Voting systems compared

ballot boxIf the rumours are correct, Gordon Brown is about to announce his intention to promote a new voting system for Parliamentary elections in the UK. His choice is said to be the Alternative Vote (AV) system. It looks like the Vote For A Change campaign will get their way and there will be a referendum on the matter.

The Electoral Reform society offers a summary or this voting system that offers its’ strengths and shortcomings (indeed, you can see all of the alternatives on their site). 

And while the ERS as an organisation have doubts about AV (their CEO Ken Ritchie has already been quoted saying that it’s a ‘weak’ option), I recall that a report that they published on their site last year (PDF) made two very upbeat points:

  1. AV is better than it initially appears as an option in the UK, and it offers a significant improvement on current First Past the Post (FPTP) system
  2. It’s also the most likely ‘do-able’ reform in the UK, and a good stepping stone to a more deeper proportional system

Otherwise known as ‘instant runoff,‘ AV can make for quite an exciting election night. 

Personally, I’ve never come to firm view on which voting system I prefer. One advantage of AV, I think, is that it reduces the number of ‘safe seats’ – the origin of a good deal of the perceived arrogance of some MPs who have come to regard their seat as a sinecure.

It is also a system that – while not proportional – will be welcomed in the short term by the Liberal Democrats as it’s likely to increase their representation. 

Voting reformer anorak section

The best summary of electoral options in the UK that I’ve found is David Beetham’s offering (MS Word Doc) on Stuart Weir’s Democratic Audit site (that has a good page with some good links including Peter Hain’s arguments in favour of AV.

Here’s the Wikipedia entry on voting systems and here’s the electoral commission’s outline of the different voting systems that are currently in place in the UK. As ever, Keele University’s politics department has had a serious crack at providing a definitive index of voting systems from around the world.

What we need now, though, is a debategraph on the subject….


The straight choice

oxford labourRichard Pope, Francis Irving and Julian Todd have developed a site – The Straight Choice – that allows you to upload election leaflets as they come through your door – with the intention of promoting consistency and honesty.

It’s an interesting idea. And – as you come here partly because you often get unpopular arguments, let me suggest another one:

That the demand for consistency from political parties often has the unintended consequence of promoting political centralisation. Surely it’s a good thing if Lib-Dems in Truro are saying something different to Lib-Dems in Anglesey?

(hat tip: Kathryn on Facebook).

Left front = a table?

Any clues welcome about that table.... (pic: Flickr - click for attribution).

Any clues welcome about that table.... (pic: Flickr - click for attribution).

One of the nice things about the dynamic way that the internet arranges things is that you sometimes stumble upon artifacts that you don’t understand, but that look fascinating.

This Icelandic blog, for instance, is a complete mystery to me. I found it years ago and visit it once every few months. I’ve no idea what the blogger is saying, but the slightly freaky love of photoshopping is always a laugh.

Call me a democracy-geek, but I find the whole process of balloting is fascinating, and different ballot forms from different countries repay hours of study. On the right hand side of this blog,  I aggregate democracy-related images, where this image (left) came from.

Look closely. The ‘Left Front’ have a party symbol that looks like a fairly ornate 18th Century table. What’s that all about? Wikipedia is silent on the matter at the moment.

Are there any Sri Lankan experts out there that know why this is?

India votes!

Ink on the finger = an X on a ballot (Pic: Tracy Hunter on Flickr)

Ink on the finger = an X on a ballot (Pic: Tracy Hunter on Flickr)

Over the next month or so, the worlds biggest democracy will go to the polls. That’s over 700 million voters. 

Here are some photos over on Flickr: Promoting positivity about democracy in Hyderabad. I love the pride with which some of the photographers annotate their pictures – a satisfaction in participation.

Note the marks on the photographer’s finger showing that he had voted.

Home PgDn

Time for a look at Chapter three of the Conservative local government green paper, Shift Control.

This chapter is the section of the green paper that focuses on democracy, so there’s a lot to talk about. The chapter says that a Conservative Government would:

  • provide citizens in all our large cities with the opportunity to choose whether to have an elected mayor;
  • give people the power to instigate referendums on local issues;
  • make the police accountable to the people they serve through directly elected commissioners, crime maps and
    quarterly beat meetings;

  • put the power to judge the behaviour of councillors back in the hands of their citizens by abolishing the Standards
    Board, and repeal the rules that prevent councillors representing their constituents’ views on local issues;

  • permit local authorities to devolve unlimited funding to ward councillors; and
  • let local people choose the organisational structures of their local councils.

Directly elected police commissioners deserves a fuller treatment elsewhere, so I won’t discuss it here. I’d only say that the obvious problem is one of competing mandates. Standards Board issues are democratic, in the sense that elected politicians should not be subject to disbarment by unelected civil servants – leaving such issues to the judicial system is by far the better approach.

Devolution of some money to ward level – as a power not a duty – isn’t a bad idea in itself, but the green paper suggests that money will be parcelled out to councillors directly. Participatory budgeting may be relatively untried, but an opportunity to extend it has been missed here. Participatory budgeting also provides a check on process: if individual councillors have sole responsibility for spending, the possibility of ward-level slush funds can’t be ruled out.

