Tuesday, April 27th, 2010 10:16 pm
'It’s called “democracy”, and I kind of like it.' – Nick Clegg, party conference March 2010

Electoral reform is surely a idea whose time has come, and Liberal Democrats are no longer lonely voices in the wilderness calling for it. The surge in Liberal Democrat support over the past fortnight has left the very real prospect of Labour getting fewer votes but more seats than the Lib Dems. The inequality had been apparent for some time before that, of course, but it seems as though as long as the parties came in in the right order, no one much minded.

The voting system isn't the only thing that needs changing, though. The British public is highly disenchanted with its MPs, mostly as a result of the expenses scandal. I admit that I think the disenchantment is out of proportion to the offence; certainly there were some egregious examples of abuse coupled with some ‘dog ate my homework’ levels of excuses, but the majority of MPs did little or nothing to criticise, and our government is not vastly more corrupt than others in Europe. That said, there are still severe problems inherent in the system, and we the electorate are right to be angry about the abuses that did happen and sense of entitlement that prevailed. Lib Dem blogger Mark Thompson was the first to spot that the likelihood of expenses abuse correlated well with the safety of the MP’s seat. Correlation is not causation, of course, but in this case it makes sense to me that the safer an MP's seat, the less that MP feels themselves under the scrutiny of the electorate.

The Liberal Democrats' proposal to instigate a recall scheme for MPs will help with this. But far better is to reduce the number of safe seats in the first place. And we'd do that by getting rid of the current First Past The Post (FPTP) system and replacing it with a proportional one.

Of the non-FPTP systems, my preferred choice is Single Transferable Vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies of between four and six MPs. In STV, you number all the candidates on your ballot paper in order of preference continuing until you no longer care. If your most preferred candidate isn't elected, your vote is redistributed to your second choice, and so on. This makes it more likely that one of the candidates you've expressed a preference for is likely to get elected, and means that even if you mark your first preference for someone who doesn't get elected, you haven't 'wasted' your vote.

(An STV count is actually a bit more complicated than this makes it sound, usually involving fractional votes being passed around; I can elaborate in comments if asked.)

The other key point of this system is the 'multi-member' aspect, which is the one that delivers some semblance of proportionality. STV in single-member constituencies is known as 'Alternative Vote' or 'Instant Runoff', and tends to provide poor proportionality (as, obviously, does FPTP). If you only elect one MP per constituency, then the electoral 'view' of that constituency will be of a single party, no matter how the votes split. With five MPs, there's more scope for reflecting the diverse voting intentions of the voters across the constituency. A solidly Labour constituency may still return a block of five Labour MPs, but one in a more diverse area might return three Labour, one Lib Dem and one Conservative.

From the point of view of proportionality, an ideal at one extreme would be to treat the UK as a single massive constituency with 650 members, but this has disadvantages depending on how you do it. If you just make it a vote for parties rather than candidates, then your ballot paper is a lot shorter, but that means that party MPs are chosen from a list that the public doesn't get to vote on. This encourages candidates to curry favour with the party hierarchy rather than the voters. And if you make it a vote for candidates themselves (note that nobody would seriously propose doing this UK-wide), the ballot paper gets unmanageably long, and voters are likely to recognise only a fraction of the candidates on the list.

I prefer the compromise (and it is a compromise) of the multi-member seat approach. This allows voters to vote for individual candidates rather than parties, but keeps ballot paper length down to a manageable size. A constituency of between four and six MPs seems about right to me; the constituencies would be proportionately larger, so we're not talking about suddenly quadrupling the number of MPs here. (As it happens, we want to reduce the number of MPs overall by 150 as part of this process, so the constituencies would be slightly larger still.) Furthermore, this keeps at least some semblance of a regional link between MPs and their voters, with the advantage that most voters are now likely to be represented by at least one MP with views that reflect theirs.

A further advantage of multi-member constituencies is that parties can – and usually do – put up more than one candidate. This means that the electorate can choose to vote out an unpopular MP from a party even if they support the party in general. I don't want to over-sell this, mind you. Parties still have strong control over who gets to stand as a candidate, and it's unusual for a party to field many more candidates than the seats they're expecting to win. However, choosing between candidates in the same party is still more possible with multi-member constituencies than with single-member ones, which makes 'safe' seats a lot less safe. Yes, you may be standing as a Tory in a seat that's elected a Tory since Victoria was on the throne, but you're probably standing against three or four fellow Tories. At least some of whom may not have used public money to renovate their gatehouse. As a bonus, this system also makes it more possible for well-liked independent candidates to stand and be elected.

If STV proves to hard to sell to a hypothetical hung parliament, we may end up with 'Alternative Vote Plus' (AV+) as a system. This is the system recommended by the Jenkins Commission in 1998 and appears to be the one currently favoured by Labour. In this system, the bulk of the MPs are elected by AV in single-member constituencies, but they are 'topped up' by a set of candidates elected in regional blocks to make the final result more proportional. The system under consideration doesn't guarantee proportionality (there are too few extra MPs for that), but their notional order on the party lists will at least also be chosen by the voters rather than the public. I strongly dislike AV+; I feel that it's overcomplicated and does nothing well that STV doesn't do better. However, it is a viable alternative with a lot of support, and I have a instinct that it may be easier to sell to the public. Still, STV is my favoured system, and that of the party, too.

One consequence of a more proportional voting system is that locally popular candidates from smaller parties will find it easier to get elected, and yes, that includes the BNP. It's not a happy thought, but I firmly believe that if a large enough number of voters turn out to vote to elect a BNP MP, then the solution is not to disenfranchise them, but to offer them a better alternative. By that, I don't mean 'another racist party that's a bit fluffier', but 'a non-racist alternative that addresses their concerns'. The vast majority of BNP voters - as opposed to activists - vote BNP as a form of protest vote; Lib Dems in Burnley have had great success fighting them on this basis. (Historically, we haven't always done this well; the Liberals in Tower Hamlets would be a poor example to follow, for example.)

Voting reform is a long-standing pillar of Liberal policy, but it's by no means the be-all and end-all. We're also proposing fixed-term parliaments, lowering the voting age to 16, and replacing the House of Lords with a smaller, fully-elected upper chamber. We're also in favour of capping donations to political parties, limiting the ability of any one individual or organisation to buy influence at the party level.

We would also seek to introduce a written constitution and, in a bold if impeccably democratic move, we wouldn't impose this from above. The constitution would be drawn up in a citizens' convention with a majority of people drawn from all across the UK and all walks of life, and once agreed the constitution would be subject to a national referendum. Democracy; I like it.

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