Monday, 15 November 2010

Contradictions In The No Campaign

Less than 6 months to go to the planned referendum on May 5th 2011 on how we elect our MPs, and the strategies of the 'yes' and 'no' campaigns to the Alternative Vote are starting to become clearer.

The 'Yes' campaign are pinning their hopes on being positive, 'stronger on the ground' and organising and recruiting as many activists as possible to create a good 'word of mouth' momentum to put the 'positive message out there'. It could work, however, I worry that the official 'No' campaign are stealing a march on us by 'outblogging' and 'out-twittering' the official 'Yes' campaign and the opinion polls suggest their strategy is working. Whoever is running the official YES blog, if you are listening, we cannot neglect to talk about this, the 'No' campaign are posting stuff every single day, feeding mis-information and seeding doubts. We need to be posting our message every day too, this would not cost money, just time and enthusiasm.

I do believe that if people get the chance to start to compare and contrast the two voting systems on offer we will start to get a momentum in our direction but we can't afford the No campaign to get too far ahead of us in moving the debate onto stuff other than vote reform.

The 'No' campaign seem to have a simpler strategy based on 2 main themes:- keeping discussion of voting systems to a minimum AND divide and rule the opposition with misinformation of what AV is actually about i.e. talk about the cost of the eferendum, coalition cuts and jump on board any other populist movement they can.

The No campaign are successfully targeting the weaknesses in our campaign - which is firstly that AV is not exactly the system most of us would have preferred and secondly they are playing on the biggest problem for us - the complexity of trying to explain the relevance of voting reform to the actual real world. We have got to be strident in response to this, especially as they will outspend us and have most of the print media on their side.

Lets look at some of the posts on the 'No' Campaign site and pick apart their contradictions:-

1. A referendum on AV will cost £90m and is a waste of money in these stringest times.

At the same time as saying this, they now contradict themselves by saying that the Lords should not block the referendum and we should 'trust the people'. Please make your minds up. Of course any referendum is going to cost money, but that is not a reason to vote against AV.

2. AV is not proportional so advocates of PR should vote against.

This is a more subtle attack by the Noes trying to divide people who know that the present system is rubbish. What we need, to get the Noes to answer here is, what advantages does the present system first-past-the-post have over AV? The answer of course is none. Basically we shouldn't vote against progress just because it is not as big a leap as we desire.

Another interesting point to raise here is that despite not being a proportional system by design, it has produced more proportional results in Australia where it is used. We need to hammer home why AV is better than what we've got, i.e. reduces the number of safe seats which means more competition and accountability, eliminates tactical voting, makes votes more equal and fairer and ensures every politician is elected with at least 50% of the vote.

3. Coalitions are weak and AV makes coalitions more likely

Funnily enough coalitions have happened less often in Australia using AV than they have here under FPTP. But apart from that, where is the evidence that coalitions are weak? The wartime coalition with the war effort run by Churchill and domestic agenda run by Labour is arguably one of the strongest, most well run governments we have ever had - creating the NHS, welfare state and winning the war. And whatever you think of the present coalition, you could hardly accuse it of being weak and avoiding difficult decisions.

4. AV lets in extremists

Basically this is a complete and utter lie, as AV makes it even more difficult for extremist parties. Under FPTP, extremists can be elected on 29% of the vote (or much less depending on the vote split) as a recent BNP county councillor won with, under AV, absolutely EVERY winner has to get the support of at least 50% of voters.

Expect the NO campaign to get even more outrageous in their claims in the next few months. We in the YES campaign have got to get moving and counter all this misinformation, after the long wait we have had, we know our stuff, we just have to get it out there and we can't rely on the mass media to help us, the contrary is sadly true.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Why Change The Voting System?

At present, the way we count votes in elections (the voting system) means that the percentage of seats allocated to each party bears little resemblence to their percentage of the vote.

For example, in the last general election, the Tories got 36% of the votes, but 47% of the seats, while the Lib Dems got 23% of the vote, but just 9% of the seats.

The reason this happens is because instead of a general electon being a genuine 'national' election, it is in fact a collection of hundreds of 'mini' elections in a marked out area (each called a constituency) held across the whole country at 'generally' the same time.

The size of each constituency and their precise geographical position is controlled by our political masters, not by us the voters. The sizes and locations of these constituencies can have a bigger impact on the result than the actual votes cast - see gerrymander wheel. (It is important to note here that the constituencies can be absolutely equal in terms of the number of voters each have and yet still yield these perverse results in terms of seats allocated. So any argument that 'equalising' constituencies would solve the problem is false, constituencies are anyhow already fairly equal in size in the vast majority of cases).

Until we allocate seats in 'proportion' to votes cast we will continue to live in a 'semi' democracy where results are manipulated by the political elite. The best way to demonstrate why this is important is with a simple mathematical model:-

Party A wins 40% of the vote and has policies x, y-20 and z+3
Party B wins 35% of the vote and has policies -x, y+20 and z-1
Party C wins 25% of the vote and has policies -x, y+10 and z-2

The policies can represent anything you want them to, for example x could be to introduce a DNA database or maybe to invade Iran or re-introduce the poll tax, with -x signifying opposition to these. y could represent how much to alter taxes, redistribute wealth or alter the deficit, z could be the age at which we are entitled to vote or stand for parliament, or age of consent etc. You get the general idea.

In the above example, under our present voting system, party A most likely wins outright winning more than 50% of the seats (although any one party or none could win depending on how the constituencies are positioned and how many there are). This would enable party A to try to implement policy x despite the majority 60% explicitly voting for the opposite -x, decrease y by 20 despite the majority voting for an increase and increase z by 3 despite the majority voting for a decrease. I think you get the general idea of why this is undemocratic.

Under a proportional voting system a coalition would have to be formed, almost certainly between the parties with the most similar policies, this would mean the majority would get policies much more in tune with what they voted for, -x, an increase in y and a decrease in z. You can alter the variables and percentages of vote as much as you like and still the proportional system will always deliver the majority of voters more of the policies they voted for. Try it yourself.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Will The Coalition 'Abolish' Caroline Lucas?

