23 May 2010

What is PR? Are Lib Dems selling out?

This blog covers the different forms of proportional representation (PR) - but you can also learn more on Friday at the Coffee House Discussions which will be on PR...What's the point of PR? What are the different kinds of PR? What would be best for us? What should we do now to get the change we want?

Photo: Packing the poster boards away for the next election

You can listen and join discussion (Sponsored by the Green Party but all folks invited) - complete with drinks and delicious cakes at Star Anise cafe (behind the Old Painswick Inn), Gloucester St., Stroud, on Friday, May 28th from 7.30-9.30pm. Speakers include Molly Scott Cato, the national Green Party’s economics adviser, who will describe the different options for proportional representation and Mary Southcott, Deputy Chair of the Electoral Reform Society. Other Coffee House discussions here.

I have already expressed concerns about the Lib Dems giving in regarding proportional representation - see blog entry here - you can also see Stroud's Molly Scott Cato's look at the Cabinet here - and here a film by John Cleese and another much earlier film here released in 1987 on Proportional Representation by John Cleese.

The Take Back Parliament campaign and demonstrations have delivered clear messages to
the Liberal Democrat/Conservative coalition government that plans for a referendum on Alternative Vote do not go far enough - and only a system of real PR will satisfy the need to empower voters.

The Tories position to me is untenable - how can they believe in an electoral system whereby the majority of MPs, about 450 of them in this election, are not elected by a majority of their respective constituency valid votes. Mind it is equally odd that the party which believes in proportional representation is exercising more power than is its proportional due!

Jean Lambert, Green MEP for London was a key speaker at the demonstration, said: “Once again, this election demonstrated the fundamental flaws of the disproportionate first-past-the-post system. It was an election fought at the marginal seats, where the majority of voters were disempowered, and as a result we got a government that did not reflect how the electorate voted. This must not happen again. The next General Election must be under a fair voting system. People must be free to vote positively – for what they really want. That would be real political change. Yes a referendum on electoral reform is a step in the right direction but we need to go further, we need a system in which every vote has equal power and equal value and we can only achieve that through true proportional representation.”

With those comments in mind I am adapting below work by Molly Scott Cato on voting systems - Molly gives some useful insights - indeed the vast majority of the stuff is hers but any mistakes can be blamed on me!

Voting Systems: A Brief Guide

The issue of how to translate our votes into representatives at Westminster is going to become a subject of increasing discussion over the next few months. This is a short guide to how we might think about choosing a system, and what the options are.

What electoral systems do

The first important lesson is that there is no one best system. What you are seeking is an electoral system that is appropriate to your setting. That means the type of election (local council, Westminster, school governers’ board, etc.) but more importantly the country and its political culture. In the Lebanon or Northern Ireland the priority is containing tensions that could spill over into civil wars. In Israel or Ireland avoiding instability in a fractured political culture is most important. In the UK at present, introducing a system that would allow some real change rather than the traditional see-saw feels like the priority.

Beyond this there are four potentially conflicting objectives of an electoral system:

Stability: making sure you have a political system that can make decisions effectively and hold authority, so no repeat collapses of government or political inertia as in Italy or Weimar Germany.

Moderation: you may want to prevent radical extreme views from undermining the political system.

Representation: your system should translate votes into power in a proportionate way so that, as far as is possible, every vote counts.

Relationship: ensuring that there is a person you trust who you can approach with your personal political issues, as in the UK constituency system.

The different systems described meet these objectives more or less effectively. Which we choose for the UK depends on how we want to balance these objectives. A point should also be made about what is called the ‘threshold’. This is the percentage of the vote you need to receive to achieve any level of representation in the parliament. An effective threshold is just the proportion represented by one seat, e.g. in a parliament of 100 seats you need 1% of the vote to get one seat. But other countries use a threshold as a barrier before allocating seats proportionally, perhaps until you reach 3% or 5% of the vote you will not be allocated seats even if you deserve them on the basis of the calculations. In Poland and Germany the threshold is 5%; it is 2% in Israel and 10% in Turkey. The threshold is introduced to satisfy the moderation criterion.

It is also important to remember that the explanations that follow are about the principle of the system. There are a variety of ways of calculating the outcomes mathematically—rather like the way you work out who has won a drawn cricket match.

The systems on offer

Graph from Guardian v useful article here that sadly missed the Additional Member System favoured by Greens

Party list systems (as used in UK European elections and indeed the most popular among countries using PR). The parties select as many candidates as there are seats and you choose a party. Seats are then allocated proportionately according to votes cast. The effective threshold depends on the number of seats available. In the UK European elections in the South-West is was around 11%. As the number of seats in the voting area increases the threshold comes down. Lists can be open or closed—if they are open voters can order party’s candidates on the list according to their preferences as well as choosing their party of preference.

Last year saw the Green party in fourth place in the South West in the European election. Greens got 9.3% of the vote, ahead of Labour's 7.7%. Green candidate Ricky Knight narrowly missed out on being elected as the region's first Green MEP, missing the sixth available seat by 12,070 votes (0.8% of those who voted, or 0.3% of the electorate). The two highest Green polling areas in the region were a 15.7% in Bristol and 15.6% in Stroud. The two Greens that were elected were Jean Lambert in London and SE with 10.9% of the vote and Caroline Lucas in the SE where Greens received 11.6% of the votes ie 271,506 votes beating Labour, who received just 192,292, into fifth place. For a brief guide to the European Parliament go here.

Additional Member System (as used for the Scottish and Welsh parliaments). Under this system you vote twice: once for a person and then for a party. It relies on multi-member constituencies. A proportion of the seats in the parliament are not filled by individuals but topped up from party lists based on the whole area, to achieve proportionality. Favoured by the Green Party for UK national elections.

Single Transferable Vote (used in the Republic of Ireland and for local elections in Scotland). In a system based on multi-member constituencies, voters rank candidates according to their preferences (1, 2, 3 etc.) and do not have to do this according to parties. There are various methods of allocating seats following these votes. Candidates achieving a certain proportion of the vote (quota) are automatically elected, with all their second (surplus) preferences then being distributed to other candidates. On other counting methods the lowest-ranked candidates are eliminated and their votes transferred. Since the aim is to reach an overall quota, the system favours moderate parties and thus is strong in terms of the moderation criterion rather than the representation criterion. Favoured by the Liberal Democrats.

Alternative Vote (used to elect the Australian parliament). This system is based on constituencies and is a majoritarian system as we have now but with less wastage of votes. When you vote you are presented with a list of candidates and you rank these in order of preference. If one candidate gets 50% s/he is automatically elected. If not, the votes for the candidate with least votes are allocated according to the second preferences indicated by the voter. This process is repeated until a candidate reaches 50%. It scores well on stability and representation but is not a proportional system.

This modest reform that looks like it has support from the coalition for a referendum would have given the Liberal Democrats just 22 more MPs and no change to smaller parties.

AV+ System (alternative vote with continued constituency link: as proposed by Roy Jenkins for the UK but never actually used anywhere). The system is a combination of the alternative vote and additional member systems with single-member constituencies with only the top-up happening at county or regional level. It is an attempt to achieve (limited) proportionality without losing the relationship and stability benefit of the FPTP system. Recently favoured by the Labour Party.

Plurality systems. As in our first-past-the-post you have to get the majority of the votes in a single constituency to win. This can result in some highly unproportional outcomes but scores highly on the stability and relationship criteria. These are very rare on an international basis and are usually brought in to deal with a catastrophic history of electoral instability. Favoured by the Conservative Party.

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