Feb 232011

The referendum on whether we should go for the proposed Alternative Voting system or for the traditional first past the post system is coming up in May, and we are now beginning to see politicians spout all sorts of half-truths on the subject. The key thing to remember during the debates amongst politicians is that their views are slanted by self-interest – they unconsciously (or perhaps consciously) want the political system that gives the best results for themselves, rather than the system that best suits the voters.

So we have to rely on our own minds to decide which voting system is best for us, and not trust the politicians.

The traditional system was first formally put in place nationally in The Representation of The People Act 1832, although the first past the post system had been used in various constituencies for centuries before that. Given the contraints of a medieval country, it is quite a good system – simple to administer, easy to understand, and not especially unrepresentative of the population making up the electorate when the number of electors for each MP was vastly less than today.

Today is quite a different matter. The first past the post system means that everyone who did not vote for the elected MP feels disenfranchised, and those who hold differing views to the majority in a safe constituency are very much excluded from the political process. And it can be a very high proportion of the electorate – in one constituency in last year’s election, the MP who was elected had the support of just 37% of the voters.

So how does the Alternative Voting system work ?

Well each voter lists their candidates in order of preference – 1 for their favourite candidate, 2 for their next favourite candidate, etc. You can even list just 1 preference if you are a first past the post fan, or list every possible candidate in order of preference if you want. If nobody wins 50% of the votes, the candidate with the least number of votes is excluded and the next preference from those who voted for him or her are distributed amongst the remaining candidates; this process is repeated until a candidate does get more than 50%. Or presumably there is just one candidate left!

There have even been politicians who claim that the Alternative Voting system is too complex for the voter to understand. Ok, the distribution of votes may be a little tricky for those simpler voters, but ordering your preferred candidates is the important part – and simple enough for the overwhelming majority to understand. Frankly politicians who go around insulting voters should be voted out in the next election!

Is the Alternative Voting system fairer than the first past the vote system ? Well, a bit fairer. Very safe constituencies are likely to carry on being safe constituencies, and minority views are still likely to be under represented (if represented at all!) in Parliament. It certainly is not proportional representation, and doesn’t even come close.

But it does hold several key advantages over the first past the post system :-

  • Firstly, it allows people to vote with the real belief of what candidate should be elected without regard to the likelihood of victory. Those who hold minority views (say perhaps Green party supporters) always have a difficult decision to make under a first past the post system – do they vote for the party they want even though it has no hope of victory ? Or do they vote tactically to vote for the candidate they would dislike the least ? With AV, they get to do both.
  • Secondly it ensures a fairer result in a three-horse race between three candidates. As an example, in a traditionally Tory constituency, it is possible for Labour to slip in, if the Tory vote gets split between the Conservatives and the Liberals. Given the choice a Tory may well wish the Liberal candidate to win if the Tory candidate cannot. Any election system that can return an MP with a minority of the support is flawed.

There are those who do not like the Alternative Voting system because it does not go far enough. It is only a relatively minor improvement to the first past the post system, and there is some inclination to vote against it for that reason. Whilst understandable (and I’m in favour of going further too), it is not the right way to look at it. Whilst we can criticse politicians for not going far enough, or for not giving us a wider choice to choose from, the question to answer here is which voting system do you prefer ? First past the post, or AV ?

Given the choice, I would say that AV is a step in the right direction. It doesn’t go far enough, but we have not been given the choice of saying “something better please”.

So I would say “Yes” – let’s vote for something a little better than the status quo. You are free to make up your own mind, but be wary of listening too closely to the politicians!

May 112010

There are those who claim that the possibility of the Tories and the Liberals combining into a coalition, or worse Labour and the Liberals combining into a coalition is undemocratic because it would not be what the public has voted for.

Perhaps, but it is no less democratic than a parliament with a clear majority. We do not have right to select the Prime Minister, just our representative in parliament. We expect our representative to vote for (actually technically it’s not vote against) the leader of his or her party. It is interesting to note that there is nothing in our system that allows for MPs changing parties – if you voted for a Labour party candidate, he gets elected and then immediately joins the Tory party, there is nothing to be done – your representative has been chosen even if you do not agree with his defection!

In reality, it is the elected MPs who decide who the Prime Minister is to be. What effectively happens is that the Queen (or King) selects a candidate Prime Minister. Although the Queen could pick whatever MP she wants as Prime Minister, in practice she selects the obvious choice – basically the leader of the majority party (or coalition). The Prime Minister then takes a “Queen’s Speech” to parliament and the MPs either vote in favour, or against – in which case the Prime Minister basically isn’t accepted by parliament so has to resign and force another election.

The key worry of those who claim that we could end up with an undemocratic result is with the possibility of a Labour-Liberal coalition – a “coalition of the defeated” – forming the next government. Is this fair ?

If you put add together the Labour, Liberal and nationalist MPs, they more than outnumber the Tory MPs, so even under our current electoral system, the hypothetical Labour-Liberal coalition is actually more representative of the will of the people than a Tory government.

After all, all the major parties have lost this election – Labour, Liberals, and Tories. The Tories have the largest number of MPs but not a majority. They cannot claim to have won this election any more than Labour can, because under our system “winning” is effectively having more than 326 MPs. And they do not.

