AV referendum: for the sake of England, don’t vote!

Do you think the First Past the Post voting system used for electing UK MPs should be changed to the Alternative Vote? Do you even care?

Firstly, should anyone who supports the idea of an English parliament give a monkeys about the voting system used to elect the UK parliament? On one level, no: the fact that this AV referendum is being held on the same day as the elections for the Scottish parliament, and Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies, but that the English have never been consulted about a parliament of their own; and the fact that we’re being offered only the disproportional AV system, whereas those very devolved elections use a different, proportional system, is a downright insult. So not only is there no representation for England as a nation on offer, but there is to be no proportional representation for England even within the UK parliament. So I know where I’d tell them to stick their AV.

On the other hand, a ‘better’ electoral system for electing English MPs would surely be a gain for the nation even while we’re being governed by an unrepresentative UK executive and parliament. Does AV constitute such a gain? Well, in my view, AV is marginally – very marginally – better than FPTP. It does ensure that parliamentary candidates have to secure the explicit support of a larger proportion of their local electorate in order to win – though it doesn’t guarantee that MPs must obtain the support of a majority of voters: that depends on how many voters don’t express a preference for either / any of the candidates remaining after the less popular candidates have been eliminated.

However, in reality, this greater share of the vote MPs have to win, which includes the second and subsequent preferences of voters whose first-choice candidates have been unsuccessful, already exists in latent form under the FPTP system. The only difference that AV makes is that it allows voters to explicitly express that support with their preference votes, so that – for example – a winning plurality of, say, 40% is turned into a winning ‘majority’ of 52%. That extra 12% of voters who are broadly content for a candidate to win on 40% of the vote are still there under FPTP; so AV in a sense just legitimises what happens under FPTP: the election to parliament of MPs who fail to be the first choice of a majority of voters.

AV is, therefore, mainly a means to secure buy-in to an unfair system that has ill-served England. That’s what FPTP has been: over the past few decades, it’s given us Tory and Labour governments that have never commanded the support of a majority of English men and women. It gave us the divisive, confrontational and egomaniacal Thatcher regime; and it was responsible for Blair’s New Labour, with its legacy of asymmetric devolution, British-establishment Anglophobia, public-spending discrimination against England, and the overseas follies of Iraq and Afghanistan, with so many brave young English people exploited as cannon fodder in unwinnable, unjustifiable wars.

FPTP has failed England. AV is only a very slightly mitigated version of FPTP. Both will lead to more disproportional, unrepresentative UK parliaments that will continue to ignore not only the just demands for an English parliament but England’s very existence. Under the present UK political settlement, England as such is completely discounted and passed over in silence. The pro-AV campaign says that, under AV, your vote really counts. But England will still count for nothing, whether we have AV or FPTP.

So make your vote really count this Thursday in the AV referendum by greeting it with the silent contempt with which the political establishment treats England. England’s voice is not being consulted; so respond with sullen, stern silence in your turn. Don’t vote for a system – the UK parliament itself – that disenfranchises you. And let the result – whether a win for AV or FPTP – be rendered as meaningless as it really is through a derisory turn-out across England.

England will have its say one day in a meaningful referendum: on an English parliament. And I bet neither AV nor FPTP will be on offer as the voting system for a parliament that truly represents the English people.

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DPEV: absolutely the best single-member voting system for the UK and England – honest

OK, I admit it: I’m a voting-system geek, if not obsessive. I really dislike AV, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it leaves England short-changed: nothing done to address the West Lothian Question or the broader English Question, to say nothing about the unaccountable nature of executive power in the UK, which relies on a disproportional voting system and a subservient parliament to run the country virtually as an elective dictatorship.

During the course of the last few months, in this blog, I’ve discussed a number of alternative single member-constituency voting systems that are better than the Alternative Vote, in my view, despite the fact that AV is the only alternative on offer. It seems to me I’ve been fishing around for a ‘killer’ system: one that is simple, fair and transparent but which also addresses the two main failings of First Past the Post and AV – that they 1) produce disproportional results and 2) bring about governments with no real mandate that can basically get away with whatever they want (a simplification, I know, but it sometimes feels that way). In addition, if a voting system passes the ‘English parliament test’ – or at least a fairness-to-England test – then all the better. Basically, if I’d be happy if the system in question were used to elect an English parliament, then it must be OK.

I now think I’ve come up with such a ‘killer voting-system app’, so to speak. It’s called DPEV: ‘Dual Parliamentary and Executive Voting’. How it works is as follows:

  1. DPEV is a single-member system. There are two parts to the voting process: a First Past the Post ballot of individual candidates and a separate ballot listing the parties standing in that constituency. Voters must select the individual candidate they’d like to be their MP by marking a cross next to their name – exactly as under the present FPTP system. Again, just as with the present system, the winner is the candidate obtaining the most votes. Voters must also mark a cross next to the name of the party or parties they’d like to form the next UK government. Here, they can vote for more than one party, thereby expressing a preference for a coalition government of the parties in question.

     

  2. The individual-candidate vote is used to determine the composition of Parliament, whereas the party vote is used separately to determine which parties have a mandate to form the next government. Basically, if one party wins an outright majority of the party vote, they are deemed to have a mandate to form the government. Otherwise, the strongest multi-party combination is considered to have a mandate to form a coalition government so long as the overall total of votes for both or all of the parties involved adds up to more than 50%.

    For example, let’s say that 30% of voters want the Tories only to be in government; 25% want just Labour; 10% want only the Lib Dems; 16% want a Lab-Lib coalition; and 11% want a Tory-Lib Dem coalition. Here, the system decides there is a mandate for a Lab-Lib Dem coalition because this was the most popular party-combination vote (i.e. 16% vs. 11% for a Con-Lib combo) and the total number of voters wanting either a Labour or Lib Dem government (single-party or coalition) adds up to a majority (51%). However, if the percentage of voters wanting a Lab-Lib Dem coalition had been only 14%, those parties’ combined vote would add up to only 49%. In that case, despite having the largest coalition vote, there would be no implied mandate for a Lab-Lib Dem coalition, and it would be down to the Conservatives and Lib Dems to try to reach a coalition deal, as the combined total of individual and joint votes for those parties would be 51%.

One other point of detail here: to form a government, a party or combination of parties must garner over 50% of the party vote in England as well as across the UK as a whole. This is because, without devolution for England, the UK government is also an acting English government and so must have a democratic mandate in England separately. Obviously, the best solution would be a completely separate English parliament and executive. But in the absence of that, this does address the West Lothian Question, if not the English Question: it wouldn’t matter, on one level, if English laws were passed by parliamentary majorities that included non-English MPs if the government enacting those laws had a legitimate democratic mandate from English voters. This is what this ‘England lock’ on the government is designed to ensure.

So basically: in the absence of an outright majority for any party in the party-vote bit of DPEV, parties must try to form majority coalitions, beginning with the multi-party combination vote (i.e. where people vote for two or more parties together) that obtained the largest share of the votes across the UK, so long as those coalitions command an overall majority of the votes across the UK and England.

What would happen if neither a Lab-Lib Dem nor a Con-Lib Dem coalition could muster a block of votes of over 50% across the UK or in England only? In this instance, the parties would have to bring in a third coalition partner that had won a sufficient percentage of the party vote across the UK and England, as applicable, to constitute a majority mandate, so long as that third party had won some MPs. However, even so, it is possible that a majority coalition could still not be formed, either because there was insufficient political will among the parties involved or because there would be parties for which people had voted that were without MPs, such as – for example – UKIP, the Greens, the BNP or the English Democrats. In this instance, the parties would have to try to form a coalition or single-party government based on the majority of available party votes. E.g. if only 80% of the UK-wide party vote had been for parties that succeeded in winning MPs, then the government (single-party or coalition) would have to command over 40% of the party vote across the UK, and whatever the corresponding majority percentage would be in England: probably higher than 40% given the lower share of the votes won by nationalist or sectarian parties in England compared with the UK’s other nations.