I think the boundary changes being proposed by the government could make Caroline Lucas's re-election problematic. There is going to be massive changes to the boundaries to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to between 585 and 600. An extra 6,000 electors are going to be added on average to each constituency and 50-65 constituencies are going to 'disappear' altogether! This is the Tory price for the AV referendum.

Maybe Brighton Pavilion will be one that 'disappears' and be replaced by a 'Brighton' constituency that incorporates Kemptown (without the coastal bits of Peacehaven etc). Or more likely in my opinion, seeing as it is the Tories and Lib Dems overseeing the changes, Brighton will be split into Brighton East and Brighton West both incorporating bits of Pavilion and Kemptown and more inland areas. Or maybe Pavilion will expand inland towards Lewes and Arundel creating a more rural constituency that will add thousands to the Tory vote.

It will be more vital than ever for the Labour/Green vote not to split (assuming the AV referendum is lost - the Tory 'no' campaign intend to outspend the 'yes' campaign by 5 to 1), but the Greens will have to get used to their vote being gerrymandered into different constituencies and having to campaign in more rural Tory areas to make headway.

The new boundaries are being rushed through for 2015 despite new boundaries being introduced just before the May 2010 election. Apparently political parties will have their right to appeal to boundary changes taken away from them under the new rules, and constituency boundaries will cross ward districts and county boundaries making it impossible for communities to keep track on which candidate or party is accountable in their area. All this to 'equalise' constituencies when already most constituencies are within 5,000 electors (England seat average: Tory 72,920, Labour 70,173, Lib 72,638). The new aim is to reduce this gap to no more than 2,500 electors in every seat (except in Lib/SNP seats in Western Isles and Shetland etc) - the cost to democracy will be huge.

To make matters worse, these new boundaries will be drawn on the old electoral register (over 5 years out of date by 2015) that we know does not contain 3.5 million eligible electors. Unlike at present no account will be taken of the fact that urban constituencies (mostly Labour) have 25% of eligible electors unregistered.

To make matters EVEN worse, the government also plan to introduce 'individual voter registration' which in Northern Ireland reduced the register by some 5% - this could mean another two million lost voters mainly in urban areas. This makes a mockery of the government's claims to 'equalise' constituencies - they are almost certainly going to be more unequal after this massive gerrymander is over. And the smaller parties like the Greens and potential voters even more disenfranchised and alienated.

Friday, 2 July 2010

The Case For Electoral Change

Did you know that only about 5%-10% of seats change hands between boundary reviews? The biggest 'change' elections (1945, 1966, 1983, 1997, 2010) happen after a major boundary review (even then only around 20% of seats tend to change hands). It took nearly 70% of voters to vote against the Conservatives in 1997 to finally remove them from power after 18 long years, and over 70% of voters to remove Labour after 13 years in power.

It has become clear to me that whoever draws the boundaries has more power than the actual voters under our present system. This is why first-past-the-post is only semi-democratic.

Proportional systems remove the importance of boundary reviews because the proportionality and fairness of the result are assured. PR also ensures more representation for lower socio-economic groups, minorities, women and higher turnout.

Finally the more proportionally elected countries enjoy more equality, prosperity, better public services, less corruption and higher political engagement measured on any index you care to mention. Go and check it out. I think for these reasons, the case for change to a more proportional system is undeniable.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Voting System Summaries

I have recently written three posts on the vagaries and superlatives of first-past-the-post, the single-transferable-vote and list-PR. The purpose of which was not to give a comprehensive guide to these voting systems - wikipedia and the Electoral Reform Society carry out that task. No, what I wanted to do was to highlight what I think are the most important points that sometimes seem to get sidelined in the debate.

There are of course many other electoral systems in use and the theoretical possibilities are in fact infinite. It is a relatively new science that involves fairly basic mathematics so the layman has not so far been excluded.

I chose the three systems to outline that I did because I think they cover most of the realistic possibilities. I didn't have a specific post for the Alternative Vote - which is afterall the system we hopefully will soon get a referendum on, because basically it is the Single-Transferable-Vote but with just one member per constituency instead of 3,4,5 or 6 members.

In alphabetical order below I have put a summary of the three systems plus the Alternative Vote for those of you that want one line answers to how they work, the pros and cons etc.

Alternative Vote - No need to change boundaries, just allow people to put 1,2,3, instead of an X on the ballot. This preference system is used in Australia and does give fractionally more proportional results, although still expect one party rule on 35% of the vote and the 'wrong' winners to occur. Does nothing to help smaller parties get elected or represent minorities, women and the lower socio-class, although this preferential voting system does mean that you can show who really is your first preference without damaging your second, third preference etc. Suffers from most of the faults of first-past-the-post. Hopefully you will get a choice between this system and first-past-the-post in the next 18 months.

First-Past-The-Post - Used in UK and her ex-colonies. One member per constituency (an area drawn on the map to elect MP) or two or three members per ward (a smaller area for councillors) elected by putting an X or Xs on ballot depending on number of candidates to be elected.

This sounds great on first hearing. The candidate(s) with 'most' votes get elected and no one else gets a look in ('most' can be just 29% of vote or 18% of the electorate). This elected member is tied to one geographical area and 'represents' everyone within it.

This geographical link is paramount and overides EVERY other consideration including whether those elected truly are representative of their voters. A seemingly important flaw in my book, especially as it is impossible to draw boundaries fairly. If I was going to sum up the biggest con of this system it is this. Those who draw the boundaries have more power than those who actually vote. This is shown by the fact that the biggest 'change' elections (1945, 1966, 1983, 1997, 2010) come after significant boundary changes which generally occur every 12 years. All other discussion of this system is generally going to concentrate on the importance of boundaries. Generally the larger the boundary, the harder it is for smaller parties to be elected and the more unrepresentative and unaccountable the member elected. Roughly 75-85% of seats are safe - which means they do not change hands between boundary changes or even then maybe not ever!

