Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday, 12 June 2009

MPs cannot be allowed to prevent electoral reform

I am a big fan of This Week. I always try and watch it and have generally been very impressed with Michael Portillo in the last few years. He seems to have his finger on the pulse of most political issues. That's why I listened with particular interest last night when the discussion was about electoral reform.

Portillo seems to be under the rather odd impression that anything except the First Past the Post system is crazy. He was arguing that the only reason the BNP got MEPs was because of the "crazy" PR system. Andrew Neil tried to press upon him that it might be the fact that almost a million people voted for them but he was having none of it.

I am very disappointed with how unwilling the political old guard are to engage with the idea that FPTP might not be fit for purpose. We are a much more pluralistic country now than we were 50 years ago and our electoral system just does not reflect that.

Another thing that really hit home with me was when both Portillo and Diane Abbott talked about the political reality of getting a referendum on electoral reform through the House of Commons. They are both clearly of the view that irrespective of whatever Gordon Brown or Alan Johnson might wish to happen, many Labour MPs and virtually all Tory MPs would be against such an idea, thus they would not even allow a referendum on it.

This has had me thinking even more deeply about this issue. I have heard people say what I am about to say before but the whole expenses debacle brings it home even more clearly.

MPs as a group cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of democracy or of the country when it comes to the system that is used to elect them. They have too much vested interest in the existing system. Whatever they might say, they have already proved themselves incapable of doing what is right for the country/taxpayers with the expenses debacle. They were in charge of their own system of claims and remuneration and it is now abundantly clear that it was stacked massively in favour of them being able to claim almost anything they liked to their own personal advantage. They came up with all sorts of arguments against changing the system for years and years, tried to cover up the truth of what was going on and the only reason things are now changing is because all the information got out into the public domain. Now all political leaders and virtually all MPs accept it has to change and they could not, after all be trusted.

Exactly the same situation applies to the electoral system for the House of Commons. the First Past the Post system is completely unfair. It allows governments to be formed with 55% of the seats on 35% of the vote. It disenfranchises millions of people across the country. In fact the only people who really count at election time are the 100,000 or so swing voters in the marginal constituencies. I am afraid that having listened to the arguments from the MPs who are opponents of electoral reform they are mostly spurious and designed to fit into neat soundbites that can be used to shoot down the arguments of reformers without properly engaging with the issues.

What is missing from the debate on electoral reform is the sort of huge spasm of revulsion that the expenses scandal has caused. That is why the parallels between the two situations need to be highlighted at every opportunity.

Why should we take MPs at their word that FPTP is the right system when it massively favours many of them and effectively gives them tenure for life? They are in complete control of the terms and conditions of their own employment. They have already proved that they cannot be trusted when it comes to deciding these sorts of terms.

The solution is for a citizens convention populated by ordinary people chosen in the same way as juries are chosen (but with more than 12 members) who are given the time and space to look at all the different systems and come to a conclusion about which is the best one to change to. This can then be put to the country in a referendum. I favour Single Transferable Vote but I am happy to go with whatever the convention chooses.

I repeat, we should not trust MPs as a group to do what is right for the country on this issue. They are only human and they have too much of a vested interest in the current system. the time has come for this to change.


Wayne Lawrence said...

I've been having the same thought process.

Also agree on Portillo on This week last night. His whole premise is that PR allows extremists in.

Never mind the fact that folks actually voted for them, there is the inconvenient fact that though FPTP may keep out extremists, it will also keep out totally virtuous smaller parties. On that basis, FPTP is indefensible.

The self interest is palpable.

Joe Otten said...

With AV, of course, the BNP would lose most of the seats they have been winning under FPTP.

Voter said...

I watched This Week. A discussion programme, it tries to go beyond just repeating the party line.

I suspect that Mr Portillo was thinking of elected people as "good eggs" and thus any system that lets in people like the BNP is to be rejected.

I would like him to move to regarding elections as producing representatives, not saints.

There is also a big difference between getting into a Parliament and getting into power.

It is important to keep the BNP out of power but we are nowhere near a Hitler situation.

The current situation is like a duopoly (noted by Polly Toynbee).

This does not give political parties much incentive to change policy to keep up with the electorate.

My preferred system for Westminster would have the proportion of MPs corresponding to the vote share.

neil harding said...

mark, we have a big problem, how can we force MPs to change the way they are elected? I also think we need legislation to open up party democracy.

Anonymous said...

"""The solution is for a citizens convention populated by ordinary people chosen in the same way as juries are chosen (but with more than 12 members) who are given the time and space to look at all the different systems and come to a conclusion about which is the best one to change to. This can then be put to the country in a referendum."""

The problem with that solution is that MPs would have to agree on it. As you point out Labour and the Conservatives benefit from FPTP so are unlikely to want change.

