Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Some MPs are more equal than others

One of the main arguments that opponents of electoral reform to a proportional system use is that some forms of PR create two classes of MP. Now firstly, this is not true for Single Transferable Vote with multi-member constituencies, the system that the Lib Dems and most electoral reformers favour. However it is true for systems like Alternative Vote Plus or Additional Member System. Those systems have a "top-up element" to allow proportionality but that does generally mean that some MPs have constituencies and others don't. In other words some MPs have constituents to answer to and others from the list only have their party to answer to.

Just to reiterate, I (and many like me) do not support these top-up systems but the fact that they exist and in the case of AMS have been used in the past gives supporters of the status quo an opportunity to blur the issue and making this claim of two classes of MP against all variants of PR.

But it is worth just taking a few steps back here and looking at our existing electoral system, First Past the Post. I was struck by the following passage in Chris Mullin's excellent Westminster diaries "A View from the Foothills" when I read it recently:

Friday 11th May (2001)

Much speculation about which members of the New Labour elite will be parachuted into the safe seats vacated by MPs retiring at the last moment. Ed Balls and David Miliband are among the names being mentioned. Not for them the cutting of teeth in hopeless seats or the long, wearying slog around the selection circuit. A few high-level phone calls, a quiet word in the right ears and ... Bob's your uncle ... a safe seat for life. And who knows, within two or three years a foot on the ministerial ladder, first steps on the inevitable rise to the Cabinet.

As we now know, both Balls and Miliband were indeed selected for very safe seats. Miliband in 2001 (he was in the government by 2005 and the cabinet by 2006), Balls in 2005 (he was in the government by 2006 and the cabinet in 2007 as soon as Brown became leader). There are plenty of examples over the years of favoured candidates who are parachuted into safe seats like this and hence their political career is put on the fast track. Because they are gifted a seat where there is virtually no chance of them losing it they don't have to worry too much about what their constituents think. They will not have to have spent years slogging away at getting to know the constituency and their constituents before election and they will have to pay little attention to them after election too. Whereas MPs in less safe or marginal seats will have to pay much more attention to their electors and indeed spend much more time on them.

So we already have MPs who on a sliding scale have to take less and less notice of their constituents as we go up the list of safe seats. That sounds to me very much like a two (or even more than two) classes of MP that we have already.

Under Single Transferable Vote this would not happen. The seat of every single MP would be at risk in every election and they would have to earn re-election. There would be no safe seats. But of course if we had this, how would Blair have been able to secure an easy passage for Miliband and Brown likewise for Balls into the Commons and ultimately the cabinet?

Also, the seats of even the most senior politicians would need to be tended to properly and the electors engaged with.

This is why the decision on how they are elected cannot be left up to the MPs themselves. They have already proved that they cannot be trusted with their own remuneration. Why should they be any different when it comes to the terms of their own employment?


Norfolk Blogger said...

And by beaing sleected for safe seats they do not even have to worry about the mundane things (as they would see it) of constituency casework, visiting local groups and organisation, holding regular surgeries, etc. They can aboid their eletorate and tow the party line without fear of retribution.

dazmando said...

Here Here the Norfolk blogger is right look at Andrew Mackay not holding surgeries. He also refused to meet Goodbye Andre Mackay.

Independent England said...

surely open primary selections for MPs, as espoused by Douglas Carswell and Dan Hannan solves this problem?

Hugh said...

Regardless of the absurd effects FPTP has yielded, especially in 1983 and 2005, it is still here.  It is only going to be abolished via a hung parliament.  This requires Lib Dem supporters in Lab/Con marginals to vote Tory in the micro-marginals (<6% majority) but Labour in the 'firewall' marginals (>10% majority).  This in turn dovetails with attacking the opponent must likely locally to be relegated to 3rd place, which ultimately will provide the Lib Dems with 2nd place and the chance to win the seat.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

Mark: "it is true for systems like Alternative Vote Plus or Additional Member System ... some MPs have constituencies and others don't"

Not quite right. Under both AMS and AV+, all MPs have constituencies, it is just that some MPs have larger constituencies than others. Only with systems such as the Israel list system do MPs not have constituencies at all.

What's more, while AMS/AV+ type systems certainly do create two types of MP, they are certainly accountable to the electorate - more so than in a safe seat under FPTP. Admittedly, this is weakened by the closed list system used in AMS in the UK, but since most regional constituencies only have 1-2 members per constituency, in reality that can be over-stated. Under AV+, the top up lists would be elected using an open list system, meaning that they would be as accountable - if not more - as the single constituency members.

I'm an STV supporter, but we shouldn't let FPTP supporters get away with making unwarrented claims that better-if-not-ideal systems would be worse than the status quo.

Independent England: "surely open primary selections for MPs, as espoused by Douglas Carswell and Dan Hannan solves this problem?"

Not if the experience in the US is anything to go by. Plus there is the whole question of the vast cost, potential for even greater corruption, etc.

Mark Reckons said...

James - Fair points, I was oversimplifying and I was taking PR opponents worst case scenario (as they always do) of a closed list where even though there may be a larger constituency, effectively the MP answers to the party for their position on the list. However point taken that by reiterating this characterisation I am to some extent playing into their hands. I was just trying to contrast this description with all the benefits that STV can give and of course highlight how badly FPTP serves us even by the terms of the criticisms made of other systems by its proponents.

IE - I have blogged before about open primaries and how they are a distraction from the real reform needed. Aside from all the obvious problems (expense, who decides the shortlist etc.) just ask yourself this. How many existing Tory MPs have had to be reselected through open primaries?