Election thoughts: part 2: two cheers for PR

More thoughts about the election…

Two cheers for PR;

or, Robin Hood and the Labour Party

The question of PR is suddenly relevant for two (closely related) reasons:

First, the Lib Dems are doing much better than usual, and PR has been one of their policies for ages.

Second, the fact that they are doing so well means that the mismatch between vote-share and number of seats is likely to be much more glaring this time than at any time in the past, including 1983. It is still not impossible (certainly if you look at the BBC’s uniform national swing votes-to-seats calculator) for the situation to arise where the Labour party comes third in terms of vote-share but first in terms of number of seats in the House of Commons.

This would be a very odd situation, and the fact that the third party could come first, combined with the fact that almost whatever happens the Lib Dems will get a share of seats which is much less than their share of the vote, gives a very strong argument to those who would like voting reform.

In fact the disproportion is of two different kinds, only one of which is about the difference between first past the post and alternatives.

The first is that the Lib Dems are and will be hugely under-represented in terms of their vote share. This is a consequence of first-past-the-post. Coming second in every constituency in the country gives you no MPs at all. The Lib Dems suffer because they are too universally popular: they would do better if (like Labour and the Conservatives) their vote was more unevenly spread. The 2005 map is very clear: with some exceptions, the Conservatives have rural England and smaller English towns, while Labour have the cities of the midlands and the north of England as well as Wales and Scotland, and London is split. Liberal voters rarely make up the biggest section of any constituency, so they are under-represented in parliament.

The second reason is that it has been too long since the boundaries have been redrawn. This accounts for the imbalance between Labour and Conservative, which is less great in percentage terms than the under-representation of the Lib Dems, but might be enough to decide the next government. This has happened because people are moving across green belts from urban constituencies to rural ones. Consequently, English rural constituencies have more voters in them than urban ones, and English rural constituencies are overwhelmingly Conservative. So a million votes for the Conservative party produces fewer MPs than a million votes for Labour. This is why, if the Conservatives and Labour had identical shares of the national vote, Labour would be way ahead on seats and likely to form the next government. In practice, I suspect that this tendency is even worse news for the Conservative party than it sounds. Where a household moves from city to country (because they want a bigger house or garden or feel that a smaller town or village will be better for the children in some way), that household is likely to be wealthy and home-owning. In other words, the adult members of it are likely to vote Conservative. But if they move from a wealthy suburb into the countryside, it is extremely likely that they are moving Conservative votes out of a battleground seat and into one which is safely Conservative anyway, where their votes are effectively wasted. In order to win, the Conservatives need seats in the wealthier suburbs of e.g. Birmingham and Manchester, and it doesn’t help if their own voters are heading out into (e.g.) Bromsgrove or Eddisbury, where the Conservatives will win anyway. This is not an argument in favour of abandoning first past the post: it’s an argument in favour of redrawing the boundaries more frequently.

The under-representation of the Lib Dems, however, is a pretty strong argument. Strangely, it isn’t the only one being made. The Lib Dems, and Labour as well, are touting changes to the voting system as if they were a solution to the problems caused by the expenses crisis (Labour is offering AV, i.e. ranking of votes first second third: not a proportional system, but the point is to make Labour appear the natural choice for a coalition with the Lib Dems). This is bizarre. In fact, first-past-the-post is perfectly designed for punishing errant MPs. It’s simple and brutal: if the electors decide that they don’t want the MP to continue to represent them, and do so in sufficient numbers that that MP no longer gets the largest number of votes, then out (s)he goes. Remember Neil Hamilton… On Friday morning, we will find that some MPs in seats previously thought of as safe will have been replaced in the same way, because the electors disapproved of their excessive or deceptive use of the expenses system. Because the vote is cast for an individual and only for an individual, the present system is well suited to this. Lots of people (myself included) have previously voted in a way which is largely or partly focused on the record of the MP in question. In 2005, I lived in Golders Green in North London. Like many on the left (and not only on the left), I was furious about the Iraq War. I also had no desire to contribute to the return of a Conservative government (not least since, let’s not forget, the Conservative party voted for the war, while the majority of Labour MPs voted against). Because the election in the constituency was a choice between individuals, I was able to look up the individual MP’s record, and found that Rudi Vis (now about to retire) had voted against the war, and that helped me to decide how I wanted to vote. (I was also perhaps influenced in a partisan way by the fact that the same constituency had been represented by Margaret Thatcher: it gave me a warm feeling to think that it was a Labour seat…).