To prevent this rule becoming a get-out clause allowing the Conservatives or Labour to form governments that were without a true majority mandate, one of the major constitutional innovations of DPEV would be that any government commanding the support of only a minority of voters (as determined by the party vote) would have to be ratified by the electorate in a snap referendum following the conclusion of coalition negotiations. And that means a UK-wide referendum if the government in question was based on minority support across the UK as well as England, or a referendum in England only if the proposed government enjoyed a majority across the UK but was backed by only a minority in England.

If such a referendum failed to win the endorsement of either the British or English people, then the parties would have to go back to the drawing board and try to find a majority coalition or alternative minority government. If the latter were the outcome, this too would need to be ratified in a referendum. Then, if this in turn failed, a new election would have to be held – but not a whole general election with all the new constituency MPs needing to seek re-election, merely a new party election, in which all of the parties that had won MPs would be standing. This would determine a new clear majority mandate, as now the choice of parties would be greatly cut down. In practice, in the absence of an outright majority for any single party in this second party vote-only election, it would be pretty obvious which combination of parties (e.g. a coalition between the Lib Dems and one of the other major parties) had a clear mandate, and the parties concerned could have a constitutional obligation to work together.

These provisions for majority coalitions or – in the absence of majorities – ratifying referendums and follow-up elections, as required, would ensure that any UK government had a clear majority mandate from the people across the UK and England, irrespective of whether the party or parties in government commanded a majority of MPs in Parliament. This relates to another original feature of DPEV: MPs are elected using a disproportional system (FPTP), but the executive is elected using a perfectly proportional system – so the government takes its democratic mandate directly from the people, not from parliament. This does mean that the parliamentary majority could be at odds with the executive majority, and governments could well find they commanded only a minority in Parliament. However, this could be a good thing, in that Parliament would be able to hold governments to account more effectively. Equally, the system for electing MPs could be changed separately, without altering the perfectly proportional method for electing the executive. E.g. you could introduce AV, STV or some other system for electing Parliament that would make it more proportional and representative, and make the majority in Parliament less likely to clash with that of the government.

Not only the executive but also MPs would be more directly accountable to their voters, in two main ways:

  1. Separating out the vote for an individual MP from the vote for a government, as DPEV does, restores the direct accountability of an MP to his or her constituents. Voters can now choose an MP on the basis of their individual suitability for the role – their experience, character and values as well as political opinions – without prejudice to the party they want to be in government, which they vote for separately. By contrast, under the present FPTP system, and the proposed AV system, if you vote for the man or woman, you are also voting for the party and are presumed to be endorsing that whole party’s programme for government as set out in their manifesto. This is rolling up two distinct choices in one, and it’s what helps make MPs subservient to their party apparatus in Parliament, because they are presumed to have been sent to Parliament to fulfil that party’s programme. Under DPEV, each individual MP has been personally chosen by the plurality of their voters: having been elected independently, they are empowered to act independently.
     
  2. This independence from party, and accountability to voters, would be reinforced by another constitutional innovation that would be associated with DPEV. Let’s say a Conservative MP has been elected into Parliament, but a majority of constituents had voted either Labour or Lib Dem (or for both Labour and Lib Dem) in the party vote, and a Lab-Lib Dem coalition was in fact formed. Then, if that Tory MP persistently votes against government bills at their third and final reading (e.g. in 50% or more of cases), constituents should have the right to demand a by-election to hold that MP to account. If the MP is re-elected, they could be said to have received a mandate to continue opposing government bills. The smart thing for the government parties to do in this instance would be to field only one candidate to ensure a government majority in the by-election – but whether they’d have the wit to do that or not is moot.

    I would envisage that voters would be able to call a by-election on this basis one year after the general election, and then again after another year, by means of, say, more than 10% of the electorate turning up at polling stations on a designated day to sign a petition for such a by-election. Once more than two years have elapsed after the general election, there should be no further by-elections of this sort, in that – ideally – there would be four-year fixed-term governments, so that holding a large number of by-elections at the close of the third year of the parliament would be somewhat excessive. (Incidentally, if a coalition collapsed before the fixed term had expired, it could be made mandatory for the parties to try to form a new coalition – but this would also have to be ratified by referendum. If it was rejected in the referendum, then a general election would have to be held.)

    This method of holding MPs to account could be applied to any MP that persistently voted against the party majority in their constituency. For instance, if a candidate from one of the government parties had been elected as MP but a majority of constituents had not voted for the party or parties of government in the party vote, those MPs could also be held to account and forced to fight a by-election if they persistently voted with the government. This means that MPs would truly have to respect the opinions of their voters and take them into consideration in their work in Parliament, alongside party loyalty.

All these aspects of DPEV would bring about much greater popular sovereignty and political accountability: the government taking its mandate direct from the people; MPs directly accountable to their voters and expected to act independently of party dictates. And, as I said above, it provides a solution to the West Lothian Question, if not an answer to the English Question – but I would say that it’s still an excellent voting and constitutional system for any English parliament and so passes my English parliament test.

How does DPEV perform in relation to the six criteria I’ve been using to assess the merits of different single-member voting systems? My first criterion is: Does every vote count, and is every vote counted? Here, I’d give DPEV four out of five. Every party vote, under DPEV, counts in the sense that the right to form a government depends on every single vote cast. However, as many parties for which people vote would still not win MPs, those parties could not participate in government. Similarly, the constituency vote counts for more than it does presently under FPTP, in that MPs are elected independently of their party affiliation and are expected to act accordingly. However, as the system used to elect MPs – at least in my initial version of DPEV – is the disproportional FPTP, many constituency votes will count for little.

In terms of the second criterion – Is the system proportional? – I’d again award DPEV four out of five: it’s perfectly proportional in terms of the party vote that is used to determine the shape of the government,but disproportional with respect to the constituency vote. However, the fact that the government derives its mandate direct from the people, and the fact that accountability of MPs to constituents is built into DPEV, makes it less critical to achieve a perfectly proportional parliament.

The third criterion is: Does the system foster accountability? Here, I’d modestly give DPEV five out of five: it embodies a very high degree of accountability of MPs to their constituents, and it also makes the government directly answerable to the whole electorate, a majority of whom have to give it their backing, either in general elections and referendums to ratify minority governments or coalitions.

Fourthly: Does the voting system allow voters to express the full range of their political and personal preferences, and send a message to politicians? Here, DPEV scores four out of five. It enables voters to support individual candidates that can be of an altogether different political persuasion to themselves, on the basis that whichever candidate you vote for (based on their personal qualities), you can vote for different parties to form the government. In addition, you can vote for as many parties as are on the ballot paper in the party vote. Not all of those votes will be effective, however, in the sense of resulting in representation – and in fact, it would be silly to vote, say, for four parties, as it is unlikely that such a vote will be rewarded with a coalition of all four parties. But all party votes are nonetheless recorded, so that voters can send a message to politicians. In addition, the more people voted for parties such as UKIP and the Greens, the more people would feel emboldened to vote for UKIP and Green candidates, too – with the added incentive that even if only one or two MPs from those parties were elected, they might go straight into government as part of a coalition.

The fifth criterion is: Does the system mitigate / obviate tactical voting? Here, I’d give DPEV four out of five. Under DPEV, there is virtually no incentive for tactical voting, other than to try to defeat the candidate of a particular party in the constituency vote. But the reward for doing so is considerably less than under FPTP or AV, in that MPs of any hue are supposed to act independently and can be held to account if they put party interest above that of constituents by opposing legislation that the constituents have by implication supported (by voting in a majority for the parties that are in government).

Finally, How easy is the system for voters to understand, trust and use effectively? Well, DPEV should be easy for voters to understand and use to their best advantage. You just vote for an MP in the same way as now; and you can vote separately for the party or parties you want to form the next government. However, some voters might find the separation of the candidate and party vote confusing, and also might not use the option to combine votes for multiple parties very effectively (i.e. they might select several parties or not understand that selecting multiple parties means you’re expressing a preference for a coalition of them all). So I’d give DPEV four out of five here.

