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….


Benchmarking and ’empowerment’ are two different things

communities-in-control-white-paperWonk-blogger Will Davies has an excellent post up here. Quoting the Communities in Control White Paper as follows…

We believe that the causes of political disengagement, while complex, can be distilled to a dominant factor: a sense of powerlessness on the part of most citizens that their voices are not being heard, their views not listened to, their participation unwelcomed or their activity unrewarded.

Will comments: 

Ah, a sense of powerlessness. Not a fact of powerlessness, perhaps induced by the fact that only a small minority of voters actually count – and are courted politically – under the British voting system.

That’s not the strongest argument either in a very hard-hitting piece that finds the weaknesses in New Labour’s approach to empowerment – both a reluctance to address the actual problem, and a hubristic faith in the power of management. Continue reading

Two party systems

There’s a very good article over at Westminster Wisdom about the longevity of the US two-party system – a dominance of only two largely unchanged political parties since 1860 – “a record unmatched by any other Democracy.”

A comparison with the UK, in which the period from 1945 until the late 1960s marked a fairly rigid period of allignment along party and class lines, and the subsequent fragmentation of voting paterns is interesting. There’s an entertaining gap-fill exercise here where you can test your knowledge of this, but it’s often hard to recognise just how much things have changed since 1966.

If you look at the general election results, you see only two very major parties, a very marginal Liberal Party, nothing that could be called a Green Party, tiny Nationalist parties and a miniscule far-right (Union Movement). 

Of the 630 MPs, all but 13 were Labour or Conservative. And of the remainder, 12 were Liberal and one was Republican Labour – the late Gerry Fitt in West Belfast.

The expectation among politicians that they should advance particular policies – as opposed to a general approach – in order to attract votes is a fairly new one in the UK. When Labour lost power to the Conservatives in 1970, a relatively small number of voters switched allegiance. In addition, it is often argued that this reflected a demographic shift (people leaving the Labour-voting class and joining the strata that vote Conservative) more than any reflection on the actual polcies of the political parties.

In 1970, Labour went into the General Election with a fair degree of optimism – their defeat was an unpleasant surprise to them. All of this following a period that included the devaluation of Sterling and Harold Wilson’s famous ‘Pound in your pocket‘ sophistry. 

All of this raises the question: Do we have an electoral system that reflects voters’ expectations of representation? If the main system of voting did so in 1970, by definition, it can no longer do so in 2009 because those expectations have changed so dramatically.