|A Citizen’s Guide to Electoral Reform
School of Politics and International Relations
University of Reading
30 September 2010
For Elma Johnston, Ishbel McBoyle,
and Ewen and Jean Macdonald,
and in memory of Jenny Sim,
What Is an Electoral System? 1
How Can We Judge the Options? 7
The Current System: First Past the Post 15
The Alternative Vote 30
Simple Proportional Representation 43
Mixed Electoral Systems 56
The Single Transferable Vote 65
Before Election Day 75
After Election Day 86
Putting the Pieces Together 92
Appendix: The Techie Bits 110
Appendix Tables 117
Further Reading 123
Figures separate file
Many people assisted me in the course of writing this book. I am especially grateful to those who read the draft: my parents, Maggi Brown, Martin Ceadel, Roger Cotes, David Creed, Emma Furniss, Philip Giddings, Chris Hanretty, David Ireland, Scot Peterson, Maria Pretzler, Sarah Taylor-Rozyk, and Richard Wood. All offered invaluable comments that improved the text greatly. I had very helpful conversations on varied issues with Adrian Blau, Michael Lamb, Paul Martin, and Paul Swaddle, while John Curtice, Ron Johnston, Michael Lamb, Gemma Rosenblatt, and Andy White assisted in finding, confirming, or analysing data. Again, I am deeply grateful to them all. All errors and other shortcomings remain my own.
Chapter 1: What Is an Electoral System?
The rules that govern elections to the Westminster Parliament are up for grabs. We, as citizens, are going to have more influence over the form these rules will take than we have ever had before. There will be a referendum on one set of reforms. Others will be decided in parliament – but not without a great deal of public debate and contestation. These debates are crucial to the future character of our democracy, but are not always easy for non-experts to follow. This book is here to help.
Elections matter. They decide who governs. They provide our best means of influencing what those in power do: though we can scream and shout in the streets, it is only the fear of our votes in the ballot box that is likely to make politicians listen. They are the most concrete expression of our democratic society. They are our most widely shared ritual: 8 or 9 million of us now attend a religious service at least once a month; 10 million voted in the 2009 X Factor final; and 20 million watched the 2010 World Cup final; but very nearly 30 million of us voted in the most recent general election.
The rules by which these elections are conducted make a big difference. They have a major impact on who gets elected. In the 2005 general election, Labour won just 35 per cent of the UK-wide vote, but secured fully 55 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons and was thereby able to govern alone for the following five years. The electoral rules currently in place in most of the world’s democracies would have denied Labour an overall majority of seats and forced it to seek out coalition allies. In Germany in 1983, for example, the conservative Christian Democrats won 48.8 per cent support – more than any British party has obtained since the 1950s. Yet still it was short of a majority in the German parliament and had to rely on a coalition with the liberal Free Democrats.
Beyond who gets elected, the electoral rules shape the whole character of politics. They can have a big impact on whether the parties cluster towards the centre of the political spectrum or offer a more varied set of options. They influence the relationship between MPs and their constituents: whether MPs have deep roots in a local constituency or looser ties to a bigger region, and whether voters choose between individual candidates or between parties. Many electoral reformers argue that our current electoral system was partly to blame for the abuses of the MPs’ expenses system that were uncovered in 2009: MPs in safe seats, they say, can grow complacent and exploit the perks of office too freely.
The debate over electoral reform matters for all these reasons. But this is a debate that is especially worth following because, as I said at the start, its outcome lies in our hands. The government plans a referendum on whether we should retain our current “first past the post” electoral system or move towards another system known as the “alternative vote”. The other reforms that they propose – including giving citizens the right to recall MPs without having to wait for a general election – will be enacted through votes in parliament, but here too there will be ample opportunity for public debate to influence outcomes. For the House of Lords, the government is planning even more radical reform, with most members to be elected by some form of proportional representation. Many – including the Liberal Democrats and some senior figures within the Labour Party – argue that this radical option should be pursued for the House of Commons too.
So we can expect vigorous debate over the electoral system in the coming months and years, and we are going to be asked to play our own direct part in choosing between alternatives. Yet the subject of electoral reform is one that most voters find incredibly arcane. Whenever these issues are aired, we are plunged immediately into an alphabet soup of AV, AMS, STV, and MMP. Mysterious terms such as d’Hondt and Sainte Laguë are bandied about. Even the political hacks often seem only dimly aware of what such words might mean or what implications they might have for the character of our politics.
