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.

Whatever the choice, the hard work lies ahead

In just over 24 hours the polls will have closed, and the fun will begin. The nation will have chosen, but unless the polls are very badly wrong it won’t be clear what the nation has chosen. The fact is, until we get the first key constituency results we’re not going to have the slightest inkling how the election has unfolded – and really it comes down to three key questions:

  1. Have the SNP swept the board in Scotland? It is likely that they will advance, but if Labour prove adept at holding on to their seats, Ed Miliband’s bargaining hand is potentially much stronger. I for one suspect that if the option is on the table for a Lib-Lab majority coalition, the two parties would jump at it with both feet – but that will only happen if the SNP advance falls far short of their current polling projections.
  2. Will the Lib Dem vote hold up? Their vote is certainly going to collapse – I am absolutely certain that it will do so in east Oxford – but where they have a sitting MP (and that MP is staying on) it will be interesting to see how well they hold on. If the night is a disaster for them, it may well be a sign the Tories have done enough to win the tranche of Lib/Con marginals they failed to take in 2010. If they’re doing better than the polls, they may well be in a strong position despite their collapse in support.
  3. Will the UKIP bubble burst? This is the biggest variable. So far the UKIP share of the opinion polls has stayed stubbornly at 13%. It is assumed (not necessarily a given, but certainly probable) that a large number of these UKIP identifiers would otherwise have voted Conservative. If they conclude in the quiet of the voting booth tomorrow that they dare not take the risk, then the Conservative vote share might prove substantively higher than the opinion polls are suggesting. If it holds up however, then the Conservatives can probably wave goodbye to any hope of a clear majority.

In deference to the opinion pollsters, who frankly have had the second most horrible job of this election (after all the poor souls actually standing for office) they are quick to remind us that there are too many variables to accurately predict the outcome – they are stressing they are making projections (ie. this is what the result would be based on current polls) rather than predictions – they aren’t any more confident than the rest of us. And top of the list is the assumption that the SNP have Scotland bought and paid for – I certainly expect them to advance, and I think the main parties have a lot to learn from how the SNP energise their supporters – but it is not a given! Every vote really is going to matter – and I have unashamedly urged readers to vote Conservative wherever they live, because in such an uncertain environment it is the only way to ensure the continuation of a government with a coherent plan for the economy.

That said – I would now like to sketch out two scenarios, which show that regardless of the outcome, there is work to be done, and we all need to be ready to stand up and pitch in.

In scenario one, we have a badly hung parliament, where at least two parties (or at worst, more than three!) are required to form a majority government. It will be hellish for the MPs, but more importantly it means our electorate will be fractured beyond all recognition. The task then will be for parties, activists and voters to learn how to adapt to the new political reality – and not least to divine if this is a short term tremor, or a long term shift. In either event, in the chaos there is an opportunity to shape the future of British politics, and that shape will be determined by those who show up – whether for good or for ill.

In scenario two, the Conservatives win a majority, or close enough to a majority to safely govern for the foreseeable future. First of all, there is no way Labour can win a majority – the SNP are doing too well in Scotland, and the Conservatives too well in England. The best Ed Miliband can hope for is to reach a deal with the Lib Dems. Secondly – even if I wake up on Friday to find (to my intense relief) Britain has stayed with the Cameron government, the battle is not won. This election campaign has been fraught, grisly, and notable for the failure of not just the parties, but even the pundits and the voters to reach beyond their core support. There is a huge opportunity for any party and politician brave enough not simply to rise above the demonisation that has arisen in political life, but to stand up to it. I touched on this theme a few months ago – that basic respect has left public life. There is a gap in British political life for someone who has the integrity to stand firmly and unashamedly for their principles, but treat their opponents respectfully.

That is why the result of tomorrow’s poll is only the beginning – the real work begins on Friday morning.

