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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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!

The Constituency Effect

In a number of posts so far I have referenced tactical voting and the distorting impact of the First-Past-The-Post system we use for Westminster elections. I did not want to assume that everyone is automatically familiar with why this is the case, so I am very briefly going to touch on how votes turn into seats. If I were to compare my previous post on the likely composition of the House of Commons with the actual projected vote shares of the parties, there would be an obvious disparity – that is to say, the Greens and UKIP would only have a collective 4 seats with around 21% of the vote, while the Lib Dems with a projected 8% might end up with 32 seats! This of course is deeply ironic given the Lib Dems past history – in 1983 (as the Liberal/Social Democrat ‘Alliance’) they finished 2% behind Labour on 24% of the vote, but won a mere 21 seats to Labour’s 220! The reason is simple – they finished a strong second in lots of seats, but you don’t get seats for finishing second!

On Political Betting there is an excellent article explaining how the Lib Dem vote could collapse, but they could still remain major players post 2015. While their vote is likely to collapse everywhere, and especially where a sitting MP does not run again, they only need to poll about 35 to 40% of the vote to stand a chance of holding on, especially if UKIP or the Greens take votes off Labour and the Conservatives – they only need to finish with more votes than any other party in these core seats. It is a bizarre truth that the Lib Dems might crash to 8% of the vote overall, and in many seats finish with less than 5% of the vote – but in a crucial 30 odd seats, sneak a win with 40% of the vote. That’s the constituency effect – as ABBA would have put it: “The Winner Takes It All.”

Now it is not the purpose of this particular post to visit the long-running debate on whether our present electoral system is unfair and should be replaced by a proportional system, as is used for devolved elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is simply to highlight that if you do vote for a particular party, it only impacts your given constituency – and even if a party is bombing nationally they still might pull out a strong local showing. I suspect this will contribute to a lot of disappointed voters based on current trends – imagine for example if UKIP and the Greens outpoll the Lib Dems, but Nick Clegg ends up choosing the next coalition partner because the Lib Dems have enough MPs to do so?

This is why my advice on making your own vote count is very simple – judge the incumbent MP. If they have done a good job, and you are happy with the party leader they would endorse as Prime Minister, vote to re-elect them. If not, then vote for the candidate who is best placed to defeat them. As I mentioned in my last post, you do not gain bonus prizes for voting for a different opposition party member. In much the same way, it doesn’t actually matter (directly – but I will revisit this!) if you decide to vote for the candidate who will finish 3rd (or 4th, or 24th) in the election. Your vote still won’t impact the final outcome, except to prevent the candidate in second from beating the winning candidate. Although you can vote expressively for a particular party I would encourage you to make your vote count – endorse your MP, or vote for the candidate most likely to hand them their P45!