This book aims to cut through all these obscurities and help you grasp what is at stake when the electoral system is discussed. The chapters that follow will look in turn at the various options that are likely to figure significantly in the coming debates. They will outline each system and give you the information you need in order to judge what reforms – if any – you think should be adopted. I will not be arguing in favour of any particular option myself. The choices are yours: my goal is simply to help you make them.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of each system, some preliminaries are required. First, we need to think about what an electoral system actually is and in what ways electoral systems can differ from each other. Then we need to think about how to judge electoral systems – what are the sorts of thing that we might want them to deliver? I’ll pursue these two issues in this chapter and the next.
Many people, I suspect, are a bit embarrassed to ask the most basic question of all – what actually is an electoral system? They think that this, at least, is a question they should be able to answer. Yet there is no shame in not being able to define what an electoral system is. In fact, even the experts disagree about it. There are two main approaches that can be taken. I’ll call one of these the narrow approach, the other the wide approach.
The Narrow Approach: The Electoral System’s Core
The narrow approach focuses on election day itself. It sees the electoral system as comprising two elements: the rules that determine the kind of vote that we can cast; and the mechanisms by which the votes cast are translated into seats in parliament.
In elections to the House of Commons at present, the vote that we can cast is a very simple one: all we can do (assuming we don’t want to spoil our ballot paper) is vote for a single local candidate. Voters in some other countries – such as the United States, Canada, and India – are asked to make a similar choice. But voters in most countries cast some different kind of vote. Some systems, such as the electoral systems in Australia and Ireland, allow voters to rank the candidates in order of preference. In others – and in elections to the European Parliament in Great Britain – voters cast their ballot not for a single candidate, but for a list of candidates put up by a party or other group. In still others, voters can indicate separately their preferences among parties and among candidates. In Sweden, for example, voters choose a party and then, if they wish, also select one of the candidates that this party has nominated. In Germany, New Zealand, Scotland, and Wales, voters cast two separate votes: one for a local candidate and one for a regional or national party slate, making it possible to support one party’s candidate locally, but another party nationally. We’ll be exploring these many possibilities further in later chapters.
In terms of the translation of votes into seats, meanwhile, the system used for Commons elections is again straightforward. The country is divided into constituencies; within each constituency, the candidate who wins most votes is elected as its MP. Here too, many alternatives exist. Some systems – such as those used in France and Australia – require the winning candidate to get not just more votes than any other candidate, but, rather, more votes than all the other candidates combined – an absolute rather than a relative majority. Others dispense with constituencies or divide the country into large constituencies each of which elects several MPs; they then distribute the seats across the parties in proportion (at least roughly) to the votes those parties have won. These are systems of proportional representation (PR), and variants are used across much of Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere.
These two features – the nature of votes and the translation of votes into seats – sum up what most experts and enthusiasts focus on when they think about the electoral system. They define the core of the system. The UK system that I have just described is what is generally known as first past the post. The coming referendum will offer a choice between first past the post and another system that can be defined in terms of the same two features, namely the alternative vote.
Because most of the debate concentrates on this narrow conception of the electoral system, the chapters of this book will mostly focus here too. I’ll begin in Chapter 3 by looking at first past the post in more detail. Then I’ll examine the alternative vote – the reform option on offer in the referendum – in Chapter 4. In subsequent chapters, I’ll look at several versions of proportional representation. We won’t be given the opportunity to vote on such systems in the referendum, but many people will argue we should be, and the government wants to introduce such a system for the House of Lords.
It would be wrong, however, to focus on the narrow understanding of the electoral system entirely. Many other rules influence the conduct and the outcomes of elections, and changes to some of these are currently under discussion. So it is time now to turn to the wide view of electoral systems.
