“No Government undertakes Reform Bills if they can possibly help it. It is the most ungrateful and difficult task with which any Government can be confronted” - Walter Long
[British InterParty Conferences (1980) by John D Fair]
[The electoral system in Britain since 1918 (1963) by D Butler]
The referendum next Thursday provides a once in a generation (if not a once in a lifetime) opportunity to reform the UK's political process.
The proposal is to change from ‘First Past the Post’ – FPTP – to ‘Alternative Vote - AV
The inadequacies of FPTP have been recognised for more than a century; reform has proved elusive.
We should grasp the opportunity for the modest improvement afforded by this Referendum.
There is ample evidence that change is required:-
* The disillusion with political process following the MPs' expenses scandal;
* Reducing turn-out at elections
* Reducing membership of political parties
Prior to the May 2010 General Election David Cameron was unequivocal on the issue:
Fixing Broken Politics 26/5/09
‘ ..anger at the expenses scandal is just the most forceful expression of a deep frustration people feel with our whole political system.
‘It’s a system in which too much power is concentrated in the hands of the elite and denied to the man and woman on the street. We’ve been seeing the symptoms of that for years. Decisions made behind closed doors. The Houses of Parliament bypassed and undermined.
‘Money buying influence. Too often just an elite few choosing the people who become MPs for many years. We can’t go on like this.
‘We’re just weeks away from an election. This should be the highest point in our democratic life – but never has the reputation of politics sunk so low. We’ve got to fix our broken politics and we’ve got to start fixing it now. The question is: who’s going to do it, and how are they going to do it?’
this political crisis shows that big change is required.
We do need a new politics in this country.
We do need sweeping reform.
Through decentralisation, transparency and accountability we must take power away from the political elite and hand it to the man and woman in the street.
The opponents of AV claim that it will lead to more coalitions with policies decided after the ballot rather than strong government following election of a Party with a defined manifesto.
However, consider the UK's economic performance since WW2; despite the huge endowment of North Sea oil it compares very unfavourably with that of similar nations: France, Germany - or even Italy.
Much of this relative decline is clearly attributable to the major policy swings from Left to Right and back again associated with the extremes of the two party system: "we have a manifesto commitment".
It should also be noted that the leader of the Conservative Party is selected in a series of votes until the winner gains at least 50% support of the voters. This is effectively the AV system.
The same procedure was adopted last year to select some Conservative Parliamentary candidates in ‘Open Primaries’.
AV has been used effectively in Australia since 1918; despite the allegations of the No-sayers the system remains popular.
1909 Winston Churchill on FPTP (as a Liberal)
‘The present system has clearly broken down. The results produced are not fair to any party, nor to any section of the community. In many cases they do not secure majority representation, nor do they secure an intelligent representation of minorities. All they secure is fluke representation, freak representation, capricious representation.
- Response to a delegation from the Manchester Liberal Federation 25 May 1909
1910 Electoral Commission
A Royal Commission of 1909-10 [Cd 5163] unanimously recommended the AV system for the House of Commons.
‘The Alternative Vote.
Second ballot is the usual method for determining an election when three or more candidates stand for one seat, and its advantages are obvious, because it prevents the election of a candidate who is voted for by a minority of the actual voters. Our present system—also the rule in the United States and in nearly all the British Dominions—which only allows one ballot, forces compromise before the election, or splits between the various groups or parties which support the ministry or the opposition, with the result that the seat may go to the most solid and not to the most numerous section. The presence of an active and important third party in English politics, the Labor Party, makes some form of second ballot imperative. The alternative vote here proposed is strongly advocated by the Royal Commission appointed to enquire into Electoral Systems in their Report of 1910, signed by Lord Richard Cavendish, the Hon. W. Pember Reeves, Sir Courtenay Ilbert, and others.’
1917-18 The Representation of the People Bill
included proposals for STV and AV following a Speakers Conference of January 1917 which recommended STV in urban constituencies returning 3-7 MPs and AV in rural single member constituencies.
