We Need Proportional Representation 48

The current convulsion in our politics, and the meltdown in support for New Labour, will throw into sharp focus the risible unfairness of our electoral system. As a mechanism for representing the views of the British people, it plainly fails.

That is true in “Normal” times, where just 42% of the vote can hand a large majority in parliament to a Thatcher or a Blair. On the basis of this “Mandate” of a minority, they rule with breathtaking arrogance and utter disregard for the views of the majority who voted.

It is argued that this provides “Decisive” government. That is a misnomer. It provides domineering government with an inflated self-regard. It provides corrupt, inefficient, over-centralised and irresponsive government. For God’s sake, it provides the kind of crap governments I have suffered my entire life.

As New Labour goes into well-deserved meltdown, the inanities of our electoral system will become more apparent. You can find various swingometer predictive engines all over the web, but none of them copes too well with the effects of a three party system. Trust the back of my envelope instead.

New Labour benefits hugely from the concentration of its support into urban constituencies. A hundred of these rotten boroughs are virtually impervious to challenge. For the Tories to get a parliamentary plurality – more seats than New Labour – they need to get about 3 per cent more votes than New Labour.

But should the Liberal Democrats beat New Labour into third place at the General Election, New Labour will still on most scenarios get many more seats than the Lib Dems. If New Labour and the Lib Dems each polled 23%, at a general election, then New Labour would get approximately 80 more seats than the Lib Dems.

Get this – if the Lib Dems were to get 27% to New Labour’s 21%, astonishingly New Labour would still have around 40 more seats than the Lib Dems. In Parliament New Labour would still be the “Official Opposition”. with all the enormous privileges that postion brings over the third party.

In fact, you need a result which goes something like Conservative 41, Lib Dem 29 and New Labour 18 before the Lib Dems overtake New Labour in parliament and can become the official opposition.

Convinced of the case for reform?

There then comes the thorny question of which system should be adopted. I completely reject the AV+ system recommended by Roy Jenkins’ report, produced when Blair was pretending to be interested in constitutional reform. Any system which lets political parties decide the order of candidates on the “Party list”, and does not allow voters to choose between them, is Stalinist. We have this appalling party list nonsense in Scotland now, and the quality of list MSPs is abysmal.

I strongly favour Single Transferable Vote, as giving the most complete choice to the voter and much the best opportunity for Independents and small parties. Here, you have multi-member constituencies and a list of all the candidates. You rank them in order – 1,2,3,4,5etc, as far as you wish to go. So you can give your first prefence to an Independent, then a couple of Tories, then a Green, if they happen to be the candidates you like.

I support the Vote For A Change campaign, while having strong views on the direction I wish it to go. I rather liked this sentence from their launch statement:

Too many MPs seem more interested in changing their homes than changing the world.


Do sign up.

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48 thoughts on “We Need Proportional Representation

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  • Francis McGonigal

    There are a few comments about the ‘instability’ of governments allegedly caused by PR systems. I don’t actually accept this, but if you want the fairness of PR combined with stable government may I offer a solution? Direct election of the Prime Minister for a fixed term. The PM is thereby answerable directly to the voters.

  • MarkU

    I am mystified by some of the comments here that seem to be implying that STV returns more than one MP per constituency, in its simplest form it certainly does not. Neither is the basic STV system a form of ‘proportional representation’ although there are hybrid variants which are. The last thing that we need right now is a muddying of the waters, which would give the opponents of electoral reform a pretext to put the issue on the backburner for a few more decades using the argument ‘if people cannot make up their minds which system to choose, we should stick with what we’ve got’.

    I have been an advocate of STV for decades but an opponent of ‘proportional representation’ so I find the conflating of the two systems particularly galling. My main objections to PR are :-

    1) It entrenches parties even further into the electoral process.

    2) A proportion of our MP’s would be unelected wonks chosen from party lists (in the nightmare scenario the constituency MP’s deal with constituency issues while the unelected party wonks run the country)

    3) It is grossly unfair to those who would vote for independent candidates, their votes are treated differently to those who vote for parties.

    The basic STV system would allow people to vote for a party (however obscure) which really represents their views without the fear that their vote is wasted. STV would also be cheap and simple to implement; don’t believe their lies. Only the ballot forms and the subsequent counting process would have to be changed.

  • Anonymous

    STV would be ideal, but not with multi-member constituencies. I don’t think we want to go back to the old county MPs, and it’ll be hard enough to have accountability with 70-ish thousand constituents, as we see in America it’s impossible with more.

  • dreoilin


    Ireland has PR with STV in multi-seat constituencies.

    We have no TDs (MPs) who are unelected.

    Votes for independents are treated in exactly the same way as the rest. I have voted for independents who were elected — and played quite decisive roles in the Dail.

    I don’t “vote party” and never have. I vote for candidates I like and whom I think will be trustworthy and competent (unless their politics are anathema to me, obviously.)

    Sitting TDs (MPs) are in competition with each other in their performance on behalf of their constituents, whether it’s a three or a four-seater, or whatever. It seems to me that this must be a far better system when it comes to accountability at local level.