The Wide Approach: The Electoral System Broadly Understood
According to the wide approach, the electoral system is best understood as including all the rules that govern the process of electing parliament. Whereas the narrow approach focuses just upon what happens at the polling station and the election count, the wide approach recognizes that elections are about much more than that. Before any votes can be cast, the date of the election needs to be set, and there are many rules governing when this can happen and who can do it. Then we need rules governing who can be a candidate and how they are selected and formally nominated. Elections are always preceded by campaigns, so there are rules shaping how these campaigns are conducted and financed. Come election day, it needs to be clear not just what kinds of vote can be cast, but also who can cast them, so rules on who is eligible to vote – and whether they are required to vote – also matter. And we might pay attention to the mechanics of voting: whether, for example, voting is computerized or involves marking an old-fashioned ballot paper. Finally, even after election day, the electoral process is not necessarily over. In particular, the idea that we should be able to recall a miscreant MP without having to wait for another general election has built up extraordinary momentum in the UK in the last couple of years.
There will be space in the following chapters to discuss only some of these many aspects of the broader electoral system in any depth. So I’ll offer a quick overview of them now.
Rules on when elections take place. All democracies define a maximum period within which fresh elections must take place. In the UK, this is currently five years. (Strictly speaking, Parliament must be dissolved not more than five years after it first met. Allowing for the election campaign and the interlude between election day and the first session of the new parliament, this means that the time between elections can in fact be a little more than five years.) Among stable democracies, such a lengthy term is actually quite unusual. Most European countries have a four-year limit. In Australia and New Zealand it is three years. In the United States just two years elapse between elections to the House of Representatives.
A related issue that has been much debated in the UK recently concerns who can call an election and in what circumstances. Until 2010, there were two possible routes to an election before the maximum five-year term was up. First, the prime minister could ask the monarch to call an election just about any time under the powers of the royal prerogative. Second, an election was called if the government lost a vote of confidence in parliament and no alternative government could be formed. The coalition government is changing this. Henceforth, the prime minister has no power to seek a dissolution of parliament on his own: instead, so long as the government retains the support of the parliamentary majority, a two-thirds vote in the House of Commons will be needed to call an early election. It will still be possible – contrary to much misleading media comment – to remove the government by simple majority in a vote of no confidence and this will still lead to fresh elections if no new government can be formed. But a fourteen-day delay on dissolution is now introduced, presumably in order to dissuade prime ministers from engineering their own defeat in a confidence vote so as to trigger an early election. These changes bring the UK closer to practice in most other democracies, where early elections are the exception rather than the rule.
A final aspect of timing concerns the day on which elections are held. Elections in the UK are conventionally held on Thursdays (though there is nothing in law saying this must be so, and the convention emerged only in the mid twentieth century). The United States holds elections on Tuesdays. In most democracies, however, elections take place at the weekend, and many people advocate a move to weekend voting in the UK in the hope that it would boost turnout.
Rules on who can be a candidate and how candidates are selected and nominated. Almost any citizen over the age of eighteen in the UK can be a candidate in parliamentary elections. The rules on this changed for the elections in 2010: before that, candidates had to be at least twenty-one. To get on to the ballot paper, a budding candidate must secure ten signatures and deposit £500 with the local electoral authorities – money that is returned if she or he wins at least 5 per cent of the constituency vote on election day. Many countries share similar provisions, though others dispense with the deposit requirement, often instead demanding a far greater number of signatures.
Though just about anyone can become a candidate, in the UK it’s almost always only the candidates of the major parties who stand any chance of winning election. The rules by which the big parties select their candidates are therefore very important. They have changed significantly in the last few years, and further reform is planned. So this is a matter that we will explore in more detail later in the book, in Chapter 8.
Rules on how election campaigns are conducted and financed. The rules governing campaigns have also seen big changes in the UK recently. The most visible innovation has been the introduction of televised leaders’ debates, which famously transformed the 2010 election campaign, triggering a fleeting Lib Dem surge and requiring the parties to rewrite their campaign strategies. There have also been big changes to the regulation of campaign spending: before 2001, spending by candidates in their own constituencies was capped, but the parties could spend as much as they liked at the national level; now, there are limits at both levels. The most contentious issue concerns how the parties raise funds – particularly, whether they are allowed to accept large donations. Everyone agrees that further reforms are needed here, but it has so far been impossible to find consensus on what those changes should be. This is another subject that we’ll look into in more detail in Chapter 8.
