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Book review: Choosing an electoral system

It isn’t just a case of PR versus first-past-the-post. We need to consider in depth the choice between electoral systems for elections to Parliament – and their diverse variations. Stuart Weir reports on the best guide yet to this choice.

It isn’t just a case of PR versus first-past-the-post. We need to consider in depth the choice between electoral systems for elections to Parliament – and their diverse variations. Stuart Weir reports on the best guide yet to this choice.  

Simon Hix, Ron Johnston and Iain McLean (with research by Angela Cummine), Choosing an Electoral System, British Academy, unpriced.  

The public debate on reform of the electoral system for parliamentary elections, so far as there is one, is bedevilled by myths and as many selective “facts” as there are electoral systems in all their very different forms.  Politicians and interest groups refuse to accept all the comparative evidence that is available on what different systems can deliver and choose instead to parade the supposed advantages of the system they favour and to deny its disadvantages while highlighting the defects of very badly designed forms of rival systems.

Well, there is now no excuse for such blatant disregard for empirical and informed debate, though I don’t suppose that will deter the great majority of MPs in whose hands any reform now lies – for the time being at least - and for whom the most potent of all interests would be put at risk by any change – their jobs! 

The new Policy Centre at the British Academy has just published a lucid review by three leading academic experts of the advantages and disadvantages of our current “first past the post” (FPTP) system for parliamentary elections in the UK and the most likely alternatives, both for elections to the House of Commons and a future elected senate. 

The authors draw on the extensive academic literature and experience from this country and around the world as well as (I think) chucking in some of their own research.  As far as I can see, they have been strictly impartial and even non-political, but Peter Riddell, Britain’s Most High Commissioner for Constitutional Affairs, said from the chair at the launch that their review is at points “opinionesque”.  

Albert Weale, vice president for policy at the Academy, describes the review in the foreword as “something between a tourist guide and a cook book” and the three authors and their researcher certainly manage not only to make the technical issues intelligible, but also to demonstrate their very often significant implications for important democratic issues such as representation and accountability.  

Before I go on to review this important book further, I would like to make five comments:  

First, I do not think the authors pay enough attention to a key issue for those of us who wish to bring about democratic change in the UK – namely, how far would the various systems return a House of Commons with sufficient independence to hold the executive to account without being damaging to the coherence and quality of government.   

Second, I learned several important things from my cursory first read, the most important of which being that the small single constituency FPTP model to which the main parties are so attached in the UK, mostly for their own benefit, is not as unique in creating close links between representatives and their publics as they wish us to believe. Experience of STV in Ireland and open PR lists in Denmark suggests that alternative systems can achieve similar closeness without sacrificing proportionality.   

Third, though the review does discuss the importance of the selection of candidates, reformers need to give this matter urgent attention, given the huge gender disparities (among others) in elections to Parliament. Several people at the launch suggested that this would be a suitable subject for the next policy paper from the Academy.  

Fourth, the review doesn’t quite make a good “cook book” for the simple reason that the concern of the authors is with the recipes, ingredients, measures, etc, and naturally, given its provenance, their book leaves aside the political realities of preparing the dish.  Tony Wright MP gave a vivid exposition from the launch platform of the undesirability of leaving the preparation of the dish and the actual cooking to MPs and, by extension, the main parties. 

Fifth, lucid as this book is the authors cover very complex ground.  If I have got anything wrong, please let us know and I will publish corrections. 

I suppose the “tour” begins with the question of whether FPTP elections which “worked” under a two-party duopoly – winning between them 97 per cent of the popular vote in 1951 – are any longer fit for purpose in the multi-party polity we now live in. (I say “worked”, by the way, but in 1951 Labour won more votes than the Conservatives but the Conservatives gained more seats!)  Lord Tyler predicted at the launch that the forthcoming election would be the “last gasp” of FPTP. This book shows clearly how its defects distort our democracy and impede change; and draws attention to the constraints that single constituencies impose on proportionality. 