List PR - Used by all the most democratic countries in the world on whatever index you like - equality, political engagement, least corrupt, prosperous, quality of public services. Purely proportional systems eliminates the importance of boundary drawing to the result. 'Nuff said!

Single-Transferable-Vote- Another British export to Ireland and Malta. Put 1,2,3 on ballot instead of X. Liked by ERS and Lib Dems. Favours third party and is less unfair to smaller parties. Complicated to count but not real problem which is that boundaries still influence result but much less so than first-past-the-post. Basically each constituency elects between 3-6 members and have to get over a quota of 25% of all preferences for 3 member constituencies and 17% for 6 member constituencies. Obviously the more members per constituency, the lower the quota and the more proportional and fairer the result. Not as proportional a system as List PR and still discriminates against smaller parties, women, minorities and lower socio-classes, but not as much as first-past-the-post does.

Friday, 18 June 2010

List PR

List based proportional representation is the system used by nearly all developed nations in the world, except the Anglo-Saxon nations.

There are variations and hybridised versions that meld with first-past-the-post while keeping the proportionality, but basically modern democracies have list PR.

The most equal, prosperous, democratic, environmentally friendly, politically engaged and least corrupt nations use List PR. The disadvantage is that there is less geographic link between elected representatives and where some toff has drawn some lines on a map. This also means that boundary changes have little effect on the result under list PR systems. The result cannot be gerrymandered like it is with FPTP or STV.

List PR elected parliaments contain more women, minorities and lower socio-economic groups, much more than FPTP. Even after the advent of all women shortlists, only 20% of Westminster MPs are women. In comparison, both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly elected by List PR hybrid systems have around 50% female representation.

The so called disadvantages of List PR pale into insignificance when you look at the superior governance countries with List PR enjoy. The higher quality, better funded and better managed public services, the responsiveness and diverse representation within parliament.

Like all PR systems, List PR is likely to result in coalition government not single party rule. Contrary to Anglo-Saxon myth, this actually allows for more decisiveness demonstrated by the speed with which infrastructure projects are agreed and difficult long-term issues like keeping on top of government debt are tackled.

The UK's experience of List PR is the closed list system used for elections of our MEPS to the European Paliament. There are two criticisms that are unfair here when comparing the election of MEPs to the election of MPs to Westminster. For a start there are only 78 MEPs covering the UK compared to 650 MPs so obviously MEPs will have to cover more voters than MPs even before multi-member constituencies. Tory MPs sneer about people not being able to name two of their MEPs, but ask people to name their MP and one of their 3 local councillors and most voters will draw a blank. Also a surprising amount of MEPs are well known. Think of Nigel Farage of UKIP and Caroline Lucas of the Greens in my region - the South East (pre-May when she became an MP).

The other criticism of list PR is that only the party has a say over their elected candidate because they order the list. This is of course true for the closed list system used for the Euro parliament, but very much not true for the open list systems that are in use throughout a lot of the developed world where the voter very much chooses the candidate and not the party. There are also two further rather subtle points that need to be made.

One, because list PR unlike FPTP, gives people an effective choice of much more than just 2 parties, parties have to more democratic, open and transparent about how they choose their canddidates, so even under closed list PR, candidates tend to be more responsive to the electorate and democratically chosen. If parties are not democratic under list PR, it is easy for voters to go elsewhere and still find their vote effects the result.

Supporters of FPTP should not be smug about closed lists and remember that 80% of MPs under FPTP are chosen in safe seats by around 100 party members in a room with little chance of defeat in the general election because their party is so entrenched in that area. There is nothing more closed and chosen by 'the party' than that.

But as already said List PR does not have to be closed list. One of the easiest open list systems is the one used in Sweden, where voters first pick up the ballot paper from the party they support and then mark an X next to the party candidates they want. This way they choose both the party and candidate with just one vote. This is as easy and quick as FPTP voting in terms of both the count and for the voter, but gives completely fair and proportional results. There is none of the complexity of the vote that STV invokes.

I think you might be able to guess which electoral system I think is best after reading this.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Single Transferable Vote

In the second of my series on voting systems (after questioning whether first-past-the-post even qualifies as a democratic electoral system), I now turn my unique eye to the single-transferable-vote.

STV is the favourite voting system of a lot of reformers, most influentially the Electoral Reform Society and the Liberal Democrats.

STV is the voting system used in Ireland, Malta, the Australian Senate (upper house) and...err that's it!* (*Oh, to be fair, it is now also used in Scottish and some New Zealand local government elections as well).

STV is listed amongst the family of voting systems described as proportional representation, although strictly it isn't a PR system, although it can deliver reasonably proportional results (if quota is low enough).

STV is a preferential voting system (like the Alternative Vote - AV is in fact STV in a single constituency), i.e. instead of 'simply' putting an X against one candidate as you do with most List PR voting systems or for electing an MP to Westminster with first-past-the-post, you 'simply' list candidates 1,2,3 in order of preference.

Now, it sounds silly, but some voters will have a problem in writing 1,2,3 on the ballot paper. The spoilt rate will go up, but we are talking about very small numbers here. For those who oppose STV, you would be scraping the barrel using this argument.

I suppose the biggest difficulty with preferential voting is that it requires a higher amount of knowledge amongst the electorate - always a dangerous assumption. I do however believe that people can rank their Green or UKIP preferences with a bit of practise).

One problem is the rules on how many candidates to rank. If you say ALL the candidates have to be ranked (like in Australia) you increase the spoilt ballot rate and 'donkey vote'(those going eeny meeny miny moe), whereas if you say people can rank as many or few as they like, you give a more powerful vote to those who know 'politics'. Unfortunately this tends to be the more wealthy. We could get into arguments about how voting per se favours the wealthy, but lets stick to STV.

