Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Nick Boles, Deselection, and Proportional Representation



I've written about proportional representation before, but the recent issues surrounding deselection threats to Nick Boles (who last night quit the Conservative Party, of course) and Dominic Grieve have cemented still further my view that the answer to our political problems is Proportional Representation, and in particular Open List Single Transferable vote (STV). Of course, the issue of the proportionality of parliament compared with votes cast is a huge one, along with the issue of 'broad church' parties that are encouraged by our current First Past The Post system. It's not just that, though - Open List STV would not only give the public a real choice between parties, making every vote count for something as they don't now, but also give them the choice between the candidates being put forward by those parties. In these days of 'deselection' threats due to 'factionalism' within the two big political parties (as opposed to being due to incompetence, which almost never seems to happen), it could be key to really sorting out the way our whole system of government and legislation operates. I thought today might be a good day to explain why I believe this, and how such a system could work (partly also because I was discussing such things on social media yesterday).

Let's think about FPTP, and the common arguments in favour of the current system. Firstly, of course, is the idea it usually creates parliamentary majorities, and so 'strong and stable' governments. As we can see in parliament at the moment, though, this certainly isn't always the case, and when it isn't it tends to happen at critical moments when the public are unsure about something that's going on and how the big two parties are going to deal with it. So the weakest time for the system and the parliament it creates is right at the point when a stable government and/or parliamentary arithmetic would probably be most useful. When it does fail, as it has failed now, the tribalist instincts it creates and so deeply entrenches makes it that much harder to solve. Politicians and their parties are simply not used to working together across party lines - it goes against every instinct that they have built up over the years.

Secondly, there is the oft mentioned link between politicians and constituencies - the idea that a Member of Parliament serves a particular place the people who live there (and has been directly elected by them. There is something to this, of course - people do need to be able to speak to, get help from, or lobby their local MP (or at least 'a' local MP - more of that shortly). However, that doesn't mean we have to be glued to a system of one MP to one small area. In Wales we have some Assembly Members elected on a 'Regional List' system - they serve a particular area and electorate, but just a larger one than a Constituency Member. This proves it can be done, and it only becomes any kind of a practical difficulty in extremely rural areas where there are no major centres of concentrated population. The reality, though, is that there are only really two areas of the UK where that could be considered a significant issue on the kind of scale that I'm going to go on to describe. Is it really reasonable to worry too much about those two areas (Mid & West Wales, and the Highlands & Islands of Scotland) ending up being slightly 'over-represented' as a result of needing to keep the geographical scale reasonably manageable? I would suggest not.

Thirdly there is the issue of 'small parties', and in particular 'extreme fringe parties' gaining seats in parliament. Under FPTP it's extremely hard for them to do so, because they have to concentrate large amounts of support in a very small area. the example of UKIP is the most obvious one, where they had significant electoral support in terms of votes, but spread around large areas, so they failed to win a single seat in parliament. Of course, there's a strong argument for saying that any party who gains votes should get seats accordingly, and UKIP should certainly have gained some when they were at their height (they were hardly 'fringe' in the sense of support base). However, there's also an argument for suggesting that collections of tiny extreme fringe parties could end up with disproportionate power in 'hung' parliaments, despite the overwhelming majority of people wanting them nowhere near government. I think there can be a reasonable balance struck between those two possible outcomes, such that seats do broadly reflect votes proportionally, but tiny fringe parties don't end up effectively gaining power through disproportionate leverage in a fractured parliament. Here it should, perhaps, be noted quite how much influence the DUP have ended up with in the current parliament when they have a tiny number of members elected by one particular community in the smallest part of the UK - clearly FPTP isn't exactly perfect in preventing such issues from occurring.