Where the voting system includes lists from the parties in order to make up the imbalances of the percentages in first past the post, as in elections to the Scottish parliament, that ability to make judgements about the behaviour of individual MPs is at best weakened, and at worst removed altogether.

In fact, the expenses problem has been solved anyway, by virtue of the fact that expenses now have to be published. The best way to make sure that the Hon. Member for Puddlebury South is not charging the taxpayer for bathplugs or duck-houses or her husband’s porn consumption is to make sure that her expenses are guaranteed to be published in the Puddlebury Gazette, and this is now the case.

But this was not a good enough political answer. Something must be seen to be done. PR has nothing to do with the problem, except that it fits nicely into this climate by means of the politicians’ syllogism:

Something must be done.

This is something.

Therefore, this must be done.

Again, most of us would like our MPs to be accountable in a fairly direct way to people in their own constituencies, and lot of people think that it’s a good thing for MPs to rebel against their parties from time to time. Consider the two following exchanges:

Option 1

Scene: the tea room in the Palace of Westminster

Mr. G. Nasty (Labour Chief Whip): Ah, Robin. I’d been meaning to have a word about tonight’s vote. I know it’s a difficult moment for us, but these are dangerous times. Saladin is a bad man, Robin.

Mr. R. Hood (Labour, Sherwood Forest): I know that, Guy. But there are plenty of bad men around… Why do we have to attack Saladin now?

Nasty: These are dangerous times, Robin. Did you read King John’s crossbow dossier?

Hood: I did. It’s not nice reading. But let’s be honest, we all know that the Middle East is a nasty place. Saladin isn’t the only one, after all. The Syrians have crossbows. The Turks have crossbows. I read in the Guardian last week that even the Knights Templar have crossbows, and the Pope has a secret plan to let them use boiling oil as well. Why Saladin? Why now?

Nasty: Saladin’s a dangerous man, Robin. The King has thought about this very carefully. We need your support. Think of all the good things the government has done already: free dung, only capital punishment without torture for poaching, tax credits…

Hood: I know that. I voted for them. But I don’t think I can vote for this crusade…

Nasty: Don’t call it that!

Hood: … this war. Nobody likes it in the forest, you know. When I walk along Sherwood High Street, nobody wants to go to war.

Nasty: Come on, Robin. The anti-war people make lots of noise, but my feeling is that there’s a quiet majority that understands that the king can’t take any chances with security. I know Sherwood. It’s a good Labour area. People don’t want the government to look weak. Do your constituents want to let the Sheriff of Nottingham back in?

Hood: Of course not…

Nasty: Perhaps I should have a word with your constituency chairman… How do you think he would feel if I told him you were voting against a good Labour government?

Hood: Guy, you can’t have been in Sherwood for a while. You talk to Little John if you want, and he’ll tell you what’s going on. Maid Marion’s joined the Lib Dems. The Stop the War group is meeting in Friar Tuck’s church. All the moors in the forest have started following some idiot called George of Galloway who thinks he’s going to lead a Peasants’ Revolt. I think John will tell you exactly where to put your crossbow dossier. There’s no way I can vote for this war, and I can tell you that the constituency party is right behind me.

Nasty moves on to try another member…

Option 2 ends differently

Scene: the same

Nasty: The thing is, Robin, that the East Central branch of the party National Executive sub-committee (Lists) is meeting next week.

Hood [turns pale]: Really?

Nasty: Really. Baron Mandelson is in the chair. He’s been very worried recently. You see, the party needs its majority. People in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire voted for our regional list because they want Labour members supporting a Labour government. They all remember the Sheriff of Nottingham… It’s very important for Peter to have people on the list the King can rely on. I think it’s important to remember, Robin, that the King takes reconstruction of the Holy Land very seriously indeed. If we support the Pope he will listen to King John and make sure that we rebuild Jerusalem after we flatten it. You won’t be doing anybody any good by leaving it up to the Pope to invade by himself… And remember: with all their experience at Offa’s Dyke, our troops are much more skilled at shooting peasants in a humane way. We really need you with us, Robin. I do hope I can tell Peter you’re on our side.

Hood [gulps nervously]: Mmm. I see what you mean, Guy. After all, reconstruction is very important, isn’t it?

Nasty: I’m so glad you see things our way.

So, there are plenty of reasons why we should be cautious of PR. The trouble is that we want the voting system to answer several questions at once: who will represent us in parliament and be accountable to us as constituents? what will be the balance of parties in the Commons as a whole? and who will be the next government? First past the post is a good way of answering the first question. But unfortunately it is consistently very bad at answering the second, and in some circumstances (circumstances which may well apply tomorrow) it isn’t very good at answering the third in a fair way either…


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