There’s no such thing as tactical voting

With commentators insisting the election is close (to which I include myself), it is inevitable that you are going to hear talk in the media about tactial voting – which can be defined in short as ‘voting for a preference other than your first preference, to attempt to bring about a more preferable outcome.’ In one of my earliest posts I explained how this comes about – in systems such as First-Past-the-Post the only thing that matters is which party finishes first, and so voters of parties with less chance of winning (historically the Liberal Democrats) ‘loaned’ their support to the most preferred of the two parties most likely to win, to try and prevent their least favourite candidate from winning.

The most obvious place that this is potentially going to take place in the 2015 election is in Scotland, where the three pro-Union parties might encourage their supporters to vote for whichever candidate is most likely to prevent the SNP from winning locally – as shown in this example. In 2010 I was asked by my friends to comment on tactical voting, partly because I was foolish enough to mention that my MPhil Thesis was on the subject of Tactical Voting, and partly because of the Tactical Situation in Oxford, where Oxford West was a Lib Dem/Tory marginal, and Oxford East was a Labour/Lib Dem marginal. On that occasion I shared the distinction I used in my research – expressive voting means you vote for your first preference, even though by voting differently you might have secured a better short-term outcome. Tactical voting means you vote for a preference that is not your first, in order to secure a better short-term outcome. I suggested then that it was up to the individual voter to decide which priority was more important.

Five years on, I am now convinced that tactical voting does not exist, except in the strictest sense of an academic measurement. The reason for that is that I think there is a single measure that applies to all political activity, and especially to teh act of voting – pragmatic voting.

I will use membership of a political party as an example. If you show me a person who agrees with 100% of their party’s political platform, you are showing me a one-person party. Politics is about building formal and informal coalitions of like minded people, who share agreement on enough important issues to band together and attempt to achieve their programme. A necessary part of that action is accepting that parts of the programme will not be 100% to your taste. It is a pragmatic consideration. And it is true for party members across the UK – not all of them will like their party leader; they will think their current policies are too right or left wing, or not right or left wing enough – but they still loyally ask their friends to vote for their party. It is not tactical, in the sense that it is the first choice of the options available to them, but it is a pragmatic choice – and not least one that carries the cost of having to defend policies and persons regardless of how your friends will perceive you.

But surely, you might say, those poor voters who want to vote Liberal Democrat or Green or UKIP are voting tactically when they instead vote Labour or Conservative? I contest that this is only true insomuch as it is used as an academic measurement. In practice, every voter does exactly the same thing – make a pragmatic choice. The Liberal Democrats are the perfect example of this – their strategy over time focused on persuading their votes to keep voting for them, forsaking the short-term outcome for a longer term outcome. And in many seats it paid off – they overtook Labour in some seats to become the main opposition to the Conservatives, or they overtook the Conservatives to become the main opposition to Labour. And from that base-camp, they became the beneficiaries when there was a swing against the incumbent, and thus able to win seats that years before seemed unwinnable.

In short – there’s no such thing as a tactical vote, because there is no such thing as a non-tactical vote. Every vote is pragmatic – from deciding whether to impact the short-term outcome or the long-term outcome; to deciding if you are voting for the best candidate, or the best party; the best party, or the best party leader; the best group of party MPs, or the best party policies … and many more variables.

I cannot advise you how to use your vote in light of that. Some of you may decide to favour the short term – perhaps because you live in Scotland and cannot risk your local MP belonging to the SNP. Some of you may favour the long term, voting for the party in third place last time around (as I am doing in fact!) so that they might challenge in future. I would simply say that every vote is a tactical and pragmatic choice – so know what you value, know how to make it more likely and make your vote count!

Two weeks to go – and the choice is still ours

It’s just over two weeks until the nation goes to polls, and my prediction from the very start of this blog has been borne out – this will be the most uncertain and unpredictable election for a generation, most probably since the snap election of February 1974. I will admit however that two things have not gone as I expected – I did not expect the SNP to so comprehensively out-manoeuvre Labour in Scotland, and I expected that there would be a small swing from Labour to Conservative, and a larger swing from UKIP to Conservative. Instead of which, the major feature of this campaign is that the polls have largely stood still.

