Hare's Breadth

It’s times like this that warm the cockles of a pol sci graduate’s heart. I’m referring, of course, to Britain’s hung parliament, and the rare opportunity it affords for a public discussion of different electoral systems. As someone who grew up under one of the best, voting under first-past-the-post is always exasperating, and now millions more get to share that exasperation.

Proportional representation, though, worries more than just the Tories. A crude calculation of percentages of Thursday’s vote translated to 650 Commons seats suggests 20 UKIP and 12 BNP MPs. I’ve seen various tweets in the past forty-eight hours quoting one or both statistics as if they’re a real possibility and an argument against PR.

But that sort of calculation does nothing but frighten the horses; there are plenty of PR systems that wouldn’t let fringe groups anywhere near parliament. Under my favourite (not coincidentally the one I grew up under, ahem), if multi-member electorates are limited to 5-7 members apiece, no candidate can get in with less than a 14.6% quota (for 7 members) or 20% (for 5). In Thursday’s election, that would have meant no BNP candidates winning anywhere; Nick Griffin got 14.6% in Barking, but in a multi-member system he would have been contesting an electorate several times the size, and Barking’s neighbouring electorates had nothing like that vote for the BNP.

A reasonable objection to this is that even small parties deserve representation if they have enough support, even if you loathe the BNP and their ilk. But it depends how you define “small” and “enough support”. Should a party expect parliamentary representation with one percent of the vote? If the UK were treated as one giant multi-member electorate, any group commanding 0.15% would get an MP. Meanwhile, any notion of having local representatives to fight your interests in Westminster would go out the window, which would be a major loss. The line has to be drawn somewhere, and 14.6% isn’t a bad one. (I certainly prefer it to 20%. In Tasmania, the major parties conspired in the 1990s to keep out the Greens by reducing the number of members per electorate from 7 to 5, and raising the quota from 14.6% to 20%. A futile exercise, it turned out, as they were fighting a rising tide—the Greens now command over 20% of the vote, and every electorate has a Green MP.)

Unlike some PR systems, Hare-Clark maintains the connection between MPs and local electorates; you simply have 5-7 local MPs instead of one. In fact, it’s much better at ensuring that most voters feel represented locally than a system of single-member electorates where half the electorate feels that their only MP represents the other half. After my first state election, I had no doubt who my local MP was.

It’s also simple from the voter’s point of view: you turn up to vote, get handed a ballot paper with a list of candidates, and rank them in order of preference from 1 onwards. Much more satisfying than first-past-the-post, because not only do you get to put your favourite candidate first, you also get to put your least favourite last. The complications are in the calculations of preference distribution during the counting of votes, but to anyone who can apply a simple formula they’re not that complicated. The system has the added advantage that you never need by-elections: if an MP resigns or dies, you just go back to the votes from the last election, distribute his or her preferences, and figure out who was next on the list to get in. It’s almost inevitably going to be someone else from the same party, so you don’t have governments toppling because some random MP was hit by a bus.

But these are all the idle musings of an expat Tasmanian twice-removed. At this stage, no sort of PR for the Commons feels particularly likely. It’s no surprise that the Tories want nothing to do with it; what’s more surprising is that they won’t even concede AV, or preferential voting as Australians know it, which has single-member electorates but aggregates votes by preferences to deliver a winning candidate. Parties of the right win plenty of elections under that system; Australia just had a decade of right-wing national government under it.

Of course, if they were canny about it, Labour and the Lib Dems could deliver approximately AV-like results under first-past-the-post. It’s too late for this election, but if an unstable parliament means another in 12 months, they could do it sooner rather than later. All it would take would be an electoral pact not to stand against each other in any one seat, deciding whether to field Labour or Lib Dems candidates on the basis of their 6 May 2010 results. The Tories wouldn’t get anything like 306 seats in that scenario. But of course it’s in Labour’s interests to maximise the number of seats they win too, which is why in thirteen years of power they didn’t entertain any electoral reform of the Commons.

The Lib Dems could equally do the same against Labour if they made the same kind of pact with the Tories. But if the Tories reject any possibility of electoral reform, it could force the Lib Dems into Labour’s arms, on this issue at least. Which is why the Tories are short-sighted not to consider offering AV to tempt the Lib Dems into supporting them. AV would mean some Lib Dem preferences flowing to the Tories in seats where the former came third; a Lib-Lab pact wouldn’t.

Not that the architects of this deserve any encouragement:

Let's imply that anyone on benefits is refusing work

(Spotted walking past an Edinburgh council estate last Thursday night. Ten out of ten for ironic juxtaposition, chaps. Rather less than ten for effective targetting.)

9 May 2010 · UK Culture

Let's imply that anyone on benefits is refusing work...

Let's cut budgets for those who help the out-of-work...

Let's cut taxes for those who refuse to pay them anyway...

Added by Rory on 10 May 2010.

Added by Rory on 11 May 2010.