However, there is hope. In the last nationwide election, most voters (56% of them) voted for someone other than Labour or the Tories. Many of these votes were protest votes, but the majority of them voted for parties that they believed in.

All these voters voted for parties that're underprepresented in the HoC because of FPTP. All these voters therefore have an interest in getting rid of FPTP and replacing it with a PR system such as AV+ or STV.

If all these voters could get together and run a joint candidate in each constituency, they'd win by a landslide. But they can't get together because they represrent different parties with widely different views.

So what they -- the Lib Dems, UKIP, Greens, SNP, PC, English Democrats -- should do is form a grand coalition of electoral reform, which will (1) provisionally choose a PR system, perhaps AV+, (2) set up a citizens' convention which will decide these issues in the long term, (3) immediately hold another general election.

Tory Outcast said...

The argument was not well done by Portillo I admit. You cannot subvert democracy because you do not like the choice of the electorate.

However there are strong arguments for FPTP that should not be ignored. Having a specific MP to represent you has many advantages and means you can vote on the person as well as the party as opposed to most PR systems which hand the choice to the political elite. Perhaps open primaries would be worth considering to improve this benefit before we jump straight into PR.

As far as "disenfranchising millions across the country" I accept this is a disadvantage but it is based on the assumption that people only vote so their candidate wins.

If this were true nobody would vote for anybody who didn't have at least some chance of winning. If an MP sees more people voting for another party (particularly a one issue party) in his constituency he is likely to attempt to push that agenda more in the commons to win them over. Any MP with half a brain (not all of them I admit) will not ignore a rival's policies entirely just because they didn't win with them.

Equally even in many "strong" constituencies there is still a chance (even if you can't get your first choice to win) to rally behind the closest rival to remove the incumbent. This sort of negative accountability is the most basic form of democracy that is the least any citizen should have. It is one that would be lost by most party chosen list PR systems

If PR is chosen by a fair and considered process then I would accept it but if history has taught us anything it is a lesson about the dangers of massive reform in the wake of a single crisis.

Mark Thompson said...

Tory Outcast -

As I keep finding myself having to say, I do not support list PR. I agree that would not be a good system. I support Single Transferable Vote in Multi Member constituencies which has all sorts of positive features and is roughly proportional.

I agree that there is a chance that MPs may push issues that they think will win them more votes but frankly with two thirds of MPs in safe seats the effect of this is greatly blunted. With STV, there would be no safe seats and there would be a real incentive for MPs to engage with what their constituents wanted. Instead of representing the party's best interests they would genuinely have to take their constituents views into account. Danial Hannan has talked about this a lot recently although he does not advocate STV (yet, but his friend Douglas Carswell is advocating it).

Your comment about there being the possibility of voters rallying behind the closest rival in a seat is one of the worst things about our current system. Why should a voter have to tactically work out how to get rid of an MP by voting for someone they did not actually want to vote for? This is disenfranchising, and it often doesn't work anyway. I do not see this option as a good thing at all but as a horrible compromise that some feel compelled to do by the rotten system we currently have.

As for your final comment about not wanting to reform in a crisis, well I am afraid that it is never the right time to seriously look at reform for the two big parties as they have too much vested interest in the existing system. As so often with our unwritten constitutions, It will take a crisis to result in any change. I am not saying this is the best way to do it, but given Labour and Tory intranisigence on this it is probably the only way it will ever happen.

Joe Otten said...

And of course none of the Tory arguments work against AV. The only Tory argument against AV is David Cameron himself. David Davies would be the leader under FPTP.

Mark Thompson said...

Indeed Joe. Coincidentally I have posted about that curious fact myself this morning.

Oranjepan said...

It's the old authoritarian argument for strong leadership.

But what good is strong leadership if it leads to bad outcomes?

I don't understand why Portillo is arguing this line and being disgusted at the choice of the electorate for a couple of extreme authoritarians - not only does he clearly not trust the public but he sets himself apart from the rest of the people. At times like this Portillo is completely incoherent.

Tory Outcast said...

Apologies, my previous comment was slightly rushed. I was trying to make the point that FPTP has merits and should not be cast off because one person made a bad argument for it.

As I said I am open to a change in system although I do prefer FPTP. STV would probably be my second preference as it were.

However there are arguments for and against any system (scroll down on the link Mark posted) and these should be considered.

Equally I think (although it is not particularly fair) the fact that FPTP has at least worked for hundreds of years is a point to be counted in its favour and replacing it without fully considering the ramifications of this action could be very dangerous.

If the electorate as a whole as well as perhaps a body such as the jury which mark suggests concludes another system is preferable and practical then I would not be opposed to its implementation.

From my point of view however it would probably be a disappointment that the FPTP case would be made by people like Portillo who can only muster "stop the BNP"esque arguments.