So here’s how I rate DPEV in comparison with the other single-member systems I’ve discussed, including several I’ve ‘invented’ myself, as I have with DPEV. For the sake of comprehensiveness, I’m also rating the variants of AV I’ve discussed recently (FMT (First Past the Post Majority Top-UP) and AV 2.0); and the method I evoked in my post yesterday, whereby you just have two preferences, and if there is no majority of first preferences, the second preferences of all voters are added to all candidates’ totals, and the winner is the candidate obtaining the most votes (let’s call that ‘TPP’: Two-Preference Plurality!):

Criterion FPTP AV AppV ARV TMPR AV+ NetV 3CV Bucklin
Does every vote count?

3

2

3

4

4

3

4

3

3

Is the system proportional?

1

2

2

3

3

3

3

3

3

Does the system foster accountability?

3

3

4

4

4

4

4

4

3

Does the system let voters express their views?

1

2

3

4

4

3

4

3

2

Does the system mitigate tactical voting?

1

2

2

3

4

2

3

3

3

How user-friendly is the system?

3

2

4

3

3

3

3

3

4

Total scored out of a maximum of 30

12

13

18

21

22

18

21

19

18

 

Criterion DPEV FMT AV 2.0 TPP
Does every vote count?

4

3

4

4

Is the system proportional?

4

2

2

2

Does the system foster accountability?

5

3

3

3

Does the system let voters express their views?

4

3

3

2

Does the system mitigate tactical voting?

4

2

2

3

How user-friendly is the system?

4

3

2

4

Total scored out of a maximum of 30

25

16

16

18

 

Clearly, different readers will rate these voting systems differently according to their own perspectives: my ratings are to an extent subjective. My scoring system is, however, based on an attempt to think through the main implications of the systems in terms of the degree to which they provide an accurate and user-friendly means for voters to record their opinions, and how they might influence voter behaviour.

But DPEV is the clear winner: a single-member system that would produce more accountable government and MPs, and would be fairer to England. I know I would say so, but it gets my vote!

Alternative alternative voting systems, part three: Approval Rate Voting (ARV)

In this series of posts on alternatives to the First Past the Post and Alternative Vote (AV) voting systems, which are the only alternatives the British people are going to be offered for English and UK elections in the proposed referendum in May next year, I’ve discussed AV itself and Approval Voting (which could also confusingly be abbreviated as ‘AV’). So what is ‘Approval Rate Voting’ (or ARV), which I’m going to discuss here?

ARV, which I’ve deliberately named as such in order to position it aggressively as an alternative to AV (and to Approval Voting), is the new-improved version of the single member-constituency system of my own invention that I previously termed ‘PV’ (or the ‘Popular Vote’). I previously described how this works as follows:

  • ARV is a form of range voting. In the same way as a Borda Count (one of the main forms of range voting), it assigns a number of points to voters’ preferences. The maximum number of points that can be obtained by any candidate is determined by the overall number of candidates. For example, if there are five candidates, the highest number of points you can give to any candidate is five (i.e. they would be your first choice).
  • However, unlike a classic Borda Count, voters would not be obliged to rank all of the candidates (e.g. from five to one); nor would they be obliged to award their top candidate five points. They could, for instance, decide to award their favourite candidate any number of points from one to five: a voter’s first-choice candidate would simply be the one to whom they gave the most points. In most cases, voters would give their preferred candidate five points; but it would be entirely up to them how many points they decided each candidate merited, the only restriction being that no more than one candidate could be given the same score. In other words, you couldn’t award the same number of points to more than one candidate, meaning that you’re obliged to demonstrate your preferences in the points you award to each candidate. Voters could also choose to give some candidates no points, by either writing a zero in the box next to those candidates’ names or leaving it blank.
  • When the vote is counted, note is taken of the first preference of each voter, and if a majority of voters selects one of the candidates as their first choice, that candidate is elected. However, if no such majority is secured, the result is then determined by the number of points each candidate has obtained – the winner being the candidate with the most points.

The improvement, as I see it, that I’ve now introduced is to allow equal rankings: voters can give the same number of points to more than one candidate, including their ‘first-preference’ candidates, which would make those candidates the ‘joint favourites’ of that particular voter. This also has the effect that more than one candidate could obtain an overall majority of first-preference votes. The winner in this instance would be the candidate with the largest number of such votes (and in the unlikely event that more than one majority candidate obtained the exact same total of votes, the winner would be the one obtaining the highest number of points).

The effect of this change is to make ARV more like Approval Voting, in that indicating more than one candidate as one’s ‘favourite’ is similar to the way, in Approval Voting, all candidates are effectively counted as if they were voters’ equal-favourite choice. The difference is that my range-voting modification allows voters to exactly grade the extent to which they ‘approve’ of candidates by giving each of them a rating: hence, ‘Approval Rate Voting’.

Allowing equal rankings is an improvement to my first version of ARV (PV) on a number of grounds:

  1. It’s more logically consistent: in the previous version of the system, it was allowed to give more than one candidate zero points; so why not allow voters to give more than one candidate any number of points, so long as those points stay within the permitted range (e.g. nought to five), which is determined by the number of candidates in the election?
  2. Allowing equal rankings is also more consistent with the way voters actually think about candidates and parties: some voters may be genuinely undecided and would wish to rate two or more candidates equally. There isn’t a good enough reason to force such voters to rank the candidates preferentially, as AV does for largely functional reasons to engineer a ‘majority’ choice.
  3. This change also makes the system much more open and liable to untap the latent support for smaller parties that exists in England and the UK at large, in that voters who support, say, UKIP or the Greens can make them their equal-first preference along with whichever mainstream party they have tended to vote for under FPTP (e.g. the Conservatives or the Lib Dems). In this way, the smaller parties would win a large share of the ‘approval points’ that ARV allows voters to award to the different parties; and in some cases, voters’ wish to register strong support for alternatives to the big-three parties in this way could lead to shock wins for the smaller parties, whether on a majority of first preferences or – more likely – on points.

This business of points constitutes a major innovation, which could bring radical changes to the way politicians engage with voters. Election results would include not only the number and percentage share of first-preference votes each party had received, but also an ‘approval rating’, which would be a percentage figure derived from dividing the number of points each candidate and party had received by the total number of points available to that candidate. E.g. in a constituency in which five candidates were standing, the maximum number of points available to each candidate would be the number of people voting multiplied by five. Dividing the actual number of points received by this theoretical maximum and multiplying by 100 gives a percentage ‘approval rating’ for each candidate. This could of course be extended to the UK-wide results, so you’d end up not only with each party’s share of the total vote but their overall approval ratings.

These approval ratings would generally be higher than each party’s share of first-preference votes. For example, assuming that each person indicating the Conservatives as their first preference (effectively, 36% of voters at the last election) awarded them maximum points, there would in addition be some voters that awarded the Tories fewer than maximum points (i.e. for whom the Conservative candidate was not their first preference but who wished to express a degree of approval for the Tories all the same). My sense is that this non-first-preference support for the Conservatives would not have been high enough to give them an approval rating of over 50% at the last election, just as the actual votes they received were not enough to give them an overall parliamentary majority. I estimate their approval rating would have been around 45% at the election, which is almost the same as the share of seats they won.

By contrast, when New Labour won the election in 1997, the level of latent support for Labour among Liberal Democrat and even Conservative voters was so high that I estimate Labour’s approval rating, under my system, would have been around 60% to 65%: again, similar to the share of seats they won. I’m going to consider the question of how proportional the ARV system would be below. But what these figures suggest is that the present FPTP voting system does produce results that are to some extent proportional, not to the share of vote each party receives but to the degree of approval the parties benefit from. The difference is that approval does not always translate to voting in FPTP elections. For example, I reckon that Labour and the Lib Dems would have obtained similar approval ratings at the last election: maybe around 35% to 40%. This reflects the way the parties performed in opinion polls during the election campaign, where the Lib Dems were neck and neck with Labour for much of the time but both were behind the Tories. However, when it came to voting, the latent support for the Lib Dems (what I’m calling the approval for them) was suppressed in a classic two-party squeeze whereby voters were dissuaded from voting Lib Dem in case this resulted in a victory for parties (i.e. Labour or the Conservatives) they opposed.