Like FPTP, STV has a strong geographic link, but unlike FPTP that is not the ONLY thing that matters. Where you draw the boundaries can have a huge influence on the result under FPTP turning a narrow defeat into a landslide. This is less of a problem with STV, but it is still a problem. The degree of the problem depends on how proportional you decide STV should be. This depends on the number of MPs per constituency which determines the quota. This is where a brief description of how STV works is needed. You see, what the voters have to do is easy, the counting process however is another matter.

Firstly, it takes much longer to count preference vote systems (this also applies to the Alternative Vote but lets be honest, having to wait a few extra hours for a result is hardly a big problem). It takes longer because you might have to count the same ballot paper seven or eight times as 'surplus' votes of winners and losing candidates votes are re-allocated.

Basically pretty much every voter is guaranteed a vote that counts but this might not be their first preference, it might be their second, third or Nth preference depending on how many candidates there are. In each constituency, a pre-determined number of candidates are elected. You might decide five MPs is a good number for an area. This determines the 'quota' which would basically be the total number of votes divided by six (one more than the number to be elected), plus one vote - meaning a candidate would need around 17% of the votes to be elected. In practical terms, the quota does the same job as the 'threshold' does in a list PR system. It creates a barrier for smaller parties to get over for them to win any seats at all, so parliament is not overly fragmented. In list PR systems a reasonable threshold is usually judged to be around 4-5% as this limits parliament to no more than 8 or so parties represented.

In STV systems the quota threshold can be higher because we are not just counting first preferences, so for example, Greens are elected in Ireland despite their first preferences only reaching 5% because they pick up a lot of second and other preferences to take them over 17% in some areas.

Gerrymandering possibilities are more difficult under STV, but Ireland shows it can be done. One outrageous way available is to follow the Irish example of having 3 winners in some areas and 5 in others, this means the quota is different in different areas - an obvious way to alter the value of the vote. If you are to have an unequal voting system this is the way to go about it. But the boundaries like in FPTP are also a way of cheating. The fact that where you draw the boundaries is such an easy way to cheat in FPTP was one of the reasons I gave for it being semi-democratic and why it is the favourite system of dictators from Zimbabwe to Taiwan and this also remains a problem with STV, but less severe.

STV is however, fairer than FPTP to smaller parties who are not geographically concentrated and is more proportional. However it tends to be the third placed centre parties than benefit the most, which might explain why the Lib Dems like it so much.

One of the big disadvantages of STV that it shares with FPTP is how it under-represents women, minorities and lower socio-economic groups. This makes me very suspicious of STV. List PR tends to do wonders for women and lower socio-economic group representation and this is reflected in the fact that developed countries with list PR tend to have much lower inequality than similarly developed countries with FPTP or STV.

To conclude STV is better than FPTP, much better, but still has some serious deficiencies. It is not my ideal system, but I would knock on many doors if we the people were ever given an opportunity to choose it over FPTP.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010


This is the first of a series of posts with my unique take on different voting systems. I start with the favourite system of dictators the world over - first-past-the-post.

First-past-the-post is used to elect councillors to local government in England and Wales and of course to elect our MPs to the UK Parliament in Westminster. It is also used in Canada, India and the US, and a host of other semi-democracies and dictatorships around the world.

For those who don't know how it works, in general elections the country is divided into a number of areas called constituencies with each electing one MP. The voter is provided with a ballot paper with an alphabetical list of candidates standing in their constituency next to the name of the party they are standing for (if any) and the voter 'simply' places an X next to the candidate they want to vote for. The voter is allowed one vote. The candidate with the most votes in that constituency is elected its MP.

In local government a smaller area called a ward is used and usually (for no reason that I can ascertain) 2 or 3 councillors are elected for each ward. The voters are allowed the same number of votes as the number of councillors to be elected in their ward - so put Xs by the 2 or 3 candidates they are voting for. Depending on how many are to be elected, the councillors who come in the top 2 or 3 places in number of votes become councillors.

This all sounds beautifully simple and democratic and we can see why voters on first inspection might think there is no need to change any of this. Only when they realise that most votes have no impact on the actual results and that most voters can spend their entire lives electing no-one, do people start to think something is not quite right.

People listened with incredulity at this election when they were told that the Lib Dems could top the popular vote but get only half the seats of the Tories in second place and less than half the seats of Labour in third.

Such a result is obviously absurd and people immediately think that this must be down to differences in electorate size between constituencies (because this is the only unfairness the Tory press highlight - David Cameron did it again this week at PMQs comparing the Western Isles with 30,000 constituents with the Isle Of Wight with 110,000 - you will hear a lot about the Isle of Wight because it is so unique - indeed it was the Tories who opposed it being split into two constituencies and made smaller at the recent boundary review before the 2010 election. A cynic might wonder whether this example is so useful for them that that is precisely the reason they have kept it so large. There are only a handful of seats that have more than 80,000 constituents, the target is 68,000, it makes little difference to the bias in the system - which is explained below)). But constituency sizes are actually already relatively equal (despite what is implied by the Tories) and they could actually be completely identical in size and produce the same ridiculous results.

It is the system itself that discriminates mainly against those parties unable to get over 30% of the vote and this accidental bias can also happen between the two big parties this system favours, no matter how hard you try to draw the boundaries fairly. Of course, if the 'gerrymandering' is deliberate the possibilities for unfairness are even more enormous. Enlarging the boundaries as the Tories are proposing to do, is one way of making gerrymandering easier.

Where you draw the boundaries can have a huge influence on the result under FPTP - the gerrymander wheel demonstrates how by just moving the boundaries around a 'winning' party can win 80% of the seats or 40% of seats without changing a vote or moving a single voter and crucially without altering the size of constituencies either, which always remain completely equal. For the smaller parties even 20% of the vote can vary between 0% and 20% of the seats by just changing boundaries. This is the power of the boundary commission under FPTP.