Rules on who can and who must vote. The UK, like the other older democracies, saw a step-by-step expansion of the right to vote in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By 1928, almost all men and women over the age of 21 had the right to vote, and in 1970 this age threshold was reduced to 18. There has been much discussion of late over whether the voting age should be further reduced to 16. A few countries – including Austria and Brazil, as well as Guernsey, Jersey, and the Isle of Man – have made this move already, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats both supported such a change in their 2010 election manifestos.
Another debate revolves around whether those with the right to vote should also have a duty to vote. Compulsory voting has rarely been seriously advocated in the UK. Yet it is enforced in fifteen countries around the world, including Belgium, Australia, and much of Latin America. Its supporters say that it encourages people to engage with politics and overcomes problems of low turnout among society’s more marginalized groups. Its opponents, meanwhile, argue that it infringes upon our civil liberties and that it addresses only the symptoms of voters’ disillusionment with politics, not the underlying causes.
Rules governing the mechanics of voting. Even among those of us who find electoral systems strangely fascinating, the mechanics of how we cast our vote were traditionally regarded as pretty indigestible fare. All that changed, however, with the hanging chads of Florida in the American presidential election of 2000. The confusion they caused showed that whether we vote using traditional pencil and paper or by cranking levers and punching holes or through flashy new touch-screen technology can really make a difference to the outcome of a closely fought election. The debates on this issue have continued in the US because of concerns that some of the computerized voting systems introduced in the wake of Bush v. Gore are open to hacking and abuse.
In the UK, we have stuck with our trusted method of marking a cross on a slip of paper. But major change has nevertheless occurred in the form of a rapid expansion in the use of postal voting. Before 2001, voters wanting to cast their ballot by post had to state a reason for wishing to do so; now, requests for a postal vote are automatically granted. As a result, the number of postal votes has ballooned: from 4 per cent of the total in 2001 to 19 per cent in 2010.
Rules on the recall of MPs. The traditional pattern, in the UK as in most democracies, has been that MPs, once lawfully elected, cannot be removed from office until the next general election. There have long been exceptions to this in some US states, however, where voters have been able to recall their representatives if dissatisfied with their performance, and a smattering of similar provisions can be found elsewhere around the world. The idea of recall elections had never been an issue of debate in the UK. But it has burst on to the scene since the MPs’ expenses scandal, and all three major parties promised it in their 2010 election manifestos. This will be a significant change to our political system. Just how big its impact is likely to be and whether that impact will be entirely positive is something that I discuss in detail in Chapter 9.
The preceding paragraphs give a whirlwind tour of the sorts of issue that are up for grabs in debates over the electoral system. The coming chapters will offer much more depth. Before looking at the details of particular systems, however, we need some sense of how we are going to judge the alternatives. What do we want to get out of our electoral system? What effects can our choice of electoral system have that we need to be aware of? Answering these questions is the task of the next chapter.
Chapter 2. How Can We Judge the Options?
Many possible reforms to the electoral system will be discussed in the coming months and years. Before we start to look at these in detail, we need to get some sense of how to judge between them. What is it that we want from our electoral system? What aspects of our democracy and our political system might our choices affect?
Supporters of particular reforms will spend much of the debate engaged in a battle of criteria. They will lay out what they claim an electoral system should achieve. Then they will show – hey presto! – that their preferred system ticks all the boxes perfectly. In reality, however, there are many possible factors to take into account, and no one system performs best on all of them. So we need to start off by working out a broad range of relevant criteria. Then we can investigate each of the major options in terms of these.
I’ll start with what is surely the most basic democratic criterion: the electoral system should reward popularity. As we’ll see, however, there are many other points that we will also want to bear in mind.
The basic principle of any democratic election is that popular support should translate into political influence: winning more support among voters should mean winning greater influence in the corridors of power. This is so fundamental that it might hardly seem worth mentioning: surely any electoral system that is worth taking seriously would satisfy this criterion. Yet that’s not the case. In fact, all of the electoral systems that are likely to be discussed in the UK can fail this test under some circumstances.
Rewarding popularity has several aspects. For one thing, if a party’s share of the vote goes up from one election to the next, it would be reasonable to expect its share of the seats to go up as well (or, at least, not go down). Yet that doesn’t always happen. In the UK general election of 2010, the Liberal Democrats’ share of the vote was 23 per cent, up a percentage point on 2005. Yet their share of the seats fell: they won 62 seats in 2005 (after allowing for boundary changes), but only 57 in 2010. Conversely, while the Green Party’s share of the vote fell slightly in 2010, they gained a seat in the House of Commons for the first time ever. Such outcomes are less likely in countries using proportional electoral systems, but they can still happen: in the most recent election in Ireland, for example, the largest party, Fianna Fáil, lost four seats, even though its share of the vote slightly increased.