The Bill passed all its Commons readings but was blocked by the House of Lords.
At this stage, Winston Churchill, as a Liberal, supported the proposal.
1931 Representation of the People (No. 2) Bill
In January 1931, the minority Labour government, then supported by the Liberals, introduced a Representation of the People Bill that included switching to AV. The Bill passed its second reading in the Commons by 295 votes to 230 on 24 February 1931 and the clause introducing AV was passed in the committee stage by 277 to 253. (The Speaker had refused to allow discussion of STV.) The Bill's second reading in the Lords followed in June, with an amendment replacing AV with STV in 100 constituencies being abandoned as outwith the scope of the Bill. An amendment was passed (by 80 votes to 29) limiting AV to those constituencies in boroughs with populations over 200,000. The Bill received its third reading in the Lords on 21 July, but the Labour government fell in August and the Bill was lost.
Hansard: debate c. 7hours
The Secretary Of State For The Home Department (Mr. Clynes) moving the 3rd Reading
’The Bill marks a definite step in the establishment of democracy on a surer and broader basis … by the device of the Alternative Vote, which endeavours to secure that Members are not returned to this House against the wishes of the majority’
Winston Churchill (as a Conservative)
‘I should greatly have preferred the method of Proportional Representation to the method of the Bill’
‘If the Government reject Proportional Representation, I think … the next best method is the second ballot.’
‘It would have been a wise and prudent feature in our constitution if a substantial proportion of the constituencies voted a few days later in the light of the situation resulting from the first ballots. All the more is this true when such enormous masses of voters are attached to no particular party, and when vast numbers of electors take little or no interest in public affairs, when they have to be almost dragged out of their houses to poll, when millions of people treat the whole process on which the Government of the country rests with indifference’
‘The plan [AV] that they have adopted is the worst of all possible plans. It is the stupidest, the least scientific and the most unreal that the Government have embodied in their Bill.’
1998 Jenkins Commission Report
‘The Labour party has had a commitment to hold a referendum on electoral reform since 1993, when John Smith promised one in the first term of a Labour Government. The manifesto did not give a timescale for the referendum, but the joint Labour/Liberal Democrat Joint Consultative Committee on Constitutional Reform which reported on 5 March 1997 committed both parties to a referendum in the first term of a new Parliament.’
‘Its report in October 1998 recommended a mixed system, of 80-85 per cent of the Commons to be elected by the Alternative Vote in individual constituencies, and the remaining 15-20 per cent by means of a party list- to be known as Top Up members.’
‘The Commission .. concluded that there was no perfect system: STV required very large constituencies; AV on its own was not proportional; party lists could not offer the same type of constituency link, would be likely to lead to long-term coalitions and were open to manipulation by party bureaucracies.’
Feb. 2010 Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill – 4½ hours
Feb. 2010 House of Commons Library Briefing Paper
The Economist is also conducting a debate
Hansard Society: The 8th Audit of Political Engagement
The report shows that while last year's momentous political events increased the public's interest in politics to a record 58%, there was no matching rise in political or civic activity. Beyond voting, people were no more likely to get involved or participate in politics than they are in non-election years.
‘Despite very mixed views about the advantages and disadvantages of the Alternative Vote (AV) system, most who took part in our research discussion groups said that, if they vote, they will likely support a change in the system. This was not because of particular dissatisfaction with First Past the Post. Rather, their dissatisfaction with the current system of politics, with MPs, Parliament and government was such that almost any change was preferable to the status quo.’
‘Despite an increase in perceived knowledge of Parliament, fewer people are now satisfied with it (27%) than at any time in previous Audits (36% were satisfied in Audits 1 and 4; and 33% in Audit 7). The level of ‘dissatisfaction’ is broadly consistent with previous years. Rather, the change can be discerned in the number of people – a third compared to around a quarter in the last Audit – who say they are ‘neither satisfied nor dissatisfied’ with the working of Parliament’
Speaking about our electoral system in 1909 Winston Churchill said: "The present system has clearly broken down. The results produced are not fair to any party, nor to any section of the community. In many cases they do not secure majority representation, nor do they secure an intelligent representation of minorities. All they secure is fluke representation, freak representation, capricious representation."