The ARV system would release this latent support for parties other than the big two (or two and a half) by allowing voters to express different degrees of approval for any number of parties without thereby inadvertently aiding the cause of parties they dislike. Among other effects, this could lead to the smaller parties obtaining some quite high approval ratings. For a start, as I suggested above, voters would be emboldened to award a large number of points, and even (equal-)top points, to parties with which they sympathise but for which they have hitherto refrained from voting so as not to ‘waste’ their vote. So I would expect parties like UKIP, the Greens, the BNP and the English Democrats to record quite respectable approval ratings. It would not be beyond the bounds of possibility, for instance, for UKIP and the Greens to obtain approval scores of between 10% and 20%: consistent with the share of votes and seats UKIP has won in the proportional elections for the European Parliament. Although this would be unlikely to translate into significantly more seats under ARV (as a single member-constituency system), the relatively high approval ratings for UKIP and the Greens would make it more difficult for the mainstream parties to ignore the views of voters on issues such as the EU or the environment, which the present system allows them to do. And in time, voters might become more aware of the power that ARV gives them and would be encouraged to mark smaller parties as their sole first preference in the confidence that voters of opposing political persuasions would also be doing the same (i.e. voting for smaller parties ahead of their tactical choice).

So how does ARV perform in relation to the six criteria by which I have been assessing alternative voting systems? In relation to the first criterion – does every vote count / is every vote counted? – I’d award ARV four points out of five (this compares with three for FPTP and Approval Voting, and two for AV). ARV is clearly better than FPTP in that no vote is wasted: voters can vote both for the candidate(s) they truly support and for the ‘least bad’ candidate with a chance of winning; and they can fine-tune their vote to express the precise degree of support or otherwise they want to give to each candidate. However, ARV doesn’t get a perfect five, as it’s still the case that the shares of the vote and the approval ratings obtained by the parties translate only imperfectly into shares of seats, such that votes for the smaller parties continue to carry less weight than votes for the larger parties.

With respect to the second criterion – is the system proportional? – ARV scores only three out of five (compared with two for AV). ARV is not intrinsically a proportional system in that it is a single member-constituency system; and these always carry a bias whereby parties obtaining a plurality of votes can win a majority of the seats. However, ARV would change the basis on which proportionality itself would be measured, as I suggested above: the degree to which the shares of seats were proportional would be assessed in relation not only to vote share but approval ratings. As I pointed out above, New Labour’s landslide victory in 1997 was highly unsatisfactory when measured against vote share, as Labour secured only 43% of the votes. But measured against approval ratings, Labour’s 63.4% share of the seats was probably quite proportional.

This is in part a mathematical coincidence in that, for the leading parties, the share of seats won in single member-constituency elections and the parties’ latent approval ratings, as I define them, are both higher than their vote share. However, under ARV, in seats where no majority of first-preference votes is obtained, the results would be decided on the basis of approval points, where the parties would be more closely matched. In addition, the number of constituencies where no party secured an overall majority would be higher than under FPTP as a result of the change in voter behaviour described above, whereby voters would increasingly favour minor parties at the expense of the larger parties for which they have previously voted tactically. The overall election results would therefore be increasingly proportionate to the relative standings of the parties in terms of their approval ratings.

In this way, ARV would be much more effective than AV at transforming UK politics into a pluralist, multi-party environment in which results would almost always be decided on approval ratings (because no party would win a majority based on first preferences) and would therefore more accurately reflect the true degree of support enjoyed by each party (as measured by the approval rating). There would still be a bias that would tend to transform a strong approval rating into the potential for an overall majority UK-wide, even if a majority of first-preference votes had not been obtained by that party. But those results would still be relatively proportional to the approval ratings themselves and therefore would produce an outcome that voters as a whole would be by definition more content with, given that the approval rating provides an index of the real level of popularity of each party. Such would have been the case in Labour’s 1997 landslide: seats that were in fact won by Labour on a plurality would still have been won on the ARV points system, as Labour enjoyed genuine cross-electorate approval; so that Labour’s big majority would have been relatively proportional to its approval standing.

Criterion No. 3: Does the system foster accountability? Here, I’d award ARV four points out of five (compared with three for both AV and FPTP). In common with those other single-member systems, MPs are directly accountable to their electorate under ARV. But ARV represents an improvement over AV and FPTP in that it is much easier for voters to punish MPs and parties they are disenchanted with by, say, awarding approval points to other candidates while still assigning points (even maximum points) to the incumbent MP. This aspect of ARV would be likely to provoke the greatest opposition from the likes of the Conservatives, who would fear that left-of-centre voters would gang up against Conservative MPs by awarding equal-top points to the Labour, Lib Dem and even Green candidates. The same criticism tends to be made of pure Approval Voting, as I discussed in my previous post in this series.

However, ARV differs from Approval Voting in that it allows voters to fine-tune their votes to express the precise degree to which they are prepared to lend their support to each candidate; and it’s far from obvious that enough left-of-centre voters could be mobilised to give maximum points to all left-of-centre candidates in order to aggressively oust incumbent Tories. For a start, English people are generally quite fair-minded and could well be hostile towards any attempt to persuade them to vote negatively in this way. In addition, it’s likely that many Lib Dem and Labour voters would be naturally disinclined to award equal-top marks to each other’s candidates, especially as the system exempts them from having to do this, unlike Approval Voting. Besides, many Lib Dems and even some Labour voters might even award a certain number of points to the Tory MP if they thought (s)he was a good constituency MP. So, in essence, the ability to punish the parties cuts both ways, and ARV places an extra premium on MPs being both good servants of their constituents and courting the support of voters whose main preference is for other parties. It’s not, however, possible to give ARV a full five points against this criterion, as ARV still contains a bias towards creating unrepresentative parliamentary majorities or pluralities, which are one of the main causes of unaccountable government.

As for my fourth criterion – Does the voting system allow voters to express the full range of their political and personal preferences, and send a message to politicians? – ARV scores a strong four out of five, compared with only two for AV and one for FPTP. ARV allows voters to express the precise degree of their support for all the parties, and it permits them to indicate more than one party as their first preference, which ironically gives more weight to many voters’ actual favourite candidate and party than AV. That’s because, even though voters would tend to indicate their actual favourite candidate as their sole first preference, under AV, if that vote is for a smaller party, it’s inevitably going to be transferred to a lower-preference candidate representing one of the larger parties. In other words, despite being a first preference, that vote is effectively of nil effect and is not retained in the final result.

By contrast, a first-preference vote for a smaller party continues to be recorded and treated as such in the ARV count. Indeed, it is recorded in two ways: as part of the total of first-preference votes for each candidate, and as part of that party’s points score and approval rating. This means that voters can demonstrate support for key policies of minor parties in ways that politicians are forced to take note of: the percentage of first-preference votes for the minor parties will be considerably higher than under FPTP and AV, because there is a real purpose in specifying candidates from those parties as your first choice (unlike in AV) and you will not be damaging the chances of your tactical vote by so doing (as in FPTP). And the higher the approval rating for those parties, the more politicians will not be able to ignore voters’ support for those parties’ policies.

The reason why I have not given ARV a score of five out of five against this criterion is that, despite the fact that it allows voters to express the full range of their views and send a strong message to politicians, that communication is still relatively disempowered: ultimately, the full range of voters’ opinions will not be represented in parliament, as only one candidate and set of party policies can be ratified by the electorate in each constituency, unlike in multi-member-constituency systems.