Inconsistent results from one election to the next may be troubling. Of much greater concern, however, are anomalies within the same election, where one party is ahead of another in votes but behind in seats. As was widely reported during the 2010 general election campaign, patterns in the distribution of votes across seats made it entirely possible that, even if the Liberal Democrats had gained more votes than any other party, still they would have come a distant third in terms of seats won in the House of Commons. When this happens we can say that, in an entirely objective sense, the wrong party has won the election. In the end, this didn’t happen in the UK in 2010. But it has happened before here and elsewhere – most famously in the United States in 2000, when George Bush won the presidency even though more people voted for Al Gore. Such outcomes are in themselves indefensible – though, of course, we might still defend the systems that can produce them if they score well on other grounds.
An even stranger result arises if, within a single constituency, an increase in support reduces a candidate’s chances of winning. This seems very odd indeed: under our current first past the post system, winning more votes can’t possibly do you any harm. Yet some experts worry that some electoral systems do generate scenarios in which a candidate would be better off winning fewer votes. I’ll explore this further as we get into the details of particular systems in later chapters.
A final type of anomaly can occur under first past the post. This is the possibility that one candidate is elected even though another is preferred by more voters. Of the 650 MPs elected in 2010, 210 won the support of an absolute majority of the voters in their constituency. But the remaining 440 were elected on less than 50 per cent of the vote. In some of these constituencies, a majority of voters might well have preferred one of the losing candidates over the candidate who was elected: the winner was able to secure victory only because support for his or her opponents was divided. I’ll examine this possibility in detail in the next two chapters.
Fair Representation in Parliament and Government
We can all agree it’s bad if – as we’ve just seen can happen – the wrong party wins an election. The principle underlying this judgement is the idea that the electoral system should translate votes fairly into positions of power. Many electoral reformers argue we should take the principle of fairness much further.
The commonest argument concerning fairness in the electoral system is that parties should win seats in parliament in proportion to their share of the votes: a party that receives, say, 20 per cent of the votes should win about 20 per cent of the seats. Elections in the UK frequently deviate far from that ideal. In the general election of 2010, though the Lib Dems, as we have seen, secured 23 per cent of the vote, they won fewer than 9 per cent of the seats, whereas the Conservatives, on 36 per cent of the vote, won 47 per cent of the seats. Even greater deviations from proportionality have occurred in the past: in 2005, Labour won 55 per cent of the seats on the basis of just 35 per cent of the vote; in 1983, Labour was just 2 percentage points ahead of the SDP/Liberal Alliance in terms of votes, yet won nine times as many seats. Looked at from another point of view, the Conservatives won a seat in 2010 for every 35,000 votes cast for them and Labour won a seat for every 33,000 votes, but the Lib Dems needed 120,000 votes for each seat they won. The 286,000 voters who supported the Green Party, meanwhile, captured just one seat, and the 920,000 UKIP voters gained no representation at all.
Such patterns look pretty unfair. They arise because the votes for parties like the Lib Dems and (even more) UKIP are thinly spread across the country, and there are rarely enough of them in any one constituency to elect an MP. If these votes were concentrated in fewer constituencies, such parties could elect more MPs. That can be seen from the success of smaller parties that do have concentrated votes. For example, the Democratic Unionist Party won fewer than a fifth of the votes of UKIP, but because these votes were concentrated in a small number of seats in Northern Ireland it was able to capture eight parliamentary seats – one seat for every 21,000 votes. So viewpoints that happen to gain support only in small parts of the country can be well represented, while perspectives whose supporters are just as numerous but more spread out can go completely unrepresented. For most electoral reformers, this is entirely perverse.
