Election 2015 – Keeping Things in Proportion

When you hear the heads of three political party leaders hit the floor on the same day, you know it’s been an eventful election. Green Party leader Natalie Bennett said before the results were announced that the most likely victim was to be the First Past The Post electoral system. Many of us are waiting for this fourth head to drop.

There are experts at the Electoral Reform Society who could explain the different alternative systems and their respective advantages and disadvantages, if politicians wanted to know but of course the winner is rarely keen to change a system under which they have just achieved victory. On this occasion, we may have to insist. This election was too chaotic to count as democracy. Poorly coordinated tactical voting based upon opinion poles that are now known to have been wrong, is a very risky way to make an important decision.

  • Majority

Out of the people who voted, the winner is the option that gets more than 50% of the votes. There can be a draw and with more than 2 options, there won’t necessarily be a winner.

  • First-Past-The-Post (FPTP)

The winner is the option that gets most votes. When there are more than 2 options and the spit is fairly equal, there can be arguments over ‘legitimacy’, as there were at this election.

UK elections are run under a combination of these 2 systems, FPTP to decide which party’s leader tries to form a government but if there is no majority then further horse trading and agreements with other parties to work together to achieve a majority.

Does FPTP ever work? It can, if there are only 2 choices (and no-one is hiding a third option that many people would have preferred, as happened in the Scottish Independence referendum) and there is no dispute over the borders of the appropriate constituency or who should be entitled to vote (another pair of hurdles the ‘Scottish question’ did not clear cleanly.)

Until last night, the Conservatives seemed likely to get the most votes but not to have a majority. We heard the SNP argue that an ‘alliance of the Left’ would have a greater share of the vote that would have more legitimacy. The unexpected Conservative majority saved us from that entertainment.

What do we want from our elections? There has been a lot of talk of “PR”,

  • Proportional Representation

A set of systems that would select MPs from a group of candidates, in proportion to the number of votes they receive. At first sight, this seems fair but what if there are candidates that have some support from a small section of the population but are extremely unpopular with another part of the community, possibly everyone else? Systems that allow ‘NOT preferences’ to be expressed exist.A

  • Transferable Votes system

is used in Australia. You put a “1” against your first choice, a “2” against your second etc. After voting, if your first choice has not won then it is transferred to your second choice. It is designed to maximise the satisfaction, or at least minimise the dissatisfaction, across the population.

Would an example help? Imagine there is an election in Israel. An election is held to choose 2 councillors from 4 candidates. You might get 1 PLO candidate, 1 from a Zionist group that wanted to build on Palestinian land and two moderates who want to respect the traditions of the two communities but to build shared first schools so that kids get to know each other before they learn to hate.

Under Proportional Representation, it is not inconceivable that the Palestinians would vote for the PLO candidate first and the Israelis would vote for the Zionist.

Under a Transferable Votes system, they might choose 2 moderates who are no-ones first choice. Is this compromise, social engineering or satisfaction optimisation? Is it better to make a few people very happy and a few people  very unhappy with each choice?

An exercise to the reader: UKIP seem likely to favour PR but they are very worried about immigration by Muslims and the possibility of Islamist extremism within those communities. Under PR, might there ever be enough fundamentalist Muslims spread around the UK to elect there own MP?

Remember when we had a FPTP referendum and chose not to move the only bad PR system we were offered, in case we got coalition governments? What about when most Scots probably wanted greater devolved power within the UK but were offered an In/Out referrendum?

Democracy is not simple. Decisions have consequences. We should not change voting systems in a rush. I think Natalie Bennett knows this, so we should listen to what she says.

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