A triple-option EU referendum is the most logical, though unlikely, solution

David Cameron is due to make his long-awaited speech on the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU later today. This was of course expected to be given last Friday but was cancelled owing to the hostage crisis in Algeria.

There are four main approaches the prime minister could in theory adopt, whose respective advantages and disadvantages I discuss below:

  1. Judging from the numerous pre-speech hints and briefings both last week and this, the option Cameron appears to be going for is to use the fiscal union of the eurozone countries, which will possibly require amendments to the Lisbon Treaty, as an opportunity to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU following a Conservative victory in the 2015 general election. The negotiation will aim to achieve the repatriation of certain powers, and the deal will be put to the electorate in what is being billed as an in / out referendum some time around, say, 2018. In other words, if the new relationship with the EU is rejected by voters, the UK will leave the EU.

Cameron’s intention here is clearly to transform the EU from an issue that could damage him and the Conservatives in the 2015 general election to one that could help him: ‘vote Conservative and you’ll get an in / out referendum’. In particular, he will argue there is no need for disaffected Tories to vote UKIP, as he has responded to their concerns by agreeing to renegotiate some of the key terms of the UK’s EU membership; and if they don’t like what’s on offer after the negotiations, they can vote to leave the EU in the referendum. Equally, Cameron hopes this will put an end to the squabbling in his own party on the issue so that it does not harm the party in 2015.

If, however, it is Labour that forms the next government – whether on its own or in coalition with the Lib Dems – they will almost certainly offer neither negotiations on a new deal nor an in / out referendum. This would let Mr Cameron off the hook, in fact, as he may in reality not be too keen on making significant changes to the UK’s relationship with the EU. If, on the other hand, Cameron does win a majority in 2015, he will then be in position to come up with only a relatively minor readjustment of the UK’s terms of EU membership and would probably succeed in obtaining the electorate’s consent for it in a referendum.

The problem with this strategy, if I’ve read it right, is that it makes Mr Cameron a hostage to fortune while also running the risk that the Europe issue will rumble on unresolved for years to come. For a start, it’s far from obvious that a commitment to renegotiate if the Conservatives are voted in to power in 2015 would neutralise the UKIP threat or satisfy the Tory eurosceptics. Recent polling, for example, suggests that the EU is only the fifth-most important issue for potential UKIP voters, behind the economy, immigration, unemployment and crime. Many Tory backbenchers and activists are also likely to be unhappy with what they would see as merely a vague promise to renegotiate the UK’s position.

And that is always supposing that the EU and its member states would be willing to enter negotiations on a looser relationship with the UK in the first place. This is far from clear. After all, they’ve got a eurozone crisis and fiscal union to be getting on with; and just because the UK doesn’t want to press ahead with ever closer union, that doesn’t mean the rest of Europe should entertain the UK’s demands to re-write Lisbon and loosen its ties with the EU. On top of which, there is in fact no provision within the Treaty of European Union for renegotiating a state’s membership of it. On the contrary, a state has to declare an intention to leave the EU altogether before negotiations can begin on what the new relationship between that state and the EU might be. As Article 50 of the Treaty – as consolidated within the Lisbon Treaty – states:

“A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union.”

Indeed, at the time that the Lisbon Treaty was signed by the UK, in 2010, the fact that there is no agreed mechanism for an individual country to renegotiate its terms was given by the Conservative and Liberal Democratic Parties as a reason why they would not be offering a referendum on it at the 2010 election. And this is also why both parties said they would offer a referendum on the EU only when further powers were transferred from the UK to the EU (i.e. not the case with the fiscal union), and duly passed such a provision into UK law. So to argue now that a renegotiation is possible without a prior intention to leave the EU having been expressed by the UK government is at best inconsistent, at worst disingenuous.

In other words, this option is all about politics: Cameron aims to paint himself as the champion of renegotiation, and if the other EU member states are unwilling to enter into negotiations, he can make out that the lack of progress is down to their intransigeance rather than his own unreasonableness. Cameron can always threaten the UK’s EU partners that snubbing the UK on renegotiation will only intensify demands for the UK to quit the EU altogether. But to be honest, our EU partners are more likely to call Cameron’s bluff – supposing he’s still in power at that point, that is. With Prime Minister Miliband in No. 10, there’ll be no bluff to call.

So this whole scenario has huge potential to unravel horribly: if it doesn’t satisfy potential UKIP voters or Tory eurosceptics; if the Tories lose the next election; and if the EU is unwilling to play ball.

2.    So what if, as some have suggested, the UK holds a referendum to obtain a mandate for renegotiation before kicking off the negotiations? This option involves two referendums: one at the beginning of the process and one at the end to ratify the deal.

The most obvious problem with this suggestion is that you might not actually get a mandate via the initial referendum, i.e. the renegotiation option would be rejected by the electorate. In addition, the ‘no’ verdict would be ambiguous, in that ‘no’ voters would be made up of both supporters of the status quo and supporters of the UK’s exit from the EU. In addition, even if the ‘yes’ side did win the mandate referendum, this solution would be subject to the same uncertainties and ambiguities of option 1 discussed above: would it satisfy potential UKIP voters and Tory eurosceptics? Would the EU play along and agree to negotiate? Would an incoming Labour government reduce the scope of any renegotiation? And would the British people endorse any agreement that was reached in a second referendum?

