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.

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!

First Past the Post is the past; AV is its final outpost: let’s draw a finishing line for them both!

The present First Past the Post voting system used for UK-parliamentary elections is the post that is propping up the whole crumbling House of Westminster. It’s like one of those wooden buttresses that are used to hold up the remaining outer walls of part-demolished buildings: a common sight on post-war bomb sites. ‘We should have demolished the old girl and built a new house from scratch’, the locals were wont to say; ‘but we’ve grown attached to her – she reminds us of the good old days’.

So it is with the Houses of Parliament: once the epicentre of a vast estate, now a shadow of her former self. First she lost all her lands, which she reluctantly had to hand back to their original and rightful owners; now even some of her choicest and most palatial rooms have been knocked down. ‘Devolution’, they called it, though it seems more like a demolition. All that’s left is Little England. But we won’t let on; we’ll carry on pretending that we’re still mighty Blighty, Great Britain, and that Westminster is the seat of an immense power.

And First Past the Post is one of the things that props up that illusion. It does so by indeed conferring great power on the government of the so-called United Kingdom (well, we can’t call it ‘England’, can we!) by ensuring that it does not need to suffer the inconvenience of being accountable to anything such as voters or ‘the people’. House of Commons it may be, yet it’s not for the common people but only for those who would be the Lords of Westminster’s manor. The said Lords are known as the Executive, and they exercise their power by commanding the loyalty of their servants, who are known as MPs. So long as a majority of the MPs are willing to continue serving their masters, those masters can hold on to their power, and the MPs do their bidding and enact their decrees.

Every now and then, the servants put themselves up for election by the commoners they are supposed to represent. But one needn’t suppose that the different factions into which the servants are divided – known as parties – are elected in proportion to the support they receive from the commoners. Oh no! That would make the power of the Lords of Westminster dependent on the support of the commoners rather than the MPs. No, one or other of the two largest parties needs the votes of only the largest minority of commoners to win big majorities of MPs; and so power can be swapped between the two parties from time to time, but the system of power itself remains unchanged.

First Past the Post (FPTP) is the voting method that allows this marvellous, time-honoured system of Executive rule to be perpetuated. Under this, the candidate obtaining a plurality – sometimes as low as 30% of the vote – is elected as MP, i.e. becomes the sole representative of his or her commoners, or constituents. This is replicated at national level, whereby the party obtaining the plurality of votes wins absolute power, sometimes known as an ‘outright majority’.

Now, some while back, the MPs and even the Executive itself heard mutterings of rebellion from the commoners to the effect that this voting system was somehow ‘unfair’. Indeed, there were even suggestions that it might be replaced by a system that did ensure that the number of MPs elected from each faction corresponded to the number of votes each faction had received. This raised the horrific prospect that only MPs elected in Little England should help the Executive to rule England. By contrast, under the existing system, MPs from a former province known as West Lothian were imported into the House to further prop up the majority of one of the two largest parties, known as the Labourers of the Estate. But as the number of English MPs elected was out of all proportion to the number of votes they’d actually received in Little England anyway, no one seemed to mind – or, if they did, the members of the household didn’t care.

These mutterings of rebellion grew so loud they even led to a third party that championed the cause winning so many votes that the FPTP system for once failed to deliver an outright majority to the party that won the plurality. That particular party, known as the Conservators of the Estate, incidentally handled the episode with exceptional grace: firstly, by taking the MPs belonging to the third party – the Liberty Takers – into their confidence and combining with them to form a new kind of majority known as a coalition that the Conservators were able to control; and secondly, by allowing the commoners to choose whether to keep the First Past the Post system or replace it with an alternative, conveniently called the ‘Alternative Vote’.

The Alternative Vote (AV) is superficially a rather complicated system. But its complexity serves essentially to obscure its primary function, which is to ensure that, at constituency level, a candidate must obtain a majority – or as near as possible to one – in order to pass the post and be elected. I suppose the thinking is that FPTP fooled the commoners for many years into thinking that enough pluralities at local level added up to a legitimate majority at national level; so that when MPs need to win actual majorities at local level, we’ll accept that the outright majorities their parties will continue to enjoy at national level are, well, legitimate.

AV performs this sleight of hand by dismissing the first votes of many of the commoners, which is their only vote under FPTP – making the FPTP winner, in effect, the one who first passes the first and only post. Under AV, if no candidate obtains a majority of these first votes, then a sort of virtual run-off election is held in which the candidate finishing last is eliminated – so that, effectively, they’re not even allowed to cross the finishing post at all – and the second votes, or preferences, of the commoners who gave that party their first votes are then assigned to the parties remaining in the race. This process is continued until, finally, one of the candidates obtains a majority of the votes or until these run out. The winner, therefore, is the one who first passes the final post: the one who wins most votes in the final virtual run-off ballot, whether the total number of votes they obtain constitutes a majority of the votes of all the commoners who bothered to turn out or not.

So, AV replaces First Past the (first and only) Post with First Past the Final Post. Superficially, these systems are so different that most of the commoners won’t notice that the end result will be the same in virtually all the constituencies: the same candidates will be elected under either system, and they’ll mostly be people that are not supported by a majority of voters. Except, AV will cover up this fact by adding the non-first-preference votes of the commoners who voted for the smaller parties to the first-preference votes of those who voted for the larger parties and calling them the same thing. This then creates larger pluralities and majorities for the same dominant parties. Genius!