  • technicolour

    MarkU – can you explain how you see a “simple” STV system working, and how it would not elect more than one MP per constituency? The Electoral Reform Society’s version certainly advocates multiple representatives from re-drawn constituencies. Does your system not use the Droop quota? Because otherwise, if a candidate has reached the required quota of votes, and a second candidate, thanks to the STV, also then reaches that quota, that second candidate would be elected too. And so on.

    I ended up being rather in favour of the STV myself. Am still concerned that it would allow ideological fanatics a way into our parliament which they don’t have at the moment. Voters who might stick the BNP down as their third choice without taking it terribly seriously, and then find that they’ve actually elected them, for example.

    Look forward to hearing how your version works, though.

  • MarkU

    @ dreoilin

    Thank you for the information. I did a quick google search on ‘STV in multi-seat constituencies’ and it was quite interesting. I am however confused as to how we would introduce it in the UK, do we merge constituencies and turn them into multi-seat constituencies? or do we multiply the number of MP’s? (not a popular option I would imagine, especially at the moment) I’m not at all convinced that this is the way forward for the UK, our population being 15-20 times larger than that of Ireland.

    I think that it would be a mistake to baffle the UK public with a plethora of complicated alternatives, we need something that is to the point, simple, cheap and easy to introduce. Basic STV in single seat constituencies, while not ideal, would address the very negative tactical voting issue and facilitate future changes. IMO the window of opportunity is very small, the last thing we need is a multiplicity of splinter groups, each proposing their own idea of a ‘perfect’ system.

    Unless we stop the idealists and the saboteurs from complicating the issue then nothing at all will happen, its as simple as that.

  • Phil


    “Is it really worth allowing the ideologically mad into our parliament, in order to get this shower out?”

    Ermm, the current lot are amongst the “ideologically mad”, that’s part of the problem.

  • Gaelstorm

    I also say no to PR for Westminster.

    People will become even more sickened with the inequity of FPTP, thus bringing about the dissolution of the UK quicker

  • MarkU

    @ technicolour

    1) Voters list candidates in order of preference, stopping wherever they wish.

    2) All first preferences are counted, if anyone has more than 50% they have won, if not…

    3) The candidate in last place is eliminated, the second preferences of those who voted for the eliminated candidate are allocated accordingly. If someone has more 50% of the vote, they have won, if not…

    4) The candidate in last place is eliminated, their votes are then allocated to the next candidate on the voters list and so on.

    If all your candidates are eliminated so is your vote. Eventually only two parties will remain, the one with the most votes is the winner.

  • technicolour

    MarkU – I think that’s the system the ERS propose for electing a prime minister. I suppose it would work for parties, but essentially isn’t it still a first past the post system – ie the first person to 50 percent makes it? Still, interesting.

    Phil – I think they must be mad now: the cognitive dissonance for most Labour MP’s especially must be immense. But isn’t it a stretch to say that they’re as ideologically extreme as the white supremacists? Aren’t they mainly opportunistic cowards? (the same may apply to white supremacists too, of course). Afghanistan/Iraq didn’t happen because of any “ideology”, surely?

  • richard

    Gosh Chris is commenting on a post he didn’t read. Yes to proper Proportional Representation. The Jenkins AV+ system could be acceptable simply by making it “open List” i.e. the order of a party’s candidates is determined also by the voters’ preferences. But STV in Multi-Member-Constituencies is far the best. Jenkins, as a politician, proposed a system that preserved single-member constituencies not because he believed in it but because he knew it was necessary, then, to sell the thing to MPs. MPs always bang on about the delights of the single-member personal-link constituency. Well actually a voting system is supposed to give the Voters, not the MPs, what they want. Anyway, how many councillors complain at having to share their wards? About zero.

    Point is, I want to praise the virtues of the multi-member constituency. Almost every voter will be represented by an MP they voted for. If a constituent wants to complain about an injustice, the chances are very good they will find a sympathetic member in their own constituency. MPs and candidates of the same party have to compete with each other to give the best service, or represent truly the views of their voters of issues which divide their party. And multi-member constituencies can be real natural communities. Their boundaries can be exactly in line with local government boundaries (hardly any are under FPTP)and the shape of the constituency will only need to be changed about once a century. At present boundaries are changed about everey decade, and produce results that are chopped up little bits of various communities stuck together to make an arithmetical equality, an aim at which it drastically fails: by the end of the 10-year cycle, the largest constituency can be 500% of the electorate of the smallest!!! But the Multi-member need only have the number of members it returns adjusted up or down for changes in population. This can be done fresh for every election; say, one member per 100,000 registered electors as at the day the Writ is moved. The discrepancy between the proportion of MPs to electors is reduced to a maximum of about 5%.

    This is the best moment any of us have ever seen to get a reform of the voting system. Go for STV, go for Multi-member, go for it now!!

  • MarkU

    @ technicolour

    You are absolutely right, in its very simplest form STV is just a (greatly improved) form of the first past the post system. The main advantage of a basic STV system is that voters would be free to express their real preferences without feeling that they are wasting their vote. STV would give new parties and independent candidates a fighting chance. As it stands, at the next election, millions of people are going to reluctantly vote for New Labour or the Conservatives in an attempt to keep the other party out of office.