Another argument focused on fair representation concentrates on the representation not of parties, but of social groups – above all, women and ethnic minorities. Of the 650 MPs elected in the UK in 2010, 143 are women – 22 per cent of the total. Though that is a record high, it is still clearly far short of parity with men, and there has been only slow progress since 1997, when 18 per cent of MPs were women. There were no MPs at all from ethnic minorities between 1945 and 1987. Now there are twenty-seven, but that is still just half the number we would expect if ethnic minorities were represented in proportion to their share of the UK population. Some people are not greatly worried by such disparities: they point out that a person can represent your views or interests even if they don’t look like you. For others, however, it is vital that parliament should reflect the make-up of society. Thus, an important criterion for many people who think about electoral systems is the likelihood that a system will produce such a socially representative parliament.
So far we have been talking about fair representation in parliament. But general elections in this country have two functions: they determine the composition of the House of Commons; and they determine the viable options for forming the government. All parliamentary democracies share this feature, in contrast to presidential systems such as the United States, where the executive and the legislature are elected separately.
Many people would say that what matters more is not fairness in the translation of votes into seats in parliament, but rather fairness in the translation of votes into real power in government: after all, it is in government that most of the important decisions are taken. And it may well be that fairness in the distribution of seats leads to an unfair distribution of government power: small parties, it is often said, can hold the larger parties to ransom, extracting huge concessions in return for their support. Germany’s Free Democrats, for example, held office continuously as part of the governing coalition between 1969 and 1998, even though their vote barely ever exceeded 10 per cent. They were able to exert considerable influence over government policy throughout that period.
We will look in later chapters at just how serious this problem of “the tail wagging the dog” really is. If it is serious, it will greatly undermine the claim that proportional representation is the fairest system.
Effective, Accountable Government
The arguments considered so far focus on the fairness of election outcomes. No one would seriously deny that fairness matters when we judge electoral systems. But many people would say that it is not what matters most. As we have just seen, elections are not just about ensuring we are represented in parliament: they are also about choosing a government. When we think about electoral systems, therefore, we also need to think about how far they allow our governing structures to operate effectively and accountably.
It is here that supporters of first past the post often place much emphasis. The coalition governments produced by proportional representation, they argue, lead to instability and indecision. Just look at countries such as Italy (before it moved away from PR in the 1990s) and Israel. First past the post, by contrast, most often generates single-party governments, which are free from endless coalition bargaining and bickering and free from the threat of coalition collapse. In addition, advocates of the status quo point out that first past the post allows voters to hold governments clearly to account: if we are dissatisfied with a government’s performance, we can “throw the rascals out” and install another party in their place. Under proportional representation, by contrast, losing parties can prop themselves up in government through new coalition deals.
Yet defenders of proportional representation have responses to all these points. They question whether single-party governments are such a good thing: they can concentrate power in the hands of a few, allowing ill-considered decisions to be nodded through without proper deliberation. Italy’s dysfunctional pattern of stable instability – 49 governments between 1946 and 1994, but the same party clinging on to power as the cornerstone of every one of those administrations – is the exception, not the rule. Try looking instead at Sweden or Spain, where governments have been stable and clear alternations in power have occurred. And even in Italy, it’s not obvious that its messy government history has been all that damaging: Italy’s economic growth since the Second World War has been far higher than Britain’s.
All these arguments will need careful weighing, and I’ll explore them in detail in later chapters.
Voter Choice and Turnout
So far I’ve been looking at arguments about how proportional the electoral system should be: some people see high proportionality as essential; others think effective, accountable government requires clear majorities. This choice traditionally lies at the heart of the debate among electoral system experts and activists, as well as politicians.
There is plenty of evidence, however, that this debate doesn’t much matter to ordinary voters. Most of us are not tribal supporters of one or other party, so we don’t follow closely whether the party we vote for is over- or under-represented. In past elections where one party has won most votes but another has come top in terms of seats – in 1951 and in the first of the two elections in 1974 – hardly anyone noticed the anomaly: it just didn’t seem to matter to many people.
Wherever voters have been asked in detail about what they want from the electoral system, what comes up again and again is a desire for choice. Whether we look at focus group research conducted here in the UK or at citizens’ assemblies set up to deliberate on electoral systems in parts of Canada, a demand for “voter choice” repeatedly comes to the fore. When a review of the voting system used for Westminster elections was set up in the late 1990s under the chairmanship of Lord Jenkins, extending “voter choice” was one of the goals it was required to pursue.
