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A plea for extra time: PR should not be a political football - Wednesday 12th May 2010


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It should come as no surprise that in the aftermath of an election where practically all the parties were losers and in which the public could only stand back and watch the horse-trading to decide who will be our leaders, that many politicians blame ‘the system’ for the current hiatus.  Whilst meetings are conducted behind closed doors, the issue of electoral reform is being kicked about as a political football, as if it is a mere matter of party policy.  However, reforms to the electoral system would go to the very heart of the way in which we are governed and would have far wider implications than adjusting the composition of the House of Commons

The objections to our current system seem to be two-fold; first, that the number of seats held in the House of Commons by any political party is not identical to the proportion of the total number of votes polled nationally in favour of that party; second, that the person who ultimately leads as prime minister is not necessarily ‘elected’ by the public at large.

It seems to be assumed that the introduction of proportional representation would automatically solve the first of these objections, but if one looks at the results in the last UK election of Members of the European Parliament, in which the Single Transferable Voting system of PR is used, the Conservatives, who polled just over 27% of votes ended up with just over 37% of seats and UKIP, the Lib Dems and Labour all similarly ended up with seats representing a greater proportion than the percentage of votes cast in their favour.  It is a consequence of dividing the country into constituencies and the fact that supporters of different parties are not evenly distributed throughout all constituencies that there will always be a mis-match between votes cast and proportion of seats gained.  It’s just a question of maths.  On the other hand PR almost always favours the smallest parties – so we should hope that politicians will bear in mind, before rushing to press through a change to PR, that the BNP polled more votes in last week’s general election than the Scottish National Party.

No change to the system from first past the post (FPTP) to PR would make any difference to the fact that we do not have presidential-style elections, so that the British public is never asked to choose the person who will be Prime Minister.  The American style televised debates which took place prior to the election perhaps gave the general public the impression that their votes would effectively secure one of the three leaders as the next Prime Minister, but this is simply not the case.  Gordon Brown, when he eventually steps down, will be succeeded by someone chosen by the Labour Party itself, and not by the general public.  For example if a Labour/Lib Dem pact is agreed to form a coalition government it is feasible that Labour might select Lord Mandelson as their next leader, someone not only not elected on a mandate to become Prime Minister, but not actually elected at all.  No amount of PR would make any difference to this.

The introduction of proportional representation would almost make much more likely that every general election would result in a hung parliament, so that we could expect the haggling that we are now witnessing to become a regular feature after every election – and indeed during the lifetime of every parliament – unless, that is, we also included a top-to-bottom shake-up of our political system to include provisions for the election of a ‘president’.

A switch from FPTP to PR is a far more complicated affair than simply going from ‘unfair’ to ‘fair’.  The Conservatives argue that what is ‘unfair’ in our present system is that the size of constituencies varies quite considerably – again distorting the maths in terms of translating the number of votes cast into seats.   But re-drawing constituency boundaries also raises questions of who makes the decisions about how large constituencies should be and where the boundaries should be drawn. 

One key feature of our representative democracy is that our local MPs represent all of us who reside in their constituency whether or not we voted for them.  A switch to PR would seem very likely to involve the creation of much larger geographical constituencies – for the European elections, for example, the UK is divided into 12 regions, each of which returns between 3 and 10 MEPs.  Whilst the constituencies for a general election would no doubt be greater than 12, they would be considerably fewer than 650, as at present.  In which case would we still feel the ‘personal’ connection with our MPs that we enjoy at present?  Would all the MPs elected in a constituency feel the responsibility to represent all their constituents, as at present?  This might lead to a need either to clarify or to redefine the role of an MP.

The Electoral Reform Society has pointed out another interesting issue – there is more than one form of PR and the results are potentially different depending on which form is used.  They estimate that the outcome of last week’s general election using the Alternative Vote system (AV) would have been remarkably similar to the result produced by FPTP.  It is only if one were to shift to the Single Transferable Voting system that the result would alter significantly.

Even though the difficulties inherent in a change of voting system can no doubt be accommodated and resolved, the point is that it is not simply a question of going from system A to system B.  There is much to talk about and, presumably, we, the electorate, would like the opportunity to give our view.  We’ll most likely be given that opportunity by means of a referendum.  And here is a further problem: a referendum reduces these complex and ticklish issues to a straightforward yes or no answer.  If the question were: do you want AV or AV plus?  the answer from someone who supports STV might well be no.  If the question were: do you want permanent hung parliaments?  the answer might well be no.  Yet if the question is: do you want a fairer voting system? the response would surely be yes.  In other words, the outcome of a referendum is easily manipulated by the drafting of the question.

So what is the answer?  Surely the question of electoral reform is far too important to be left to the scheming of politicians alone.  The question is a critical one which merits in-depth and unrushed consideration in a dispassionate manner.  The consequences of change need to be considered against the wider context of the impact of change on the British constitution.  In short the matter should form part of the remit of an independently run constitutional commission which looks in the round at the many critical issues pertaining to our constitution.  It would be truly ‘undemocratic’ if our electoral system were changed purely in order to ensure that one or other of the main losers in this election secures their own mandate to govern.

 

For other views on the role of MPs see the comments of Nick Raynsford and Susan Kramer.  See here for a general review of electoral sysems currently in use in the UK.  For a view on whether changes to the electoral system can make any difference, see the comments of John Baker.


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Expert calls for Government to follow through on reform

Mon, 8th March 2010

Academics are calling for “immediate assurances” from the government that it will implement the recently agreed Wright reforms before the end of this parliament. Dr Meg Russell of the UCL Constitution Unit warned them “this is the timetable the Commons voted for and party leaders must work together to honour that.”



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Controversy over whether reform goes far enough

Tue, 23rd February 2010

The parliamentary reform movement is split over whether the proposed Wright Reforms go far enough.



Better Government Initiative

Mon, 1st February 2010

Better Government Initiative launches major report.