There are quite a number of obvious disadvantages to FPTP too - it creates disproportionate parliaments where seats barely reflect votes at all, most people are disenfranchised because they live in 'safe seats'. General Elections are actually decided by a small number of voters in a small number of 'marginal' seats, and most MPs get elected for life just by being selected, no matter how rubbish they may be. 'Safe seats' on its own is a huge, huge issue for democracy. I, for example, have voted in every election since I turned 18, but I've never lived in a place where my vote is likely to make any difference at all in a General Election - everywhere I have lived happened to be in very 'safe' Labour territory, so my vote might as well have been thrown straight in the bin. Those places will continue to vote Labour, because the overwhelming majority of people don't want the Conservatives in power - under FPTP it really becomes as simple as that. It also has a huge impact on the 'disconnect' between politicians and people - the dominant 'safe' party doesn't have to work for their position, and everyone knows that there's little point in trying to change that through voting for and/or contributing to other parties, so they become pretty much 'democratically dead' areas where 'on the ground' campaigning barely exists at all (even in local elections). I have never been able to influence the outcome of a General Election, and that is true for the vast majority of the electorate. The two party system FPTP creates also has a huge impact on the voting itself, and the pressure to vote 'negatively' one way to 'keep the others out'. I don't think any of that is satisfactory if you're going to call a country 'democratic'.

There is also an issue of 'representation', and being able to 'lobby' your MP. Everyone has the right to do so, of course, but how far you're going to get could depend on how much the MP in question happens to reflect your views. A lot of the time, the answer for many people is 'not at all'. You have one representative, and if their views are at odds with your views you're not going to get very far asking them to represent your views in parliament. Obviously all MPs should help all constituents in 'non-political' cases, but when it gets more political it becomes a problem that constituents have no alternative to go to. To return to my own example, I have always, as I said, been 'represented' by Labour MPs that I have never voted for, and that I disagree with on many issues. In particular, during periods of Labour government, if I wanted to 'lobby' them against something the government was doing I would have little chance of getting anywhere. The Iraq War was an obvious example of that - unless I happened to lived in a place where the MP was a 'rebel', I would have just got a letter back saying 'I hear what you say but I don't agree', and that would be that. In reality, many MPs and their staff are going to be spending a great deal of time responding to constituents in similar ways - I don't agree with you, so I'm not going to take your concerns any further. That's not great, I'd suggest, for a 'democracy' where everyone feels 'connected', 'invested' and 'involved'.

So let's look at some of the possible alternatives. Firstly, there is the idea of a truly and fully proportional system across the whole nation - where there is no geographical link at election time (though in some systems elected members can be 'allocated' to particular regions, which I think is a pretty awful way of achieving such a link). In effect, the whole country becomes one big 'constituency', people choose between parties (either by a preferential system or not), and those parties are awarded seats to allocate to their list of candidates. This is undoubtedly the best system in terms of creating a parliament where votes reflect seats, but as I've already mentioned the purity of that is not necessarily the only consideration. It's likely to create a fairly fractured parliament with lots of small parties who may end up with disproportionate influence, and it also means that there's no practical way of deciding between individual candidates (the ballot paper would be a bit big if we all had several thousand candidates to choose between!). That puts parties into absolute control of who gets elected, even more so than under FPTP - the public have no way of choosing between possible representatives, or of removing individual representatives that they think should be removed.

A word here about 'thresholds'. Every election under any system has a 'winning post' - a 'threshold' point at which someone wins a seat. Under FPTP, of course, that threshold is 'one vote more than the next candidate' - in some rare cases not even that, since a draw can happen (unlikely and usual, but it can and does, and then it's 'draw straws' time). Different systems obviously have different thresholds, and in the case of a fully proportional national list system it becomes very low - there are many seats to be allocated to one set of votes, so someone is going to get allocated a seat with only a very small percentage of votes cast. The likelihood is that a number of very small, and possibly very extreme 'fringe' parties, with end up getting a handful of seats that could give them the disproportionate amount of power that I mentioned earlier. It's a strictly proportional outcome, but not necessarily the best outcome overall for a practical parliament and government that can get things done.