There are too many uncertainties with this option; and whether renegotiation was approved or rejected in a mandate referendum, nothing would be settled for several years to come on the big question of whether the UK should remain a member of the EU or not.

3.    So why not just get this question settled once and for all via an in / out referendum held as soon as possible, preferably ahead of the next general election? This might at least provide the UK government with the real mandate it requires to go to the EU and begin negotiations, as set out in the Treaty of European Union, discussed above.

A straightforward in / out referendum is the preferred option of those opposed to the UK’s EU membership, including UKIP. Many of them are clearly confident the ‘No2EU’ cause would win out in such a referendum, but I’m not so sure. As YouGov’s Peter Kellner pointed out last week, precedent would tend to suggest that the status quo would in fact win, even if the ‘no’ camp were ahead in the polls at the start of the campaign. And if a majority did vote for the UK to remain in the EU, that wouldn’t really settle the matter either, because there would be a sizeable section of the population that still wanted the UK to negotiate a looser relationship with the EU while remaining a member state.

If, on the other hand, the ‘out’ camp did win an in / out referendum, then negotiations for the ‘Brexit’ (British exit) could begin. What would probably happen then, in my view, is that the European Commission and our fellow-EU member states would scurry around in a state of panic, and would offer a series of substantive concessions allowing the UK government to achieve most of its policy objectives while remaining within the EU. This could include withdrawal from the Social Chapter and the repatriation of powers relating to freedom of movement (i.e. the ability to restrict immigration from EU countries), justice and policing, employment law, welfare benefits, and a host of economic, regulatory and environmental legislation.

Even if the eventual deal did involve a Brexit, the form this would take would probably not be very different from a package allowing the UK to remain in the EU but with more independence in the areas I have just referred to. In essence, both would be a form of associate membership or affiliation, allowing the UK to access the Single Market but without entering into the full political project of the EU, which is viewed by many as tending towards establishing a federal European super-state. Whatever deal was reached through negotiation, this would be put to the British people in a referendum.

This is not a bad outcome; but, as I say, it is dependent on the anti-EU side of the argument winning an in / out referendum, which is far from certain. In addition, if Labour did win the 2015 election, an incoming Labour government would almost certainly wish to negotiate a less radical separation from the EU, which would probably involve remaining in the EU and retaining the Social Chapter along with many other elements of the status quo. A Labour government would be honour-bound to offer a second referendum on whatever deal emerged, and it would probably win such a referendum, for the reasons discussed above: when push comes to shove, the British people are more likely to back the status quo, especially if some concessions have been made and a limited number of powers have been repatriated.

So even an in / out referendum now probably wouldn’t settle matters. And there’s another, unspoken, reason why the British government is reluctant to offer the public an in / out referendum now: its possible impact on the Scottish-independence referendum in 2014. First, there’s the obvious point that if the Scottish people were to vote for independence, it would no longer be the UK government that would be negotiating on its terms of EU membership but the governments of two ‘new’ states. The rump-UK state (rUK) would doubtless lay claim to being the continuity-UK and the inheritor of the present UK’s legal personality and international agreements, including membership of the EU. But regardless whether this blithe assumption is founded or not, an impending break-up of the UK would make the need for negotiations on rUK’s and Scotland’s EU status unavoidable, especially as it is generally accepted that the English are more inclined towards looser ties with the continent than the Scots.

This variation in attitudes towards the EU north and south of the Anglo-Scottish border is another reason why an in / out referendum now would be potential dynamite. Imagine a situation in which the Scots – and maybe the Welsh and Northern Irish, too – voted to remain in the EU but the English voted to leave, swinging the overall vote in favour of the Brexit! That would really add fuel to the fire of the Scottish-independence cause, just ahead of the crucial independence referendum. The SNP would be able to tell Scottish voters that if Scotland remained part of the UK, the English would take the UK out of the EU, notwithstanding Scottish opinion in the matter.

By contrast, imagine if the margin of victory for the pro-EU cause in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were large enough to tip the balance in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, against the will of the majority of English-resident voters! That would be a ‘West Lothian referendum’, in which the UK voted to remain an EU member while England voted to quit! Now wouldn’t that wake up the sleeping lion of English nationalism! Clearly, the UK government is just not going to go there, and so an in / out referendum before the Scottish referendum is a non-starter; and there is too little time between the Scottish vote (probably in November 2014) and the next UK general election, in May 2015, to hold an in / out EU referendum.

Of course, another reason why Cameron is unwilling to stick his neck out and offer an in / out referendum now is that he probably wouldn’t win support for it in Parliament. This is because neither Labour nor Cameron’s Lib Dem coalition partners would vote for it. Indeed, sizeable numbers of europhile Tory MPs would also reject the idea. In other words, this could easily lead to the break-up of the coalition and even the end of the present government if Cameron chose to make it an issue of confidence and was still outvoted. So if Cameron offered to hold an in / out referendum now, he could find himself having to go to the country in a general election in 2013 and asking the public to approve an in / out referendum that had been rejected by Parliament. So, rather than jeopardise his premiership now, he will instead offer the same choice at the scheduled election time instead. This means, of course, that the issue will not go away, at least until 2015. But it will probably rumble on for some time afterwards, given how un-straightforward the renegotiation in fact is, as discussed in relation to options 1 and 2 above.

