Electoral Reform

Charles Kennedy on Electoral Reform

Charles Kennedy has written an open letter in The Independent upon the issue of Electoral Reform. It's a blinder of a letter:

When you were in opposition, you actively courted my predecessor Paddy Ashdown with promises about reform of the voting system and a switch to proportional representation. In government, you set up a commission under the late Roy Jenkins - then refused to implement its findings. You set up a Joint Consultative Committee, which continued until it became clear that there was to be no serious movement on the matter of fair votes.

Still listening, Tony?

Reply from Downing Street

Downing Street have responded to my letter about electoral reform.

Number 10 Letter Head

The Prime Minister has asked me to thank you for your recent letter.

Mr Blair would like to reply personally, but as you will appreciate he receives many thousands of letters each week and this is not possible.

The matter you raise is the responsibility of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, therefore he has asked that your letter be forwarded to that Department so that they are also aware of your views.

Yours sincerely

KIMBERLEY WELLS

Or in other words: 'The prime minister hasn't seen your letter, when we say he asked that it be forwarded we didn't mean your letter precisely, but rather that he left an instruction not to bother him with these things. In this way he can have the honestly held belief that people aren't concerned with this issue'.

Or is that overly cynical?

Still listening, Tony?

P.S. I'm not naïve enough to assume that he would reply personally, but I do resent the implication that the PM has read the letter without actually saying he has explicitly. If he has read a letter include 'The Prime Minister read your letter and asked me....', if not, use the above form to give that impression without saying so..

Envelope Political 'Art'

Something I drew on an envelope.Today I wrote to the Independent newspaper to try and take advantage of their 'electoral reform T Shirt' offer. I drew a little motif on the envelope, and I present it under a creative commons licence for other people to use if they wish. Click on the image for a larger version.

Yesterday, the Lord Chancellor denied that there was a groundswell of support for electoral reform. The Independent responded today by filling it's cover with the names of those who had already signed it's petition. Yes, I'm one of those names.

Gags and Vigils and Protests (Oh My!)

The Make My Vote Count campaign organised a vigil at Number 10 this morning. Unfortunately I was unable to go, which was quite frustrating. You can read of the vigil here.

Over 100 voting reformers participated in a vigil during the Queen's speech this morning. Supporters were very heartened by the opinion poll on the front of the Independent showing that following the general election a massive 62% of the population now support some form of proportional representation.

To be fair, there was a slightly contrary second question in that poll.

Just down the road the Queen's Speech took place, ID cards are back on the agenda. There was a protest arranged by No2ID regarding this - which I didn't learn about until after the event. In Northern Ireland an editorial has appeared claiming that any protest on this issue 'would be churlish' - this article is written in the light of the special circumstances in NI.... and yet, I've yet to see convincing evidence that ID cards WILL be useful in fighting terrorism. The Madrid bombers, for instance, carried ID cards.

Letter to my New MP on electoral reform

Today, I wrote my first letter to my new MP, Michael Gove.

Dear Mr. Gove,

Given that Labour have attained a substantial majority of seats, almost double that of the Conservatives despite having only achieved about 3% more of the popular vote, I am writing to learn your views on electoral reform.

In 1997, Labour promised electoral reform as part of their manifesto. Despite a 1998 recommendation to move to the AV+ system, this promise was quietly dropped. AV+ maintains a constituency link and allows voters to select individuals (as opposed to the list based PR system)

If you support the current system, I would be interested to learn your reasons, especially as it seems self evident that the electoral system itself is responsible for much of what politicians like to call "voter apathy".

If you do support electoral reform, I would be pleased to hear how you intend to challenge the government and promote this issue.

In addition, England remains the one part of the United Kingdom without national representation, Scottish MPs in Westminster vote on matters which they know will not affect their own constituents. I would like to learn your views on this matter, and how you plan to redress this democratic deficit. This topic holds some potential interest given that your party has beaten Labour in England, a cynic may wonder if this is the reason that powers haven't been devolved to England.

As with previous letters, when I get a reply I'll scan it for you. (I did forget to scan a couple in the past, oops, sorry, nothing too important!)

I have sent a modified version of this letter to Number 10.

Dear Mr. Blair,

I am writing this in the hope that this makes its way to your desk and that you are continuing to listen to the electorate as you said this morning. Labour have attained a substantial, albeit diminished, majority of seats, almost double that of the Conservatives despite having only achieved about 3% more of the popular vote. Given this, I am writing to learn your views on electoral reform.

