Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Fisking the Working Class Tory on FPTP

Working Class Tory has written a post today where he tries to argue that the expenses scandal has actually strengthened the case for First Past the Post.

It's not often when I see a bullet pointed blog post where I disagree with every single bullet point but with this one I do. I thought this merited a quick fisk:

Something you don't hear too often is that the expenses scandal has strengthened the case for the First Past The Post system of voting (our present one), which it undoubtedly has.


If an individual MP has committed an offence, you can get rid of him/her. How is it that the voters of Luton South now have the choice of Esther Rantzen's sham campaign? Because she can go and appeal to the 75,000 or so constituents (please excuse the back-of-a-cigarette-packet arithmetic, based on voter turnout in 2005), and ask them to vote specifically for her. Not on any lists, but one vote, for one candidate.

There are two things to note here. Firstly, it is not at all easy to get rid of sitting MPs who are in safe seats. The example of Martin Bell in Tatton in 1997 is often cited but Labour and the Lib Dems stood aside for him which is very unusual. The distortions of FPTP militate against change in all but the most extreme circumstances. How many independent MPs have we had in the Commons in the last 50 years for example? Hardly any. Secondly, WCT is using the usual canard that Proportional Representation must mean a list system which of course it does not. The system most serious electoral reformers advocate is Single Transferable Vote in multi-member constituencies which is much more open in terms of candidates than FPTP and allows parties to run multiple candidates in constituencies.

It keeps a link between you and your local MP. Yes, MPs got out of touch, elevated from their constituents by an arrogant sense of self-importance, as shown with the ludicrous expenses claims and the wilfull ignorance towards the wishes of their voters. However, this is not going to happen for a long time - Expensesgate was the watershed. For about a generation, MPs are going to be held under breathtaking, but necessary, scrutiny, and will not be allowed to be self-serving party robots.

STV would keep the constituency link but it would be even better because the voter is much more likely to be able to be represented by an MP that are of the party they voted for, unlike at the moment where there is a less than 50% chance of that happening. As for the charge that we will no longer have party robots, in two thirds of commons seats it is extremely unlikely that the MP will lose their seat as they are "safe". Therefore their loyalties lie with their party who put them in the safe seat, not the voters who the MP knows will re-elect them time after time. Therefore it will be party that comes before constituents in their considerations helped along by the whipping system.

It keeps the nutters out. Let's stick with the example of Luton South. Luton South is a classic example of a "bellweather" constituency - it has elected an MP of the winning party since 1951. In other words, it's also a seat you need to pick up if you're going to win nationwide. So there aren't massive majorities. That means fewer votes here can win than in, say, Camberwell & Peckham. Margaret Moran got 16,610 votes in 2005, out of a 38,918 total, or 42.7% I reckon turnout will be higher in the next election, by 10%, give or take 2%. Let's suppose that Luton South will have a turnout increase of 15%, because of its marginal nature. Again, back-of-a-cigarette-packet stuff, but if we suppose the turnout is now 43,000, and 42% is the amount necessary for a candidate to win, they require just over 18,000 votes. Now, I don't believe that at General Election time, any constituency has 42% of the voters voting for any extreme party, whether it be the BNP or the SWP. I can see the Greens splitting the left wing vote in some places, but not winning.

But STV requires fairly broad support in a seat in order to be elected which would make it unlikely the BNP for example would get in. They may get say 8% or 10% or so of first choice preferences in a small number of seats (as we saw in the Euro elections which under the D'Hondt system allowed them two MEPs) but with a 5 member STV seat they would require around 20% of first choices or enough second, third etc. choices to make the difference. The BNP are widely revilved and are very unlikely to get all these further choices from voters who opted for other parties for their first choice.

However, if the BNP manage to jump the democratic hurdle then why should they not have representation? WCT's argument seems to be to gerrymander the system to make it almost impossible for all but the largest parties to get representation. He high-handedly dismisses parties like the Greens as "nutters". Does he feel the same about UKIP? Why should the system make it impossible for these more minor parties to get in and for this to be seen as a good thing and an argument for retaining FPTP? Can he not see how utterly disenfranchising this is?