4.    This leaves alternative No. 4: a three-option referendum, to be held as soon as possible. As the name suggests, this would canvass the public’s opinion on all three options: the status quo, renegotiation / looser relationship, or quitting. On the ballot paper, the question could be posed as follows:

With which of these statements do you agree the most:

a)        The United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union, with the same balance of powers between the United Kingdom and the European Union as exists at present ;

b)        The United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union, but should negotiate with the European Union to repatriate certain powers that have previously been passed from the United Kingdom to the European Union;

c)        The United Kingdom should leave the European Union altogether.

Clearly, one problem with a multi-option referendum is that you can fail to obtain a majority mandate for any of the options. However, in this instance, this can be overcome very simply by requiring voters to indicate a second preference. In the event that none of the options on the ballot paper wins a majority of first-preference votes, the second-preference totals for all of the options are added to the first preferences. This is different from the Supplementary Vote (SV) system, which is presently used for London mayor elections, and where only the top-two candidates go into the second round of voting, and only second-preference votes for either of these two remaining candidates are added to their first-preference totals.

The pitfall with using SV for the multi-option referendum is that it’s quite possible that option b above (renegotiation) would gain the lowest total of first preferences but the highest total of first and second preferences combined, as supporters of the status quo and the UK’s exit from the EU would mostly pick renegotiation as their second choice. For this reason, using this system, it’s almost inevitable that the consensus choice – renegotiation – would win comfortably in the second round.

It is of course an outside possibility that the status quo or the Brexit would win an outright majority in the first round of voting, in which case the mandate is clear: winning an overall majority when there are three options on the table is a far more convincing victory than when there are only two choices. On the other hand, it is distinctly possible that the option of quitting the EU would win the plurality – the largest number of votes but not a majority – in the first round. This, too, would send a very clear message to the EU and would put the UK in a strong position to negotiate a favourable deal: it would demonstrate that more people favoured leaving the EU altogether than any other course of action. Similarly, as the totals for all three options would add up to effectively 200% if the referendum went into a second round, it is quite likely that, even if it did not win, the Brexit would be supported to some degree – either as their first or second choice – by a majority of voters. This would orchestrate the UK’s clear message to the EU even further.

Of course, if the voting system I propose is used, it’s entirely possible that all three options would obtain the support of a majority of voters on first- and second-preference votes combined. However, for the reasons given above, it is likely that renegotiation would get near to 100%, so long as it is mandatory to indicate a second preference on the ballot paper (which is the only way to ensure that at least one option does win a majority). Another way of putting this is that renegotiation would be unacceptable to only a very small percentage of voters (100% minus the share of first and second preferences won by the renegotiation option); whereas the status quo or the Brexit would be unacceptable to considerably more people. And as a very high percentage of voters would have supported renegotiation to some degree, this is something the country could unite around.

Incidentally, this way of conducting a three-option referendum makes it very unlikely that England would vote differently from the UK’s other nations: the consensus option would almost certainly win through consistently across the whole UK. It’s possible that leaving the EU would gain the plurality in the first round in England but not in the UK’s other nations; but then renegotiation would win comfortably in England, too, in the second round. This makes a three-option referendum viable ahead of the Scottish-independence referendum.

When it came to ratifying the eventual deal reached in any negotiations, there would be a need only for a two-option question: ‘do you agree to the new terms of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union that have been negotiated by the United Kingdom government?’. Answer: yes or no. If the country has indeed got behind the negotiations, thanks in part to the three-option referendum showing this course of action commands the strongest support of any of the alternatives available, then it is unlikely the deal reached would be rejected in the second referendum.

The three-option referendum would, then, be the most logical and the least divisive course of action. However, it would also rely on Mr Cameron being able to pass the measure in Parliament. The saying ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’ could perhaps apply here: this much more reasonable, balanced approach could obtain the support of the Lib Dems, so long as Cameron was prepared to make concessions to the Lib Dems in other areas, e.g. resurrecting Lords reform.

But probably Cameron is ultimately not really interested in bringing about any radical changes to the UK’s relationship with the EU, still less in risking the UK’s departure from the EU. So he will undoubtedly go down the ‘political’ road of option 1, if the pre-speech briefings are to be believed. In other words: ‘vote Conservative if you want the chance to moderate or terminate the UK’s membership of the EU’. But if the Tories do win an outright majority in 2015, don’t expect or fear anything too radical.

Plus ça change, as they might say in certain parts of the continent!

PS. Cameron duly gave his EU speech, starting just after 8 am this morning (Wednesday 23 January 2013): a lot earlier than I expected.

He did indeed set out the much-briefed option 1: taking victory in the 2015 general election as conferring a mandate to re-negotiate the UK’s position in the EU, including possibly via a new treaty relating to all 28 members (including Croatia, who will have joined by then); and then offering a straight in / out choice between accepting the new deal or exiting the EU.

