…on Voting Reform

As I write this, it is now three days since the UK General Election of May 2010 (normally one need only specify the year but this time round, who knows what’s down the road!) and we still have no real idea of who is going to form the new government. What is clear, however, is that in no small part due to the results, there is a tremendous appetite in the country for electoral reform and for abandoning our First Past The Post (FPTP) system replacing it with what is nebulously described as “fair votes”, usually meaning some form or Proportional Representation (PR), but nobody is quite clear on which would be the better system.

The Electoral Reform Society has a handy guide to many of the options available, including pros and cons for each. Unfortunately, reading through them all, I feel that none of them offers a solution which meets most of our requirements (OK, by “our” naturally I mean “my”) and thus they all fall short which means that no matter which one is chosen for the next few elections, we’ll be back where we started with public demands for voting reform again within 20 years.

So what ARE these requirements which I believe need to be met by a voting system?

Every MP must have a direct link to a constituency.

Thus every single MP is, as under the current situation, directly a constituency MP whose first duty is to represent all of their constituents. It means there is no two-tier system where some MPs are constituency MPs and others have no constituency; it also means that there is a direct 1-to-1 correlation, where each MP has exactly one constituency and each constituency has exactly one MP. This is essential as it ensures that every MP is voting with their constituents in mind, and it provides a very clear direct link to the People (remember them?), with each member of the public having an unequivocal single MP to whom they can present their views / worries / requests.

Nobody can be an MP without a direct elected mandate from the people of his or her constituency.

This means that every single MP must be elected by the people of their constituency directly, not via a list system whereby people vote for a party and the party elite decide who they want to place in parliament – this way every MP is accountable to the electorate directly.

The voting powers of MPs in Parliamentary votes must reflect the proportion of votes their parties received in the General Election.

Suppose 10 million people vote and party A received 6 million votes, then if all of party A’s MPs vote for a bill and all other MPs vote against, the bill would win 60% of the votes.

Therein lies the problem. None of the various proposed systems seem to offer a solution which meets all three of those requirements. Does this mean that the three are impossible to meet?

No. I believe I have a solution which meets all three of those requirements and which could provide a more democratic makeup of parliament whilst retaining a direct link to the electorate.

My proposal is partially based on “Alternative Vote”. This means that MPs are elected, as now, to each represent a single constituency (with a single MP per constituency, no party lists, no top-up lists, no non-constituency MPs). As with the current FPTP, each constituency votes for 1 MP from a list of candidates. However, in this proposal, rather than vote for 1 person, you rank them indicating your 1st choice, 2nd choice and so on, as far down the list as you wish to choose.

All the 1st choice votes are counted. So far, this is just like the existing plain FPTP. If one candidate has received more than 50% of the votes, then they are the winner. However, if no candidate received over 50% then the one with the fewest votes is eliminated, and all of their votes are checked for 2nd choices, those 2nd choice votes being added to the remaining candidates. And so the process repeats until there is a clear winner.

Why is this better? It eliminates the need for “tactical voting” (which itself is fraught with problems not the least of which is that all it does is make it harder for your preferred candidate to win because you didn’t vote for them) and ensures that all choices count.

For example, suppose there are 3 candidates standing, A B and C. You want C but it looks like A and B are the most popular; you also don’t want A. So currently you could vote C and risk A winning, or vote B to stop A and thus ensure C can’t win. Whereas under my proposal, you would vote C as your first choice, and then B as your second choice. Thus you get to vote for who you really want but also who you’d want if they don’t get it. Much fairer, much more representative and much more democratic.

So far, this is purely AV, where’s the extra bit?

Well that comes once all the MPs have been elected and all votes counted.

Now we’d have parliament made up of MPs voted by constituency. But this still leaves the possibility that a party with more overall votes may end up with fewer seats. The very problem we have with FPTP.
That’s where the clever bit comes in!

Now we count up all the 1st choice votes each party received (regardless of whether their candidate ultimately won any given seat). We compare the percentage of the vote each party got with the percentage of MPs they got, and use this to scale the vote of each MP in parliamentary debates. This ensures that parliamentary voting accurately reflects the will of the people. It means MPs whose party received more seats than their overall share of the popular vote indicates will have their individual parliamentary vote count for less than an MP from a party who received a smaller share of seats than the popular vote indicated.

An example should help here. Let’s take the current election results (we’ll only consider Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats to keep the maths simple, but in the real world it would apply to all who won a seat). We will also assume that the number of seats this time is also the number they’d have got under AV (erroneous but it’s all we’ve got and this is just an illustration), and that the percentage of 1st choice votes is the same as the percentage of actual votes they received – again, this is just as an example.

Party Seats % seats % overall vote Vote scale
Conservative 306 47.1% 36.1% 0.77
Labour 258 39.8% 29.0% 0.73
Liberal Democrat 57 8.8% 23.0% 2.61

At present, the distribution of seats is very uneven in relation to overall votes for each party. However, note the “Vote Scale” column on the right. This is the important part of my proposal.

When MPs vote in parliament, currently each MP’s vote is equal; under my proposal, the “Vote scale” would be adopted. This means that each MP’s vote is proportional to their party’s overall support in the country. In this example, each Conservative MP’s vote counts for 0.77 of a vote, whereas each Liberal Democrat MP’s vote counts for 2.61 votes.

For example, suppose some legislation were proposed which was supported by all Conservative MPs but opposed by all Labour and Liberal Democrats. Under the existing (or even straight AV) the results would be 47.1% for, 48.6% against; under my proposal, the actual result would be 36.1% for, 52% against – this is much more in keeping with the number of votes each party actually received and therefore makes this method much more representative overall.

When MPs are replaced via interim elections, the same rules are applied and the overall vote scale is adjusted accordingly to reflect any changes.

The biggest disadvantage to this proposal is that all MPs still need to cross the finishing line which still makes it harder for minority parties to win seats, but it is not impossible for them and it does make it easier for them if their constituency is so minded – the abolition of Tactical Voting and the implementation of a method which ensures that every vote counts makes it much fairer.

I believe that my proposal presents a solution which ensures that all MPs have a direct constituency link, all MPs are directly accountable to their constituents, no MP can be placed via an undemocratic party list, and very importantly all votes in parliament are weighted to reflect the actual voting will of the people.

I believe that this proposal provides closest to an all-round perfect system, better than the other options out there.

All it lacks is a name – I guess “Scaled Alternative Vote” or “SAV” for short.