Democracy, Voting and Fairness: Take 2

The Election Result

The General Election 2015 is over. We’ve had the first few weeks of a new government which is so cock-a-hoop about its victory, it is rushing into all sorts of things that we’d probably wish they weren’t doing.

I have written before about the electoral system that produces unhelpful results; not because they return governments I don’t like – any system is well capable of doing that – but because they produce results that aren’t seen and experienced as fair by the voting public.

In a previous post, I looked at the results of the 2010 General Election. Here, I’m looking at some of the same analysis of the 2015 General Election. The key issue is: how fair is the result? How do we experience it?

Looking at the percentage of votes that a candidate got to win, the picture looks very similar to that in 2010. Lot’s of candidates won seats on less than even half of the votes in their constituencies. This is a situation that is made more significant with more than two strong parties competing.

Just about half of the votes are lost

The picture looks like this and compares with a similar picture in my previous post:

Votes won and lost 2015

This picture reflects votes won and lost by seat.

If this is averaged out over the whole of the UK, the picture is this:

Votes won and lost 2015 average

In other words, just about half of the votes cast were cast for people who didn’t win and who have no ability to influence the political process in Westminster. And therefore, 50 percent of the electorate could easily feel that they voted for nothing.

Some are more equal than others…!

It is, of course, never that simple. For the larger parties, for some, whilst they didn’t get the MP they voted for, they did see MPs of that party elected to Westminster and thus there is some sense that their views are reflected. This is not at all the case for the smaller parties.

This has been discussed in the media to some extent. But just to recap, here are two more graphs that illustrate this conversation. The first shows the notional votes per seat each of the parties who gained seats needed. This is fairly artificial number. It is simply the sum of votes each party received divided by the number of seats it gained in the House of Commons.

Votes per seat all

This graph shows that in particular, the Liberal Democrat Party, the Green Party and UKIP gained disproportionately fewer seats than the other parties. But this graph looks a bit as if all was fine for the other parties. By removing the three ‘outliers’ (the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and UKIP) from the graph, this idea can soon be put to rest:

Votes per seat part

On this scale, it is very clear that there are still real differences in the numbers of seats relative to votes each party received. And even for the Conservatives and Labour, there is still a difference. In number terms, the Conservatives had one seat for every 34k votes whereas Labour had a seat for every 40k votes.

So it seems to me that it is beyond doubt that there is something wrong with the system.

The Call for Electoral Reform

We have been here before, of course. And the call for electoral reform isn’t new. But this election – not least because UKIP had such a disastrous result (from their point of view – and please don’t take this as any form of support for UKIP policies from me) – it is now a mainstream discussion.

The Electoral Reform Society has been working on this for a long time. have a petition up to call on the government to bring this about.

But why does it make sense?

There is a broad misunderstanding, I believe, about what an MP is supposed to do. In this country – and I have to say that, coming as I did many decades ago, from another political culture this was a surprise to me – MPs are seen first and foremost as being there to represent their constituencies and their constituents. This means that they are supposed to take a fairly local view of political issues – even if those issues aren’t local in their nature; it means they are expected to do case work, supporting their constituents in battles with local authorities, housing associations, the health service and other service providers, government departments and probably many other issues.

This is all well and good. But politics, the day to day business of setting taxes, deciding on budgets, agreeing policy on welfare, the NHS, foreign policy, Trident or defence generally, and on the environment to name but a few, isn’t just about ‘how does that affect my constituency?’ It is also about what is the right thing to do for the country as a whole. And it is about what is the right thing to do from the perspective of our place in the world. For that, MPs have to be able to take a wider view. They should represent – together – the views of the electorate as a whole.

I have written elsewhere about the ludicrous position that government ministers and shadow ministers – though they are constituency MPs – are very curtailed in terms of how they can represent the views of their constituents if those views differ from those of the party they represent. That means that in those constituencies where the MP has a role in government or the shadow government the local population is even less well represented than if they aren’t. Not to speak of the constituency of the Speaker where the major parties don’t even put up candidates against the person identified beforehand as the Speaker of the House. So they don’t get any representation.

What could be the answer?

There are several different systems of proportional representation and the website of the Electoral Reform Society explains them in detail.

Suffice it to say that there is a system which is referred to as a mixed system. That is, some of the MPs (it could be half or more) are elected by the First Past the Post system for a constituency. This would be fewer MPs and thus fewer, somewhat larger, constituencies than we have now.

The other MPs (that could be half or fewer) are elected from party lists.

As a result, there would still be constituency MPs who preserve the direct relationship between the MP and the constituency; but there would be others whose role is far more to focus on broader policy issues without the constraints of having to look at everything from a local point of view. Of course, they would have complete equality in terms of their role in the Commons and soon everyone other than the constituents themselves would probably forget who was a ‘constituency MP’ and who wasn’t.

As it happens, this system is in place for the elections to the London Assembly. The system is called the ‘Additional Member System’. There are 14 constituencies (rather than the 73 for the House of Commons). The Assembly Members for these are elected by the first past the post system.

There are then 11 Additional Members elected via a list system.

This produces a fairer, clearer and more representative result. It could easily be adopted for the House of Commons. And before anyone say: well, London is smaller, it’s not a whole country, this system is used in Germany at Federal and Regional level and this has been the case since 1948. So we have evidence that it works.

Coalitions –  not always ideal but one way to focus on issues

It does tend to produce coalitions; and some may argue that we’ve had a barrel full of coalitions in the UK. But our experience of coalition government has been short, has been lived on the basis of it being an exception which everyone wanted to wish away and on the basis of the junior coalition partner being completely out of their depth in terms of negotiating their position. One swallow doesn’t make a summer; and one failed coalition doesn’t prove that coalition government doesn’t work.

What is good about coalitions in general is this:

It is much harder to stick blindly to ideology in a coalition because there are different ideologies represented.

That means, politicians have to actually look at issues rather than just pursue whatever they want to pursue, never mind whether it works or whether it is the right thing to do.

It means people have to compromise. It means people have to talk to each other. It means people have to find ways of resolving differences of opinion.

Wouldn’t that be a fresh breath of air in the Palace of Westminster?

It would also require a different debating chamber. Something in the round; something that has a seat for everyone who has a right to be there (at least all of the MPs); something that allows people to talk rather than to shout. We really do not need an aisle in the middle of our parliament that is the width of two swords!

About martinaweitsch

I'm interested in politics and rational political debate which isn't afraid of the facts or the complexities and contradictions inherent in most important issues.
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