My first reaction is that using the general election as a mandate referendum is entirely illegitimate. For a start, even if the Conservatives do succeed in winning an overall parliamentary majority, this will be on no more than around 40% of the popular vote. By contrast, Labour and the Lib Dems – neither of which are likely to include a referendum in their manifestos – will almost certainly win a larger combined share of the popular vote than the Conservatives, as they have done in every election since the Lib Dems’ formation and even earlier, in the days of the Lib-SDP Alliance. Therefore, using the election as a mandate referendum is a way to circumvent the requirement to gain the support of a majority of voters for re-negotiation, and robs the process of the democratic legitimacy that the contrary process – greater EU integration – has suffered from over so many decades.

In addition, presenting the public with only two choices after the negotiations have been completed – assuming negotiations will even take place – is also unfair. The British people will be forced to choose between staying in the EU on the terms that a Conservative government has negotiated or leaving altogether; but we won’t be offered the choice of remaining in the EU on the existing terms. Therefore, pro-EU voters will be forced to accept the new parameters of Britain’s relationship with the EU, based largely on neo-liberal economic principles: the Single Market at the centre of the whole EU exercise, but with the UK free to determine its own industrial, labour and welfare regulations, with fewer protections for British workers than are enjoyed by workers throughout the rest of the EU. (Never mind the paradox that this freedom of British industry to be more ‘competitive’, as Cameron would say, actually undermines the Single Market, because the Single Market is based on everyone playing by the same rules.)

In other words, the whole process would be skewed in favour of a Conservative ideological agenda, and the British people will not in fact have the choice they deserve, which is between three options: the status quo, and potentially the UK participating in even greater EU integration at some future point; a looser relationship, based mainly on economic competitiveness and free trade, as set out by David Cameron this morning; or a UK exit. Only a triple-option referendum, such as I set out above, can deliver that full choice.

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Alternative alternative voting systems, part eight: Bucklin voting

So far in this series of articles, I’ve looked at only single member-constituency systems, including AV+, which alleviates the disproportionality of single-member systems by combining AV with a regional-list element (which is what AMS does for FPTP). My discussions have concluded that the Alternative Vote (AV), which is the only voting reform we’re actually being offered, is the least good of all the possible single-member alternatives across a range of criteria.

I would say that, of all the established voting methods I’ve discussed, Approval Voting and score voting (of which my ARV system is an example) are clearly superior to AV in that they give more real choice and power to voters, and the results more accurately reflect the full range of voters’ sympathies. Of the methods I’ve ‘invented’, I would say Two-Member Proportional Voting (TMPR – a compromise between a multi-member-proportional and single-member-preferential system) and Net Voting (a system that resolves the absence of a majority for any candidate on the basis of candidates’ ‘net popularity’, which is the ratio of voters who like them to those who oppose them) stand out as potentially quite exciting alternatives that could really revitalise English and British democracy without going as far as full proportional systems.

In this post and the next, I’ll be discussing two further established single member-constituency systems that rank alongside Approval Voting and score voting as much more satisfactory reforms than AV: Bucklin voting and run-off elections.

For an explanation of how Bucklin voting works, I’ll just quote direct from the summary in Wikipedia: “Voters are allowed rank preference ballots (first, second, third, etc.). In some variants, equal ranking is allowed at some or all ranks. Some variants have a predetermined number of ranks available (usually 2 or 3), while others have unlimited ranks. First choice votes are first counted. If one candidate has a majority, that candidate wins. Otherwise the second choices are added to the first choices. Again, if a candidate with a majority vote is found, the winner is the candidate with the most votes accumulated. Lower rankings are added as needed. A majority is determined based on the number of valid ballots. Since, after the first round, there may be more votes cast than voters, it is possible for more than one candidate to have majority support.”

The version of Bucklin voting I will be discussing is where you’re allowed unlimited rankings (up to the number of actual candidates) but can’t indicate equal rankings.

The main advantage I think Bucklin voting has over AV is that it eliminates the ridiculous situation whereby the second and subsequent preferences of most voters (i.e. those who’ve given the leading parties their first preferences) are not counted and cannot influence the final result, whereas the result can be determined by a relatively small number of second preferences (i.e. those whose first preference was for a minor party). This anomaly means that the winning ‘majority’ under AV can actually be smaller than a latent majority for another party comprising first-preference votes for that party plus the non-counted second preferences. For example, if a Lib Dem candidate was in third place behind Labour and the Conservatives once the votes for all the other parties had been transferred, the Lib Dems cannot win, even though they might have the highest total of first and second preferences combined – because the second preferences of Labour and Tory voters (most of which might be for the Lib Dem) are not counted.

Bucklin voting overcomes these imbalances in AV because, if there is no majority of first preferences for any party, the second preferences of all voters are added, and so on with third and fourth preferences, etc., if required. In practice, in many constituencies, just adding the first and second preferences would be enough to generate a majority for one or more candidates, so you don’t need to go any further – which makes Bucklin voting much simpler, more straightforward and easier to count as well as being fairer.

So, for the above reasons, I would award Bucklin voting three points out of five against the criterion Does every vote count, and is every vote counted?, compared with two out of five for AV. There still would be a lot of preferences that wouldn’t count for anything in a Bucklin election: after the second or third preference, there would hardly ever be any point in voters listing further preferences as the result would already have been determined, and this could mean that genuinely ‘popular’ parties who gained a large number of, say, third and fourth preferences could end up being passed over by the system. Plus, as a single-member system, Bucklin is not particularly proportional, so a lot of voters’ preferences would not help to determine the final result.

