Some basic arguments for electoral reform

Some basic arguments for Electoral Reform

From the perspective of someone who is on the left, votes Labour but is certainly not happy with everything they do, and has consequently never summoned the enthusiasm to campaign for them. This motivates my current interest in electoral reform – if the arguments are right, it would re-engage me (and presumably many others) with party politics. However, I know there are dissenting voices, including on the left, and I’d like to find out why. Please do comment on what’s below.

I’m also not an expert on electoral reform, but having read the comprehensive summaries available on the electoral reform society website, what’s below is an argument for something like Single transferable vote, although see the caveat on local representation below. It’s not an argument for Alternative Vote, which is far as I can see isn’t proportional at all and doesn’t really change the current situation very much.

Arguments for electoral reform

1)      It will encourage people (eg me) to re-engage with politics, as they will be able to vote and campaign for parties that more accurately reflect their views, without feeling their vote and effort is wasted.

2)      Related to that, it will (might) lead to more parties, which individually engage fewer people than the current main parties, but collectively engage far more, with far more conviction.

3)      It would discourage parties from ignoring large numbers of people, such as those in safe opposition seats, since their votes would still count.

I think these three points can be summarised as follows: In the First Past The Post system we have at the moment, coalitions form before the election, in the guise of large, fairly diverse parties. Voters are then asked to chose which of them most matches their views, even though there’s a fairly good chance that – because they’re such broad coalitions – you’re not going to agree with everything in there, and might well fundamentally disagree with some of it. THis is (anecdotally at least, amongst me and almost all my friends) a disincentive to engaging. The small parties that might better reflect your views are not worth engaging with, because a vote for them will count for virtually nothing.

Most forms of PR, on the other hand, allows the coalition to occur after the election. This allows people to vote for a party that much more closely aligns with their views, with the consequent increase in participation outside of election time. An advantage of this is that (as long as it’s not a closed list system) you’re more likely to be able to vote for an individual who shares your outlook, and then hold them to account. At present you can end up voting for an individual you quite fundamentally disagree with, because they’re standing in your seat as part of the broader coalition you support.

4)      Plus the obvious one – some people’s votes are currently worth much more than others, (see much-repeated difference between share of the vote and share of the seats in this election).

I think arguments 1 and 2, and 3 – which are based on the way party politics would change before, not after, the election – are often forgotten by those arguing against PR (see below), who concentrate too much on number 4.

Arguments against it, with rebuttals

1)      It will give the fascists some power: I think this is weak. Trying to pretend the BNP don’t exist because they don’t have a parliamentary seat is ridiculous. 1 in 50 people in the last election voted for the BNP – ignoring them will probably make them angrier. PR should be positive in that it would force mainstream parties to engage with the issues motivating BNP voters (who I don’t think we can dismiss as all fascists, even though the BNP itself is.), rather than pretending they don’t exist.

2)      It will lead to weak and ineffective government: I’m not a constitutional expert by any means, but the record across most of Europe, and much of the rest of the world, seems to suggest it’s perfectly possible to successfully run a country under PR. Is there any reason why Britain is special? Germany, for example, seems to have done it very successfully. I read a very good argument for this somewhere, but now I’ve forgotten where, if you know it please comment.

3)      It will lead to back room deals. I think we have those anyway, they just go on within the big parties (which are all coalitions anyway), and behind the scenes in government. Also, it would be pretty obvious which deals had been done once it came to voting time in Parliament, since you could still compare each MP against the manifesto their party stood under, just like you can now. In fact, on this basis, I can’t see how it would be any different to the current system – in both we hold parties and their MPs to account at the next election, based not just on their promises for the future but also how well they stuck to their promises from last time.

4) Losers get into government (eg the argument that goes ‘how can Clegg, leader of the third party, end up as kingmaker?’). I think the problem with this argument is that it applies a FPTP analysis to a PR outcome. PR is far less likely to produce one party with a majority – the point is that it leads to coalitions with a majority. And those coalitions are not necessarily made up of the 2 (or 3, or 4) largest parties, they should be made up of the parties which can most successfully agree on a shared programme while commanding a majority of seats. If the centrist party feels that it has to negotiate with the largest party, rather than the one it feels most ideologically close to, it rather defeats the point of PR (which seems to be what Clegg did, in arguing for PR but sticking to FPTP politics). It would be interesting to know how this plays out in other PR systems – are there often situations where the largest party ends up in opposition?

5) Labour would be less likely to be in government. This is one of the arguments (I suspect a particuarly important one) coming from those in Labour opposed to PR. But I think that in making it they forget arguments 1,2 and 3 above -the fact is that you can’t just say ‘well, if we had PR then the BNP would get in, or Labour would be only just ahead of the Lib Dems, or Labour would never win again,’ because if we had PR then previous elections would have produced completely different results.

The parties wouldn’t have campaigned in the same way, they might not even have been the same parties, and people certainly wouldn’t have voted in the same way. If you want to predict what might happen under PR, you have to take all this into account.

I think one of the main things turning people off politics is the perception that politicians will happily abandon their values in favour of political tribalism. “I’m Labour, therefore I’ll support the party, even if they’re doing something I morally disagree with.” Under the current system you could defend that on the basis that overall the party best embodies your values, even if it goes against them fairly fundamentally on some issues. Under PR I think that would be much harder to do. So here’s a question for Labour opponents of PR – is your opposition based completely on furthering the values you believe in, or does it stem from a (completely understandable, given people’s long history and involvement in teh Labour party) dedication to the name and the badge? PR probably won’t further the cause of the Labour party, but there’s no reason why it can’t promote the values you’re hopefully in politics to uphold.

6)      It will remove the vital constituency link. I can’t decide whether this is important or not, but I certainly don’t think it’s a barrier – they are plenty of top-up versions of PR that keep fairly small constituencies. There’s probably room for  a more detailed discussion about this elsewhere, but I’m interested in whether MPs’ votes on national issues really do reflect local concerns (as opposed to party line, their own beliefs, etc etc), or is being part of the national legislature actually a separate function from standing up for the interests of local people. (and where, for example, do local councillors fit in to it?). The Jenkins Commission – set up by Labour in 97 to look into PR, suggested the AV+ method, and was then ignored – has an interesting paragraph about the roles of MPs here. It suggests they do local stuff quite well, but are hopeless at legislating.


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