A realistic look at electoral reform has to start from a number of premises, most of which are fairly obvious, but need to be thought through.
First, judgments about appropriate electoral systems involve issues of principle, but also of pragmatism. Systems that work well in some circumstances do not work well in others. It is not enough to cite examples of systems which succeed in delivering stability (such as Germany) or which fail to do so (such as Belgium) and assuming that they would produce the same result here. Nor can we assume that the system which has generally worked pretty well for us in the past will always continue to do so.
The main advantage of first past the post is that it tends to produce clear majorities for a single party. As has been just reinforced, this is not guaranteed. The fact that clear majorities have been the norm in the past does not mean they will be so in the future. It is possible that we have moved on a long-term basis, into multi-party politics. In these circumstances first past the post can produce anomalous results not just in terms of the opposition – as in 1983 – but in terms of the government – as in 1951 and February 1974. The differences between the current hung Parliament and the 2005 result, when Labour won a clear majority with a smaller percentage of the vote and a much smaller lead over the opposition, is cause of concern.
Another advantage is that preserves a clear relationship between a single MP and a single constituency. There are clear advantages to this in terms of accountability. On the other hand, we know that some members are much more dedicated constituency MPs than others. Some are, frankly, lazy and others have different career paths. It is arguable that many voters would be better served in multi-member constituency in which they could choose to approach for help any one of several members: a dedicated constituency member rather than a government minister; one whose party they support rather than one they don’t; or simply one they find sympathetic to their cause.
One final issue to consider, especially in the light of recent Parliamentary scandals, is the effect of the electoral system on corruption. Here, first past the post has a distinct advantage over other systems. As long as it tends to produce clear majorities for a single party (something which is not guaranteed) it gives the electorate the option to throw the rascals out. When a government falls in the UK every single government minister is evicted from office. That did not happen even once in the first fifty years of the German Federal Republic, though it has happened twice since then.
However, first past the post has a weakness too in this regard too. There are numerous seats which are extremely safe for one party or another. If an individual member in such a seat is unsatisfactory, it is very difficult for the electorate to eject that member. Parties can keep in office people that the electorate dislike, perhaps for very good reasons, by finding them a safe seat. In this regard, pure proportional representation – the list system that Britain uses for European elections – is much worse. People at the top of the list are generally guaranteed election whatever the outcome of the poll, which is hardly a good way of punishing personal corruption. Indeed, the French National Front has been accused of literally selling a position near the top of its European list on one occasion, to a spy for Ceausescu’s Romania.
The only way of allowing the electorate the opportunity to punish individual malefactors is to let them choose between different candidates of the same party. This is compatible with first past the post – think here of the American system of primary elections – but is integral to the Single Transferable Vote system used in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
Another factor to consider is that Britain does not have an American-style separation of powers. Quite simply, our general elections are designed to do two things: choose a government and choose a legislature.
My second premise is that the different purposes of our election put different pressures on the system. The principal advantages of first the post – a clear outcome and single member constituencies – apply to choosing a government, but have no real relevance to choosing a legislature. There seem to be no advantages in principle of first past the post for European elections, though the particular electoral system which Labour brought in, against the preferences of all other parties, is one the worst in terms of giving the electorate flexibility and choice.
This, then, offers on possible route through the morass, which would enable Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to reach a compromise. Conservatives could offer the Liberal Democrats something which is, arguably, a better deal than Labour’s AV+ while nonetheless preserving the advantages of first past the post.
My suggestion is this: a reformed upper chamber, elected using the Single Transferrable Vote (the Lib Dems' preferred system) while preserving first past the post for electing the Commons. This would be combined with an adjustment to the powers of the Upper House. In terms of legislation, this new upper chamber would have an absolute veto instead of a mere delaying power, but the vestiges of the Lords’ powers with regard to the budget and holding the government to account would be abolished entirely. This would mean that voting for the Commons would be the only thing that mattered in terms of choosing the government – and the advantages of first past the post would be preserved for this purpose.
Such a reform would be a significant reduction in the power of the Commons to create legislation based on minority support in the country. This is a good thing. Ultimately, laws put our liberties on the line. A party with only 35% support – as Labour had in 2005 – had no mandate for a compulsory ID card scheme which could, in the extreme scenario – have seen people imprisoned for breaching a policy which 65% of the electorate voted against. Creating new laws is something for which there should be a significant consensus.
The business of governing, however, has to continue whatever the outcome of the election. And absolutely no-one in any serious position of power suggests proportional government, with cabinet positions allocated to all parties proportionally. It makes sense for the government, generally speaking, to be in the hands of the most popular party. The alternative is at least some cabinet positions being held by a less popular party. In terms of the current situation, a minority Conservative administration was opposed by 64% of the electorate. But a coalition would install, presumably as Home Secretary, the leader of a party opposed by almost 80% of the electorate.
Could a divided system, with different mandates for the different chambers, actually work? I believe so, given that the chambers would have clearly different roles. A government with a majority in the Commons but not in the Upper House would be guaranteed its budget and its survival (assuming party discipline remains intact) but would not be guaranteed its legislative programme. An obvious difficulty here is that the legislative programme is often essential to the business of governing. Take the privatisations of the 1980s, for example. These would not have been approved by a proportionally elected upper house.
But, then, most of those businesses would never have been nationalised in the first place if there had been a powerful, proportionally elected upper house. Or, at least, they would not have been nationalised by legislation. The Attlee government would have been forced to buy shares on the open market – shares which the Thatcher government could have sold. Governments would be able to exercise executive action as long as they maintained the support of the Commons, but could not introduce coercive legislation without some wider degree of consensus.
By way of reference, here is a summary of the main electoral systems:
First past the post: members chosen by a plurality in individual constituencies. Advantages: in a two party system, it tends to produce a clear majority for one party; single member constituencies; clear changes of government. Disadvantages: members and governments can be elected on a very small share of the vote; most popular party generally wins, but not always.
Proportional representation: sometimes used as a generic term for some form of electoral reform, but only the list system is truly proportional.
Regional/national lists: Voters choose a party, which is then represented in mathematical proportion to its support. Advantages: Parliament replicates the views of the electorate. Disadvantages: gives huge central power to the parties; normally creates permanent coalitions; electorate may not be clear who will govern; back room deals; guaranteed representation for minority parties such as the BNP; with regional lists, size of the region is key to proportionality: for Europe, Labour created the smallest English region (North East) in its area of highest support and the largest (South East) where it is weakest.
Additional Member System: single members in (slightly larger constituencies) topped up by regional or national lists. Advantages: preserves the single member constituency with the advantages or the list system. Disadvantages: preserves the single member constituency with all the disadvantages of the list system.
Alternative Vote: preferential voting in single member seats; members need 50%+1 to be elected, after the least popular candidates have been eliminated. Advantages: every member has the support, or at leas
t acquiescence, of 50% of voters. Disadvantages: not really proportional, in fact it can be heavily biased towards centre parties; promotes the least unpopular rather than the most popular.
AV+: Additional Member System with Alternative Vote in the constituencies. Advantages: may require a smaller list element than straight AMS. Disadvantages: still has all the problems of list systems.
Single Transferable Vote: Voters choose preferentially in multi-member constituencies (usually 4-6 members). Each constituency will normally return one or more members from each of the stronger parties. Advantages: no lists, voters can choose between candidates of the same party as well as between parties; empowers voters, not parties; no safe seats for unpopular members; usually fairly proportional, but not to the extremes of the list system. Disadvantages: larger constituencies, but much smaller than the huge regions of the list system.