On proportionality, my second criterion, I would still award Bucklin three out of five, because it’s clearly better than AV, which scores two. It’s better because it provides a more accurate reflection of the range of preferences of all voters. In particular, in England, the Lib Dems would probably have performed much more strongly in 2010 if the election had been held using Bucklin voting compared with AV, which would barely have improved their performance over FPTP. (According to the Electoral Calculus, the Lib Dems would have won 88 seats under AV based on their vote share in 2010, compared with 57 under FPTP. Using Bucklin, I’m sure their seats tally would have been considerably higher.) This under-performance under AV is for the reason I outlined above: the Lib Dems were the leading second preference of most voters in 2010, but under AV, in many seats, the vast majority of those second preferences would not have been counted. In Bucklin, they are. Have the Lib Dems been misled by the advocates of AV (such as those in the Electoral Reform Society or the Labour Party) into thinking AV is the best compromise for them between FPTP and STV, whereas Bucklin voting would be much fairer and more favourable to them, if they’d had but the wit to look into it?

As for my third criterion, Does the system foster accountability?, I would say Bucklin voting performs at least as well as AV, if not better. So I’m awarding it three out of five. Under Bucklin, winning parties definitely need to solicit the support of voters for other parties because they need their second preferences to be sure of winning. This means, though, that Bucklin would encourage a drift to the centre of the political spectrum as the leading parties competed for support from each other’s voter base.

The same advantage or disadvantage, depending on your point of view, has been adduced for AV: parties need to court each other’s voters. But I would say that, in AV, this actually means that parties have to broaden their appeal in both directions: towards the centre and towards the more extreme fringes of the political spectrum. This is because, in the AV process, the first votes to be redistributed to the larger parties are those of supporters of minor parties such as UKIP, the BNP and the Greens. Therefore, Labour and the Lib Dems will have to appeal to Green voters as well each other’s supporters; and the Tories will have to appeal to UKIP supporters as well as Lib Dem voters. Hence, AV could bring about more polarisation between left and right wing while at the same time leading to more voter disappointment, because the parties will alter their policies and messages to appeal to the broadest church but will not be able to deliver in a way that satisfies many who’ve supported them.

Bucklin, by contrast, encourages genuine competition for the centre ground, which could bring about more consensus politics. Another way of viewing that, though, is that broadly held opinions that are not shared by the party-political establishment – such as support for leaving the EU or creating an English parliament – would not get a look in as the parties made cosy coalition deals involving policies that had not been supported by a majority or even offered to the electorate. Hence, while Bucklin would make politicians more accountable to voters from across the three main parties, it could allow them to ignore popular demands that they do not want to hear.

On the 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?, I would award Bucklin no more than two out five: the same as AV. This is for the reason set out above that, after two or three rounds, there’s no point listing any further preferences. Sure, on the first preference, voters can indicate what, in my article on the 3CV system, I described as their emotional or conviction vote: the party they feel most sympathy for but often would not vote for under FPTP because they can’t win or for other ‘prudential’ reasons. But then, in the second preference, voters will often feel constrained to vote for whichever of the parties that can actually win that they feel able to support to some degree. After that, listing any further preferences would largely be academic. Indeed, you would not want to indicate a preference for any party that might stand a chance of defeating your top-two in a third round of voting.

My fifth criterion is: Does the system mitigate [or perhaps ‘obviate’ would be better] tactical voting? Here, I think Bucklin does slightly better than AV, which is prone to a legion of pernicious tactical-voting conundrums, as my previous two posts have argued (see here and here). So I’d give it three out of five. Under Bucklin, there’s no need to vote tactically with respect to your first preference, because, however you vote, if a party you don’t like wins over 50% of the votes, you could have done nothing to prevent it. Your second preference, however, could well be a tactical choice: voting for your ‘second-best’ choice to defeat the party you don’t want to win. But then again, as a second-preference vote, this is technically your ‘second-favourite’ anyway. By contrast, in AV, owing to the complicated logic of trying to ensure that the right two candidates get into the final run-off, you could often feel forced to put down your tactical vote as your ‘first preference’; for instance, in one of the scenarios I’ve described where Tory voters might feel obliged to vote Lib Dem first, rather than Conservative, in order to defeat the Labour candidate.

One other tactical ploy under Bucklin voting could be so-called bullet voting: where supporters of one of the parties in contention to win the seat would not offer any subsequent preferences in order not to harm the prospects of their candidate (e.g. Tory voters not listing a second preference for the Lib Dem candidate in case that helped the Lib Dem to win on second preferences). However, I don’t think there’s anything objectionable about this, and it’s not really tactical voting in the ‘pure’ sense: you could just say it’s voters listing only one choice because they want only one party and no other to win. This could, in any case, equally back-fire on such voters in that, by not voting Lib Dem as their second preference, Tory voters could indirectly help the Labour candidate to win. So voters’ behaviour in this respect is more likely to be shaped by the dynamics in each individual seat rather than being a systemic failing of Bucklin voting.