Next on the list we have the 'Alternative Vote' system - the kind of system that we had a referendum about in 2011. All that essentially means is that the same constituencies apply as in FPTP, but voting is 'preferential' - in other words, instead of putting your 'X' in the box you number the candidates according to your preference. In this system the threshold becomes 50%. Counting involves a process of counting 'first preference', knocking out the candidate with the lowest number of votes and redistributing those votes according to second preference, and keeping going until someone has got 50% of the vote. It is an improvement over FPTP in a sense, because the winning candidate effectively has to have reasonable acceptability to at least some of the supporters of other parties. However, it still has many of the disadvantages of FPTP, without really gaining any of the advantages of a more proportional system. It would change the make up of parliament somewhat, but it wouldn't end the total dominance of the biggest parties, or the issue of most people feeling 'unrepresented' by a single MP that doesn't reflect their own views.

The reasons for that being chosen in 2011 rather than a more proportional system were practical ones - any form of PR would have been against the manifestos of both of the big parties, and would never have got through parliament to even get the referendum. AV, though, was in the Labour manifesto, so they were compelled to support it (I could speculate about their contributions during the referendum campaign, and how much they genuinely supported it, but that's not really the issue here). It would probably have ended up slightly more 'proportional' in some ways than FPTP almost by accident, but more importantly it would probably have kick-started a process that would have led to further changes (as the balance of parliament changed, and the public saw the potential advantages of further change to a better system). An opportunity missed, sadly, but still not a great system. It also leads to an issue that was often brought up during that referendum campaign - 'those with the most votes not winning'. That's not quite the case, obviously, but it does mean that the person who gets the most first preference votes could end up not winning the seat if others were able to gather more second or third preference votes than them. I see that as a good thing, personally, since candidates have to have some broad appeal, but it was painted (wrongly, in my opinion) by opponents as being 'confusing to people'. Personally, I think most people are perfectly capable of understanding such issues, and we already manage to use use more complicated systems anyway.

Which brings me to the 'Additional Member System', which is operated in the Welsh Assembly. This gives people two votes - a 'constituency' vote for an individual and a 'regional list' vote for a party. The constituency members are chosen by FPTP in the usual way, but then the regional list members 'top up' the overall seats to make them proportional (or as close to that as practically possible). Here the mathematical calculations do get ferociously complicated, because the overall regional proportionality has to be calculated to take into account both the votes cast for parties on the regional lists and the seats already won by FPTP in constituencies. This system has been in place in Wales for decades now, and to me that clearly invalidates any possible anti-PR arguments of 'it's too complicated' or 'people won't understand how it works'. If people can live with AMS, they can live with anything! The reality is that most people just accept that the system works, and go and cast their votes accordingly - in this case, almost nobody understands the actual mathematics behind it all, but it is available if anybody really wants to (and good luck to you if you do!).

AMS isn't a 'bad' system, but I just think there's better available - it is fairly proportional (once it's all been calculated!), of course, and does maintain that constituency 'link'. How it's used in Wales, though, it does use a 'closed list' idea for regional members, so voters don't get a choice of which individuals will be allocated regional list seats (one could speculate, for example, that even UKIP voters in Mid & West Wales might have preferred a candidate other than the not exactly universally popular Neil Hamilton elected to the Assembly via the regional list vote, but they didn't get a say in that - it's vote UKIP or don't). It also has the advantage of giving people the chance to go to 'their' Assembly Member' and having more than one choice. I could visit my Labour constituency AM, or I could instead currently choose one of two Plaid Cymru AMs, or a Conservative AM, or a former-UKIP-now-independent AM (the fact that since 2016 I can no longer choose my Lib Dem regional AM is a source of great personal regret, of course). That does come with some perception issues, though - while all AMs are nominally equal, there are certainly those who regard 'Regional AMs' as being 'lesser' than 'Constituency AMs' because they weren't personally elected by voters but gained their seat through a party list.That two-tier issue is also one of what size of area each AM has to cover, which some having far bigger patches than others (though maybe less work per square mile, since most people probably go to their constituency AM first by default habit).

