Continuing the Electoral Reform debate

After a longer delay than I was planning, I’m now replying to some feedback I was given on my previous post on electoral change.

Firstly, it was suggested that while the party that wins the most votes might ‘lose’ to a coalition of smaller parties, it could only do so where it either voluntarily refuses to work with those parties (essentially ‘opting out’ of government), or else the smaller parties decline to deal with the largest party because they have chosen to work with each other – if you like, akin to the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru agreeing to be an ‘anti-austerity’ bloc in the 2015 election.

I think the first argument is somewhat unlikely – parties pursue their policy agenda, which means pursuing and holding on to power. The examples of Ted Heath in 1974 and Gordon Brown in 2010 (to a lesser extent also James Callaghan and John Major while actually in office) show that parties try by whatever means possible to maintain their hold on office.The whole point of PR is to ensure seats gained broadly reflect votes cast, thus (theoretically) giving the largest party the strongest hand for coalition negotiations.That is to say – we can discount the former because parties will always seek by whatever means to take power. Because of this, the second point is actually a major point in favour of FPTP. If the largest party cannot command the confidence of Parliament, due to the smaller parties effectively operating as one bloc, FPTP concentrates the voters minds on the choice between a government and an opposition, and makes it easier to replace a governing coalition with an alternative.

I would also briefly take this point to add that electoral systems are not just a means of turning votes into seats – the electoral system also influences the type of party politics that emerges. The Liberal/SDP alliance did not break through in the 1980s because FPTP encourages two party competition; in contrast, PR has been used in the following contexts with the following results:

  • List PR for European elections allowed UKIP to emerge as a major party in the mid 00s
  • The Additional Member System in Scotland established the SNP as the principal opposition to Labour in Scotland.
  • Single-Transferable-Vote in Northern Ireland has mapped the move from moderate to extreme parties, while showing that the sectarian divide has ot changed at all.

That is to say – the type of electoral system you choose influences the type of political party competition you get. So to acknowledge a different question on whether electoral change could take place at other levels – that is precisely the problem with changing at one level but not all levels – PR at local levels would encourage the proliferation of smaller parties and interest groups. FPTP is ultimately lots of small interest groups gathering into big formal coalitions (the major parties) – requiring them to decide together how to govern in the national interest.

I’d like to finally acknowledge one aspect of Jonathan Chaplin’s initial post that was also raised, and I did not quite do justice to – the role of Parliament as a debating chamber as well as a legislature.The example given was the Scottish Tories – they have held a pretty consistent 15% vote share since 1999 and not moved much since, but PR in Scotland enables them to win a representative voice in the Scottish Parliament. It is worth repeating that electoral choice reflects what one prioritises in an electoral system – so prioritising each party having a ‘voice’ in proportional strength to their votes would of course mean one would favour PR.

I think however this is to massively overstate the importance of representation compared to other political channels. Part of the reason for being involved in major parties is to make your voice heard in those parties. In the recently published book Those Who Show Up, the example is given of a Christian activist who became involved with the Liberal Democrats, and through her involvement the party ended up adopting what ought to have been their flagship policy – raising the threshold at which one begins paying income tax (a policy so popular that the other parties have adopted it!). Parties are not the only medium of being heard, and speaking in Parliament isn’t necessarily the best way to make yourself heard. I do not deny that representation is important insomuch as it lends respectability to a party, but representation is not the be-all-and-end-all. To revisit the Scottish Tories, while they have been consistently represented since 1999, one has to ask whether the system really works for them given that the prospect of the Tories being invited to govern in Scotland (barring major cultural change) is practically zero, thus negating their capacity to implement their policy agenda.

I’ll conclude this post by adding that I really enjoy the debate on electoral change and hugely value the thoughts and comments so far – I will post my own thoughts on ways forward in the coming weeks. I think this isn’t a debate that will go away, or one the Conservatives would wisely ignore in victory – and it is undoubtedly better that one faces it when one has the chance to, on one’s own terms. If I could seek consensus on one point, it would be that the debate on electoral change is worth engaging with as we determine as a society what we most value in electoral outcomes – but that that there is a debate to be had, not a wrong to be made right.

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.