14th Sep '19 - 4:06pm

    There are two matters to be resolved urgently: 1) the English Question upon which the LibDems have fallen short , and 2) the voting system, where all alternatives (incl., AV+) must be compared.

    After the GE, a Constitutional Convention should be convened, with the first year devoted to producing recommendations on 1) and 2) and setting out the agenda for other issues to be discussed over the next two years.

  • Laurence Cox 14th Sep '19 - 4:31pm

    It would be better if those advocating new multi-member constituency boundaries took note of existing boundaries, such as the London Assembly constituencies that are comparable in size to the proposed multi-member constituencies:

    These have been in existence for almost 20 years so there is no reason to chuck them out and start anew.

  • Richard O'Neill 14th Sep '19 - 5:32pm

    To me this would need:

    1) some royal commission to determine what voting reform options there are and to make a recommendation of one or possibly several appropriate options.

    2) a referendum to give the people the final say on it.

    Ramming it through in the very unlikely event the party wins a majority in the election should not be an option.

  • Richard Underhill 14th Sep '19 - 6:31pm

    TeeJay: Your comment reeks of tribalism, although you do not state what party you support.
    Fianna Fail Taoiseach Charles Haughey tried to gerrymander the electoral boundaries in the Republic of Ireland by inserting a criterion about county boundaries into a review, leading to heavy criticism.
    STV allows individual voters to express ALL of their preferences. In the current political situation voters have had past preferences for political parties which are supplemented by views about Leave or Remain and more recently even for NO Deal.
    First Past The Post is only suitable for the days when all MPs were Independents and could ride around a constituency on a horse.
    Where I live we voted Remain in 2016, as did the only MP. At the next general election we may reasonably expect to have two candidates from the same party, offering voters a democratic choice rather than having the decision taken by a selectorate.

  • Teejay,
    The Lib Dems voted against the boundary changes because the Tories ratted on an agreement.
    Nick Clegg confirmed rumours that the government has dropped a bill which would have introduced elected peers to the House of Lords and dramatically reduced its size, something he said he was forced to do after Tory backbenchers and the Labour party refused to back a crucial vote on the legislation last month.

    Now in your world it’s OK for the Tories not to honour an agreement to make the country more democratic but woe betide us if it stops your Tory friends gaining power. Well Bless and jog on.

  • Geoffrey Dron 14th Sep '19 - 11:49pm

    I see absolutely no grounds for a referendum on changes to the voting system or on the solution to the English Question.

    After the matter of Brexit has been resolved, let there be no more referenda. Parliamentary democracy should be representative, the responsibility of the representatives being as defined by Edmund Burke in his famous response to the electors of Bristol.

  • Denis Mollison 15th Sep '19 - 12:17am

    My thanks to all for their comments.

    I am particularly grateful to Laurence Cox for pointing me to the London Assembly constituencies: it hadn’t occurred to me that they might be just the right size for multi-member Parliamentary constituencies; but they are, so I’ll revise the scheme accordingly.

    Geoffrey Dron and Richard O’Neill want a Constitutional Convention or Royal Commission to further consider different voting systems. I disagree: there have been numerous such reviews over the years, the 2017 McAllister Review in Wales being the latest example, and these have all pointed to STV as the best system, except where they were constrained not to. Most notoriously Tony Blair in 1997 told Roy Jenkins that he would not accept STV, leading Jenkins’s commission to produce the unsatisfactory AV+ compromise – which was then rejected by Blair.
    So no, if we get a window of opportunity we should go straight for STV; and I agree with Geoffrey that this should be through Parliament, not another referendum.

    Adrian PR makes a strange argument about the situation for “near rivals like the LDs and the Greens” to coexist under STV. To the contrary, the transfer element of STV makes coexistence much more comfortable for such near rivals.

  • The name of Liberals is indeed an honorable one and one to be remembered with pride. However, the current name of the Liberals’ descendant party remains Liberal Democrats and avoiding using it by way of (attempted, though failed) insult is simply childish and shows a lack of the seriousness required to engage in an actual discussion of ideas.

  • Denis Mollison 15th Sep '19 - 9:36am

    There’s nothing undemocratic about continuing to oppose a majority political decision. Even if it the referendum had been on a clearly-defined form of Brexit, and there had been no irregularities, it would still be legitimate to seek a democratic route to reversing it, whether another referendum or a general election fought on the issues. What the attempts to implement Brexit have revealed is that there is no one form of Brexit that has a majority, either in Parliament or the country. Given that opinion polls show a steady change to a majority now against Brexit, the present government’s attempt to force it through could with greater justification be described as undemocratic.

    As to the rejection of the new Parliamentary boundaries, you make it sound as though these were an independent idea from the Boundary Commission, when all they were doing was implementing the Conservatives’ “equalisation” concept – carefully designed to sound fairer while in fact almost certain to increase the disproportionality of FPTP. The Lib Dems only signed up to supporting the change in return for the Conservatives supporting an elected House of Lords; when they reneged on their side of the bargain, we were not obliged to continue to support theirs.

    Returning to the theme of my post, you make a good point about current constituencies being still based on electoral numbers in 2000 – indeed they were already 7 years out-of-date when they came into force in 2007. One of the advantages of the STV scheme based on local authorities is that it can be brought up-to-date each year, by simply adjusting the number of MPs in constituencies as appropriate.

