Electoral reform: The battle for fairer votes begins here

Under PR, the Lib Dems would have won nearly three times the number of MPs. Iain McLean explains the visible and invisible causes of injustice that plague First Past the Post
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Indy Politics

One of the paradoxes of Thursday's election is that despite the Liberal Democrats doing less well than many expected, their influence on the politics of the ensuing few years seems likely to be greater than it has been for decades. Does this mean that we may be on the verge of altering our electoral arrangements just when the Lib Dems are licking their wounds in disappointment at their poor poll showing?

Disappointment or not, the system still needs changing. Many of the untenable properties of our election system remain as visible as ever, but some are less so. For a start, on Thursday night hundreds of people were unable to vote because polling station officials could not process the last-minute rush. In a country which used to call itself the mother of parliaments, that was appalling. The lame TV appearances of the chair of the Electoral Commission and the returning officer for Sheffield (scene of some of the worst chaos) did not improve matters. The process of recording votes would have seemed out of date to the officers of the East India Company in the Writers' Building in Calcutta in 1857. The UK needs an Electoral Commission that runs elections, not one that issues unclear guidance to harassed local government officers. It should employ election staff directly, and its chief executive must be answerable for future foul-ups. The Australians do this with model efficiency. We should hire the Australian Electoral Commission now, to tell us how to do it, not wait for a report from the seriously compromised UK Electoral Commission.

If the UK keeps single-member constituencies, it must also urgently overhaul the boundary-drawing process. The "new" boundaries on which we voted on Thursday were 10 years out of date when they came into force. That is ridiculous. It denies the principle of "one vote, one value": disenfranchising people in large and growing seats in favour of those in small and shrinking seats.

The Conservative manifesto addresses this, promising to bring in a Bill to reduce the size of the Commons by 10 per cent and to equalise constituency sizes. In opening the bidding on Friday afternoon, David Cameron mentioned this as an electoral reform that Conservatives and Liberal Democrats could agree on. Equalising constituencies, at least, can and should be done. But, along with other electoral experts, I warned the Conservatives before the election that it was not as easy as they seemed to think. Just below the surface, there lies a set of statutory Rules for the Redistribution of Seats that are not merely confused but actually, mathematically, contradictory. As philosophers like to say, from a contradiction anything follows. The rules must be rewritten by people who know some elementary maths.

What, then, about the single thing people mostly think of when they hear the words "electoral reform" – a change in the system for electing MPs? The arguments here are 150 years old and accordingly tired: each side cloaks its vested interest in claims of principle. It is undeniable that, as last week's results again show, the system is hugely biased against parties with an even spread of votes around the country.

That is why, yet again, the Liberal Democrats have won fewer than 10 per cent of the seats on almost a quarter of the votes. As of Friday evening, the numbers are: the Conservatives have 47 per cent of the seats on 36.1 per cent of the vote; Labour has 39.75 per cent of seats on 29 per cent of the vote; the Lib Dems have 8.78 per cent of seats on 23 per cent of the vote; other parties gained 4.47 per cent of seats on 11.9 per cent of the vote.

Thus both of the big parties get a seat bonus; all the others suffer a seat penalty, but the Liberal Democrats suffer a more severe penalty than all the others put together.

Before the election, Gordon Brown offered Alternative Vote, where single-member constituencies remain, but voters rank the candidates, and losing candidates are successively eliminated until one gets more than half the votes. This is not a proportional system. Some Liberals have signalled that they might accept "AV plus" recommended by Roy Jenkins in 1998. Here the disproportionality of AV would be modified by a small number of top-up seats to bring the result some way towards proportionality. AV plus is a less proportional cousin of the systems used in Scotland and Wales. It is also less proportional than the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system that is the Liberal Democrats' dream. Nevertheless, it might be an acceptable compromise between Lib Dem purism and old-party self-interest.

The post-election map also tells another story, with its uniform blocks of red and blue around England. Inner London, the other cities, and industrial Lancashire and Yorkshire are deepest red; most of the rest of England is deepest blue, apart from the blotchy yellow of the South-west. Parties with local monopolies of seats may pay too little attention to the large blocs of voters who do not support them in their heartlands.

Equally, it is undeniable that proportional representation is incompatible with single-member districts. MPs come in whole numbers. Unless, like Strephon in W S Gilbert's Iolanthe, they are half fairies, they cannot be Conservative below the waist and Liberal above it. Therefore, proportionality requires multi-member districts. There are many ways of achieving this, which I and co-authors have explained in a recent report from the British Academy Policy Centre.

