Electoral Reform

Posted on Tue 11 May 2010 by alex in general

I know I planned to stop writing about politics post election but as things aren't quite decided yet I find I'm still thinking about it.

One of the more common statements coming from people wishing to see Labour somehow continue in office is that 52% of the population voted to keep the Tories out. By the same logic 59% voted to keep Labour out and a whopping 65% voted to keep the Lib Dems out. If you wanted to descend into absurdity you might claim that 124% of the population would be unhappy with a Lib/Lab pact. This is the problem with attempting political divination about the will of the electorate based on the current electoral system.

A vote should always be a positive thing: "I believe in Candidate X and the policies they stand for". However in the current setup too many people feel they have to vote for candidate they dislike the least of the two likely to win. If enough people do this the actual real will of the electorate is distorted by expediency.

The Tories have as I hoped they would but feared they wouldn't offered a referendum on election reform. The reform they are suggesting should be the subject of the referendum in the Alternative Vote. The system neatly eliminates the dilemma of tactical voting by allowing voters to rank their candidates in order of preference without worrying about their support for a potential minority candidate allowing someone they object to getting in. It's about the least proportional of the potential PR reforms but it does favour the smaller parties (like the Lib Dems) who often get squeezed by votes for the major parties. It also makes it easier for independent candidates to build up a mandate over several election cycles. To me it also communicates more information from the electorate so it would be possible to divine the left/right leaning credentials of middle of the road voters*.

If I were Nick Clegg I'd be taking that deal in a heartbeat. Realistically a coalition with the Tories has far more chance of getting stuff done than the proposed "progressive alliance". Any such alliance would be one or two heart attacks away from losing a majority. My personal worry is such a beast would do nothing about sorting out the deficit especially as the nationalists have stood on a platform of preventing cuts to public service in their own countries.

Other proportional systems are available including AV+ which uses party lists (albeit directly voted ones) to adjust for share of the vote. The Lib Dems favoured reform is Single Transferable Vote which is similar to AV but requires super-constituencies of multiple candidates to spread the votes around so there are no "wasted" votes. It also breaks the direct link between constituency and candidate which I think is a bad thing. All in all I think the proposed AV system is a good system even if it's just a stepping stone on a longer** term migration to more proportional systems. One thing I would like however it the addition of Re-open Nominations so a constituency really can reject all candidates if offered a very poor choice.

* A massive simplification of the Lib Dems being somehow between Labour on the left and Tories on the right. Never the less I do contest there are plenty of Lib Dem voters who are for economic radicalism, small government and greater localism.
** Maybe in 2-3 more elections time when we've allowed AV to bed in and see what it's like.