Finally, How easy is the system for voters to understand, trust and use effectively? Well, much easier than AV, for sure! In fact, I’d say it’s pretty simple and easy to understand: if there’s no majority winner on first preferences, then the second preferences are added (and subsequent preferences if need be) until one is found. It’s much more transparent and obviously fair than AV, as all preferences of all voters are treated equally. Plus it’s easier for voters to work with the system to try and get a result they want, as it’s much easier to predict what the impact of different voting strategies will be: ‘if I put party A ahead of party B as my second preference, will I get my desired result?’ So I’ll give Bucklin four out of five here.

So how does Bucklin shape up in comparison with the other systems I’ve discussed in this series? See the table below for comparison:

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

So Bucklin performs as well as Approval Voting but less strongly than the score-voting ARV system – but, obviously, much more strongly than AV. Why hasn’t it been considered?

Next time, run-off elections.

Giving second preferences to the Conservatives could be the best tactic for the Lib Dems under AV

If you use the delightful Electoral Calculus to ‘predict’ the 2015 UK general election result using the latest opinion-poll figures from ComRes, there’s very little variation whether you use the First Past the Post (FPTP) or Alternative Vote (AV) electoral systems. According to ComRes, the current voting intentions across the UK would be Labour 40%, Conservative 36% and Lib Dem 10%. Using FPTP without factoring in any tactical-voting swings between the parties, and on the basis of existing constituencies, Labour gains an overall majority of 40 while the Lib Dems drop to only 14 seats. Using AV still gives Labour a majority of 30 but helps the Lib Dems to 32 seats: much better, but still way below the 65 seats that would be proportional to their vote share.

Factoring in a 5% tactical-voting swing from the Conservatives to the Lib Dems doesn’t change the result. However, Electoral Calculus doesn’t allow you to factor in a tactical-voting swing from the Lib Dems to the Tories. On the basis of the Electoral Calculus prediction – however unreliable it may be – I would say that the best thing Lib Dem voters could do to prevent an outright Labour win would be to give their second preferences to the Tory candidates wherever they stand a chance of beating Labour.

This runs slightly contrary to my previous post on AV tactical voting, where I assumed that Lib Dem voters would be reluctant to give their second preferences to the Conservatives in seats of this sort in the context of a Labour resurgence. However, if the aim is to prevent an overall Labour majority, this makes absolute sense – just as it makes sense for Conservative voters to indicate the Lib Dem candidate as a higher preference than the Tory candidate in seats of this sort in order to defeat Labour, on the basis that Lib Dem voters couldn’t be trusted to give the Tories enough second preferences to win. Obviously, if it emerged during the campaign that doing so would be the best means for the Lib Dems to keep out Labour, then the tactical rationale would change.

Ironically, if Labour were thwarted from winning an overall majority by this tactic, then the Lib Dems would be in a much better position to form a coalition with Labour as the largest party. The same tactic would apply under FPTP, except that Lib Dem voters would have only one sensible choice: the Tories. In other words, if Lib Dem voters in Tory-Labour swing seats want a coalition with Labour, they’d be better off voting Tory as their only choice under FPTP, and as their second preference under AV, rather than voting Labour! Such is the bonkers logic of single member-constituency parliaments elected by either system!

If you enter more realistic predictions of the parties’ vote shares in 2015, you get a hung parliament under either system, the only difference being the number of Lib Dem seats. I would consider a 35% share of the vote for both Labour and the Tories to be more realistic, with the Lib Dems recovering to 20%. On this basis, Labour emerges as the largest party under both systems, with the Lib Dems gaining 45 seats under FPTP and 65 under AV.

If you enter lower vote shares for the major parties – on the basis that AV is supposed to encourage voters to opt for minor parties as their first preference – there’s virtually no change to this picture. Assuming a 32% share of first preferences for both Labour and the Tories, and 16% for the Lib Dems, Labour is still the largest party and the Lib Dems win 63 seats. Minor parties pick up only one seat, and that’s not Caroline Lucas for the Greens in Brighton Pavilion, who is predicted to lose her seat to Labour. So much for AV fostering political pluralism!

South-East Cambs candidates’ views on the Power 2010 pledge

I’ve had a couple of replies from my local candidates on the Power 2010 Pledge, which I wrote to them about on St. George’s Day. Their responses are basically in line with their parties’ manifestoes, which I suppose is no surprise.

First, the incumbent Tory MP, Jim Paice:

“My Party is a Unionist party – and so we will not put the Union at risk. However, having said that we are supportive of devolution and have committed in our Manifesto to rebalance the unfairness in the voting system for devolved issues in Parliament (the so-called ‘West Lothian Question’). We have pledged to introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England (or to England and Wales as is also often the case) cannot be enacted without the consent of MPs representing constituencies of those countries. The Labour Government has refused to address this situation, and it is not a Manifesto commitment of the Lib Dems.

“You can read the Manifesto here http://www.conservatives.com/Policy/Manifesto.aspx and the relevant section is pages 83-84.”
Firstly, Jim Paice is right about Labour and the Lib Dems on this issue. Indeed, the Lib Dems have indicated elsewhere that they are prepared to tolerate the continuation of the WLQ until more fundamental reforms of the constitution, parliament and voting system are enacted – which is highly convenient if they actually need the votes of Scottish Labour MPs to pass English legislation in the event of a Lab-Lib coalition after the election.
This emphasis on resolving the West Lothian and English Questions within a broader context of constitutional reform – again, consistent with the manifesto – is what emerges from the reply I received from the Lib Dem contender in South East Cambs, Jonathan Chatfield:
“Thank you for writing to me about the English question and wider Power 2010campaign.