In 1997, Labour promised electoral reform as part of their manifesto. Despite a 1998 recommendation to move to the AV+ system, this promise was quietly dropped. AV+ maintains a constituency link and allows voters to select individuals, thus not penalizing independents (as opposed to the list based PR system).

If you support the current system, I would be interested to learn your reasons, especially as it seems self evident that the electoral system itself is responsible for much of what politicians like to call "voter apathy". It might seem that your support for first past the post stems from the advantage which it gives the Labour party. I would hope that this appearance is incorrect.

If you do support electoral reform, then I am thrilled. I would be pleased to hear how you intend to promote this issue.

In addition, England remains the one part of the United Kingdom without national representation, Scottish MPs in Westminster vote on matters which they know will not affect their own constituents. I would like to learn your views on this matter, and how you plan to redress this democratic deficit. Given that the Conservatives won the popular vote in England, a cynic may wonder if this is the reason that powers haven't been devolved to England. I am sure that this is not the case, and I would like to understand the reasons why England seems to be treated as a special case within the UK.

Edit 6th May: Make My Vote Count points out an article from the FT.

Edit 13th May: A good letter to Gordon Brown

Edit 24th May: A holding letter from Downing Street. As of now, my MP has yet to reply.

Electoral Reform Voxpop

I'm a voxpop on 'Have your say' - with a quotebox! (both times I've been posted, I've had a quotebox)

This is not a mandate, and it should not be seen as one. Blair's party has taken a majority for the seats with some 36% of the votes. What stronger arguments are there for wholesale electoral reform? If any politician starts to bemoan 'voter apathy' then I hope that the interviewer asks them about their stance on reform as the electoral system is at the root.

Let's keep electoral reform on the agenda...

Keys for Sedgefield

Isn't First Past the Post wonderful? No? No. However, there is a nice bonus for the people of Sedgefield. They have the power to unseat the Prime Minister, and (for Labour voters) to do it without handing a seat to the Tories. There is a strong independent in Reg Keys.

Rory Bremner writes on this issue, saying:

If all Conservative voters in Sedgefield, and Lib Dem voters, and disillusioned Labour voters, vote for Keys, it could be enough to overturn his 17,000 majority. It's possible.

According to the homepage, the polls show Blair and Keys neck in neck! However, this would be a massive result, given that in 2001, Tony got over 60% of the local vote. Unfortunately I have been unable to find an independent poll to back this up. I'd love to see one!

For balance: Michael Howard is standing in Folkestone and Hythe. Based on the 2001 results, Labour voters there wishing to 'decapitate' the Tories should vote Lib Dem. Charles Kennedy is in Ross & Skye, in 2001 he polled roughly 3 times the votes of his nearest rival, the other parties all got very similar votes. Like Tony Blair his seat seems safe, unlike Tony Blair there is no obvious protest available (something which itself is another argument for making votes count).

A list of other candidates can be found here.

Additional: There is the cleverly named Blair Ditch Project

Link to the Independent

Further to my earlier post, this is the Independent article which was spotted at PughWatch.

The Independent

Even if the Tories improve their showing and win 36 per cent of the votes next Thursday - a three-percentage point rise at Labour's expense - and there were a 9 per cent swing from Labour to the Liberal Democrats over and above that, Labour would be the largest party in a hung parliament with 43 seats more than the Tories

...

There is no chance whatsoever of the Conservatives getting in by the back, the side or any other door because they have lost this election and people know they have lost.

If you've been thinking of protest voting, but have concerns about undesirable effects, then articles like this are worth studying!

Am I in the parallel Universe? (Voting Reform)

All of a sudden I feel as if I've stepped from the evil parallel Star Trek Universe. It may simply be that there are fewer people with strange and inexplicable goatees than there used to be, or it could be that the election is turning to one of the issues that really matters. Electoral Reform is on the agenda all of a sudden.

First there was a programme which looked at the problem of a handful of results deciding the outcome on channel 4. After this, the BBC website had a talkback on the issue, though they stopped updating this 'Have your say' pretty rapidly. (The 'Last updated' keeps changing, but no updates seem in evidence!)

Then, listening to BBC's 'Any Questions' on Radio 4, the entire panel was in favour of electoral reform due to the problems with First Past the Post - and made the distinction between the undesirable List based PR and more discriminating systems which keep the constituency link, like AV+. The audience were very much in favour.