We should take one great encouragement at the very start – in such an unpredictable environment, the choice is truly ours. Very small shifts in the vote in individual seats all across Britain can have a profound impact on final seat numbers in the House of Commons, and in determining whether we have a hung Parliament (as all the pollsters are predicting) and whether it will be David Cameron or Ed Miliband who is able to pull together enough votes to ensure they can form a government – the BBC have actually got a very interesting game that aptly illustrates just how much the type of coalitions possible can vary according to very small changes in the numbers of seats held by a party.

I now want to contest one of the great assumptions doing the rounds at the moment – that a hung parliament is a certainty. I grant you that is what the opinion polls are currently telling us, but as one pollster in particular continually observes, opinion polls are snapshots of current intentions, not predictions of future outcomes! There are lots of uncertain variables – not least of which is that the election is decided constituency by constituency, and not in terms of the overall national vote. That could mean that the SNP for example, have a massive swing to them overall in Scotland, but finish second in many seats due to tactical voting by Unionists for the strongest non-SNP party. There is no accounting for how well the Liberal Democrats have ‘dug in’ to seats they already hold, or where their vote will go in the seats that they do not. And it could mean that the Conservatives (or, though I think it unlikely, Labour) do enough in 326 seats to win those seats, even if they suffer elsewhere.

I also think it is highly probable that this election will be very similar to the 1992 election on two fronts. Firstly, the conduct of the left-leaning minority parties (ie. the SNP, Greens, and Plaid Cymru) participating in the Leaders’ Debates very much had the tone of parties that assumed the election was going to fall into their lap, and that they could turn up to coalition negotiations with an extensive shopping list. There was more than a strong resemblance to Labour’s celebratory rally in the 1992 election when Neil Kinnock’s shadow cabinet were presented as though certain they would be the next government. The British electorate take a dim view of such self glorification, and may think twice about their desire to hand the balance of power to these parties.

Secondly, the tone by these parties (and to a certain extent the media) has been thoroughly anti-Conservative. I will be the first to admit the Conservatives have not got everything right, and I can think of several policy areas where I wish the Government had said more. It was nothing short of ridiculous however to see the left-leaning party leaders lining up to take pot-shots on ‘austerity’ while not making a coherent argument for a credible alternative. My distinct impression is that the prospect of a hung parliament was generating a certain triumphalism by the left, which one imagines makes it more difficult for moderate voters to admit that they approve of the government’s record on the economy. But the government, while not eliminating the deficit completely as I would wish, has performed an economy recovery that has been described as ‘textbook; by the IMF. Unemployment has decreased, real wages are rising, and the deficit is being reduced, with a concrete plan to eliminate it completely – and the left leaning parties have not set out a credible alternative. Similar to 1992, I think a lot of voters will not find it easy to admit publicly that they approve of the Conservative plan with so much public anti-Tory sentiment – but in the calm space of the voting booth they will not be prepared to trust any party that won’t take the public finances seriously.

I also want to challenge the assumption that somehow voting for a left-leaning alliance of parties will somehow ensure our economic recovery will be ‘fairer.’ It is not fair to borrow for our lavish lifestyle today and leave the cost to our children, grand-children – or potentially even our great-grandchildren. It is not fair to raise taxes so high that wealth is driven away from the UK so that the burden of taxation falls on those not able to so easily move their wealth, and who also can least afford to carry that burden. And it is certainly not fair to inflict five years of economic mismanagement on the nation by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, who still refuse to admit that they spent and borrowed too much while they were in government under Gordon Brown.

Which is why I make an unashamed appeal for how you should use your choice.  It is clear that either David Cameron or Ed Miliband will be Prime Minister – no other party will command a large enough number of seats. I am not only voting Conservative – I am actively campaigning in Oxford for our local candidates to be elected, because they are the only party with a credible and coherent plan to ensure the economic recovery continues, and to eliminate our spending deficit – and the only way to get that security is by voting for your local Conservative candidate.