This debate is so tired that it may seem to have no new angles. But it does. For one thing, let's look at the bias against the Conservatives in the present system. With a six-point lead over Labour in the popular vote, their lead in seats is much more modest. The pro-Labour bias is partly due to Labour winning in small seats and the Tories winning in large ones; fixing this is one of the unspoken purposes of the Conservative seat-reduction bill. But most of the bias does not come from this effect. It comes from the fact that voters behave differently in different sorts of seats. First, in safe Labour seats, they are much less likely to vote at all. Second, the Conservatives still suffer more than Labour from the Liberal Democrats. Therefore, the equal-electorate Bill will not eliminate the anti-Conservative bias in the system. Only proportional representation, which Conservatives bitterly resist, will do that.

In addition, almost all the discussions are about electing the Commons. But all the main parties promised an elected upper house in their manifestos. Labour and the Liberal Democrats agreed on how it should be elected: in large constituencies, by PR. Labour went further, proposing a scheme whereby upper-house members would be elected by thirds, with a single, non-renewable, fixed term. They would be elected in the 12 standard regions of the UK (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the nine regions of England), which are also the constituencies used in European Parliament elections.

We elect "Members of Parliament", not just members of the House of Commons. Parliament, to a lawyer, comprises three chambers: monarch, Lords, and Commons. If I had my way, I would elect the head of state as well, but I think I am in a small minority there. However, any serious electoral reformer needs to consider how the two future elected houses should be elected: not by the same system, not at the same time, and by a method which builds in the supremacy of the Commons. Labour's last-ditch conversion to an elected Lords meets these criteria. It would be interesting to get the other parties' considered reactions to it.

Iain McLean is professor of politics, Oxford University, and co-author of the recent British Academy report 'Choosing an Electoral System'

'Politicians, if they want to govern without disorder, must find a way to reflect majority opinion'

Anthony Seldon, Tony Blair's biographer

"I think [the result] shows extraordinary lack of justice in the electoral system that the Liberals can do so well in the vote but not have a commensurate number of seats, and that simply cannot carry on year after year."

Professor Ellis Cashmore, author of 'Celebrity/Culture'

"I'd been on the radio saying television has made the most dramatic change in the history of British politics and added a new catalyst to the political landscape, but of course it hasn't... I think people regressed back to traditional political traditions."

Lord Bell, former spin doctor

"There's no longer anything called the national opinion and therefore the politicians if they want to govern the country without disorder... are going to have to find a way of reflecting a collection of opinions rather than a majority."

Professor Robert Winstone, scientist

"I expected the Lib Dems to do slightly better but am pleased they didn't – actually, I think the election result is a good one. It shows that we have a very sophisticated electorate who saw that none of the parties was terribly convincing."

Billy Bragg, musician and activist

"If we end up with a fair voting system as a result of this election, then all this is worth it. Those individuals in places like Barking and Dagenham, who were potentially disenfranchised, have come out and voted and made a difference."

Sarah Beeny, property developer and TV presenter

"I can't believe that I am alone in feeling I am slightly floating around not knowing what I think really... What I think the message should be going out to the parties is... it's not the [electoral] system with faults, it's their parties at fault."

Lord Kinnock, former Labour leader

"It is apparent that there must be a sustained, mutual commitment to electoral reform and this must come from an agreement between parties... It [electoral reform] simply has to happen or we risk a fall further backwards towards disrepute."

Glenn Tilbrook, from Squeeze

"I think this two-party system is on its last legs and I was dreading a Tory victory... I believe there are an awful lot of people who are disenfranchised if their MP doesn't romp home, and I think it's time for that to change."

David Goodhart, editor 'Prospect'

"It [the result] is the most extraordinary raspberry blown to the entire commentariat, including myself... There remains a good case for a fairer voting system, but we haven't had the grotesque result that would've made the case more compelling."

Debbie Purdy, political activist, assisted suicide campaigner

"I think the British electoral system has lost its way in that we have had strong majorities, which do not represent the majority of the British people and I think that's demoralising for voters. Let's think what represents the people best."

Benjamin Zephaniah, poet

"I have been in Estonia... I had my voting card with me and the idea was I would land and go and vote... I have no problem saying I voted Green, but the irony was I was barging up the motorway [to arrive in time]."

Michael Cockerell, political documentary-maker

"My feeling is that the end result will be people's sense of national justice. If you gain 100 seats, the largest share of the vote, and you are kept out of government, then the public won't stand for it."