But what is “voter choice”? This is actually often not clear: it could mean a number of different things. One relates to a point we have already discussed: the accountability of governments. The choice of government should be made by voters, not by post-election deal-making among politicians behind closed doors. So it should be clear to voters before polling day what possible governments they are choosing between – whether those are single-party governments or coalitions of parties that voters know will work together if they win enough seats. And voters should be able to make a clear choice, voting out a government if they judge its performance to be inadequate.
Another aspect of choice concerns the range of options available to us. First past the post can be criticized for limiting the options available to citizens: few constituencies have more than two candidates with any serious chance of winning, and the majority of constituencies are in fact “safe seats” where there is almost no chance that the incumbent will be defeated. That leaves us as voters with little choosing to do. Furthermore, it is often said that first past the post pressurizes all the significant parties to cluster around the political centre ground: only there can they secure sufficient votes to win seats. As a result, all the parties sound the same, and the differences of vision between them can appear more manufactured than real.
Choice relates also to the degree to which we can express our preferences. In first past the post, all we can do is express support for one candidate over all the others. But other systems allow us to say much more than that: to separate out our support for a candidate and for a party, or to rank the candidates from most to least preferred. Given that far fewer voters today have rigid preferences for one party over all others than was true in past decades, it can be frustrating that all we can do is express a single, black-and-white yes/no choice.
Finally, choice may refer to the frequency with which we are able to make our voices heard through the ballot box. At present, five years can go by from one general election to the next, and only politicians can decide that an early election should be held. Among the reform proposals planned for the coming months, one – the power to recall MPs – will give voters the capacity for the first time to demand an early election in their constituency if their MP has engaged in wrongdoing. Many reformers also contend that the maximum period between elections should be reduced, particularly if the norm is now to be that parliaments run their full term.
These many aspects of choice can matter to people just because, as modern citizens used to controlling many aspects of our lives, many of us find it frustrating that our ability to express our wishes at the ballot box is so very limited. Beyond this, expanding voter choice is said by many to be a good way of tackling voters’ disillusionment with politics and of boosting turnout at elections: if we had more to choose from and if outcomes in many places were not such foregone conclusions, more of us might bother to turn up at the polling station. For example, the Power Inquiry, an independent report published in 2006 that advocated wide-ranging political reforms, argued for changes in the electoral system partly in order to encourage more citizens to see voting as worth while. Though turnout has risen slightly at each of the last two elections, it remains lower than in any post-war election before 2001, and if electoral reform could spur a revival of turnout, that would certainly be a strong argument in its favour.
But increased voter choice is not necessarily an unalloyed good. Expanding the range of options sounds attractive. But if that means empowering extremists, many of us might have second thoughts. The British National Party secured two seats in the European Parliament in 2009 as a result of the proportional electoral system that is used there. Under first past the post, they would have had no chance, just as they came nowhere near to winning a Westminster seat in 2010. It is also sometimes said that the opportunity to express multiple preferences would be confusing or burdensome: for example, when the Jenkins Commission reviewed electoral reform options in the late 1990s, it concluded that too much choice could become “oppressive rather than liberating”. And if we are worried about turnout, asking people to take time out to vote more often is hardly likely to help: where elections are held most often – in Switzerland and the United States – turnout is typically far lower than here.
So the call to expand voter choice is immediately appealing. But we need to think carefully about what it means. And we should not take for granted that it is an entirely good thing.
The Constituency Link
There are few principles of electoral system design that are voiced more often in the UK than that of the “constituency link”. The terms of reference for the Jenkins Commission required “the maintenance of a link between MPs and geographical constituencies”. Prominent supporters of electoral reform in the Labour Party, such as Alan Johnson, insist that the “constituency link” must not be lost.
So what exactly is meant by the constituency link? Supporters of the status quo say it is the principle that every MP should be linked to a particular constituency and, correspondingly, that every voter should have a local MP to whom they can turn for advice or help and whom they can hold accountable at election time. This allows a strong bond to build up between voters and their unique MP. But some advocates of change take a slightly different view. They suggest that it could be better if each constituency had several MPs: that way, when we wish to contact our MP, we could choose the MP whose views are closest to our own or who has special expertise in a particular policy area.