If we end up with any coalition, it will be a coalition of the defeated. And yes the possible Tory-Liberal coalition is just as much a coalition of the defeated as a Labour-Liberal coalition would be.

May 062010

So the election is over bar the counting.

What is clear so far, is that this election has been a complete farce. So far reports have come in from a number of constituencies alleging :-

  • Large queues of people wanting to vote locked out at 22:00 (which might be legal).
  • Large numbers of people turned away because the polling station lists were out of date.
  • People allowed to vote after 22:00 if they happened to be inside the polling station at 22:00 (which might be illegal).
  • Inadequate resources at some polling stations leading to some of the conditions above.

This election has been interesting in one respect – the amount of discussion on the inadequacies of our current voting system in that it allows governments to be formed with a total share of the vote as low as about 35%. What we now see is that the actual mechanics of organising an election need to be thoroughly reviewed.

One of the most obvious changes to make is to move the polling day from Thursday to a Saturday or Sunday. Whilst people do work at the weekend, the majority do not which allows for a more even level of traffic unlike the current position where those who work are effectively forced to vote before they go to work, after they finish work, or in rare circumstances vote at lunchtime.

I have commented before (before I started blogging but well after I started ranting) about how there is no real reason for voting on a Thursday except for the suspicion that it is convenient for the politicians, and that it is a historical legacy of a time when sneakily trying to stop the working people from voting may have been popular.

Going back to those who have been denied their right to vote; the obvious solution is for those MPs who have been elected in the relevant constituencies to resign their seats in a month or so, and to have another election. Even where the numbers denied their vote would not make a difference to the current result.

Feb 092010

Gordon Brown has announced plans to reform the electoral system in the UK after the election – if Labour is elected, and they do not change their minds. Of course they look likely to give us one choice of reform – choose Labour’s preferred option or no reform. What kind of choice is that ?

We should be telling Parliament what kind of electoral reform we want and not just calmly expect what suits the government of the day. If you look at what Gordon Brown is proposing, it probably represents the minimum possible change to our present system. The Alternative Vote (what GB is suggesting) consists of people voting by listing their preferred candidates in order of preference; if there is no overall majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is excluded and the votes of those who voted for him or her are shared out amongst the other candidates according to their second preference.

The idea is that no MP is elected without representing the majority view of his or her constituency. Ok, sounds better than the current system, but is it as good as one of the following :-

Or even the zillions of other possibilities out there – Wikipedia has a good selection.

There are certain advantages to Gordon Brown’s preferred system – it is a relatively small change and does make things a bit fairer. I would myself prefer a more radical change, but I am quite willing to let the people decide and not have our choice restricted to a simple yes or no to choose some politician’s choice. After all, how sure are we that this is actually best for us and not best for the Labour party ?

Of course as you might expect, the Tories are against any form of electoral reform, and the Liberals are in favour (although this isn’t their preferred system).

What I would like to see is a referendum giving us a proper choice amongst a range of options. That would be complicated to difficult to do properly and would be more complex for us people to decide – we would have to spend some time thinking about what we want. We would need a neutral group reviewing possible systems and keeping the list of options down to sensible numbers. We would also need a neutral group coming up with a list of advantages and disadvantages for each, and ideally stop the politicians from making recommendations (asking a politician to keep quiet is wildly unrealistic I know).

The key thing is that we should be making the choice and not the politicians.

May 152009

So we have had a week since the Daily Telegraph stretched out the entrails of the mother of Parliaments for the public to pick over, and what has happened ? Not a lot.

A few MPs have paid some money back as though they had been caught sneaking biscuits out of the jar from their mother’s kitchen. A tiny number have lost their second job.

Has anyone been fired ? Has anyone been suspended pending an investigation ? Are the allegedly corrupt MPs still able to vote in Parliament ?

The majority of MPs who previously sat idly by whilst a few were riding the gravy train as hard as they could are now just standing around whinging about how the public is assuming that all MPs are corrupt. They are not actually doing anything constructive like refusing to cooperate with the Parliamentary process until the “corrupt” ones are excluded.

The key here is quick action … not waiting for some careful review to come up with something in a few months, but action now. It does not have to be permanent action – simply exclude those “corrupt” MPs and appoint a bunch of real vicious individuals as a review board, and make the “corrupt” MPs explain their mistakes in front of the board and explain why they should be allowed to continue as an MP. Sure that is harsh on the border-line cases, but being harsh in these circumstances is good.

And if at the end of the review process everyone is still an MP, the political system may never recover.

More ridiculously, the Tories seem to have decided that what really gets up the nose of the public is the cost of the political system. It is really rather amusing to watch the Tory leadership run off down the wrong road as fast as they can for political advantage because it is not the cost that is annoying the public, it is the tendency for some MPs to milk the expenses system for as much as they can get.

One of their suggestions to reduce the cost of the political system is to reduce the number of MPs … this sounds to me like an attempt at reducing the amount of democracy we have in this country. With our ‘first past the post’ system, the more people an MP represents, the less representative he (or she) is of their constituents. If you compare (using some very rough figures) the number of people each MP represented in 1800 and today, you get one MP for every 15,000 people in 1800 and one MP for every 100,000 people today.

That sounds to me like a gradual erosion of how democratic Parliament is supposed to be (and yes I know that the 1800 MPs were probably more corrupt and less representative than today’s). We need more MPs not less.