What makes an electoral system ‘Fair’?

If the surprise that the Conservatives won a clear majority was the biggest story of the 2015 election, the demands for electoral reform the result has generated must surely be very high also. I suspect that even if you don’t usually follow politics closely, you will have seen features, principally advocated by the Electoral Reform Society, arguing that our present electoral system (popularly known as First-Past-the-Post) is no longer fit for purpose – their principal evidence from the 2015 results being the Greens and UKIP gaining 16% of the popular vote, but a mere 2 seats for their trouble – in contrast to the SNP gaining 56 seats on a relatively paltry 4.7%. This argument is amongst those being used to argue that the result is illegitimate, and not reflective of the wishes of the nation.

My interest was particularly piqued by this article by the Director of KLICE, Jonathan Chaplin, in which he makes a strong case that Christians ought to support electoral change (I purposefully use the term ‘change’ rather than ‘reform’ as the latter implies a necessarily positive connotation). The crux of his argument I repeat below:

Those who benefit from FPTP but oppose the principle of proportional representation are in effect displaying profound disrespect for the views of millions of their fellow citizens. They are saying: Your political convictions are worth less than mine; it matters less that your views on justice and the common good are represented to government than that mine are.

I have to make a confession – I am a complete geek when it comes to electoral systems. While at university they were the topic I most enjoyed researching, so to have the opportunity to talk at length on the subject is a labour of love for me! In 2011 I wrote a position paper on the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum in response to a similar argument that was made for electoral change – in that instance, Christian think-tank Ekklesia argued not only that Christians ought to vote to adopt AV, but that it was an essential part of the church seeking fairness in society. While my paper is sadly no longer available online, the essence of my argument is that there is no impartial criteria by which we can deem one system to be ‘fairer’ than another. There is only one demonstrably fair choice system – simple majority. But it is only fair for so long as there are two choices – and as we are painfully aware, choices are rarely binary!

In the academic literature on electoral systems, the commentators themselves recognise the debate between systems that primarily aim to elect a government (ie. majoritarian), and systems that primarily look to elect a representative assembly (ie. proportional). No academic argues that one is ‘fairer’ than another for a simple reason – it’s entirely subjective! If you believe that our representative body should broadly reflect the votes cast by the population as a whole, then any non-proportional system is by definition going to be ‘unfair.’ If you instead subscribe to the view that the electorate want to choose who governs them, then a system which could allow the party with the most votes and seats to ‘lose’ to a coalition of parties who individually polled less, but collectively form a majority, is intrinsically unfair.

As the case against FPTP is already being noisily articulated I feel no obligation to repeat it here. Instead I will venture a few thoughts in favour of the system, and which would give proponents of PR pause for thought.

In the first instance, PR doesn’t necessarily lead to fairer outcomes. A very recent example of this was seen in the 2013 German Bundestag elections. Angela Merkel’s CDU increased their vote share by a full 5% and by all accounts clearly won the election. Instead of continuing her coalition with the FDP (the German Liberals) however, she was forced into a coalition with the second largest party the SPD, as her coalition partners had failed to surpass the 5% threshold necessary to win PR seats. Given that the Alternative fur Deutschland (the German equivalent of UKIP) also polled just under 5%, that meant that almost 10% of the German electorate went unrepresented, and the Germans ended up with a Grand Coalition that they almost certainly did not vote for.

Secondly, PR doesn’t usually lead to direct changes of government at the hands of the voters. Until Gerhard Schroeder won in the Red/Green landslide of 1998, most changes of government in Germany took place because the FDP switched their allegiance from the conservative CDU to the socialist SPD. It is not that it is impossible – simply that it is taken out of the hands of the voters because the decision to form a government is taken by the parties. The problem is compounded by the fact that PR encourages parties to chase a core vote to the exclusion of all else. Parties compartmentalise to reach their key voters and mirror their interests – which sounds great until you realise that the resultant governing coalitions become collective interest groups bartering for their narrow sectional interest. PR is used in my homeland of Northern Ireland, and it is striking that if you ignore party affiliation and simply classify members of the Assembly as Unionist, Nationalist, and non-aligned, the composition of the chamber doesn’t change at all. PR encourages parties and politicians to find an electoral niche and look after the interests of that niche.