MPs owe their allegiance to their voters, not their party whips and party selection boards and the countless other internal bureaucrats. If we brought in electoral reform, somewhere along the line, an MP owes their job not to voters, but to the selection team. I wonder whether this will drive them to be more, or less, independent of their party whips. Hmm.....

Rubbish. Most MPs owe their allegiance to their party and their selection team within their party constituency. Under STV there would still need to be selection but the parties are actively encouraged to select multiple candidates and to have a broad spread of candidates (gender, ethnicity, background, wing of the party etc.) in order to maximise votes. The voter has much more power under STV and that is why many politicians do not like it.

It is simple. One person, one vote, one candidate.

But the simplest argument is not always the best one. Recent polls have suggested that people want more proportionality in the electoral system. When their attention is drawn to how unfair the current system is they do not like it. I did a post a few days ago which examined what could happen if the Tories got 36% of the vote, Labour got 35% and the Lib Dems got 17%. Under these circumstances, Labour could have a small working majority (i.e. more than 50% of the seats) even though the Tories "won" the election. That is completely and totally unfair to the Conservatives and I say that as a Lib Dem supporter.

FPTP is a broken system and it needs to change.

Now that is what I call simple.


Kalvis Jansons said...

Interesting, and a lot to think about.

Stu said...

How many independent MPs have we had in the Commons in the last 50 years for example? Hardly any.

VERY dangerous argument to make, Mark. Under any form of proportional representation it is near enough inconceivable that significant amounts of independents can be elected. Because, by definition, proportional representation looks at party votes over a wide area. Even your prized STV system will inevitably strengthen the party vote about the candidate vote.

You'd probably (not to put words in your mouth) point out that parties could put more candidates up, but that would be missing the point - proportional representation means, by definition, candidates must be party members before they can have even the slightest glimmer of hope of being elected.

Proportionality and independent politicians are mutually exclusive. If I were you I wouldn't touch that argument with a barge pole.

Mark Thompson said...

Stu - I was actually using that as an argument against FPTP rather than necessarily for STV. I accept it is also not easy to get independent candidates in using STV.

I suspect that we would get more independents under STV as they would only need to get say 20% across a multi-member seat as opposed to around 35% or 40% in a seat now.

Stu said...

I know you were using it as a point against FPTP, but you were implicitly using the amount of independents as a measure of the system - more independents the better.

I suspect you're wrong about there being more independents under STV - weighting the system to favour proportionality of party votes can never encourage independent participation. And in a multi-member system, many voters will vote down the line for their own party, with one or two of their 'lower' preference votes going to their favourite opposing party. Independents would be squeezed out entirely.

'Proportionality', in any form, only means divvying up the votes more evenly between the various parties, it doesn't really mean giving the voters a greater voice. If anything it bakes the party system in even further. That's really the entire point.

Whether or not you consider that a bad thing is left to the reader to decide, of course, but personally I can't help but feel that the party system is at the root of about 75% of what's wrong with politics.

Mark Thompson said...

I am not at all sure I agree with some of your analysis here Stu. STV opens things up more and I cannot see how that would make it less likely for independents to get in. Do you know of any evidence that would point to this, e.g. from other countries?

STV really would give the voter more of a voice.

I would interested to hear what your solution to our current mess would be given your comments about the party system as a whole.

Costigan Quist said...

Stu - I think you may be misunderstanding STV. There is no weighting for parties - unlike list systems, people vote for candidates.

Whether or not we end up with more independent MPs I don't know (I'm not a big fan of independents so I wouldn't see it as a measure of success). But certainly it would be easier for voters to elect an independent if they wanted to.

If voters wanted to elect party MPs, they could do that too.

Stu said...

I disagree, I think my argument follows quite logically.

Put it this way: the argument for proportional representation is nearly always put in terms of party votes at national level: Party x got y percent of the votes, but z percent of the seats, where therefore broken system. An independent candidate standing in only one constituency can only ever have some miniscule proportion of the national vote, but if they won they'd have 1/646th of the seats. Proportionality and Independence, therefore, must be at cross-purposes. Any move towards one is a move away from the other.

As for how I'd solve the whole country's problems... That'll have to wait for another day :-)