Allowing referendums on council governance structures might be a good idea if people knew or cared what their council governance structure was. More likely to be used is the alternative proposal to allow changes based on manifesto commitments. One problem in the proposals is that any referendum would take place at the same time as local government elections. This hasn’t been thought through. If Blanktown Council holds a referendum on whether to create an elected mayor, it has to be before the election cycle or there could be a four-year wait until the proposal is implemented. Far better to have the referendum held on election day in the year before the change comes in.

It’s also not clear what would happen to those places where directly elected mayors already exist. Would a council elected on a manifesto of getting rid of them be able to do so? This is important because elected mayors are sometimes independents, and sometimes from a different party than that controlling the council. It would be unfortunate for democracy, to say the least, if an respected independent mayor could be chucked out by collusion between a local government old guard on the council.

Quite contrary to the anything-goes spirit of the above, another proposal is to force big cities to have referendums on elected mayors whether they want to or not. This is probably the weakest idea in the chapter. Caught – as the government are – between a desire for elected mayors and a reluctance to impose them, the Conservatives have come down in favour of a double fudge. Rather than letting councils be, or imposing mayors, they are going to force councils to hold a referendum (in which most if not all councillors will campaign for a no vote). Then, beyond that, they are proposing to do this on the basis of current authority boundaries. In the case of Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle, at least, the boundaries are historic irrelevancies. Far better to follow the London model and have directly elected subregional leaders (call them mayors if you like) that cover strategic issues across a range of unitary authorities.

The idea of local referendums triggered by 5% of electors sounds great until the first local referendums for expelling immigrants, leaving the EU, or reintroducing hanging start coming in. There need to be several safeguards on this proposal – first, referendums should be restricted to local government issues (not just issues that affect the locality); second, there should be a participation threshold, of say 20%, for a result to be considered valid; third, the option to hold the referendum outside the normal electoral cycle should be removed: this means that referendum votes would get higher and more representative turnout.

SysRq F12

Part three of a series of articles looking at the Conservative local government green paper, Shift Control.

This time, chapter two. This chapter is about localism, and promises that a Conservative Government would:

  • give local residents the power to determine the balance between the level of council tax and the level of services

  • drastically reduce the centrally imposed bureaucratic burdens that drive up council tax;
  • hugely enlarge the freedom of local councils to act in the best interests of residents by giving them a ‘general
    power of competence’;

  • return to local councils the freedom to determine how they carry out their statutory regulatory duties;
  • abolish all process targets applied to local authorities, and free councils from intrusive and ineffective inspection
    regimes by abolishing the Comprehensive Area Assessment; and

  • end all forced amalgamations of local authorities.

I’ve italicised the parts that are relevant to democracy issues.

The general power of competence is something that local government has been asking for for some time. It would give local government more of an independent legal standing – they could implement good ideas without seeking specific legislative support from Parliament. The wellbeing power is something that comes close, and lessons from that suggest that there are real institutional barriers to its use. On the basis of that experience, the Conservatives would probably need to provide more than a power on its own, particularly at a time when existing services are being constrained by financial pressures.

Ending forced amalgamations of local government probably means ending all amalgamations of local government. On this, the Conservatives appear to be supporting councillors’ views rather than trying to bypass them. I may be wrong, but I can’t think of a unitarisation or merger proposal, at least in recent years, that has had support from the elected members in both councils involved.

This is an interesting battleground for local versus national views. From a civil service perspective, there is no rationale other than bureaucratic history behind some of the current local government boundaries. As the LGA have been saying for a while, they don’t match up with functional economic areas, and they often don’t even match the boundaries of built-up areas, as in Norwich, Nottingham and Cambridge. Politically, local government bureaucracy is a tasty target for Treasury cost-cutting. Against that centralist pressure, the democratically elected members of councils will be steadfastly opposed to any changes to boundaries, or unitarisation.

I suspect that a Conservative government looking for expenditure cuts will find this promise hard to live up to.

The most surprising proposal in the chapter is the idea that voters might get a referendum on local council tax increases. I’m quite torn on this. I’ve said here before that one-off referendums on national issues are not helpful or useful, because you can’t take anything meaningful from the results. At the same time, I don’t have such a negative attitude to referendums that are a recognised part of a process, and take place on a fairly regular basis, as in Switzerland.

The proposal here is that a referendum might take place if the council proposed a tax increase higher than a nationally-set cap. Call it ‘soft capping’. Councils would know that setting a rate higher than the soft cap would risk an embarrassing referendum defeat, as well as incurring the balloting cost, which at least for Broadland DC in Norfolk, is about £50,000 per referendum.

Part of this proposal is political cleverness – abolish hard capping and replace it with something almost as effective. I suspect that soft capping enforced by local referendums is a little bit better than capping enforced by a distant Government minister. Not better than no capping at all, but the chances of that happening under any plausible Government are very, very small.

Do a good deed over the weekend?

If you edit any website or blog, why not make sure that there is a link to the Electoral Commission’s ‘About My Vote‘ website. It encourages people to register and makes it all as easy as possible to do it online. It’s even not that bad from a usability point of view which isn’t a universal statement about public sector websites.

Every councillor website and weblog should have a link to this site, I reckon, and I’ll be making sure that the 1,000 or so Councillor websites that I help to manage have a link fairly soon.


You can find out about your right to vote and register here.

You can find out about your right to vote and register here.