Alternative alternative voting systems, part five: AV+, or denying (proportional) representation to England

The Alternative Vote Plus (AV+) is the system for UK-parliamentary elections recommended in 1998 by the Independent Commission on the Voting System (the Jenkins Commission) appointed by the New Labour government. That government then reneged on its 1997 manifesto promise to hold a referendum on whether to adopt the recommendations of the Commission.

AV+ is a form of Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system, in which single-member constituency MPs are topped up by MPs elected from a proportional open party list encompassing a wider geographical area – in the case of AV+ based around traditional counties and urban areas. It is therefore very similar to the Additional Member System (AMS) used to elect the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Indeed, the Jenkins Report recommended that the same top-up areas be used in Scotland and Wales for UK-parliamentary elections based on AV+ as for their national elections using AMS. The difference with AV+ is that it is AV rather than First Past the Post that is used for the constituency part of the election.

The way in which it was proposed that the top-up element of AV+ would work is described in the Jenkins Report here. The total number (80) and geographical distribution (65 in England) of top-up areas is described here. In addition, it was proposed that about 15% to 20% of all MPs would be elected via the top-up part of the system.

My contention in this article is that one of the main, if unstated, reasons why New Labour never carried out a referendum on AV+ is that introducing it would inevitably have raised questions regarding English governance in general that New Labour wanted to keep permanently brushed under the carpet. The same could in fact be said of PR in general: the implementation of any form of proportional representation for the UK parliament would inevitably create a dynamic towards an English-national politics. This is because a PR election would produce a body of English MPs that for once reflected, albeit still imperfectly, the actual level of support enjoyed by each party in England. It would be contrary to this proportionality if MPs elected outside of England altered the balance of power between the parties, especially if this overrode the will of English MPs (e.g. if Labour used its Scottish MPs to maintain a majority in English matters that it would not otherwise have based on English MPs only). But even if the balance of power was not affected by non-English MPs legislating for England, the legitimacy of them doing so would be questioned much more forcefully. That’s because proportional representation is predicated on geographic representation: the importance of ensuring proportionality is to ensure that people within a certain geographical territory have elected representatives and governments that reflect how they voted and are therefore properly accountable to them. But that principle would be violated if representatives from outside that territory continued to make laws for it.

With regard to AV+ in particular, and Mixed Member Proportional systems (including AMS) in general, I would argue that it has the potential to offer solutions to the West Lothian and English Questions that the British Establishment doesn’t want, because it introduces a distinction between English and British governance. Indeed, it is because of the potential for AV (without the top-up element) to serve as a stepping stone towards a form of AV+ in which a distinct English level of governance is recognised that I have previously argued I would be prepared to back AV in the proposed referendum in May 2011, for all my considerable criticisms of AV. In that previous article, I argued that a House of Commons elected using AV, coupled with a House of Lords elected using a regional party-list form of PR, could provide a transitional stage towards a hybrid English-British parliament. In this parliament, executive responsibility for English matters would belong to AV-elected English constituency MPs (although they would need the voting support of their party-list-elected colleagues), while the party-list MPs would also sit in a new federal British parliament responsible for reserved matters. (I outlined this constitutional blueprint in detail in the now sadly discontinued English Parliament Online site. I’ll republish the article here at some point.)

That particular model for Parliament is based on the idea that you could map two other distinctions onto the distinction between constituency MPs and party-list MPs: 1) the distinction between devolved and reserved matters; and 2) the distinction between national and Union-British politics and governance respectively. On this basis, under AV+, the primary focus for constituency MPs’ activities and accountability would be devolved issues affecting the day-to-day lives of their constituents in the nations from which they were elected, such as health, education, transport, justice, housing, etc. The top-up, party-list MPs would then be responsible and accountable mainly for reserved and Union-wide matters, while also having regard for the impact of their decisions on the nations from which they had been elected. Building on this principle, in my hybrid English-British parliamentary model, the English party-list MPs would be accountable to their constituency colleagues for their decisions in the British parliament: the English parliament would have powers of scrutiny over British legislation, just as the British parliament could scrutinise legislation from the devolved parliaments, or at least the English parliament.

In the case of AV+ as proposed by the Jenkins Commission, the top-up MPs do not in fact have such a Union-wide or English-national remit, as they are elected from smaller regions. However, even such a system could evolve into a situation where, for instance, only English constituency and top-up MPs could deliberate on the finer points of England-specific legislation at the committee stage, while the support of England-only constituency MPs and party-list MPs from across the UK could be required to pass the bills at the final reading. This would provide some means for Scottish-, Welsh- and Northern Ireland-elected MPs (i.e. the party-list MPs from those countries) to have a say regarding the impact of English legislation on their countries, while not allowing Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish constituency MPs to meddle in areas that are dealt with for their countries by devolved parliaments and assemblies. I.e. this presents an almost ready-made solution to the West Lothian Question.

