The Political Dimension of Voting Reform

cropped-David-Allen-170815.jpgThis article is principally about the political dimension of voting reform. However, to aid this discussion and present a fresh and different perspective I have designed a new voting system which has none of the drawbacks of the PR systems and eliminates most of the unfairness of FPTP. It also presents the results of 2010 and 2015 as they would have been under my newly designed F2PTP (First two past the post) voting system. You can see the paper here F2PTP Voting System.

The focus upon political considerations is not made in isolation but as supportive of an approach that hasn’t already been rejected.

Voting reform is going to be a hot topic for, at least, a period of time over the next parliament because of the stark and quite obvious disproportionate nature of the FTPT voting system in a multi-party state. However, simply because a change might be the right thing to do, that in itself doesn’t mean that it will happen and from where I’m sitting I can’t really see why the governing party would support a change to a voting system that has handed them majority power time and time again.

There also isn’t much likelihood of support from the second largest party either. Despite the fact that they performed very badly in the 2015 general election the same system has given them majority power also on a number of occasions so it is hard to see how Labour could see such a change benefiting them. As it happens the now, rather irrelevant SNP, have stated that they do support a more proportional system despite the fact that by doing that they would consign themselves forever to less than half the seats in Scotland even if the exceptional support for them were to be sustained. On the other hand they may well be showing unusual foresight. Campaigning with the message vote SNP and keep the Tories out might not play so well in 2020.

The people have already had their say on one system of PR brought about because of the peculiar circumstances that created the lopsided coalition in the last parliament which created that referendum opportunity which may prove to be unique. The willingness of the Liberal Democrats to abandon their student support in favour of the AV red line was clearly self serving and probably seen as such by the populace so PR, at least in AV format, was crushed.

Support for ‘voting reform’, which in reality is taken by almost everyone to mean one of the PR systems currently recognised, is championed by UKIP, Liberal Democrats, Greens and all the parties who didn’t get the number of seats they would have gained under a more proportional system. Politically though, getting any kind of change has to overcome some serious obstacles.

  1. People perceive that those seeking voting reform do so simply because it will benefit their own party in exactly the same way as in the example above.
  2. PR has already been roundly rejected in a UK wide referendum. Even though it was one type of PR system they all have the same fundamental flaws, work in more or less the same way and give more or less the same results. That’s how ordinary people see it.
  3. The single but significant advantage of FPTP is that it is the most likely to secure majority government and we seem to like that even though it can easily be achieved with a minority vote.

As it is unlikely for any party to gain over 50% of the votes cast, any system which is more proportional will lead inevitably to permanent coalition government so coalition government itself has to become an acceptable concept to the British people? As it happened the odd couple performed beyond the expectations of many in the last parliament.

However, there is a strong argument for greater proportionality and that is underpinned by the millions of voices that achieved no representation at all.

  1. Of the obstacles noted above 1) can be countered by choosing a system that doesn’t overly benefit small parties but provides measured but significantly improved representation for the supporters of major UK parties left stranded by FPTP.
    1. All systems have a mechanism to deny representation to smaller or fringe parties. Firstly, there are a limited number of seats but more importantly government must be for everyone and it may be disruptive and anti-social for sectarian movements or single issue parties who may, by virtue of PR, be in the undeserved position of being handed a large bargaining chip with which to serve their own cause to the detriment of the nation as a whole.
    2. PR systems set this level arbitrarily FPTP has an automatic bar set quite high though as we’ve seen nationalistic parties also benefit disproportionately. F2PTP (see above) sets this bar automatically. Second place works, third place doesn’t.
    3. Enhancing representation for parties who have significant support yet denying it for those with moderate or little support is likely to be seen as more acceptable.
    4. A system that improves support for major parties but not to the levels of PR may well be the right middle path.
  2. Obstacle No 2) can easily be overcome by offering a system that isn’t one of the PR monsters vying for supremacy.
    1. The nation, having already and overwhelmingly rejected a flawed PR system is unlikely to clasp another similar system to its bosom.
    2. Amongst the principle flaws of PR is the anomaly that some people get one vote (or it is used only once) and others get two (or used twice). A major disadvantage is that bodies that could help the cause of reform are likely to be the architects of its failure because of their adherence to the ridiculous. Amongst others the Electoral Reform Society will obfuscate extensively to pretend that the two votes versus one vote isn’t what it, quite obviously, is. They have adopted what might become known as the ED strategy (latterly now the JC strategy). We’ve picked it/him so will defend that decision to the (inevitable) death.
  3. Obstacle No 3 has to rely upon the simple and evident unfairness to millions of people.
    1. It is a powerful argument and now it the best time to make it. The majority government FPTP returns is quite divisive in its representation. It may try and work for everyone but only a few have a say in its formation. Other systems spread representation more evenly and if more people get the representative they voted for and know that is more likely then more will engage with the progress.
    2. The Conservatives got the most votes so would still govern but, with required support from other parties which many may see as a good thing. The question is, and without any real leverage as the situation is now, how do we move the reform issue forward?
    3. Were it to be possible to adopt a system that would have actually benefitted the Labour party in 2015 their support might just be enough to swing the tide. After all, the Conservative majority is small. F2PTP (2015) actually benefitted the Labour party in terms of seats but would have made no difference to voting power in the commons.

Don’t hold your breath though! The aptly named Electoral Reform Society have already pinned their colours to STV, a form of PR very much like AV or AV+ only more complicated. UKIP, in the absence of anything else are also mooning over forms of PR (let’s still remember that referendum folks). In fact, the only reform options on the table both fail to negate 1) and 2) above. Were I to be mounting opposition to the ‘reform’ being suggested I would simply say that PR has already been rejected and these small parties are only looking to benefit themselves.

What’s needed is simplicity, transparency and a degree of proportionality.

There are some political mines along the way that the reforming bodies aren’t really looking at, being otherwise immersed in the detail of their own infallibility. It is simply not credible to press for a referendum on the same thing (more or less and in the eyes of the electorate) we had a referendum on a few years ago.

The self interest argument is strong, particularly if a system is backed which gives the most to each small party.

We need to try and get everyone on board including Labour. You can’t do that with any of the favourite PR systems.

All in all the electoral reform movement has to take into account what can be achieved and operate with a little more political savvy. It’s the people we have to convince at the end of the day.


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