The authors warn of course that there is no perfect alternative to FPTP; and that making the choice will require deciding the criteria for change, dispelling myths and accepting trade-offs.  Ron Johnston, presenting the report set about such myths: 

“only single member constituencies promote close member-voter links” – not true (see point 2 above) 

“PR systems are unstable” – not true (see Germany and most of Scandinavia) 

“FPTP provides long-lasting single-party government” – not always true (remember the 1970s in the UK, see Canada; and [my own opinionesque addition], usually not a good thing anyway). 

“PR systems are too complicated” – not true for people as they vote. 

They divide electoral systems into three broad families: single-member constituency systems (FPTP; the Alternative Vote (AV) and its variant, the Supplementary Vote (as used in the election of the London mayor); multi-member constituency systems (Closed and Open List PR; the Single Transferable Vote (STV); and mixed systems with both single- and multi-member constituencies (AMS/MMP as in Germany, New Zealand, Scotland, Wales and Greater London; and Jenkins’s AV-Plus).  They point out that these systems take quite different forms and so have different effects (e.g., with AMS, quotas and different balances between directly elected and “top up” members in mixed systems have a significant effect on their proportionality). 

For me the most illuminating “facts” to emerge from the book come in a chapter on “constituency magnitude” and apportionment.  In virtually all systems the definition of constituencies is crucial to the outcomes and their  “magnitude” (i.e., the number of MPs they elect) is the most important factor in determining proportionality. The larger the magnitude, the more proportional the result.  Where constituencies vary greatly in size, as the constituencies for elections to the European Parliament do in the UK, smaller parties suffer greater disadvantage in the smaller constituencies than in the larger ones.  

Apportionment is, briefly for my purposes here, the way in which seats are allocated to parties after the votes have been counted.  There are two “divisor” systems for allocating seats – one, the authors say baldly, is “wrong”, the other “right”.  D’Hondt (DH) notoriously benefits larger parties: the authors say, “it should never be used unless designers want a bias to the large, which is difficult to justify in a democracy”. The other more pluralist and less biased system is the Sainte-Leguë (SL). 

I wonder if you can guess which system Jack Straw chose for allocating seats when he was so unctuously establishing the voting system for the Euro-elections.  Yes, you have got it in one, D’Hondt.  The authors calculate that if SL had been used in the 2009 Euro-elections instead of DH, the Conservatives would have won fewer seats (21 instead of 25) and the Greens seven instead of only two.  Straw of course also chose a Closed List PR system, thus denying voters the choice between candidates within as well as between parties. 

Naturally enough, I have been considering how both the House of Commons and a new senate should be elected. This is my thinking. The systems would have to differ as well as the timing of elections. We have to begin with the Commons. My feeling is that the country as a whole would not wish wholly to abandon small geographical constituencies for elections in very large multi-member constituencies under STV or Open List PR.  Further, many people have already had the experience of voting under the mixed AMS system in Scotland, Wales and Greater London.  So AMS for these elections with both MPs directly elected from constituencies and “top-up” MPs for proportionality. For the senate with a more regional cast both STV and Open List PR would be good and appropriate choices; both of course allow voters to choose their representatives from within as well as between parties.  

All of us would also have to study all the structures and variants of all three systems to ensure that the public get from the elections the outcomes in terms of representation and accountability that they think are most important.  Which means a pretty demanding citizen’s assembly to weigh up the choices and then a deliberative referendum.   

Simon Hix is Professor of European and Comparative Politics at the LSE and the author of prize-winning books, including ‘Democratic Politics in the European Parliament’; Ron Johnston is Professor of Geography at the University of Bristol and is a specialit on  the importance of geographical perspectives in evaluating elections; Iain McLean is Professor of Politics at Oxford University and is also a prize-winning author (for ‘State of the Union’); and Angela Cummine is studying for a  doctorate at New College, Oxford.

About the author

Stuart Weir is a political activist. He was formerly editor of the New Statesman when he launched Charter 88, and director of Democratic Audit at Essex University.


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