What all supporters of some kind of constituency link share is the view that we should be able to choose the individuals who represent us, not just the parties. Elections to the European Parliament in Great Britain since 1999 have been held using a form of proportional representation that allows us to vote only for a party: we have no say over who the party’s candidates are. I am aware of no one who thinks that would be a good system for electing the House of Commons. By contrast, under first past the post, we are choosing not just a party, but also an individual. Some forms of proportional representation go further, allowing voters to choose among their preferred party’s candidates or even to build up their own slate of candidates across several parties.
Support for the constituency link is partly a reflection of British tradition. In addition, it stems from widespread disillusionment with political parties. In the past, parties were champions of fundamental beliefs about how the world should be. Today, however, most of us see them as machines that turn MPs into zombies and manage political debate so tightly that nothing interesting or meaningful is ever said. We yearn for a system that could deliver thoughtful and principled MPs who fight for their core beliefs. For the House of Lords, most of us want a democratic system, but we do not want a clone of the House of Commons in which members become lobby fodder for the party whips. So there would be strong support for an electoral system that weakened political parties and strengthened the independence of our individual representatives.
But I’d like to urge some caution here. Few of us have much time for political parties. But, actually, they are fundamental to the effective operation of our democracy. As I said above, we choose the government in this country not directly, but by voting for MPs in parliament. We can influence the formation of the government only because the local candidates we vote for in elections are members of teams: in choosing between candidates, we are also expressing our preference for which team should make up the government. Without these teams – without cohesive political parties – the processes of deciding the government and devising policies would be determined much more by post-election deal-making, and accountability to us, as voters, would be greatly weakened.
What’s more, while maintaining MPs’ focus on their local constituency is good for keeping them rooted in realities away from the Westminster bubble, it can have its disadvantages too. MPs are supposed to do what is good for the country as a whole, not just what is best for their local patch. A survey conducted after the 2005 election found that one (unnamed) MP was spending a staggering 97 per cent of his or her time on constituency business, which hardly suggests that they were giving much attention to the major national policy decisions they were regularly voting on at Westminster.
So while there are good reasons for seeking an electoral system that encourages independence among our MPs and among members of the upper house, we should not get carried away. Though political parties often seem to sap the lifeblood from the body politic, we do need them. An electoral system that focuses attention on local candidates can be a good thing, but we should be wary of going too far.
Keeping MPs in Check
Electoral reform has become a significant issue in public debate since the eruption of the scandal over MPs’ expenses in May 2009. The claim advanced by reform advocates has been that, because our current system produces hundreds of “safe seats” where the incumbent MP is in no serious danger of defeat, those incumbents get complacent and start to take the perks of office too much for granted. Reform that eliminated these safe seats would therefore reduce the likelihood of such misbehaviour in the future.
I’ll assess the validity of this argument in more detail in the next chapter. For now, let me sound another note of caution. The possible forms of misbehaviour are many and various, and the electoral system that minimizes scope for one form is not necessarily the system that minimizes scope for another. The political scientists Benjamin Nyblade and Steven Reed distinguish two basic types of corruption: looting, where politicians extract private gain from public office, and cheating, where politicians use corrupt means in order to win office in the first place. Most of the behaviour revealed by the expenses scandal was not corrupt in any criminal sense, but some of it nevertheless fell into the category of looting. Using evidence from Japan, Nyblade and Reed find that such behaviour is more likely, just as Britain’s electoral reformers argue, where MPs face little competition for their seats. But cheating, they find, is more likely in highly competitive seats, where politicians are tempted to use any means available to capture the few extra votes they need to secure election.
Thus, even if the safe seats argument correctly diagnoses the best response to the expenses scandal, the reforms it implies might end up, in the long run, encouraging other forms of misbehaviour instead. We’ll need to bear this in mind as we turn to the more detailed discussion of particular electoral systems in the coming chapters.
I’ve discussed many possible criteria for judging electoral systems: many factors that we might want to take into account when deciding which reforms, if any, to support. Coming to conclusions is going to require that we examine all the options in detail in relation to these criteria. That’s what we’ll start doing in the next chapter. Then, at the end, we will consider how we can go about adding together all these many pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. As I work through the various systems, I’ll be focusing mainly on the implications they would have if introduced for elections to the House of Commons. After all, the House of Commons is the cockpit of our whole political system. But reform of the House of Lords is very much on the agenda too, so I’ll include some reflections on this in the final chapter.