I get home and find that I am in strange agreement with Polly Toynbee, a most unusual thing.

Then I see that the front page of The Independent is dedicated to highlighting the 'misdirection' (lie is such a strong word) of 'Vote Lib Dem, get Tory' and 'back doors'.

The challenge is to a) get Tory/Labour to commit in unambiguous terms to electoral reform before the election, and then b) not allow it off the agenda afterwards. To be honest, I don't hold too much hope, but I would love to see this come to pass.

It would complete my shock if ID cards and attacks on civil liberties now became the major issues which they deserve to be! (It was depressing that neither topic came up in Question Time the other night).

BBC and the Voting System

The BBC has a 'Have your say' section on the electoral system in the UK. This comes from this article. This was my contribution to the BBC.

In 1997, Labour promised electoral reform. In 1998, Lord Jenkins proposed the AV+ system (which maintains a constituency link). This has been ignored by the government.

Politicians who talk of 'Voter Apathy' without addressing the fundamental cause, the voting system, are being disingenuous at best.

This all seems to be springing from yesterday's Times article.

If you would like to know more, browse the electoral reform society and MakeMyVoteCount

Make my vote count

An excellent article in The Times today via make my vote count

If you live in one of the 425 constituencies in England, Wales and Scotland that the Electoral Reform Society say could be declared this morning without a qualm, for you the pretence of involvement in our democratic process is over. Excuse me while I add that fact to my list of Things That Should Provoke Revolution But For Some Reason People Are Happy To Let Slide. It is getting quite big now.

Well, I, for one, am bloody furious about this!

This ties in nicely with the programme on channel 4 last night, which explained in such simple terms that even a <insert nasty term here> could understand it exactly why it was the the politicians simply don't care about much of the country.

Though it isn't the single most important issue, Electoral reform is, to my eyes, the single most serious issue which nobody is talking about. From a good voting system comes voter participation, politicians responding to voters, and engagement. If I could have one policy implemented today, this would be the one. From this, other issues can start to be addressed.

Tactical Voting

There has been a lot printed in recent days about Tactical Voting, from people saying 'It'll let the Tories in by the back door', to others saying 'Blair needs a bloody nose'. Actually existing has an analysis of the situation as it stands now, as does Nick Barlow, see also this post.

The situation is simply that a swing from, say, Labour to Lib Dem is not enough for get a Tory Government, a swing of 11.5% from Lab to Lib would result in a hung parliament, and a swing of 24% gets a Lib Dem government. At no point do the conservatives benefit, unless there is simultaneously a swing toward the Conservatives.

Voting inequities

As people may have realised, I've been thinking about electoral systems for a little while, and I wanted to demonstrate the fundamental problems with the current electoral system in the UK, and how this can lead to voter 'apathy' (or voter pragmatism) (Robin Cook writes about labour voter 'apathy' in the Guardian). I would like you to imagine a three constituency system. In each constituency there are 160 voters. Each voter has a probability of voting a certain way (though will sometimes make a mistake).

I set up an excel spreadsheet to simulate this voting system, and which would allow me to adjust the probabilities of various votes.

Unrepresented In this example, we have only two parties which are being voted for, blue and yellow. In each constituency, yellow is slightly more likely to be voted for than blue. Yellow wins in each constituency and thus gets THREE seats. Due to the randomness I built in, I sometimes had blue winning three seats! In the example shown, the blue vote comprises of 45.6% of the vote, but gets NO representation. If a single person was being elected, that is unavoidable, but when many people are being elected it has the effect of disenfranchising the voters.

What is a real world example of this? There are many, this is just one example in the UK and here is another from Canada:

The first past the post electoral system has been a source of controversy in the last two elections. In 1996, the Liberal Party won the popular vote by more than 40,000 ballots, 41.8 per cent compared to the NDP's 39.5 per cent, but only claimed 33 of 79 seats. The NDP claimed the majority with 39 seats.

In 2001, the Liberal Party won 58 per cent of the popular vote but claimed 77 out of 79 seats. Meanwhile the NDP earned 22 per cent, or almost a quarter of the popular vote, but wound up with just two seats until they won a third seat in a recent byelection.

Perverse OutcomeIn this example I've demonstrated a perverse outcome, real world examples of this have been linked to already.