I've mentioned lists a couple of times now, so perhaps I ought to expand on that a little. Essentially, a 'list' is a group of candidates selected by their party for an election where more than one seat is being elected at the same time, and put into the party's order of preference. If there is no 'list', electors simple choose between individual candidates, and parties cannot express any preference about which of their candidates they'd like elected as the highest priority. Doing it that way also has the disadvantage of making ballot papers very confusing - if a Conservative Party voter wants to vote for all of the Conservative Party candidates, they have to search through all of the candidates (who may be listed alphabetically as now) to find them, and in a multi-seat election there could easily be 30 plus candidates to search through. They could be grouped together by party and listed alphabetically, but there is an issue then with people (unless they have a strong preference for individuals) naturally tending to vote for the one at the top first and working downwards - that gives an unfair advantage to a party candidate who happens to have a surname beginning with an early letter in the alphabet, and that person may not be the candidate that party members have expressed a preference for in their selection process. In other words, the first one elected may well not be the one the party has put forward thinking that they are the best candidate for the job.

There are two types of list, and how they work is fairly self-explanatory, but I'll spell it out briefly (as 'briefly' as I'm likely to do anything, anyway!). A 'Closed List'  means that the party selected their list and voters vote only for the party - who gets the seat is entirely up to the party, not the voter. Candidates put themselves forward for selection by their parties, and their parties allocate them a position on the list through whatever internal selection processes they have. Voters only get to tick/cross or put their preferences in a box next to the party name, and if the party wins a seat it goes to the top person on their list. There are a few possible advantages to this, since it means the seat belongs to the party not the individual - that means if an individual resigns their seat, the party gets to reallocate it without the need for a by-election. On the other hand if a member resigns from their party, they don't necessarily get removed from that seat, so the party has lost some of the representation that voters had given them (this is currently the case with several Assembly Members, most notably several of those elected under the UKIP banner). It also means that ballot papers are likely to be very simple even when there are lots of individual candidates. The big disadvantage is the one I mentioned in relation to Mr Hamilton in the Assembly. The public are even less able to shift a particular member that they don't like than they are under FPTP, and it's hard enough to do in that system. Voting out an individual means voting out an entire party, in effect, and not everyone wants to do that. It also means that if, for example, they want to vote Labour but for a 'Corbynite' candidate rather than a 'Blairite' one, they don't have that opportunity any more than they do now.

The other type of list, and the one I would advocate, is the 'Open List'. That works just like a 'Closed List' in the sense that the party selection process allocate their candidates a position on the list, but the names also appear on ballot papers with the public being able to vote for them (or not) individually in whatever order they like. That sounds like a ballot paper might get confusingly large, but actually it isn't - all of the candidates are grouped together by party, in the order that their party has chosen them. The best way to do it is really to have two sections to a ballot paper, such that people can chose to either vote for the party (as if it were a 'closed list', with their preferences then being counted as going to the list in order as allocated by the party), or if they prefer vote for individual candidates (if they don't like the order the party put their candidates in). That's not actually complicated at all for voters, as I shall try to illustrate in a moment.

Just before doing that, having now identified one part of my preferred electoral system, 'Open List', I'd better get to the other part, and explain how they operate together as a system. That would be the 'Single Transferable Vote' system, based on constituencies returning multiple members to parliament. To put it simply, rather than five of the current constituencies returning one member each, they would be grouped together into one larger constituency that returns five members. Those numbers are flexible, of course - you could group six together to return five members if you want to reduce the number of MPs, or you could base it on the 'new' constituencies proposed by the recent Boundary Commission review, or redraw the map entirely - the principle is the same, though. I chose five members deliberately - that is really, I think, where STV works best to give a real choice for electors while keeping the winning 'threshold' at a reasonable level. There's some possible flexibility there, too - some suggest that different constituencies could return different numbers to keep the geographical area down in more rural areas, though personally I don't think that's necessary (given the limited areas in the UK where that matters anyway, as I said earlier).