Which brings us to the crux of the unfairness about first-past-the-post - boundaries. There are 'independent' quangos instructed by parliament to do this 'fairly'. As already noted this is an impossible task even with the best will in the world, but inevitably there is tremendous pressure from political parties as to where these boundaries are drawn and the big two parties dominate proceedings. The current rules dictate quite sensibly that county boundaries, geographical, administrative and social ties should also be taken into account when drawing up boundaries - so for instance wards should be wholely contained within constituencies and not divvied up. This makes sense because people vote on a variety of issues including how well their local council is performing. This all helps keep the 'constituency link' real, and this is supposedly one of the main strong points in FPTP's favour. There are many considerations that have to balanced when designing an electoral system and one of these is a link between a geographical area and an MP - the 'constituency link'. Peculiarly FPTP puts this consideration far above ALL other considerations including the fairness between representation and votes nationally. Geography is the only factor that really counts under FPTP, even who wins the popular vote nationally is unimportant. Yet even this geographical link is illusory as where you draw the boundaries is so important and yet so arbitrary - most people do not realise how important the boundary commission is for our democracy - politicians know how important it is though. FPTP is a strange beast indeed as we shall come to see.

The Tories in particular (and also Labour MPs in safe seats) regularly trundle out this mythical link as a strong point of the system. Yet it is the Tories that want to enlarge boundaries weakening accountability and the Tories also want to disregard the current boundary rules that give the link any semblence of credibility. New constituencies will not be tied to administrative boundaries or within city limits. You may want to throw out your MP, (or support them), only to find they have been 'moved', even after just one parliamentary term. This makes a mockery of being able to 'throw them out'.

Your vote will no longer be able to show what you think of the party running the local area, because your MP's constituency could easily be moved elsewhere by the next election. The Tory proposals mean the regularity of change and fluidity of where the boundaries will be drawn in the future will destroy any pretence of a constituency link. All of this is being done at a large cost to accountability. It will be much harder for MPs to build local support (it is already pretty clear that national issues and party leaders have a bigger impact on voting behaviour anyway but it is still just possible to build support locally to some extent under the current boundary sizes).

We need to remember that since 1945, the adult population has grown by a third, but the number of MPs has remained the same. So constituency size has risen from a manageable 50,000 per MP to around 75,000 and will go over 85,000 if the Tories have their way. Imagine wanting to stand as a candidate and being faced with the huge task of 40,000 doors to knock on - it would take many years for an MP to meet all their constituents. Face to face contact is perhaps the only way the smaller parties and independents can make an impact.

Under the new rules, boundaries will change more regularly and smaller parties will be particularly hard hit as canvassing an even larger area will take even more resources. The Tories are doing all this for one reason only - 36% of the vote in this election 'only' gave them 47% of the seats.

This might sound pretty generous towards the Tories, but as any Tory will tell you, 36% of the vote gave Labour 55% of the seats in 2005. The only way the Tories can achieve this same distorted result in their favour is to to drastically change and enlarge the boundaries. I hope people following this can see what is being done here and it hasn't got anything to do with fairness and democracy. To say a system is 'unfair' to a party that gets 47% of the seats with 36% of the vote is beyond parody. The real unfairness is obviously that 35% of people turnout to vote for parties other than Tory or Labour but only get around 10% of the seats in parliament to represent them (and even that representation is skewed - for instance, there is only one MP (Caroline Lucas - Green) in England who is not Tory, Labour or Lib Dem, despite around 10% of votes going to other parties and independents).

Why does Labour do even better out of this system than the Tories? I don't want to bore you with too much detail on this but basically there are 3 factors that have increased bias over the long term - vote concentration, differential turnout and surburban drift, in that order of importance.

Firstly, Labour's vote is more concentrated - this is crucial if you want to win seats under FPTP.  Labour waste less of their votes in seats they cannot win - mainly in rural areas. The Tories problem is they have significant amounts of votes in southern urban areas, the North of England and Scotland, but not enough to win many seats in these areas - this effectively wastes millions of their votes.

Secondly, urban turnout is much lower. Labour win most of their seats in urban areas and this lower turnout means they get less votes in doing so. Tories can pile up masses of votes in rural seats that they will win easily anyway.

Thirdly, and this is the only argument you will hear from the Tories about 'unfairness'. Urban constituencies tend to 'shrink' over time and rural seats 'grow' as people move out to the suburbs and rural areas. This means that without more frequent boundary reviews (there are major reviews every 10-12 years), urban constituencies will tend to be smaller (by about 4,000 potential voters on the electoral register (or around 5-10% less than more rural seats). This actually is by far the smallest factor in why Labour do better, making maybe 5 to 10 seats difference nationally. The other two factors are far more important making around 50 seats of the difference (Labour can get the same vote share as the Tories but around 60 seats more. If you think that is unfair compare the Tories to the Lib Dems where equal shares of the vote for these two would deliver the Tories around 200 seats more and no jiggling of the boundaries will change that). Note also that because registration is lower in urban areas - the actual number of over 18s is actually probably fairly similar between Tory and Labour seats. In fact Labour seats tend to have more people overall because they contain more under 18s. This is probably why the Tories oppose votes for 16 year olds and want to introduce more stringent registration procedures which will deter over 18s from registering - the lower the registration the bigger the constituency size as boundaries are drawn on registered voter numbers not by how many over 18s entitled to vote it contains). The MPs with the biggest constituency workload are in urban areas because they have more poverty, social problems AND more people. Tories don't win these seats and so would not appreciate this.

The actual main advantage of first-past-the-post probably has nothing to do with the 'constituency link' at all, it might actually stem from one of FPTP's perceived weaknesses. The fact that FPTP reduces the number of voters that can affect the overall result to a few thousand voters in key marginals and that modern targeting techniques can find them, might mean it is easier for the main parties to argue their case in more detail. Perhaps having fewer voters that count will allow for a more informed 'electorate that matter'. This is a doubtful argument, but probably the only one that is legitimate when talking about the advantages of our present voting system.

