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Why Mr Corbyn is Wrong About Voting Reform

December 19, 2015

Jeremy Corbyn is an inspiration and a symbol of hope to many, if only because he refuses to accept the message of despair, implied in the narrative of permanent austerity and ever increasing inequality. This is the reason why the majority of his parliamentary party hate him so much. But he is not Jesus Christ; he is a man. He is not perfect and I hope he has the humility to recognise it; I think he has.

He is in favour of reforming the voting system, but I believe he is wrong about the system he advocates. He insists on retention of the ‘constituency link’; fair enough; but he thinks it means choosing a mixed system (either the Additional Member System or Alternative Vote plus; I am not clear which). But there is another system which preserves constituency links, namely the Single Transferable Vote (STV).

The Weimar Republic illustrated the failings of a pure party list system; there was a proliferation of parties  represented in the Reichstag and a lack of leadership. After World War II it was realised that there needed to be a constituency link and so a mixed system was devised which is now referred to in Britain as the Additional Member System (AMS). In this system around half the members of the Bundestag are elected by ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) in single member constituencies, but voters also vote for a party. Additional members are elected from party lists, the number elected being such that in a particular province (‘Land’) the total number of members elected is proportional to the party vote in that Land. However even with equal numbers of constituency and list members it is possible for a party to gain more constituency members than its total entitlement. The German system has measures to deal with this ‘overhang’ and to restore proportionality. Germans clearly take proportionality very seriously; it is implied in their Basic Law. The basic law did not define a mixed system; in fact in the first Bundestag election in 1949, the system used had to be agreed by heads of government of the German states (mostly now provinces ‘Lander’).

Meanwhile in Britain and elsewhere in the English speaking world, things had developed rather differently. The terms Proportional Representation and Single Transferable Vote had been virtually synonymous. The Electoral Reform Society had adopted STV as the best system within a year of its formation in 1884. It is used for all elections in the Irish Republic, in all elections except for Westminster in Northern Ireland, for local elections in Scotland, for Senate elections in Australia, and for all elections in Tasmania.

The change came with the publication in 1976 of the report of the Hansard Society’s commission on Electoral Reform. The commission decided firmly that there should be electoral reform and homed in on two possible systems. The first was STV – no surpise there, but the other was something they called the ‘Additional Member System’. This was similar to the German system in that there were to be constituency members elected by FPTP and ‘top up ‘ members. However it differed in three crucial respects:

  1. ‘Top up’ MPs would make up just a quarter of the total, rather than a half as in Germany. The system could not be fully proportional; there would be no provision for correcting for ‘overhang’.
  2. Voters would have just one vote which would be counted as both a personal vote and a party vote. In Germany (from the 2nd Bundestag election onwards) voters have had separate personal and party votes and sometimes vote for a person of different party than their party vote.
  3. List candidates would be resticted to those who were also standing for a constituency seat. Instead of parties ranking candidates in order of preference  candidates  would be placed in order according  to their performance  in the constituency  elections.

All but one of the commission preferred this system to STV, though no cogent reasons were stated. The recommendations concluded with the following words, “We would conclude  by emphasising  that our basic  recommendation is that  there should be electoral reform. Whatever arguments  there may be about  the systems  we have described,  these should not be allowed  to obscure  our fundamental  and unanimous  decision.”

Subsequently Hansard AMS was widely criticised. It was said for example that list members would be elected as ‘best losers’. The versions of AMS implemented for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assemby and Greater London Assembly did not include items 2 and 3 above, though the top up is less than 50% and there is no correction for ‘overhang’. This suggests that the system was cobbled together rather quickly.

Some years later, James Knight, who along with many other people and organisations had given evidence to the commission, told me that the inclusion of AMS in the final report had come as a complete surprise. Those who gave evidence had thought it was a straight choice between sticking with FPTP and moving to STV. They were not able to comment on AMS. Why the last minute introduction of a completely new system? I won’t repeat James’ comments but it would seem it was developed to address MPs’ opposition to radical change. This is just one example of MPs’ attitude to democracy; their convenience trumps the common good. It does not occur to them that it should be the people who decide how they should be elected.

MPs set great store on the relationship of a single MP with his or her ‘own’ constituency. MPs when elected typically go on about how they undertake to serve all their constituents regardless of whether they voted for them. If this meant anything an MP ought at least be able to listen to a point of view with which he or she disagrees, to understand it and give a rational response. If a constituent has a personal problem he or she must feel the MP can be trusted. Too often this is simply not the case.

Under STV we would have larger constituencies – as far as possible reprsenting natural communities, and typically returning four MPs. Voters would have the choice of whci MP to approach. On certain issues, MPs of different parties in a constituency would have some interest in co-operating – a very welcome change in culture.

Those who advocate AMS should define what they mean. The German system would be highly proportional but constituencies would be twice as big as under FPTP. The Scottish Welsh and London Assembly systems are not fully proportional.

All systems of PR other than STV deliver more power to the party. In the case of the Conservatives this in practice means more power to big business and media moguls, more power to manufacture consensus. In Britain in the age of heavy industry Unions acted as a reasonably effective counterweight. With changes in the economy solidarity has reduced, and has allowed governments to weaken union rights. Peaceful protest has its limitations. Many people who vote conservative do so against their own interests, and I would suggest against their basic instincts of fairness. If there were a voting system in which voters could influence what sort of candidate got elected, governments might have to listen to the people. That system is STV. Corbyn is trying to listen to people. He really should consider STV.

 

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