This system is 'preferential', and similar to the AV system in that electors rank the candidates by order of preference, and then the count proceeds by allocating a seat every time a candidate passes the threshold (reallocating any remaining votes for them by further preference), and knocking out the one with the lowest number of votes (reallocating their votes by next preference) when no candidate has reached the threshold for a seat. It is broadly 'proportional' to votes cast within each constituency, and therefore to a very large degree overall. The difference from a 'national proportional system' is that the threshold for gaining a seat effectively becomes higher (less seats per constituency, so a higher percentage threshold required to win one), so the very small (and possibly 'extreme' or 'fringe') parties won't get seats on a very small percentage of votes. That, for me, finds that 'balance' I spoke about between full proportionality and small groups gaining disproportionate power through fractured parliaments full of small groups. It also addresses the issue of 'extreme' parties to an extent in another way in being a preferential system, since such parties are, I'd suggest, less likely to pick up second or third (or more) preference votes from the supporters of other parties.

The main opposition to this system is often expressed as 'it's too complicated', of course. As I've already mentioned, I think that the current use of AMS in Wales renders that particular argument invalid - the voting is not much more complicated than counting from one to whatever number of preferences you might want to express (and a single 'X' can still be counted as a vote, if that's all someone wanted to do), and the technicalities of the count are less complicated than AMS anyway. Conceptually the count isn't difficult to understand for those who want to look into it, and the maths involved isn't really that complicated either (though I don't think it's necessary to go into the intimate details of it here). Yes, it does mean that the count itself is more complicated and time consuming than the current FPTP system, but I don't think that's a significant problem. Other places manage it well enough (indeed Northern Ireland manages it for its Assembly elections). What it could mean is an end to counting 'on the night', and tired people having to spend election day on their feet and concentrating for well over 24 hours before possibly driving home. That, I'd suggest, is would be a good thing - the public might have to wait a little longer for their results, but the current system can be highly dangerous to those involved. Starting counts at 9am the following day would be a huge improvement anyway.

So let's take a look at what a ballot paper for such an 'STV Open List' election might look like, just to illustrate the above points. My example is already at the top of this page, but I'll post it a bit bigger here:


As you can see, it has two rows - one for the parties, one for the candidates (in neat columns - ballot papers can be 'batch printed' so that the columns don't always appear in the same order, too, to avoid any potential advantage from being in any particular position). As it says, you can vote in one section or the other, but not both. You can either vote for the individual candidates, expressing your preferences from one to whatever, or you can vote for the party (in which case your preferences are taken as 1,2,3,4,5, in the order they are on the paper as selected by their party). That's it - not that complicated for voters, I'd suggest, and all they really need to understand about the count is that the five candidates with the most votes will get the five seats. 

Taking a slightly closer look at the example, if an elector just wanted to express a view that (for example) they really want to be represented by Labour, but that of the others they don't mind Plaid, and they think the Lib Dems are just about OK (or better than the alternatives, at least), all they need to do is use the top row, and put a Number '1' in the Labour box, '2' for Plaid, and '3' for Lib Dems - job done. Their votes will then be counted as the Labour candidates getting 1,2,3,4,5 in the order in which they appear (as selected by Labour), then similarly 6-10 for Plaid and 11-15 for the Lib Dem candidates. If, however, they want to express preferences for specific candidates, they obviously use the bottom half of the paper, and put their numbers in the boxes there.