“I am delighted to support the campaign for a reforming Parliament and have signed the pledge. Liberal Democrats have been calling for wholesale reform of our Parliamentary system for a long time and I am pleased to say that it is already our policy to:

“Introduce a proportional voting system

“The Liberal Democrats will change politics forever and end safe seats by introducing a fair, more proportional voting system for MPs, and for the House of Lords. By giving voters the choice between people as well as parties, it means they can stick with a party but punish a bad MP by voting for someone else.

“Scrap ID cards and roll back the database state

“Liberal Democrats would scrap ID cards. Getting rid of this illiberal, expensive and ineffective scheme, will free up money for thousands more police on our streets. We will also get innocent people off the DNA Database and scrap the intrusive ContactPoint database which will hold the details of every child in England.

“Replace the House of Lords with an elected chamber

“Liberal Democrats will replace it with a fully elected second chamber with considerably fewer members than the current House.

“Draw up a written constitution

“Liberal Democrats believe that people should have the power to determine this constitution in a convention made up of members of the public and parliamentarians of all parties, and subject to final approval in a referendum.

“The only part of the pledge with which I do not agree is the call to ‘allow only English MPs to vote on English laws’. We need a wider look at the constitution and our electoral system, rather than creating two types of MPs at Westminster. I believe that the better approach to solve the anomalies in the current constitutional settlement is to address the status of England within a Federal Britain, through the Constitutional Convention set up to draft a written constitution for the UK as a whole.

“Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.”

No surprises there, then, and no surprise that the Power 2010 movement itself enjoys the backing and participation of senior Liberal Democrats: the Power 2010 Pledge (apart from English votes on English laws) could almost be taken out of the Lib Dem manifesto!

Of course, from my perspective, it’s highly problematic that the only part of it that Jonathan Chatfield doesn’t agree with is the proposed remedy to the West Lothian Question; and it’s ironic that this is the only bit that the Tory candidate does agree with.

Sort of. Because the Tories’ ‘answer’ to the West Lothian Question is not a real answer. It’s true that they would allow only English MPs to determine effectively the final shape of any England-only legislation, by allowing only English MPs to participate at the report and committee stages of bills. But non-English MPs will still be allowed to vote on those bills at their second and third reading. So if there’s an overall Conservative majority among English MPs (the most likely outcome of the election) but not a Conservative majority across the UK as a whole, there could be stalemate if the other parties and non-English MPs voted down English bills at their second and third reading.

This is another reason why the Conservatives are banging on about being given an overall majority across the UK as a whole (which actually means a substantial majority in England only), because otherwise they would not be able to govern in England if they formed a minority government and still tried to adopt their proposed mitigation of the WLQ. Expect that to be dropped then in such an eventuality.

The Conservatives’ proposal would, however, nicely salve their conscience if there were a hung parliament but they had enough MPs to make a deal with the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the UUP to give them an overall majority. They could then defend themselves against accusations that they were, in effect, using the votes of non-English and, in some instances, anti-Union MPs to pass legislation in the Union parliament that affected only England! They would argue that their ‘English pauses for English clauses’ arrangement effectively gave English MPs – i.e. the English Tories – the final say on English bills.

Equally, the Tories’ tweak to the procedures for English bills could be introduced in the event of a Con-Lib coalition, especially as the Lib Dems seem to have no difficulties of conscience in practising West Lothian voting. So in effect, the Tory and Lib Dem positions ironically dovetail on the West Lothian Question: they’re prepared to continue with that anomaly so long as it suits their political interests and they can appear to legitimise the governance of England by the Union parliament for the Union – as opposed to government of the English people by the English people for the English people.

So should I conclude that I should give my vote to neither the Tories or the Lib Dems? Well, my view, as frequently expressed in this blog during the election campaign, is that, without a hung parliament, there’s no chance of driving through the radical constitutional reforms that could lead to constitutional recognition of England as a nation and to an English parliament. The Tories clearly are not interested in addressing the broader English Question, and their proposal doesn’t even amount to English votes on English laws – partly because of the unworkability of that proposal, at least under present parliamentary arrangements.

The Lib Dems, on the other hand, do recognise the need to address the English Question, even if they are at best equivocal about what the status of England, if any, would be in their federal blueprint for the UK; and even if electoral reform begs the English Question even more critically than carrying on with West Lothian voting in a non-proportionally elected House of Commons, as I argued in my previous post.

So it’s still the Lib Dems for me, as they’re the only party in South East Cambs that could unseat the Tory MP and help towards a hung parliament. But if they do have a share of power after the election, they’d be very much on probation, as far as I’m concerned. Their credentials with regard to real democratic reform will be dependent on the extent to which, if at all, they allow the English people to determine the way they are governed. And tolerating the WLQ isn’t a good start.

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.

Vote for England and St. George?

