Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday, 4 September 2009

Open primaries are second best

I read with interest Shane Greer's recent piece in the Yorkshire Post about the benefits he perceives in open primaries. His basic argument is that they give voters in a constituency more power by enabling the local electorate to select the party candidates for elections to the House of Commons prior to that election.

The recent MPs expenses scandal has thrown up lots of issues about MPs and reform of the system is desperately needed to at the very least eliminate the safe seats that give too many MPs secure tenure irrespective of what they do or how good they are. However if we rushed to bring in open primaries, we would be overlooking a more extensive reform we could undertake to our electoral system and that would provide almost all the benefits of open primaries but would improve our representation in other ways too.

As the piece I referred to earlier was for the Yorkshire Post, I thought I look at 5 Yorkshire parliamentary constituencies: Batley and Spen, Bradford North, Bradford South, Bradford West and Halifax. All of these seats are grouped together in the centre of West Yorkshire and all of them returned Labour MPs in the 2005 general election. However when you look at the total number of votes cast across all 5 seats you can see that actually Labour only received 43.9% of the votes, the Conservatives 27.5% and the Lib Dems 19.3% with others on 9.3%. Yet Labour got 100% of these seats and no other party got any of them.

This is as a result of our current "First Past the Post" system which gives the seat to the candidate with the most votes. It led in 2005 to the current government getting 55% of the seats in the House of Commons with only 35% of the vote in the country.

Single Transferable Vote however is a system which would stop this sort of injustice. It allows voters during an election to list their candidates by order of preference. These preferences are then allocated to the candidates and if your first choice candidate is not elected then your second and third choice (and so on) are taken into account. This means that your vote needn't be wasted as under the current system. The crucial difference though is when it is combined with a multi-member constituency system. Those 5 seats listed above could be combined into one seat (called say West Yorkshire Central) and then the likely effect would be to give a fairer result with say 3 Labour MPs, 1 Conservative and 1 Liberal Democrat. At the moment, Conservative and Lib Dem voters in those seats have their vote count for nothing. Under this new system they would get representation. There are a number of other countries including Ireland who already use a system like this.

Electing parliament this way would eliminate the safe seats that both myself and Shane wish to see the back of. In a multi-member seat system like this, there are no safe seats and several members of the same party can stand against each other in the actual election (not in a primary run-off beforehand) thus maximising the number of electors who can express their preference. This way, different strands of opinion within the same party can stand and the electorate can decide whether they want for example a Dennis Skinner or a David Miliband (or both, or neither) rather than have the party foist that candidate on the seat.

If rolled out across the country, a system like this would mean that the number of seats in parliament would roughly match the percentage of votes cast for each party across the country. This would eliminate the unfairness that is baked into our current electoral system and would mean politicians in every seat really had to fight for every vote rather than concentrate on the marginal seats as happens at the moment. This should have the effect of widening issues for debate at election time.

Things have gone a bit quiet recently from our elected representatives about reform following the expenses scandal. The main leaders made a lot of noise initially in response to the public outrage but nothing has really changed. Reform of the nature outlined here would demonstrate that the politicians really had listened to the public and that they are willing to change how they are elected even if it means their own political careers become more precariously balanced. If politicians had feared the ballot box more, the recent scandal may never have happened.

On that point, Shane and myself are in full agreement.


Voter said...

"If rolled out across the country, a system like this would mean that the number of seats in parliament would roughly match the percentage of votes cast for each party across the country."

It does not match. That is the problem.

If you want to be precise, how many parties would find that their percentages match? My guess is just the big 3.

That is weighted in favour of the status quo.

Voter said...

You say that the recent scandal might not have happened.

Do you have any evidence for this?

There are countries that already use STV. Do they not have scandals?

I might sound like a broken record, always looking for the evidence but I do believe that a rational approach has the best chance of being successful.

Ewan Hoyle said...

One problem of STV with multi-member constituencies is that you'd have a ballot paper the length of your arm. With voters who have a certain party loyalty, but who don't engage greatly, you run the risk of candidates within a party receiving votes over their colleagues as an accident of alphabetical order. If the list order is chosen by the party, (as for Scottish top-up MSPs) you retain the problem of safe seats for the party's favourite. Under AV, the option the government is flirting with currently, a "safe" candidate could be required to face a challenger from within his own party, perhaps after a couple of terms in office. The AV system would not damage the chances of a representative of the party being elected, as the elected representative would require the endorsement of at least 50% of the electorate. AV is a vast improvement on the current system, is the option currently on the table, and could pave the way for further change if it is deemed necessary.

Millennium Dome said...

"Voter", in a choice between open primaries and STV – which is what Mark's piece was about – it is very odd that you reject STV on the grounds that it is "weighted in favour of the status quo".

Open primaries will not get rid of a single safe seat – you may have a hand in choosing the, say, Tory who will represent you (from a list chosen by the Tory party, of course) but absolutely no more chance of getting a Green or UKIP member elected than at present.

Under STV, seats including Norwich or Brighton stand a reasonable chance of including at least one Green MP; I'm sure you can find similar examples for UKIP or maybe even, say, Cornish Nationalists.

Is STV proportional? No, it isn't supposed to be. It is more proportional than the current system, and more empowering to the voter than the current system and it maintains, maybe even strengthens the link between the constituency and the MP.

To get a fully proportional system you need lists (whether for the whole Parliament, as in the Euro elections, or for the top up members, as in the Scottish Parliament and London Assembly). Lists take power away from the electors, giving it to party machines, and they allow you to get members who do not have to account for themselves to the voters.

Mark, you mention that there are countries that already use STV. Of course these countries include… the United Kingdom: elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly and for Scottish Local Government are conducted using STV. Worth remembering :)

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