Under a more proportional system these swing voters would be in every area of the country,  and run into millions, making it harder for the parties to win their vote. Under first-past-the-post, a few thousand voters in a certain type of area can be 'targeted' with numerous mail, telephone and face to face canvassing. It could be argued that maybe a higher level of debate could ensue, although the mushiness and risk averse policies of the major parties under FPTP undermines that argument. Maybe more proportional systems do encourages more radical debate even though more voters need to be persuaded.

If we were to keep FPTP, one way of improving it would be to have more MPs and smaller constituencies not less and bigger. Maybe go back to 1945 when each MP had no more than 50,000 constituents compared to the current 75,000. MPs would have more time to contact constituents and be closer and potentially more accountable. Smaller parties and independents would stand more chance of bucking the national media trends. It would also mean that the executive would be proportionally smaller in parliament and backbenchers better able to hold them to account. Instead in the name of democracy, the Cameron Tories are proposing the opposite. I wonder why that is then?

Thursday, 10 June 2010

It is First Past The Post That Is Weak And Indecisive.

This Blogger thinks he has found the perfect electoral system - basically tweaking STV to avoid coalition government, but is coalition government as bad as the right-wing mythmakers make out it is?

Did you know that the countries with the smallest levels of borrowing have coalition governments? And the highest levels of democracy. I would also argue coalition government is more decisive not less. Think of the wartime coalition in this country but also look at the long-term infrastructure in European countries that have had long-term coalition government - look at the quality of their public services - their healthcare, their transport infrastructure etc. Look at the speed with which decisions are made compared to our parliament (half unelected) where important decisions can take years to pass. But most important of all, look at their much higher levels of public engagement in politics and the representation of all groups proportionally in parliament. You must also remember that all parties are coalitions - think of a Labour supporter voting for Jeremy Corbyn in the same party as Alan Milburn, or the 1922 back bench Tories in the 'Monday Club'. I think it better the public decides the proportions each coalition gets - the negotiations we saw after this election is more open than party manifestos decided by a few party members behind closed doors. People rarely vote on manifestos anyway. I have a feeling people know more about their government's policies after the election than they did of the party they voted for policies before it.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

FPTP, AV, PR, Hung Parliaments Now Likely Whatever Voting System Is Used

Via Mark Thompson's blog I have been alerted to this excellent examination of FPTP (first-past-the-post) by Prof John Curtice in Parliamentary Briefing.

John is the psephologist from Strathclyde University who in 2005 said the most likely result of the next election would be a hung parliament.

Basically, it is getting increasingly difficult to achieve one party rule under first-past-the-post for 3 main reasons - 1. the declining share of vote of the two main parties. 2. the dwindling number of marginals, and 3.  the ineqitable treatment of the 2 main parties.

John's analysis sadly doesn't go on to analyse the boundary changes the Tories are planning. The enlargement of constituencies will make it less rewarding to vote other than the 'big two' but as John points out the main change is regional difference between North and South and this is virtually impossible for the Tories to gerrymander away.

A lot is made of the 'unfairness' to the Tories of 'only' winning 47% of the seats on 36% of the vote. Wrongly identified as the cause of this is that their constituencies have on average 4,000 more registered voters than Labour seats, but the clue there is in the word 'registered'.

When the lower registration of voters is taken into effect, Labour constituencies actually contain more potential voters and also have much more people because they have larger under 18 populations, not to mention higher workloads for MPs having to deal with the higher poverty and associated social problems.

The Tories with Lib Dem assistence are planning to make registration harder thus exarcerbating these problems and to ignore the fact that unregistered voters make Labour constituencies bigger. Lower turnout in poorer Labour seats is also the other reason why Labour can get less votes than the Tories and still not lose as many seats as Tories would on such a low national vote. 

The real big problem for the Tories is the fact they cannot get more than 40% of the vote and most of that is concentrated in rural and suburban areas of England. In reality the Tories need to win some Billy Bragg types over to get large majorities, this seems unlikely to ever happen. We still remember the 80s.

The Tories want more marginals but seem unwilling to sacrifice some of their votes in their ultra-safe seats which is the only way of achieving this. It will also be interesting to see how they cull the number of MPs - Tories will want only non-Tory MPs culled - whether that is achievable I doubt.

I am going to be looking at each voting system in more detail over the next few months in the run up to the possible referendum. Starting soon with the glorious first-past-the-post system.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Take Back Parliament London Rally 15th May 2010

A video has been posted of the fair votes protest in London on Saturday. There were events around the country. Sadly I was working that day so couldn't join in.

Friday, 14 May 2010

All Electoral Systems Are Rubbish: Discuss.

Tom Harris (Labour MP for ultra safe seat Glasgow South) has taken to defending first-past-the-post by admitting it is rubbish but that so are all other electoral systems.

While it is true that all electoral systems have defects, Tom is using the standard multinational/conglomerate method used by big oil, tobacco, food and pharmaceutical companies etc, of muddying the evidential waters which is known as 'manufacturing doubt'. Ben Goldacre talks about this in his book Bad Science in relation to the 'nutritional industry' and in relation to vitamin pill conglomerates.

The Tory press are adept at this, rather than analyse and discuss a study of say 50 countries that shows a comprehensive relationship between inequality, lower quality of life, higher government debt, less environmental protection, poorer value public services, higher corruption, lower political engagement and turnout with less proportional electoral systems, they will take one example, anecdote or even myth that suits their needs and claim that THAT proves their case.

This is exactly what Tom Harris is doing here. An example might be - 'Italy is corrupt and unstable and they have PR therefore all PR countries are corrupt and unstable'. This ignores the fact that the majority of countries with PR have much lower levels of corruption and instability than that seen in FPTP countries. It also plays on a few myths, for a start Italy has had a number of different electoral systems over the years, has actually had no more governments and elections than a lot of FPTP countries when you take 'cabinet reshuffles' into account probably less change at the top. And of course, Italy's problems relate more to its media and outside interference from the US to stop the communists gaining power in the 60s and 70s than it does to its electoral system.