That’ll teach them not to officially fly the flag of St. George atop our dual-purpose English and British parliament! Serves them right – although, apparently, the police stopped the Power 2010 activists from projecting this giant Cross of St. George onto the Palace of Westminster after only about two minutes, no doubt on some spurious counter-terrorist or public-order grounds. British police state!

The Power 2010 campaign, which was, to say the least, a reluctant convert to the cause of English votes on English laws at the time of their online poll to determine the most popular ideas for constitutional reform, which culminated in February, is now urging people to write to their parliamentary candidates to ask them for their views on the English Question. Good for them, and great idea to project the flag and create this image!

There’s no doubt that if all English people who support an English parliament – 68% according to an ICM poll commissioned by Power 2010, due to be published today – could back just one party in support of that aim, then that party would romp to victory at the general election and reclaim Westminster as the English parliament. But in practice, the idea of voting for a pro-EP candidate puts me in something of a quandary. I devoted my last post here to promoting the idea behind the Hang ‘Em campaign, which seeks to mobilise voters to back the candidate most likely to advance the cause of a reforming parliament, principally by achieving a hung parliament. In accordance with that objective, I’ve decided to vote Lib Dem, as their candidate in my constituency is the only one who could possibly defeat the existing Tory MP, thereby furthering the goal of a hung parliament. But should I switch my vote over to the Tory if he turns out to support an English parliament?

I’m definitely going to take the opportunity to ask him and should have done so when I bumped into him in a local street canvassing last week (!); but I’m not sure he or one of his campaign team are going to have time to reply before 6 May now – talk of doing too little, too late, myself included in the criticism! In any case, I think it’s highly unlikely he would support such a radical constitutional innovation, as he never seems to deviate in any way from official Conservative policy, which doesn’t even propose a workable solution to the West Lothian Question, let alone address the English Question. But what if he does turn out to support an EP?

Well, there’s no point voting for a candidate who favours an English parliament who, if elected, wouldn’t do anything to advance that cause. But I’ll ask him whether he would do anything about it, if he does support an EP, and give him the chance to set out his views. I’ll let you know what answer I get to my question, if any. But my default position remains that the best way to promote the goal of an English parliament is to vote for a hung British parliament; and, in any case, voting Lib Dem is entirely consistent with both objectives, as they at least say in their manifesto that the English Question needs to be dealt with as part of an overall British constitutional convention.

So I still say ‘vote hung parliament’ until the Cross of St. George hangs from an English parliament!

Have a good one, by the way.

Vote in hope or vote in anger: Lib Dems or UKIP

In a recent post, I set out why I think people should vote to bring about a hung parliament, if they can, as the most likely way to ensure that the next parliament will be a reforming one. I indicated that I myself would probably be voting UKIP, nonetheless, because there was no candidate that could realistically beat the incumbent Tory MP where I live and thereby increase the chances of a hung parliament. However, I did say that if the Lib Dems started to significantly improve their opinion poll standings UK-wide, I would maybe reconsider and vote Lib Dem, as they nonetheless have an outside chance here, having gained 32% of the votes in 2005 against the Tories’ 47%.

Before the dramatic surge in the Lib Dems’ poll ratings following last week’s leadership debate, I had revised this position and had already pretty much decided to vote Lib Dem. This was partly in response to the Hang ’em campaign, which is seeking to mobilise the votes of those who want an overhaul of the British system of governance behind getting a hung parliament at this election. The campaign is aiming to pinpoint the best candidate to vote for in each constituency if you want fundamental reform of British (and English) politics: independent- and reform-minded Tory or Labour MPs, or the candidates best placed to defeat incumbent, reform-resistant Tory or Labour MPs – often, but not always, in practice the Lib Dem candidate in England, but also SNP and Plaid Cymru candidates in Scotland and Wales; but strangely and, in my view mistakenly, not UKIP’s Nigel Farage in House of Commons Speaker John Bercow’s Buckingham constituency.

When I read about this campaign, I thought I might as well give my vote to the ‘Hang ‘Em’ candidate in my constituency, who I’m certain will be the Lib Dem, although the verdict of the Hang ‘Em jury is still out for my seat. That’s because the incumbent MP has no record of interest in constitutional and parliamentary reform and, as I say, only the Lib Dem could realistically unseat him.

For me, it suddenly appeared to be a question of whether I wanted to vote in hope or in anger: the hope of a hung parliament, however unlikely to be furthered by a Lib Dem win in my seat, but nonetheless more likely if everyone who shares my views gets behind the Hang ‘Em candidate; or the anger I feel towards the three main parties for abandoning their pledges for referendums of one sort or another on Britain’s place in the EU.

I’m sure that many people across the UK, and especially in England, have been going through similar thought processes: moving from a position of outrage about the behaviour and unaccountability of politicians and the Westminster elite towards backing the Lib Dems and a hung parliament as the most likely route to deliver fundamental political reform. I’m sure that’s the deeper reason for the strong upsurge in Lib Dem support over the past week, although Nick Clegg’s capable performance in the leaders’ debate has helped to crystallise it.

The people want their politics to change; and the English people want a parliament that is more responsive to its concerns and priorities. For better or worse, that feeling has begun to coalesce around the Lib Dems. Let’s just hope it’s enough to deliver at least a hung parliament. And it’s in that hope that I shall be voting on May 6th.