Way back at the start of all this, you may remember (if you haven't yet lost the will to live!) that I mentioned Nick Boles, Dominic Grieve and 'Deselection' - that's where that bit starts to come in. It becomes much harder for any 'faction' within a party to seize complete control of their selection process, get their people into parliament, and get other particular party MPs out. Specifically in the example above, Mr 'Dominic Lawyer' (all names used are fictional, and any resemblance to any MPs or others living, dead or undead are entirely coincidental, of course) only appears as the fifth candidate in a list of five for his party. Now let's imagine that he has been a sitting MP, but that his own party has swung in a direction away from his views for whatever reason (including 'entryism'). Under the current system, such a change might means that he gets deselected and loses his seat, but under this system the chances are that there's still enough people in the local constituency party (in this now larger constituency, remember) that he would still be able to get on to the ballot paper, but just no longer in first place. Of course, the party list order is important, and generally the people at the top of the lists will be the most likely to get elected, but under these kind of circumstances a popular local MP or candidate could still be chosen by the public to represent them despite their lowly list position. That's the key point - the public are now in complete control not only of which party gets seats, but which people from which party. It is the public who will ultimately decide the balance in parliament not only between parties, but between 'factions' of parties (if such things exist). You can see the same thing illustrated by the Labour list in the example, with Mr Momentii and Mr Corbynite at the top and Mr Moderate and Mr Blairite at the bottom - it would be up to the public to decide the balance of 'Corbynites' and 'Blairites' (or whatever) that end up serving in parliament under the Labour banner. That's a whole new level of public control over the way that we are governed.

It also means, of course, that people can make their choices according to their own priorities, and not just between parties or the candidates of a preferred party. For example, someone who wanted to see more women in parliament could express preferences only for the female candidates, voting perhaps for Helen Non Confurmus (Lib Dem), Cally Jenna Trekker (Lib Dem), Karen Bliss (Greens), Megan Daffodil (Plaid), and so on. It also allows them to choose 'local' candidates, in the sense of particularity wanting someone from their own part of their now larger constituency rather than from 'the big city' or whatever (and because there are five seats up for grabs, if lots of people do that there's a decent chance of getting them elected - if they don't, voters have still been able to use other preferences towards others on the basis of party or whatever anyway).

Going back to the idea of combining current one member constituencies into one bigger one that proportionally elects multiple MPs, it means that the two parties would no longer be able to dominate everything in the same way. To cite an example in my area, currently all of the constituencies around what could broadly be called the Swansea Bay area (specifically the five constituencies of Gower, Swansea West, Swansea East, Neath and Aberavon) are represented by Labour MPs, and four of the five are very much 'safe seats'. That doesn't mean there aren't lots of voters for other parties, of course, who currently aren't represented at all. Even with voting pattern changes from a reduced need for tactical voting, you'd still probably end up with some Labour MPs, obviously, but it could be three Labour, one Conservative and one Plaid, or something - that's great for people having at least one MP who at least partially reflects their view (and that they may have voted for at least somewhere in their preferences). In more marginal areas the effect could be even more significant - it pretty much ends the current problem of constituency borders being a major deciding factor of which party wins (depending on which particular pockets of party support may be included and excluded), and larger constituencies means that they are inevitably mostly more 'mixed' in terms of 'urban' versus 'rural' and so on (so the chances of all representatives being from one 'side' of any such divide are much reduced).

The overall result means a whole new level of control for the public, and a whole new kind of make up of parliament. Unpopular or lazy MPs can be rejected in favour of other candidates from the same party, the public choose which part of which party gets elected, and so on. That would change everything in our political system - no more 'safe seats', no more 'entryism' or 'factionalism' able to unduly influence the balance of MPs, no more dominance of two big parties by encouraging the 'tactical vote' of 'vote for us or you'll be letting the ones you really don't like win', and so on. Our politics currently is more of a shambolic circus (and riddled, I'd suggest, with the incompetent, the self-interested, and the downright rubbish) than most of us will ever have seen before in our lifetimes, but we should be mindful that that potential has always been there, and it's never worked as a proper top-level democratic institution should. This, I think, is the change that we need.

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