Fifth criterion: Does the system mitigate the need to vote tactically? Here, I’d award ARV three points, compared with two for AV. It’s impossible to eliminate tactical voting completely in single-member systems, as there will always be a motivation to vote tactically to spoil the chances of strong candidates that supporters of opposing candidates do not like, and to improve the chances of ‘second-best’ or least bad candidates for voters whose first-choice candidates do not stand a chance. That said, ARV does enable people to vote for both their real preference and their tactical choice, in contrast to AV where often only the last (tactical) preference is the ‘real’ vote and first preferences are of nil effect, as discussed above.

Above, I also touched on the potential of ARV to enable voters to pool their vote behind all of the left-of-centre candidates in order to defeat Conservative candidates that might actually obtain the largest number of first-preference votes. In response to this concern, I’d stress the fact that if a majority, or the largest majority, of voters indicates the Conservative as their first-choice candidate, then that candidate is automatically elected under ARV. Second, as I said before, I’m sceptical as to whether enough left-of-centre voters could be mobilised to ensure that one left-wing candidate was able to win a majority of first preferences. They might, however, win on points. And if those candidates do win either a majority or a points victory, then that would tend to indicate that the Conservative candidate – as an individual as well as a party representative – was sufficiently unpopular with enough voters not to merit being elected anyway.

Finally, how easy is the system for voters to understand, trust and use effectively? Here, I’d give ARV three points: the same as FPTP and one more than AV. On the face of it, ARV is more complicated and fastidious than FPTP, where you just have to mark a single cross against your favourite candidate. But ARV is in fact quite simple and employs rules that voters are quite familiar with from situations where they have to assign a numerical value to indicate the degree to which they like certain things or agree with particular statements, such as in marketing surveys and opinion polls.

When it came to polling day, it would be easy to explain the rules of ARV on the ballot paper in no more than six sentences of plain English, as follows: ‘Indicate the degree to which you approve of each candidate by writing a number from 0 to 5 [in the case of five candidates] in the box next to each candidate’s name. 5 indicates the maximum possible support for any candidate; 0 equals the absence of any support for that candidate. You may give the same number of points to more than one candidate. The candidate(s) to whom you award most points will be considered as your first-choice candidate(s) for the purpose of determining whether the election has been won by any candidate on the basis of an outright majority. You are not obliged to give a maximum of five points to any candidate. Leaving a box blank is equivalent to filling it with a zero.’

I think voters would soon wrap their heads round this system and begin to understand how they could use it to their best advantage in the ways described in this article: to punish parties and candidates they disapprove of; to vote for their actually preferred candidate as well as tactically; and to express the full range of their political opinions. So despite being more complicated and difficult to understand than FPTP, ARV earns the same score for this criterion than FPTP by means of enabling voters to use their vote to the best advantage.

Finally, here is a summary of how ARV performs by comparison with the other voting systems I’ve discussed in this series so far:

Criterion FPTP AV AppV ARV
Does every vote count?

3

2

3

4

Is the system proportional?

1

2

2

3

Does the system foster accountability?

3

3

4

4

Does the system let voters express their views?

1

2

3

4

Does the system mitigate tactical voting?

1

2

2

3

How user-friendly is the system?

3

2

4

3

Total scored out of a maximum of 30

12

13

18

21

In conclusion, ARV is as good as or better than the other single-member voting systems discussed so far according to every criterion against which I have measured it, apart from how easy it is to understand and use to best advantage. I would argue it compares very favourably with the only properly proportional single-member systems, known as Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), which combine single-member constituency ballots with the election of non-constituency MPs on a proportional basis from national or regional party lists.

I’m going to consider one such system – AV+ – in my next post.

The Liberal-Democrat Accession and the English Parliament

You should always be careful what you wish for and be wary of the law of unintended consequences. Although I will probably be voting Lib Dem this time round – unless my Tory MP astounds me by previously unsuspected support for an English parliament – a Lib-Dem break-through could have far-reaching ramifications for the prospects and nature of any future English parliament.

For a start, as they made clear yesterday, the Lib Dems will make their support for a minority Labour- or Conservative-led government conditional on introducing proportional representation. One imagines this would involve a referendum on changing to the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system for UK-parliamentary elections.

Many supporters of PR see it as a way to mitigate (i.e. ignore) the West Lothian Question. The logic behind this position is simple, though flawed in my view. For example, under STV, if the actual vote on 6 May exactly followed yesterday’s ICM opinion-poll ratings (Con 33%, Lib Dem 30% and Lab 28%), then the Conservatives would be the largest party both in England and the UK as a whole; and in any coalition of the parties to form a government, the UK majority thus constituted would also be consistent with the parties’ shares of seats in England. Therefore, on one level, it would no longer matter if non-English MPs voted on English laws, as the same laws would be passed if only English MPs voted.

On the other hand, the reverse logic could also apply: if the votes of non-English MPs were no longer needed to pass English bills, why let them vote at all? The only real justification for non-English MPs voting on English legislation presently is when there is a link to spending in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland via the Barnett Formula. But presumably, the days of that formula itself might well be numbered under a Con-LibDem coalition, as the Lib Dems favour scrapping it and even the Tories talk in their manifesto of greater fiscal autonomy for Scotland.

Indeed, in a proportionally elected House of Commons, the situation of non-English MPs voting on English laws would come to appear blatantly, if not scandalously, anomalous. Under First Past the Post, by contrast, the fact that Labour’s Scottish MPs have occasionally been required to pass the government’s England-only legislation against the will of a majority of English MPs did not on one level seem that outrageous in that the government majority procured in this way was no more disproportionate than the normal majority of English MPs only it would expect to command, as both majorities were merely the product of the absurd FPTP electoral system rather than of the way English people actually voted at the 2005 general election.

In other words, in a situation in which voting majorities in the Commons bear little relation to the way the public actually voted at the election, the misuse of non-English MPs to inflate those majorities even further does not stand out too obviously. By contrast, in a proportionally elected House where the parties’ shares of the seats are meant to reflect the way people voted, and where MPs are meant to be more accountable to their electorates, distorting those shares by allowing MPs not accountable to the people affected by bills to vote on them would be completely inconsistent and unacceptable.

Accordingly, I tend to think that, rather than mitigating the WLQ, PR would render it inoperable. But then if you do not allow non-English MPs to make England’s laws, what arrangements would be made for that little matter of how to govern England? Do you go down the route of an English Grand Committee: English laws debated and voted on by separate sessions of English MPs only? Do you draw the logical conclusion and say that Parliament needs to evolve into an English parliament to deal with English matters, with a separate set of representatives elected from across the UK to deal with reserved matters? Or do you just try to ignore the problem by pretending that England does not exist and that the West Lothian Question simply does not arise, let alone require a solution – the Labour government’s approach?

In this way, by insisting on introducing PR before dealing with the English Question, the Lib Dems might find that question comes and bites them in the bum: they could create a constitutional mess in which the very legitimacy and function of the parliament for which they had finally secured PR was called into question – a British parliament without a valid democratic role and status in most of what it did, i.e. in English matters.

To be fair to the Lib Dems, their manifesto does state that they want to hold a citizens’ convention to help draw up a written constitution, and the English Question would be dealt with as part of this process. But the Lib Dems are not going to be in a position to carry out this commitment in full as part of a coalition government. All they’ve actually said is that they’d make electoral reform a minimal precondition of any deal to support a minority government, not the whole constitutional-reform programme; and neither Labour nor the Tories have any appetite to address the English Question. But as I say, the English Question may impose itself as unavoidable if the Lib Dems do succeed in introducing STV.

There are two possible scenarios that follow on logically from this. Firstly, if the Lib Dems do secure STV (and if, as I argue, this would lead to an urgent need to address the English Question because of the crisis of governance it would bring about), then any English parliament would also be based on STV. Having gone to the trouble and expense of introducing STV, which would require the re-drawing of constituency boundaries and the amalgamation of constituencies into multi-member seats, there is no way the English parliament could then revert to the pre-STV single member-constituency system. Having finally achieved their goal of a proper proportional system, the Lib Dems would never accept an inferior system for England; nor – I think – would the English people.