The reason that is a problem was articulated by my earlier post in which I demonstrated that representatives don’t actually have much choice. It was striking to note that when commentators spoke of the new Conservative majority, it was observed ‘it is a smaller majority than the coalition.’ Note the term well – the coalition had a majority. Governments seek stability – stability comes through a secure majority that is able to pass the legislation they want, and block the legislation they don’t. With PR, you either have a highly unstable government (hardly desirable) or you have the exact same issue people have with FPTP – a majority government doing whatever they want. In his article Jonathan Chaplin contests that at least a majority government under PR has secured the votes of more than 50% of the electorate.  While potentially true (as no system is perfectly proportional) it does not address two concerns – voters are deprived of the opportunity to directly choose who governs them, and no party is encouraged to appeal beyond their natural base.

Let me stress that I am not saying that PR is intrinsically wrong – simply that every electoral system has its own problems. Nor would I say my case for FPTP is entirely based on trashing PR. As a Conservative I ought to favour PR – the present system favours Labour (who tend to win constituencies with smaller populations and a lower turnout), and PR would prevent them from being able to introduce radical programmes with less than majority support. And yet I support FPTP. One of the reasons for this I have alluded to – it encourages parties to seek beyond their natural base, which in practice means seeking the support of the moderate ‘undecideds’. However much voters may complain parties are too alike, there is something to be said that FPTP encourages parties to chase the moderate centre rather than a niche vote.

My final defence of FPTP relates directly to the 2015 election – at the end of the day, the electorate made a choice. It is with good reason I posted that, in my view, tactical voting does not exist – in actual fact there is no choice system that can completely eliminate the incentive for voters to vote for an alternative to their first preference. FPTP means that the voters consider the person representing their area, and whether or not they would support or oppose the government – and if they oppose the government, whether they would form part of the principal opposition party. It accurately captures the desire of the voter to punish the government for poor performance, or indeed to punish both large parties for poor performance!

I am not saying that FPTP is fairer – simply in my view that it is preferable to PR. I do however want to recognise two challenges that 2015 in particular flagged up. Firstly is that the SNP won almost every Scottish seat on 50% of the Scottish vote. It looks unfair, but the swing in those constituencies was astronomical – over 30%! Even if FPTP accentuated the result, something powerful is going on in Scottish politics, and fixating on the electoral system is not going to address that.

Then we have the Greens and UKIP – and especially UKIP’s astonishing 13% of the vote. Not since the SDP/Liberal alliance performance of 1983 has such a large vote had such a meagre return. While it is a concern, I think we must acknowledge two factors. The first is that the electorate was in complete flux – the Lib Dem vote collapsed and there was no way of knowing where it would go. For the first time in many years voters didn’t know whom was first or second in their area – which contributed to a higher number of ‘wasted’ votes. The second is there is a challenge for all the parties to re-energise the political process – turnout was still an unacceptable 66%, and party membership has been in freefall for decades. Voting for minor parties is not necessarily a reflection of a fractured electorate, but an urgent call for parties to re-engage with the electorate.

I could go on at length – and indeed I would love to have extended conversations on my pet subject! For now however I would conclude with this summary argument – it is absolutely right that we should debate our electoral system and not take it for granted, but let’s at least agree that no one system is objectively better or fairer than the others.

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3 comments

  1. Bryan McGill · May 12, 2015

    Hi Danny, presumably whatever system we adopt nationally, whether fptp or pr, would also have to be used for county, local and parish council elections. Re your blog, I think it is very good and well thought through.

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  2. Bryan McGill · May 14, 2015

    Another thought, Danny, and that is if we go the pr route. Let’s say the tories get 45% of the vote, labout 38%, SNP 10% and ‘others’ 7%. Who decides who will be an MP? At least fptp nominates the MP for a particular city.

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  3. Pingback: Continuing the Electoral Reform debate | Daniel Stafford on: Politics

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