In this example, Red gets two seats, despite yellow having the popular vote.

Boris Johnson (Conservative) has recently pointed out issues associated with this in the UK. In particular, the average population in labour supporting seats is lower than in conservative supporting seats. This means that the average conservative voter has less 'clout' than the average labour voter. To extend this, the Lib Dems are more disadvantaged still.

The current system encourages people to not vote for their favoured candidate, suppose in the example above, in Area 1 (the left box), a blue voter ranks his preferences blue>yellow>red, i.e. they'd like blue to win, would settle for yellow and would despise it if red wone, then they may well vote for yellow. Blue stops even caring about this area. This is seen in the real world too, in my area it is a race between conservatives and liberal democrats, I haven't seen a labour candidate in years. Where I used to live I never saw a conservative for a similar reason. Surely it can't be healthy for a government (of whatever persuasion) to be elected when they can effectively ignore the bulk of the country?

Before moving on, have another look at the picture. Yellow got over 40% of the vote, but no representation at all.... that could never happen, could it?

Yes, it could.

It happened in Canada in 1926 when the Conservatives got none of the 17 available seats in Manitoba with over 40% of the vote.

In 2001, Labour got some 60% of the seats on 40% of the vote.

In 1931 in the UK , with 55% of the vote, the Conservatives got 473 seats to Labour's 52 (on 38%). With only 6.5% of the vote the liberals got almost as many seats, 33.

As things stand today, if each of the three major parties poll equally at 33% each, then labour would get the most seats, 318 to the Conservatives 208 with the lib dems on 102. This is primarily due to the distribution of voters.

Even Split - Uneven OutcomeIn this example we can see the vote evenly split. Yellow and Red both bot 34.8% of the vote, blue got 30.4%. However Blue got one seat, red two and yellow none.

In this example, the 'yellow' voters were evenly spread, but there was one area with a larger than average blue population, and two areas with a larger than average red population.

This is reflected in the UK, with some areas 'true blue', and some labour heartlands, areas of the south west and scotland are liberal democrat areas (obviously there will be some intermingling).

Geographical anomalies provide scope for Gerrymandering, this is where election outcomes are affected by border changes to take advantage of a geographical distribution of votes.

People defend the current system saying things like What other system is there? The answer is many! They say things like Proportional Representation doesn't have a direct link between elector and electee. Whilst this is true in some systems, one can design better systems where this link remains. They say things like A PR based system would lead to weak governance. Whilst this is true, that is of benefit, it could mean less dogmatic and poor legislation (from the Poll Tax to the Removal of Habeus Corpus).

In the British Isles we already use other systems. The Republic of Ireland elects it's representatives using a Transferable Vote system. Wales has a mixture of proportional representation and First past the post, as does Scotland. The European elections use a list based PR system.

In 1997, the Labour manifesto said that they were committed to electoral reform. A commission was set up and recommended that we move to a system called AV+.

Essentially this allows voters to express a preference, in the 'perverse' example above, a 'blue' voter in area 1 could say 'I'd like blue, but wouldn't mind yellow'. This would remove the incentive for tactical voting, and the true preferences of the voters would emerge.

It would also reduce the effect of extremist parties, as many people would, once familiar with the system, tend to rank any of the mainstream parties above the extremists.

Protest votes would not be wasted either. Someone could vote Number-1: Protest, Number-2: Mainstream.

Despite the recommendation in 1998 to move to a new system, nothing has happened. The cynical might say that the sitting MPs have no interest in change as, by definition, they are the beneficiaries of the existing system.

On the 'Make My Vote Count' site, there is a petition which can be signed to promote change to the electoral system in the UK elections.

A system such as 'first past the post' leads to voter 'apathy' (this is a misuse of the term to my mind, voter 'pragmatism' may be more reasonable. If one is, say, a yellow supporter in a seat where blue has a massive majority with red hot on their heels, is it worth turning out to vote? If one is a blue supporter with your party sure to win, then surely your vote isn't going to make them win more? Next time politicians talk of voter apathy, you may like to ask them about the causes of this, including the nature of the electoral system.

(Edit: 16:10pm Note there was a bug in the original spreadsheet which meant that a selection of 'yellow' votes were not randomised (see the line in area 1 and area 3 along the bottom, the tallies of what the votes were in each area included this, and so the final counts are correct, I have updated the spreadsheet so that if I ever need it again there will not be this bug).