However – scenario two – what if the British public did not endorse STV in the initial referendum required to adopt it as the system for UK elections? For instance, Gordon Brown favours the Alternative Vote (AV) single-member system, and if the Lib Dems’ referendum were held under a putative Lab-LibDem coalition, it could be a multi-option referendum with AV as one of the systems on offer. Labour could be expected to argue strongly for AV, which is in reality merely a mitigated form of FPTP and would preserve the unfair advantage the present system gives to the party. Who knows, voters might prefer to retain single-member constituencies and the winner-takes-all aspect of the present system, albeit in a slightly fairer form. Under this second scenario, the West Lothian Question could remain in place for much longer, as AV would perpetuate the disproportionality of the present system from which the very ability of Labour to form any kind of government depends and which also disguises the outrageously unfair extra advantage Labour obtains from the WLQ.

In this context, the Lib Dems could find themselves in the unenviable position of propping up an unfairly elected Labour government that exploits its stronger base of support in Scotland and Wales to secure its power in England. Would it not then be both more effective tactically, and give greater moral credibility to their demands for constitutional reform, if the Lib Dems declared now – ahead of 6 May – that they would not exploit the West Lothian Question in the new parliament, even if to do so were the only way in which a coalition of which they were a part could actually form a working majority?

After all, how can the English people believe in the Lib Dems’ advocacy of greater democratic fairness and proportional representation if they are in theory willing to exploit one of the most egregiously unfair and disproportional aspects of the present system simply to have a share in government? If they want England to back them on 6 May and support STV in a referendum, then surely they should back ‘building a fairer Britain’ in the forthcoming parliament, too – including fairness for England.

Constitutional reform: time for new wineskins

“Nobody puts new wine in old wineskins; otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins and run to waste, and the skins will be ruined. No; new wine must be put in fresh skins. And nobody who has been drinking old wine wants new. ‘The old is good’, he says”. The Gospel According To St. Luke, 5: 37-39.

They just don’t get it, do they, the establishment types? They talk the language of reform, but they basically think the old system works and knows best. It certainly works for them.

So, in the interests of ‘reform’, they elect a ‘maverick’ speaker in what turns out to be essentially a put-up job, with Labour and the Lib Dems ganging up to choose a Tory that the Conservatives despise, in the hope that he will provide a useful counterweight to a Tory-dominated Commons when the Conservatives ‘inevitably’ achieve a landslide victory at the next election (why? because they won’t in fact have reformed the First Past the Post voting system by then, despite their fine words?) – up to their old party-politicking tricks again in filling a position that is supposed to be above all that. This reformist speaker then makes an acceptance speech affirming that the vast majority of MPs are in fact honest and motivated by zeal for public service. So the expenses scandal doesn’t in fact bespeak a systemic problem of corruption and venality on the part of a parliament that is largely unaccountable (comprising mainly ‘safe seats’) – despite the fact that you, Mr Speaker, are one of the biggest flippers of them all.

One of the proposed reforms the new speaker will have to oversee, announced on Tuesday, will involve the creation of a new government-appointed body, provisionally entitled the Parliamentary Standards Authority, that will not only supervise and advise on MPs’ pay and expenses but will administer them, including via a statutory power to take possession of Parliament’s assets and property rights. So instead of greater accountability of MPs to the people, what we are in danger of getting is MPs becoming effectively employees of the government whose new body has draconian powers to expel or even imprison them if it deems they have violated the rules to a serious extent. No less than the principle of parliamentary sovereignty is at stake.

We may feel that Parliament has demonstrated its unworthiness to exercise sovereignty over its own affairs in this particular area; but shouldn’t the reforms involve proposals that put the power to hold MPs to account in the hands of their own constituents (for instance, through the power for the people to call by-elections if, say, 10% of constituents demand it), not in those of an unelected, unaccountable quango? And of course, it’s Parliament itself, not the people, that will get to vote through this legislation with potentially devastating consequences for the UK’s constitution and parliamentary democracy.

The same goes for House of Lords ‘reform’, with MPs keen to rush through legislation for a new mainly or wholly elected House, an issue of principle on which they already voted last year. In addition to party-politicising a House that has acted as one of the few scrupulous sources of revision and scrutiny of an authoritarian and unaccountable government, these changes could result in expelling the Church of England bishops from the Lords, adding momentum to the drive to disestablish the Church altogether. All very well, on one level, if you don’t think the Church should have a privileged position at the heart of the establishment and the right to be involved in revising legislation proposed by democratically elected politicians. But this involves changes to centuries-old constitutional arrangements that pre-date the creation of the British state and which, as I’ve argued elsewhere, represent possibly the only way in which England continues to have any official, constitutional status as a nation. But are the people of Britain, let alone the people of England, going to be consulted in a referendum on these fundamental constitutional changes? If they are, I haven’t heard anything about it.

And then there are all the shabby, venal goings-on around the parliamentary enquiry into the Iraq War, with Gordon Brown showing last week that he’d learned absolutely nothing from the furore over expenses, insisting that the enquiry should be conducted in private despite all his mealy-mouthed advocacy of greater transparency in the way parliament conducts its business. Of course, he’s had to back-track; but even last night, the Labour party whips managed to corral enough of their troops into the voting lobby to defeat a Tory amendment demanding that the scope of the enquiry should be broader than that proposed and should be down to parliament to determine: the old parliamentary systems clicking into gear to prevent rather than insist on adequate scrutiny of the executive.

It’s all very depressing: it really is as if the whole thing is in a terminal state of decline, disrepair and disrepute. The politicians seem to believe they can carry on in the same discredited way, playing their self-serving, party-political games, with little reference to the people’s wishes and rights. Even the reforms suggested are top-down (proposed, driven and voted for by Parliament) rather than resulting from a genuine process of consultation with the people through measures such as citizens’ conventions and deliberative referendums. And the reforms themselves, far from putting greater power in the hands of ordinary people to whom Parliament should be accountable, seem designed to increase the power of the executive and the party apparatuses over MPs and the legislative process.

Originally, I was thinking of writing a post suggesting that the best, most straightforward and most radical way to reform the House of Commons would be simply to replace it with a new English Parliament, with new structures and procedures, and elected using PR. You’d then also need a new federal UK parliament, which similarly would be drawn up on completely new lines. Not so much reform from within the existing Parliament itself but starting from a blank canvass. A slightly less radical alternative would be to turn the existing House of Commons, including some of its arcane, historic traditions and its present home in the Palace of Westminster, into an English Parliament; while the House of Lords could be transformed into the new federal UK parliament with powers to scrutinise and suggest amendments to legislation arising from all four devolved national parliaments. Both of these options would still preserve a United Kingdom that did not break from the past in its fundamentals: same monarchy; same symbolism and ‘identity’ of the historic UK state; and probably the same emphasis on the ultimate sovereignty of the British parliament, or shared British-parliamentary sovereignty distributed across the national and federal parliaments in their respective areas of competence.

But somehow, I just can’t see this happening. I think the events of the past couple of weeks, described above, demonstrate that the old Parliament is incapable of driving through radical democratic reform from within. It is too profoundly wedded to the idea that its sovereignty and power – intimately allied with that of the executive – is somehow timeless and unchallengeable, and gives it the right to dictate the shape of reforms that consolidate the unaccountable dominance of the main parties and the executive, rather than restoring and renewing Parliament’s authority and sovereignty from its true source: the will of the people.

In reality, maybe the situation needs to be framed the other way round: instead of thinking of the dynamic towards the creation of an English parliament and a federal UK as resulting from a process whereby the present system reforms itself from within, maybe the present crisis is the symptom of a much deeper rift and sense of division between the people and the government (parliament and executive), and between the different nations whose union in the United Kingdom Parliament is supposed to symbolise and embody. On this view, the authority of Parliament has ebbed away because it is no longer a ‘national parliament’ worthy of the name: a parliament for, and of, the people as a united national community. Parliament cannot exercise sovereignty on behalf of, and in the name of, the people until there is agreement on who the people are: England or Britain; a single British nation-kingdom, or a federation of multiple nations.