Indeed, there would be no requirement to retain Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish constituency MPs at all in a Westminster parliament in which English legislation was enacted primarily by English constituency and top-up MPs with additional scrutiny by Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish party-list MPs fulfilling the role to which I am arguing top-up MPs are best suited: considering the impact of legislation on their countries and on the Union as a whole. The introduction of AV+ could, then, have led irresistibly to the abolition of non-English constituency MPs at Westminster, their role having been taken over by MSPs, AMs and MLAs (although this would require further devolution, such that the law-making powers of the respective parliament and assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were equivalent to, and exercised in the same areas as, the continuing UK parliament’s powers to legislate for England.).

As a result, the remaining UK parliament would have comprised: English constituency MPs, English party-list MPs and non-English party-list MPs. All MPs would have been equally entitled to vote both on reserved matters and at the first and third stage of English legislation – but with non-English party-list MPs no longer having the power to outvote English MPs in relation to England-only legislation. Where a conflict arose between the English MPs and the non-English MPs regarding such legislation, doubtless the usual political deals and quid pro quos would have come into play, given that the non-English MPs raising concerns would belong to the same parties as their English colleagues. So such a system would undoubtedly continue to protect the interests of the UK’s smaller nations rather well, probably to the detriment of England. This is not the most logical or fair outcome, but it’s what the UK parliament could easily have evolved into if AV+ had been adopted: once you had created bodies of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs not directly elected by constituents (the top-up element), there would be no purpose (other than gerrymandering) to retain constituency MPs from those countries as well, as their role in assessing the impact of English bills on their countries (including the Barnett consequentials) could more than adequately be fulfilled by the party-list MPs. You might have to increase the number of such MPs so that their total would be proportionate to the number of English MPs (both constituency and party-list) relative to the size of each country’s population. And you’d accordingly have to change the system for electing the party-list MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, so that the distribution of seats reflected the parties’ shares of the vote. In other words, this would be a full party-list system, and not just a constituency top-up as it could continue to be in England.

However, this was not to be and will almost certainly never be now. Nevertheless, the system we may end up with as a result of the coalition government’s planned reforms – AV-elected constituency MPs from across the UK and regional party list-elected Lords – could well present a similar ready-made solution to the West Lothian Question. That is, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elected Lords could replace constituency MPs from those countries in their role of scrutinising English legislation with respect to its impact on their countries. In such a situation, there would again no longer be any practical need to retain the unwanted services of non-English MPs in the creation of laws and regulations that apply to England alone.

Lords elected outside of England deliberating and voting on English bills has been dubbed the ‘Upper West Lothian Question’. But if the powers of the Lords were limited to revising and delaying bills, with the final say being given to English-elected MPs only, then this could be a workable solution to the West Lothian Question. Doubtless, party-political and unionist considerations would result in resistance to stripping non-English MPs of their role in England’s governance. But eventually, the duplication of the West Lothian Question that would result from both non-English MPs and non-English Lords voting on English laws would come to seem so grossly unfair and superfluous that a decision would have to be taken as to which elected body, the Commons or the Lords, should fulfil that function, if at all. An elected Lords including non-English members could easily come to be seen as a more legitimate body for deliberating on the impact of English bills on the UK as a whole, as the Lords would be a body with a genuine UK-wide remit, reflecting the logic I referred to above: party list-elected representatives having an overall responsibility to ensure the interests within the UK-wide context of the broader geographic areas from which they are elected (which, in the case of non-English-elected Lords would be the whole of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland respectively), while constituency representatives should be directly accountable to their constituents on devolved matters.

So, whether in its originally envisaged form, or in the interplay between an AV-elected Commons and a party list-elected Lords, or indeed as employed in my model for a hybrid English-British parliament, AV+ has a strong potential to force a resolution of the West Lothian Question. And that’s because it creates a body of elected representatives with accountability at a more national and / or Union-wide level in addition to constituency MPs: it creates national, including English, blocks of MPs and / or Lords, and a justified expectation on the part of each nation’s voters that the people only they have elected should be accountable to them for the laws that affect them.

It’s for this reason – to try to prevent the emergence of an English-national politics and political consciousness – that AV+ will almost certainly never be implemented in its originally envisaged form. Nonetheless, I’ll finish by assessing it here using the same criteria I’ve employed to determine the merits of other voting systems, but with an additional eye towards the particular benefits or disadvantages that England would have stood to gain from AV+.