    One more thing, like it or not, a PR system would definitely result in a significant BNP presence in parliament.

  • punkscience

    STV is clearly the most fair voting system. However, simple electoral reform will leave the second house still stocked by political appointees, partisans with deep pockets and religious nutcases. Real democracy requires every persons vote to be wielded according to their individual desires. Elected representatives are always open to abuyse and manipulation by special interests. If we deploy direct democracy along the lines of the Swiss Model then each citizen has the power to wield their vote over any parliamentary issue, regardless of the stance of their representative. Political representation should be optional, NOT mandatory.

    Citizens should also be required to register their political position in elections. You can abstain or draw willies on your ballot paper if you want but it is your responsibility to society and democracy to actually do so. If you want to do it on line or by postal ballot or if you believe the only viable way of doing so is by requiring people to visit an electoral station personally- I don’t care: The point is that that is how it should work.

    Applying those Direct Democracy and the STV to elect both Houses of government is the only honest way to operate a democracy.

    Lobbying should also be regulated.

  • Gerard Mulholland

    MarkU at June 2, 2009 7:29 PM – “Basic STV in single seat constituencies, while not ideal, would address the very negative tactical voting issue and facilitate future changes.” MarkU there’s no such thing as STV in single seat constituencies. What you describe is called Alternative Vote and the national result (ie in Australia where it’s used for the lower House) is no more proportional than First Past The Post. STV in multi-member constituencies has been used in both parts of Ireland for 90 years. If the Irish have no problem understanding it and using it, why on earth do you think the Brits would be to confused to get the hang of it? It would take one day for the Boundary Commission to join constituencies together in groups and allocate the seats according to the size of population. One day. And the result is proportional, ties MPs to the voters rather than to the parties, and gives stable government where once there was bitter division. Why on earth are you hesitant?

  • Chris


    Have you come across Arrow’s Theorem ? It demonstrates that no voting system can convert the ranked preferences of individuals into a community-wide ranking while also meeting a certain set of reasonable criteria with three or more discrete options to choose from. It is notoriously hard to construct provably fair voting systems. The wikipedia link even shows (in the “Interpretations of the theorem” section) a set-up whose outcome under STV you wouldn’t like.

  • MarkU

    @ Gerard Mulholland

    Thank you for the correction regarding terminology, I will use the correct term from now on. I would however point out that I made no claims regarding proportionality, rather the opposite.

    It seems that I have failed to get my point across. I am not advocating ‘alternative vote’ as the best system, in fact it may well be the least satisfactory system advocated on this thread. What I feel you are failing to take into consideration is the issue of implementation. A government elected under the current system has no incentive whatsoever to reform our electoral system, quite the reverse. Even if the government in question had agreed in principle to electoral reform, there is nothing to stop them from stonewalling the process during the implementation phase. Anything which can be quibbled about, will be quibbled about. Study groups, committees and sub committees will be set up. ‘Consultations’ will occur, ‘proposals’ will be ‘examined’ and of course all the competing proposals will have to be costed out. And how long is all of this deliberately obstructive wrangling going to take? As long as they want it to thats how long!

    The advantage of the alternative vote system is that could be brought in tomorrow, virtually cost free (its just a different way of handling the ballot papers if you think about it) and it is so devastatingly simple that there are no pretexts for delays in implementation. Personally I don’t regard the alternative vote as a final system but rather as a step in the right direction.

    Just in case you are not convinced regarding the quibble factor, perhaps you could answer a few questions about multi seat constituencies.

    Are we going to multiply the number of MP’s (not exactly a popular option at the moment I should think) where are they all going to sit? Do we really want to pay for an extra couple of thousand salaries and second homes (not to mention duck islands and moat clearance) Perhaps we are going to merge single constituencies into much larger multi-seat constituencies, keeping roughly the same number of MP’s. Which constituencies should be merged? Perhaps a study group should be set up to examine the issue, it shouldn’t take more than a few years to get some preliminary proposals on the table. How do we decide on the number of MP’s allocated to each constituency? by the number of registered voters or by gross population? I am sure that arguments could be advanced to support either position. Wouldn’t the super-constituency model mean that many voters would have to travel large distances to talk to an MP? look I am just one guy writing off the top of my head, a large proportion of MP’s are/were lawyers, they quibble for a living. Not only do you seem to expect the turkeys to vote for Christmas, you are also expecting them to organise it.

    I hope this clarifies my position.

  • Nick H

    I’m currently working on a workable electoral system that will still have link to constituencies, but only if the voters in that constituency decide by an absolute majority. The problem with FPTP is that the large parties warp their policies towards swing voters in a handful of marginal constituencies, which is ultimately unrepresentative of most voters in the country. PR would mean that big parties would have to appeal to a larger section of the electorate. I’d avoid having STV as the essential simplicty and effectiveness of voting is that the one choice that the voter makes. Having several just muddies the waters. The voter themselves must make the crucial, definitve choice once.

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