But the politicians want to carry on much as before. In the words of the evangelist, they think the old parliament and the old Britain is good, and that they can pour the new wine of reform into the old wineskin of the present system. But maybe, in doing so, they risk destroying both the wineskin of the old establishment and the possibility for genuine democratic renewal.

Instead, isn’t what is needed a whole new start, with the citizens of the respective UK nations deciding for themselves on a new politics and constitutional settlement that match their aspirations, priorities and identities as national communities in their own right? Reform should start from new foundations; from the bottom up. Yes, new wine must be put in fresh skins.

The governance of England must not be left out of the process of constitutional reform

Over the past week or so, I’ve been attempting to write a rather long post on the implications of the ongoing MPs’ expenses scandal. I started to write it last week, when I was concerned that the initial reaction was tending to ignore the fact that public outrage about MPs’ behaviour was symptomatic of a much deeper disaffection with the whole UK political system. However, over the course of the following week, more and more of the themes I felt needed to be aired did start to be debated in the media: the need for fundamental reform of parliament, the voting system and, indeed, the whole UK constitution. So the piece I was intending to write has now been superseded by events and will probably not see the light of day.

However, the one major constitutional issue that has not been widely discussed is that of the relationship of the different nations of the UK to any redesigned UK parliament. Indeed, there is a real danger that the English Question could be completely sidelined as the political and media establishments click into gear and debate how the UK Parliament should be reformed and what form a new UK constitution should take, without any challenge to the implicit assumption that the UK Parliament and government would continue to run England in every respect.

All the discussion so far has been focused on Westminster, and the advocates of change are not factoring in that their proposals would leave in place an intolerable democratic deficit and asymmetry of governance for England: laws and policies that apply to England (or England and Wales) only formulated and decided upon by the MPs for the whole of the UK, whilst the corresponding laws and policies for the other UK nations are made by separate, properly representative, devolved bodies.

It is possible that unionist defenders of the imbalanced status quo may attempt to use the introduction of proportional representation as a means to circumvent the problem of the English democratic deficit. For example, the party-political composition of an English Parliament elected under a perfectly proportional electoral system, based on the 2005 general election results, would not have been very much different from that of a UK parliament: 36% of voters chose Labour in the UK as a whole, versus 35% in England; 32% voted Tory, compared with 35.5% in England; etc. In either case, there would have been a need to form a coalition or minority government, which would probably have been of the same political hue in the UK or in England alone. Therefore, it could be argued that – owing to the fact that the overwhelming majority of the UK population live in England – a coalition UK government elected under PR will almost always reflect the voting preferences of the majority of the English people. As a consequence, the West Lothian Question loses its relevance, as the composition of parliament will be a much more accurate reflection of the will of the English electorate.

But this of course misses the whole point: such a parliament, however much it represents an improvement on the present travesty of democratic fairness, would still not be an English parliament elected by the people of England to look after their needs and interests, and to speak and act on their behalf. England would continue to be governed as the UK by the UK parliament for the (debatable) benefit of the whole of the UK, rather than for that of its own people – in contrast to every other nation of the UK (with the possible additional exception of Cornwall) that would presumably continue to benefit from devolved government under any new UK constitution.

Changes in the relationship between Parliament and the people, and between Parliament and the Executive, are indeed desperately needed, and PR is a vital component in bringing about the greater accountability of Parliament and government. But what must not be omitted from the process is changes in the relationship of the UK nations to Westminster and to each other. Unless and until this nettle is grasped, any constitutional reform will be flawed and will not address the problem of Parliament’s democratic illegitimacy that is the underlying reason why the expenses scandal has caused so much outrage.

Another siren call that must be resisted is the demand that a general election be held right away. David Cameron upped the ante on this issue on Monday of this week, at the launch of the Tories’ European Election campaign, by initiating a petition for an election to be called in June. Clearly, it would be in the Conservatives’ interests to hold an election sooner rather than later given the fact that they would be likely to win an outright majority, as they are the only viable alternative to a government that people were already desperate to get rid of even before the expenses scandal. The fact that the Lib Dems have joined in with these calls is clearly also self-serving: the Lib Dems are hoping to capitalise on Labour’s unpopularity and the fact that they’ve come off relatively lightly in the expenses scandal to assert themselves as the centre-left alternative to Labour.

But this is party politicking of the kind we need to do away with: parties putting their own interests and opportunism ahead of the UK’s and England’s needs. A new Tory government would lack legitimacy for the same reason as the present government: it would be elected under a monumentally flawed and distorting electoral system. In addition, if an election were held now, it’s likely that there would be an even higher rate of abstentions than in the 2005 general election: around 39%. A lot of people, such as the former Conservative minister Norman Tebbit last week, have already been calling for voters to abstain in the forthcoming European Parliament elections as a protest against the parties’ failure to put their Westminster House in order. As a result of the low turn-out in the 2005 UK general election, the present Labour government was elected by only 22% of eligible voters. With a high rate of abstentions in 2009, a new Tory regime might well command the support of an even smaller – or at least, not significantly larger – share of the population. Hardly a recipe for re-engaging the people in politics and for driving fundamental reform!

And Prime Minister Cameron would be highly unlikely to do anything significant to address the English Question. In all probability, the Tories will continue to govern England as if it is the UK and will have no qualms about enlisting the votes of the precious few MPs the Tories have in Scotland and Wales, along with those of his allies the UUP in Northern Ireland, to push through legislation that affects England only – especially if the Tories’ overall parliamentary majority is slim. Having said that, the Campaign for an English Parliament has today issued an open letter to David Cameron calling on him to work towards the establishment of what would be a de facto federal system of government in the UK: parliaments for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with a much smaller UK parliament dealing only with reserved matters such as taxation, defence, overseas aid, immigration and macro-economic policy. It remains to be seen how, or indeed whether, David Cameron will respond to the CEP’s challenge. If he does recognise that we are facing a ‘constitutional moment’ – indeed, an Oliver Cromwell moment – then he will really be showing true leadership and vision. He would be a worthy Prime Minister for a re-shaped UK, who could be accepted by the people of England – as opposed to a Prime Minister for the UK who does not want to be a Prime Minister for England, even though that would be what he effectively was under the present system.

We have to find ways to make sure that the English Question – the issue of how England should be governed – comes and remains to the forefront of the discussions about parliamentary and constitutional reform. How do we do this? Well, at a basic level, we keep on doing what we have been doing: bringing up the topics of asymmetric devolution and the need for an English parliament in conversations with friends, workmates, down the pub, etc. Now that people generally are talking more about the need to change parliament, this is the best chance we’ve ever had to push the case for an English parliament. Then there’s all the blogging and campaigning of one sort or another we’ve been doing to inform people about the unfairness of the present system to England and the British government’s suppression of English-national identity and political rights. So it’s keep up the good work, and more so.

But is this enough? One of the ideas I was going to float in my aborted long post (yes, even longer than this one) was that we could form a new political party to stand at the next general election solely on a platform of wholesale constitutional reform at the three levels I referred to above: the relationship between Parliament and the Executive; between Parliament / the Executive and the people; and between the UK and its nations. If the mainstream parties are not going to answer the constitutional challenge on all of these levels – and the Tories’ and Lib Dems’ eagerness to have an election under the present defective system, without a clear programme of constitutional reform, appears to suggest that they may not do so – then it is up to us, the people, to assert our just demands. In fact, it is the people that is the lynchpin and raison d’être of this whole process: government should be for and of the people in both our distinct national communities, and as a united federation of nations across the British Isles.