You could also of course cite Israel or the Netherlands for instability, but that doesn't work quite so well for the FPTPers because Netherland in particular has a much stronger economy and society than ours and of course Israel has problems that would challenge any electoral system.  But the fact remains, single cases and anecdotes are not enough to prove any case. Always be suspicious of people that do not engage with the evidence and just bang on about a single case as if their argument is self evident. It usually isn't.

It is hardly surprising that defenders of a system where the party with the most votes can get half the seats of the party that comes third, is having to admit it is rubbish. But to say this doesn't matter because other systems have faults is not enough. They should demonstrate WHY having slighter bigger constituencies is WORSE than this total disregard for how people vote. They should demonstrate how having more than 1 MP representing an area is WORSE than having many millions of people totally unrepresented in parliament. They should demonstrate why having 75% of seats so safe they never change and that a few party members behind closed doors really decide who is your MP is BETTER than an open list system where people can have a real choice of MP. They should demonstrate why having a system where the drawing of the boundaries has a bigger impact on results than how people actually vote is BETTER than having MPs elected by a majority that includes 2nd and 3rd preferences as well as 1st preferences.

And that is the crux of why first-past-the-post is the worst system - how much impact the boundaries have. It is not so much WHO you vote for that counts as WHERE you live and where the boundary quango decided to draw the boundaries.

This gerrymander wheel tool invented by the Australian proportional representation society shows how without any voter moving or changing their vote the result can be a narrow win for one side or a massive win for the other - just by moving the boundaries. And I am not talking about different size constituencies - every constituency remains the same size.

That is the crux of first-past-the-post, even if you are trying to be fair, the boundaries can throw up the most biased results. It doesn't have to be deliberate gerrymandering, under first-past-the-post it happens regularly by accident that the results are massively skewed against one party or other.

The Tories and Labour negotiated what they thought were fair boundaries between them (but not the other parties) in the 1990s and yet it resulted in a massive bias to Labour and not such a big bias towards the Tories (remember just because minor parties lost out more to Labour, doesn't mean that the bias was 'against' the Tories, just that the Tories didn't benefit as much in screwing the Lib Dems and others).

This is ultimately why the Tories agreed to a referendum on AV as long as the Lib Dems backed their changes to the boundaries - making constituency sizes bigger will help the Tories in a number of ways but it also increases the gerrymandering possibilities. And of course with the media on the Torie's side, a system that falls far short of being proportional and a Labour party in opposition that might also be hostile, the referendum is going to be difficult for the Lib Dems to win.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

2010 General Election Stat Attack

Taken from Pippa Norris's excellent site - hope she doesn't mind.

Pippa Norris - Excellent Take On Electoral Reform

Here is a great scatter graph on the relationship between democracy and electoral systems. Pippa also explains why electoral change can occur.

As she explains, it is a shame that the referendum in the UK doesn't ask if people want reform and then put forward a range of options rather than just offering the one system. But when it comes to the Tories, beggars cannot be choosers, this is about as most as we could have possibly hoped for coming from them. I highly recommend Pippa's blog.

Will Labour Campaign For AV: Response To Mark Thompson

I think it all depends on which leader they get. As far as I know, of the potential candidates only Jon Cruddas would support electoral reform. And he is unlikely to win.

Ed Balls and Ed Miliband are definitely against change, and I imagine David Miliband is too. I suspect Alistair Darling is against as well. I imagine Labour will largely campaign against despite their AV pledge in the manifesto, with a number of notables campaigning for - such as Alan Johnson and Peter Hain.

I think Labour's position on this will also depend on what is planned for constituency boundaries. On the present boundaries which are likely to be changed before the next election, Labour would do well out of AV, with the Tories doing worse. With boundary enlargement I suspect the Tories might pick up 2nd preferences from more rural Lib Dems and do much better.

Why FPTP Stinks, Another Reply To Tom Harris

Tom, your seat is so safe it is bad for democracy. I'm sure you don't think your seat is safe because of you, do you? You and I both know that anyone could win that seat for Labour unless they were a mass murderer or something (even then they might hold on). Don't you think it funny that the biggest defenders of FPTP tend to come from seats like yours?

Anyway, what do you think of the graph showing a correlation between the seats the largest party wins and higher government debt? Also the Harvard study showing that PR run countries are more equal (which in turn means less crime, less social problems, better environment and a better quality of life). Basically FPTP produces higher government debt and more inequality, lower turnout and lower political engagement, worse public services and higher corruption. Nobody should defend this, especially those supposedly on the left.

Why Constituency Boundaries Are As Important As Electoral Reform

 This is in reply to this excellent post here by peezedtee.

PZT: Very good post. It seems incredible today to think Tories were so pro-PR in the 70s, there are virtually none today.

Kellner's anaylsis is good, there are two problems with FPTP for the Tories.

The first is the minor problem of surburban drift where Tory constituency size grows between boundary reviews. Tory constituencies tend to have a few thousand extra constituents. A big thing is made of this and 'equalising constituencies' by the Tories, as if this will solve their problem but in fact it will make less than half a dozen seats difference to the result (as demonstrated by the recent big boundary changes in their favour which only garnered them 10 or so seats).

The second and much bigger problem for the Tories is the concentration of their vote in the South of England, and in suburban and rural areas.

They plan to address this by increasing the constituency size under the populist guise of 'reducing the cost of politics', i.e. cutting the number of MPs. They propose a 10% reduction from 650 to 585. This will help them in the short term, well at least to some extent, because the massive change in boundaries this will require will obliterate any current personal votes and make it much more difficult for smaller parties to establish themselves. The rise of the Greens in Brighton shows how under the current size it is still possible for small national parties to reach out and knock on doors. The loss by the excellent independent Dr Taylor in Wyre Forest shows it is still nigh on impossible for independents even when highly regarded. No independents won a seat in GB this election, despite the expenses scandal. The closeness of the election and the classic first-past-the-post squeeze means people felt compelled to vote tactically for the two big parties, which probably also explains the Lib Dems vote disintegrating.