  • Denis Mollison 15th Sep '19 - 10:21am

    For the record, I was/am a founder member of the SDP.
    I don’t see that it has much to do with your views on the referendum and the rejection of the proposed revised boundaries, on which I have already noted my disagreement with you.

  • Sue Sutherland 15th Sep '19 - 1:24pm

    I think the time has finally arrived when the population will support a change in the voting system but I also think we should widen the changes to cover political or constitutional reform because Brexit has uncovered a mess of tradition and practice which hasn’t stood up to the severe testing it has had.
    We need clear rules for referendums, for example, we need to identify what a parliamentary democracy is and decide how it can be strengthened and how a reformed HoL could provide review and safeguards for that type of democracy and we need to look at how the HoC functions and the role of the speaker. I think this requires a Royal Commission.
    We also need to consider how to deal with a media that lies and the lack of control over social media. Democracy has to be protected against this kind of abuse and the individual needs to be protected from those who deliberately stir up the easiest of emotions to arouse and those are anger and hatred. This is the opportunity for wholesale reform so let’s grasp it with both hands, turn the parliament building into a museum of democracy, celebrate Magna Carta day, include citizenship in all school curriculums and create a new parliamentary building which reflects a less divisive political system in its architecture.

  • “Parliamentary democracy should be representative, the responsibility of the representatives being as defined by Edmund Burke in his famous response to the electors of Bristol.”
    Two things to remember here. Firstly, when Burke said this our country was not a democracy. The vote was held by a small number of property owners. Burkes point was that an MP should be reflecting the views of those who lived in his constituency who could not vote, NOT because the MP is some kind of special being with great insights and powers.

    This changed after the WW1 (1927 if we’re going to include women under 30) when we became a democratic country. For any modern MP to take the Burkean line is to fail to represent his or her constituents and is just arrogance.

    Secondly, though many people like to point out this Burkean ideal, most seem to be unaware of what happened to him as a result – the voters of Bristol got rid of him! MPs would do well to remember this.

  • John Barrett 16th Sep '19 - 8:05am

    Denis “The Lib Dems only signed up to supporting the change in return for the Conservatives supporting an elected House of Lords; when they reneged on their side of the bargain, we were not obliged to continue to support theirs”.

    Although that was the official line put out by the party, the reality was that many in our party wanted to dump the change because of the impact it would have on the number of Parliamentary seats we held. Most sitting Lib Dem MPs were happy to have, what appeared to be, a justifiable reason to stop the boundary change proposals.

  • Denis Mollison 16th Sep '19 - 8:57am

    @John Barrett
    I’m well aware of that!
    “Equalisation” was quite a cunning plan. It sounds fair – surely it must be good to make the numbers of electors in each constituency as equal as possible? – but actually makes the unfairness of FPTP worse, because it makes constituencies more like random samples from the population. There’s a good analysis by Lewis Baston (sorry I don’t have the reference to hand) pointing this out. Liberal Democrats would be particularly vulnerable because we work hard in specific areas, and so have concentrations of support which may get chopped in pieces by radical boundary revisions.

  • David-1, Denis Mollison:

    Now that the Liberals have endorsed Jo Swinson’s vanity project and adopted ‘revoke’, they no longer have the right to claim any heritage from the SDP.

    They should do the honourable thing and revert back to the name of ‘The Liberal Party’.

  • Robert O'Riordan 16th Sep '19 - 12:07pm

    Agreed – this should be higher up on our list than it is. A crucial long term plank to reclaiming politics back into the hands of voters not parties.

  • Robert O'Riordan 16th Sep '19 - 12:07pm

    Agreed – this should be higher up on our list than it is. A crucial long term plank to reclaiming politics back into the hands of voters not parties.

  • Paul Barker 16th Sep '19 - 5:43pm

    There are only 2 possible routes to Electoral Reform; a LibDem-dominated Government or a wholesale Realignement of the present House of Commons with the Centrist minority in The Tories joining with the Moderate majority of Labour MPs to form some sort of temporary Administration.
    In the present situation both routes seem possible but neither seems likely. Looking forward though what is likely ? We seem to be faced with a choice between the Unlikely & the Impossible.

  • Very good article Denis. The current voting system in my view makes many people feel their vote doesn’t count for much, STV or PR could be better at getting more citizens to vote and feel more included in politics. I’m a proud Lib Dem who doesn’t like Rudd but I agree with her on this, our party should support this

  • nvelope2003 17th Sep '19 - 2:40pm

    Teejay: There already is a Liberal Party so your suggestion is impractical. The new policy might be risky but nothing ventured nothing gained. When the Labour Party adopted nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange in 1918 the middle classes were horrified but within 5 years they were in Government. The issue of Brexit has paralysed the political system. Someone has to put forward a radical solution which accords with our tradition of a representative parliamentary democracy.
    Having referenda or referendums on every issue is impractical and would be very expensive and waste a lot of time. The 2016 vote shows this and has caused unnecessary divisions mostly the result of inadequate information and outdated ideas of sovereignty which ceased to be relevant for Britain in 1945 when the US took our place and now wishes to rule its little satellite.
    Acts of Parliament have to be discussed and amended carefully with the help of experts who are not available in every household and that is why we need representative democracy.

  • an excellent post, Denis; I particularly like the idea of altering the number of representatives, not the area. What about an element of deliberative democracy so the electorate have a say in which system is best. This coincides with our value of empowerment and builds in some commitment. I’d rather have an imperfect system chosen by the people than a perfect one imposed on us.

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