I’m still interested in canvassing people’s views about this, although the situation is changing so fast, I wonder whether my ‘Change Party’ idea will soon also be superseded by events, as was my previous draft post: maybe Cameron will surprise us and accept the need to factor the English Question into a constitutional reform process; maybe the Lib Dems, too, will start to acknowledge the English dimension of constitutional reform, rather than referring to ‘Britain’ and ‘the country’ in every second sentence and avoiding the ‘E’ word almost as pathologically as New Labour. Maybe even the ‘national’ (i.e. English) media may also belatedly realise that you cannot – simply cannot – now talk about meaningful reform of ‘Parliament’ without recognising that something has to be done about those Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs that have so little to do – other than meddle in English affairs that do not concern them – that it’s no wonder they just see Westminster as a gravy train and an English golden goose to be exploited for their constituents’ and their own maximum benefit.

To design a new UK constitution setting out shiny new responsibilities, powers and duties for MPs, and a brand-spanking new proportional voting system, without remedying asymmetric devolution, and without allowing only the English people – let alone English MPs – to vote on English matters, would be such a gross absurdity and injustice that it would be bound to fail and lead to many more years of disaffection with politics and parliament on the part of the English people.

Surely our political representatives must see that. And if they don’t, they deserve to be voted out. And that’s our final sanction: if any of the established parties do not include the need to re-examine how England is governed as part of their manifestoes for the next general election, whenever it comes, they do not deserve our support.

MPs’ expenses: a parliament unaccountable to the people

In themselves, some of the dodgy expenses claims by MPs revealed by the Telegraph this week have been relatively trivial. I don’t mean just the odd bar of soap or payment for changing a light bulb [How many MPs does it take to change a light bulb? None (well, at least under the present system)]. Even some of the more supposedly ‘luxurious’ claims don’t seem to me all that unreasonable. Take, for example, Ming Campbell’s thousands of pounds for fitting out his small rented flat near the Commons, reported in the Telegraph today. The former Lib Dem leader’s explanation that, in fact, he had under-used his Additional Costs Allowance over many years, thereby ‘saving’ the taxpayer money, doesn’t seem that dishonest assuming it’s true. And some of the items listed (e.g. “a new king-size bed, worth £1,024 and bed linen worth £373 as well as £1,515 decorating bill”) are simply the going rate for such goods and services, let alone luxury items (I paid over £300 for a bargain-basement new single bed and mattress over Easter; so a new king-size bed at £1,024 really doesn’t sound that exorbitant to me).

Clearly, though, there have been all-too many cases of MPs stretching the rules to an excessive degree in order to subsidise considerable expenses that should have been met by their own purses and to profiteer, especially through the practice of ‘flipping’: changing the designation of one’s ‘second home’ in order to make improvements to one’s property at the taxpayer’s expense before selling it on at a profit retained by the MP.

Having said that, all these expenses claims were approved by the House of Commons authorities, allowing many of the MPs involved to claim they were acting ‘within the rules’: within the letter of the rules, that is, not the loosely defined ‘spirit’, according to which MPs are expected to claim only for expenses directly connected with their work as MPs (e.g. for second homes in London for MPs representing constituencies outside of London), while the items claimed for should also be relatively modest and reasonable, not lavish and luxurious.

In the absence of sufficient ‘transparency’ and public scrutiny, it’s understandable how a culture of ‘you might as well claim for as much as you can get away with, because you can get away with a lot’ crept in: if people are offered something on a plate, they tend to take it. MPs are only human, after all. The same happens in businesses where there is a lax expenses regime. And the amounts involved are peanuts compared to the mammoth, multi-million-pound bonuses that bank directors regularly awarded themselves before the credit crunch and are still trying to get away with, according to reports this week.

So why is it that so many ordinary people appear to be so enraged by their MPs’ petty profiteering? There are lots of reasons, not the least of which is the acute financial worries that people are facing, with job losses or the fear of losing work, high levels of personal debt and the general economic slowdown. While all of that is happening, here are the MPs effectively ripping them off to extract the maximum financial benefit from their privileged positions.

Abuse of privilege is indeed the correct term. To serve as an MP is supposed to be a privilege, in the good sense: an honour, and a special mark of favour and trust conferred on the MP by their constituents. But the way many MPs have been carrying on conveys the impression that they are intent on enjoying all the privileges of an MP, in the bad sense: exemption from the normal rules and financial constraints that apply to their constituents in both work and domestic life, as if MPs were some privileged social class enjoying a superior status, and entitled to greater wealth, than lesser mortals: the political class, indeed.

It is as if the MPs thought and acted as if they were not accountable to the electorate for this particular (ab)use of the people’s money: both that the expenses did not need to be treated in the way that a business might audit such things as part of drawing up its accounts and settling its tax liabilities; and that MPs were not answerable to their constituents for this aspect of their work: that they did not have to make an account to their constituents about whether they were offering ‘value for money’.

In other words, if MPs cannot be ‘up front’ to their constituents about how much money they are extracting from their work for them as an MP, this breaks the relationship of trust between the MP and those (s)he supposedly represents in a fundamental way. Constituents send MPs to Parliament and pay them to do a particular job for their areas. But if MPs are not being open and honest about all the little, or not so little, extras they are earning, this completely compromises the ‘contract’ that exists between them and their constituents: it suggests that the money and the privilege have become more important than the duty to serve the constituents. It’s as simple and as personal as that, really: about MPs being honest with their constituents. ‘You think you’re paying me £X thousand in wages plus reasonable expenses on top to do the work you’ve sent me to do; but I’m also earning £x thousand in dodgy expenses that I’m not going to tell you about’. How can the constituents of such an MP possibly know whether their MP is delivering value for money, if they don’t know how much money they’re effectively shelling out on them? And how can an MP who is not being open to his or her constituents about their secret earnings at their constituents’ expense honestly claim that their constituents’ best interests are foremost in their minds and actions? They can’t.

So it’s a sorry story about dishonest claims: claims to serve the people without personal interest and in a manner that is accountable to them. And it’s a story about expenses: those of the people that MPs did not even tell them they were paying. Ultimately, this all points to a parliament that has grown accustomed to not being adequately accountable to the people: where the majority of MPs at any time appears almost to have the freehold over their constituencies, as the first-past-the-post electoral system makes their seat ‘safe’ – virtually unwinnable by any other party. Is it any wonder that such a parliament is prepared to rip off the nation – England, that is – as a whole by all manner of expenses that it hides or does not adequately explain, such as the higher per-capita public spending in Scotland and Wales than in England that it tries to cover up by denying that England even exists as a separate entity? This fat-cat parliament, presided over by a Scottish Prime Minister and Chancellor, has grown accustomed to thinking that it is not accountable to England for how it spends its taxes on its ‘second homes’: the governments of Scotland and Wales!

As an English MP, if you want preferment, promotion and security of ‘tenure’, you must tow the party line and support policies that you have to sell to your constituents as being in the best interests of Britain. But are they really in the best interests of their English constituents? And how can those constituents be sure their MP is acting in their best interests if he or she is dishonest about the deals and compromises done to ensure his or her ascent up the greasy pole of power, so he or she can continue to enjoy the privileges and dodgy expenses he or she does not tell the constituents about?

So, in fact, this issue does go to the heart of the validity or not of the claims that are made about British parliamentary democracy: are MPs really willing to be accountable and answerable to the people – and English MPs to the English people – about where their money is going and whether they are getting value for money? And are MPs more interested in ‘working the system’ for their own advancement and gain, rather than being representatives of the people to whom they are accountable? It would appear that many English MPs really aren’t primarily concerned about being good servants of the English nation.

Therefore, it’s time perhaps for the English people to send those MPs a reminder that they do not have a life-long lease on their Westminster seats: they are mere House tenants who can be expelled by the landlords – the people, to whom parliament belongs – if they do not pay their rent and abide by the rules that the people expect them to comply with. Westminster is not a ‘second home’ for MPs, to be sumptuously furnished for them at the taxpayer’s expense.

And maybe it’s time not just to expel those self-serving and party-serving MPs but the whole British parliament, and to reclaim the Palace of Westminster as an English parliament: one whose members are proud to serve their English constituents, not a corrupt and outmoded British system of power, patronage and privilege.