Anyway I digress. Like I say, this will only help the Tories a bit in the short term (unless they plan continual massive changes in boundaries which rather undermines their claim of FPTP being good because of the 'constituency link') because larger constituencies will mean they can water down Labour urban strength with more rural and surburban areas creating more marginals and less ultra safe Tory seats.

Another factor that makes this particular attractive for them is whats called 'differential turnout'. Because Labour urban seats tend to have lower turnout, Labour can win seats with less votes than the Tories pile up in the shires, this means just a 10% enlargement of a lot of fringe urban seats will deliver a marginal win to the Tories (in the South at least).

Enlarging boundaries always improves gerrymandering possibilities. In the states the seats for Congress are 5 times the size of ours and this leads to entrenched safe seats with very little change from election to election - this suits the elite fine (of course in the US the winning party is allowed to use computer programs to maximise their strength in drawing boundaries. Over here we at least pretend to be more impartial with an 'independent' boundary commission quango. In practise this commission follows strict guidelines from the governing powers which maximise Labour and Tory strength at expense of others. I suspect this time the Lib Dems will want a piece of the action in setting boundaries under this new government).

If you look at local government elections here, obviously ward size is usually a seventh of constituency size and consequently you get a much more proportional result - the Tories have 40% of 22,000 councillors in England and Wales on about 40% of the vote, ditto for Labour and Lib Dems with about 25% each.

But the enlargement of boundaries will do nothing to address the Tories' weakness in regional areas like in Scotland, Wales and Northern England. There is only so long they can manage without these regions as it obviously places pressure for them to win enormously well in the South. Over time first-past-the-post is certain to exacerbate regional divides. In particular regional monopolies on local government is very bad for democracy.

Anyway, to conclude, I wonder what Kellner would make of this gerrymandering? The people have never been properly consulted over boundary size. Who for instance determines 3 councillors per ward - this almost lends itself to STV rather than the silly situation of a party winning all the seats in a ward on a minority of the vote. I think consultation on boundaries is just as important as consultation on the electoral system. The Lib Dems have got to win a referendum in the face of a hostile media and maybe both of the big parties opposed to change the voting system, whereas the Tories plan to enlarge and massively change boundaries without any consultation. This will mean the probable loss of Green MP Carline Lucas and other minor parties for instance and make MPs much more remote from their constituents at a time when people are already disengaged. It will take time for these parties to re-establish, including perhaps the Lib Dems to re-establish themselves. This gerrymander will definitely put back reform, but in the long term the Tories are only putting off the inevitable. It might be better for them to embrace change they can live with than for a future Labour coalition to deliver change they can't live with. If the Tories can only get 36% of the vote in these unpopular times for Labour, I can't see how they will try and justify majority government on even less than the vote than this which seems increasingly their fate. Neverless, the Tory guile never ceases to amaze me, so I am sure they will try.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

My Response To Tom Harris

Tom, there are very simple answers to your points. Countries that have PR and coalition government actually have more stable and long-term government – look at the financial prudence, better public service provision, environmentalism, higher development aid budgets and political engagement of Scandanavia, Germany and other PR countries.
Both AV and STV makes it more difficult for extremists to be elected. The BNP got over 500,000 votes in this country at this election. This is one of the highest figures for an extreme right party across the whole of Europe. The political vacuum of safe seats causes people to turn to extremists in anger. The virilent right-wing media love FPTP because it allows them to get ‘their man’ into government with a minority of the vote and they can play dog-whistle politics on race and minorities because splitting the working class vote helps their side.
These last 5 days of ‘horse trading’ have actually highlighted a lot of good policies, brought them to the public attention and it seems the best of both parties policies are being selected.
You admit that parties under FPTP are wide coalitions and their manifestos are decided behind closed doors – how is this democratic or open? At least under PR, people get to choose the wing of the coalition they want. Most decisions in government are actually made after the election anyway – the manifestos are just a guide as to what will happen. People generally have a poor idea of what is in the manifesto.
This nonsense about being able to vote governments out is rubbish. It is actually harder. It took nearly 70% of voters to turn against the Tories to finally get rid of them, after years of 60% opposing them for 18 long years. It took over 70% of voters to get rid of Labour after 13 years. How can you say 36% should give a party a majority. How low would you go? 29%?
As Will Self said recently ‘I have nothing to say to people who reject electoral reform, it is like opposing the 1834 Reform Act that extended the franchise’. It is funny how all you supporters of FPTP like you and Diane Abbott reside in ‘jobs for life’ safe seats where you could virtually murder someone and still get elected. Glasgow South you got 20,000 votes, your nearest rival 5,000. Some chance people have got of voting you out. Pity! You and your undemocratic cabal of secret Tories should be de-selected from the Labour party for allowing the Tories back in and shunning the Lib Dems. Shame.

The AV Referendum

I have started this blog to concentrate on reform of our electoral system and to campaign towards a likely referendum on the Alternative Vote - which after the recent coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Lib Dems, may well happen in the next 18 months.

My aim will be to outline as simply as possible different electoral systems and their impact on results.

This will also be a place where I will provide analysis of the current first-past-the-post system and its peculiarities in terms of results. I find it interesting that there are few if any free sites providing detailed statistical analysis of general election results and in particular local government election results. I hope this changes and I will link to any I find or am notified of.

One of my pet interests is of drawing the boundaries under FPTP, whoever has this power can have a tremendous impact on the result. I will analyse Tory/Lib Dem plans to enlarge boundaries - which could have an enormous impact.

At the end of the day, I believe true electoral reform and a much more proportional system are the goals if we are to have true democracy in this country.