The same could be said today. In the 2010 general election the largest party was the Conservatives which, with 36.1% of the vote, got 47.1% of the seats and no overall majority.
Contrast this with the result of the 2005 general election when Labour, with 35.2% of the vote, got 55.1% of the seats and a majority of 66 seats in parliament. Labour's share of the vote in 2005 can be compared to the support enjoyed in past elections by losing parties.
Attlee's share of the vote in 1955, when Eden's Conservatives won a majority of 58 (comparable to Blair's majority in 2005), was an amazing 46.4% and Attlee lost the election. Of course, in 1955 there were effectively only two parties fighting the election.
A study of the results of general elections over the last hundred years shows that there is no correlation between the percentage of votes a party receives and the percentage of seats it gets in the Commons. You might as well toss a coin for determining who should form the government. The present system can be seen to be rotten.
Because of our electoral system the political parties are only interested in the ten per cent of constituencies which are marginal and of those only the ten per cent who are floating voters. In other words, they are only interested in one per cent of the electorate because they are the ones that determine the results of the election. (The IPPR think tank assesses these swing voters at 1.6% of the electorate. Lewis Baston describes them as the 'ruling minority'). It is because the two main parties concentrate on this narrow focus that their policies converge.
Our three main political parties in the last election concentrated on what the focus groups were telling them the one per cent wanted. The other 99% were ignored, so even though a majority of the people wanted a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, none of the main parties gave them one. Even though a majority of the people wanted the troops brought home from Afghanistan, none of the main parties offered them that. Even though a majority of the people do not believe in man-made climate change and the subsidies that go with it, none of the main parties offered to scrap the subsidies. This cannot be right. When political parties spend their time and energy on just 1% of the electorate voters feel that democracy has died.
As a method of election First Past The Post (FPTP) is broken. It is not fair. It is time to change. What are the arguments in favour of FPTP?
It gives strong government. Yet we have had minority or coalition governments in 33 out of the last 100 years including at those times when we needed strong government most of all - the two World Wars and the great economic depression of the 1930s. You can add to these critical times the world economic crisis we face today.
It enables an electorate to kick a government out. Yet only once in the last 100 years has a government with a working majority been replaced by an opposition with a working majority. The only time this happened was in 1970 when Harold Wilson lost the election to Edward Heath. In most cases change takes place over three parliaments.
It is our tradition. History shows that this is not correct. We had proportional representation in the university seats up until 1950. Up until 1884 we had multi-member seats and we had those for over 600 years. It is FPTP which is the newcomer, and it was only brought in because the political parties found it easier to control candidates and to manipulate the results. The political parties started seriously organising in the 1870s.
In the referendum we will have a choice between FPTP or the Alternative Vote (AV). One great advantage of AV is that every vote will count so this should increase turnout. Another advantage is that two thirds of the seats will become marginal. This will force the political parties to address the concerns of the majority of the people rather than those of the one per cent. This will stop the practice of one man, Lord Ashcroft, financing 100 Conservative marginal seats and the trade unions doing the same for Labour. That has to be good for democracy.
AV is used to elect party leaders. It is used to elect the Speaker of the House of Commons. So MPs do not oppose AV on principle. Preferential voting was used to elect the leader of the Conservative party. Why? Because when you get over 50% of the vote it gives you legitimacy. We want the same legitimacy for members of parliament.
In 2010, in terms of votes per MP, Labour had 33,370, Conservatives 34,940 and the Liberal Democrats a massive 119,944. Even worse than the Liberal Democrats were Ukip, which got no seats in spite of receiving 920,334 votes. By contrast the Democratic Unionists only needed 21,027 votes for each of their seats.
Our parliament is supposed to be a representative democracy, but it is not representative of women. It is not representative of ethnic minorities. And it is not even representative of our political parties.
Our electoral system is morally bankrupt, so let the people decide.