Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday 21 June 2009

We need a prime-time TV programme on electoral systems

I had an interesting phone call from an old friend this week. He isn't really very interested in politics but he is university educated and follows the news. He has been following my blog and he suggested something that would really help educate people like him about electoral reform.

He asked why there hasn’t been something like a half hour or hour long programme on the BBC or Channel 4 in prime time (e.g. Panaroma or Dispatches) which examines in detail the different possible electoral systems. He said that he listens to Radio 4 every day for an hour and a half and watches lots of documentaries (i.e. he is engaged with the news agenda) but he does not understand about the different systems available for electoral systems as they have never been properly covered. He strongly feels that given how high up the political agenda this issue now is that it at least warrants a proper analysis so the public can be better educated.

I very much agree with him and have been disappointed to see and hear whenever the subject is brought up on Newsnight or Today for example that the presenter is very quick to step in as soon as anybody even tries to explain how the systems work. It seems to be deemed too esoteric or not engaging enough. But we are talking about the systems that we may be asked to choose to select our leaders for many decades to come. Surely the public should have easy access to the information necessary to help them decide which system would be best?

God knows there is enough rubbish on in prime-time about how to look good naked, or celebrity cooking programmes. Surely there is room somewhere for a programme like this that would properly educate about the different systems?

I am sure in the past this could have been easily dismissed by TV executives but all 3 of the main party leaders have talked at length about this issue recently. The Prime Minister has called for a national debate. How can that debate be had properly if most people do not understand what the politicians are talking about?

We need a programme like this in the next few weeks or months to ensure that the debate is properly informed.


Unknown said...

I would welcome such a programme! After the 1983 General Election, even after a year of the Alliance and John Cleese explaining PR, I still found myself having to explain to disappointed people why it was that the Tories had won the election on less than 50% of the vote. I often felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall, because the basic concept is hardly rocket science.

However, I would also be impressed if a programme like that could explain the reasons why the Electoral Reform Society and the Lib Dems favour STV (which is only broadly proportional) over the almost perfectly proportional Danish electoral system (details can be found at

James Gilmour said...

I can't speak for the LibDems and I don't speak for the ERS though I am a member and have been for a very long time.

The simple answer is that there is much more to effective representation than so-called almost perfect proportionality. The PR voting systems used in continental Europe are all party-PR voting systems. The objective of all these voting systems is to obtain PR of registered political parties.

In contrast, the objective of STV-PR is to obtain PR of whatever the voters want (as expressed by their responses to the candidates who have offered themselves for election). If the voters vote strictly by party, the result will be party PR. But that will be the voters' choice - it is not the objective of the STV voting system. And if the voters want something other than party-PR, that's what they'll get. Again, their choice.

And let's nail this nonsense about "perfect proportional" and "broadly proportional" in relation to STV-PR. The proportionality of ANY voting system is determined by the number of members elected together - called the "district magnitude" in the jargon. For the same district magnitude, STV-PR and any party-list PR voting system will deliver the SAME proportionality.

The difference is that while electors are prepared to allocate several hundred seats to parties on the basis of national party-lists, they are not prepared to vote for individual candidates on a national basis. Nor is that necessary. Very good overall proportionality can be obtained without having to vote nationally or in large regions. Multi-member constituencies returning an average of 5 or so MPs (more in the cities, fewer in the rural areas) would give very good overall PR.

Questions in public opinion polls have shown that UK electors attach considerable importance to local representation as well as to party proportionality. There is an unavoidable trade-off between guaranteed local representation (smaller electoral districts) and overall proportionality (larger electoral districts). There is bound to be debate about where the balance should be struck and the outcome will always be a compromise. STV-PR with sensible multi-member constituencies will deliver a compromise that would be acceptable to UK electors.

Our continental cousins have a different political culture going back over a hundred years, and take a different view. They are much less concerned with "local representation" than UK electors.

Mark Thompson said...

Edinburgh - I agree that STV is the way forward. The point of my post was that we need a way to educate and involve the public in the different systems (including STV) so they can decide as part of the national debate we are supposed to be having.

Unknown said...

"The PR voting systems used in continental Europe are all party-PR voting systems. The objective of all these voting systems is to obtain PR of registered political parties."

This isn't true of Denmark. Under their system, a voter can vote for either: a constituency candidate; the candidate they favour on a party list; or just for a party list. This enables independent candidates to win constituency seats.

Everyone on a party list must also be a candidate in one of the multi-member constituencies, which is how the seats and calculated top-up seats are finally allocated to actual people.

My fear with STV is that minority parties with, say, 10% support spread across the country will be under-represented because they will fail to meet the quota in individual constituencies and their votes will be transferred to someone else.

Anonymous said...

What it needs is someone to write a programme to run on anyone's computer showing all the various systems in a graphic representation with the option for the user to input variations of numbers of total MPs in a system if it changes over time.

The idea is if you can see a animated visual of a system in action with possible variable inputs and then select the tool bar tabs to see what outcome would happen under all the alternative systems.

You could also put in historical results and select a tab to see what would of happened under a different system.

If this piece of software is open source then it will soon get off the ground.

You could also use it to show possible outcomes a the next General Election or any election under all possible systems.

It could also show any system and election on the planet with world wide open source programmers contributing to the system.

Obviously there would be menus showing text pages with explanations and all sorts of information being added daily.

I suggest Mark kicks this off before Google or anyone else gets in there first.

Unknown said...

Brilliant idea, Lorenzo!

Mark Wadsworth said...

Agreed, television is ideally suited to this because you can show how different parties or candidates would fare under different systems (as Lorenzo says).

But one or two programmes aren't enough - how many people watch Newsnight or Panorama?

For the record, my current thinking is that multi-member constituencies without party lists would be a good starting point, i.e. in a four-member constituency, the four candidates with the largest personal vote share each get a seat.

You can then tweak this with STV or by increasing the size of the constituencies, personally I don't like STV, I think it's better to enlarge constituencies to somewhere between five and ten members. The larger the constituencies, the more likely the overall number of MPs is likely to be proportional.

James Gilmour said...

The disadvantage of party PR systems like that in Denmark is that you do not get PR within the parties. In some situations PR within a party can be almost as important as PR between parties.

All parties, large and small, adapt to whatever voting system is in place. In any system with electoral districts, a small party needs to concentrate its efforts and build where it has most initial support. Once it has established electoral credibility it can spread. In countries like the UK you'll find local representation matters more to ordinary electors than securing national proportional representation for very small parties.

There are two serious difficulties in the way of showing what the results might look like under different voting systems. One is that we don't have some essential information, especially about likely second, third, etc preferences which are vital if you want to make real sense of changing to system like STV-PR. The other big problem is that some electors change the way they vote in response to the features of the voting system. So it's a nice idea, but the output has to be treated with great caution.