My first criterion is, Does every vote count / is every vote counted? Here, I’d give AV+ three points out of five, compared with only two for AV on its own. AV fails to count often the majority of second-preference votes and still produces situations in which the votes of a large minority of voters (and sometimes even a majority, if the eventual winner fails to secure a majority of primary and preferential votes) have no influence on the final result. The top-up element of AV+ remedies this situation to some extent by ensuring that the most under-represented party or parties at constituency level are able to secure some degree of representation. Therefore, under AV+, the majority of votes are not counted / do not count at constituency level; but most voters’ choices for either their directly elected MP or regional party top-up representative should influence the result.

Second criterion: is the system proportional? Here again, I’d give AV+ as originally envisaged three out of five. It is proportional but only in a limited way, as the ratio of top-up to constituency MPs (about one to five) is not high enough to ensure a strongly proportional result, especially as AV itself can be wildly disproportional. This is in contrast to other Mixed Member Proportional systems, which have far higher proportions of party-list representatives (e.g. Germany, where 50% of MPs are elected in this way).

Criterion No. 3: Does the system foster accountability? AV+ scores four out of five here: not only does it preserve the close link between MPs and their constituency, but it also improves the accountability of Parliament to the UK as a whole (by virtue of the improved proportionality) and of English-elected representatives to English voters, as discussed above. It fails to score a perfect five, because it is only imperfectly proportional, and because AV alone in fact does little to improve the accountability of MPs to the majority of their constituents, or to eradicate safe seats.

Criterion No. 4: Does the voting system allow voters to express the full range of their political and personal preferences, and send a message to politicians? I’d say that AV+ merits only three out of five here, compared with two out of five for AV alone. You do get quite a fine-grained menu of choices under AV+: you can express the full range of your preferences in the constituency vote and indicate your strongest preference in the top-up party vote, with a reasonable expectation that at least one of your choices (party and / or individual) will be elected. However, in practice, I’m not sure whether people wouldn’t end up treating the constituency vote in the manner of an FPTP election while voting tactically in the top-up vote. That’s to say, if you know your preferred candidate has little chance of winning the constituency election based on AV, you might limit your vote to one candidate (either your preferred candidate or a tactical vote), and then vote in the top-up election in exactly the same way: for your preferred party if you thought they had a chance of gaining an extra seat that way, or tactically for another party that stood a better chance of winning the extra seat or seats on offer.

For example, if the last election had been fought using the AV+ system, and the parties standing in my constituency and ‘region’ had been the same as they were (i.e. no English Democrat or BNP candidates), then I’d have been tempted to vote for only the UKIP candidate at constituency level (as only the Tory could win in practice, so why bother expressing anything other than your real first preference?) but Lib Dem in the top-up vote, as that party stood the strongest chance of winning the additional seat: FPTP-style vote at constituency level, tactical vote in the ‘proportional’ part of the system.

As for the fifth criterion, Does the system mitigate the need to vote tactically?, I’ve just partially answered that question: no, there would still be strong tactical voting pressures and incentives in both the constituency and top-up elections. So I’d give AV+ only two out of five here.

The sixth criterion is, how easy is the system for voters to understand, trust and use effectively? Here also, I’d give AV+ only three out of five. AV alone is quite a complicated and non-transparent system that generates unfair results (based on the possibility that the winner’s majority is smaller than that of another party if all second preferences were counted). If you add to that the rather complicated, bitty top-up system suggested by the Jenkins Commission for AV+, then the question of how to vote in order to secure a desired outcome, and the link between how one had voted and the eventual result, could be quite bewildering for many voters. On the positive side of the equation, AV+ would in fact produce fairer results by virtue of the mechanism it employs to compensate the parties most disadvantaged by the disproportionality of AV. And English voters in particular would feel they were more empowered to achieve a result they actually wanted, and a parliament that truly represented them. Across the UK as a whole, voters would soon come to understand that they had two chances to hit their desired target and would begin to use AV+ astutely to procure if not their most preferred outcome, at least one they had chosen, whether enthusiastically or tactically.

To summarise, here is how AV+ stands in relation to the other systems I’ve discussed in this series of articles to date:

Criterion FPTP AV AppV ARV TMPR AV+
Does every vote count?

3

2

3

4

4

3

Is the system proportional?

1

2

2

3

3

3

Does the system foster accountability?

3

3

4

4

4

4

Does the system let voters express their views?

1

2

3

4

4

3

Does the system mitigate tactical voting?

1

2

2

3

4

2

How user-friendly is the system?

3

2

4

3

3

3

Total scored out of a maximum of 30

12

13

18

21

22

18

AV+ emerges as significantly better than the AV system the establishment is condescending to allow us to choose over FPTP, but significantly inferior to the range voting ARV system, or the more open and empowering but still constituency-focused TMPR system discussed in the previous post. But in any case, we won’t be getting the choice of AV+ or any of its cognates (AMS or MMP) any time soon, because the last thing the establishment wants is any English-national dimension to elections.

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