And so the cherished hope of the Westminster Estate is that whichever system is chosen – FPTP or AV – will continue to prop up its crumbling walls and sustain the illusion of democratic legitimacy with which it has held the commoners spellbound for so long. However, I suspect the foundations of the edifice are shot, and any electoral fix is only a short-term solution. In fact, I don’t think we, the commoners, should play along at all: we shouldn’t vote either for First Past the Post or First Past the Final Post and thereby allow the MPs and the Executive to lord it over us any more. We should tell them where to stuff their buttresses (the clue is in the name) and pull those supporting posts from the side of the building.

Then perhaps we can start building that new House from scratch: a little English castle not a lordly palace.

Send A V-Sign to Westminster: Spoil your ballot in the AV referendum on 5 May

Check out the article of the above name at Rise Like Lions and sign up to the Facebook campaign to send a message to Westminster about the referendums we really want (English parliament and the EU) by spoiling your ballot in the AV referendum next May!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

2

3

4

4

3

Is the system proportional?

1

2

2

3

3

3

Does the system foster accountability?

3

3

4

4

4

4

Does the system let voters express their views?

1

2

3

4

4

3

Does the system mitigate tactical voting?

1

2

2

3

4

2

How user-friendly is the system?

3

2

4

3

3

3

Total scored out of a maximum of 30

12

13

18

21

22

18

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

Lessons from the Australian election for AV in the UK

The Australian elections are heading towards an almost perfect tie. At the time of writing, the governing Labor party had won 70 seats, with the opposition Liberal-National Coalition gaining 72, while independents had won four seats and the Greens one. This meant that, with three seats still outstanding, no party would cross the threshold of overall control (76 seats) and a coalition deal would have to be struck between one of the larger parties, the independents and potentially the Greens.

The results in terms of seats belie the fact that the Coalition had obtained 43.5% of ‘primary votes’, compared with 38.6% for Labour and 11.4% for the Greens. So based on vote share alone, the Coalition [capital c] ought to be entitled to try to form a coalition [small c]. ‘Primary votes’ are what we’d call over here ‘ first-preference votes’: Australia uses essentially the same preferential voting system that we’re going to have the option of adopting in the referendum next May, and which is known in the UK as the Alternative Vote (AV). The only difference is that, in Australia, voters are obliged to express a ranked preference for all the candidates in the election; whereas, in the UK, voters will be allowed to rank only the candidates they actually want to vote for.

In my view, the Australian results demonstrate once again just how bad a system AV is and how it favours two-party politics, or two-and-a-half-party politics as it would be in the UK. This is because people’s higher-preference votes for smaller parties inevitably end up being eliminated in the counting process, and only those voters’ lower-preference votes for the major parties are ultimately used to determine the result. This tendency is exaggerated even further in Australia by the fact that you are obliged to exhaust the ballot (express a preference for all the candidates), so that almost every vote comes down to a contest between the two largest parties.

Also, the fact that the Greens achieved their best-ever result, and yet their 11.4% of votes translated into only one seat, shows how unfair and disproportional the system is. What essentially happened in this election is that first-preference votes for the Greens were transferred almost entirely to the Labor Party in the preference count, which frequently enabled the Labor Party to overtake the Coalition, which had obtained more primary votes than Labor in many seats. This is how Labor managed to almost achieve parity with the Coalition on seats despite its much lower share of primary votes.

In the UK, this mechanism is likely to favour the Tories and the Lib Dems at the expense of Labour. In Tory-Labour fights – in England, this is mainly in the Midlands and the North – it’s quite conceivable that more Lib Dem voters would put down the Tories as their second preference rather than Labour, especially if those two parties are still in a coalition. So if Labour is only narrowly ahead of the Conservatives on first-preference votes, it’s quite possible the Tories could leap-frog Labour to victory thanks to the Lib Dem second preferences. As a consequence of this threat, I’ve suggested elsewhere that Labour voters in close Tory-Labour elections held using AV should consider voting tactically and putting the Lib Dems down as their first choice, in order to ensure that the final two parties left in the count are the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, and so enable the Lib Dems to beat the Tories based on the second preferences of Labour voters. This example demonstrates how, despite what is claimed for it, AV actually encourages some rather perverse tactical-voting scenarios.

Meanwhile, in Tory-Lib Dem fights – e.g. in southern England – the Lib Dems are more likely to benefit from this mechanism as Labour voters’ second or final preferences would be expected to be for the Lib Dems, if anything, rather than the Tories. Now, you could say that this aspect of AV is actually fairer than allowing the election to be decided purely on the highest plurality (i.e. based on the largest minority of ‘first preferences’ only, which is effectively what First Past the Post does in most seats). But if more people genuinely want one party to win rather than any other, isn’t that a fairer result, even if it produces disproportional outcomes at a national level? AV is arguably better at producing the ‘Condorcet winner’ (the candidate that would be preferred by most voters overall to any other candidate in a straight one-to-one comparison) but not so good at indicating the candidate that is strongly preferred by the greatest number, which FPTP in theory does better – although FPTP results are distorted by tactical voting. These problems do not exist in either of the ARV or TMPR voting systems discussed in previous posts: ARV always awards the win to the most popular candidate overall, regardless of whether this is the Condorcet winner or not; and TMPR gives the seats to both the Condorcet winner and the party that is strongly preferred by most voters – or both to one party, if they are the same.

Be that as it may, as in Australia, we’d effectively end up with two-party politics in England using AV, except the two parties in the North and Midlands would be the Tories and Labour (unless tactical voting for the Lib Dems by Labour voters of the kind I suggested above kicked in), and the two parties in southern England would be the Tories and the Lib Dems. This would effectively consolidate the three parties’ stranglehold over English politics while squeezing out the smaller parties. The only way parties like the Greens and UKIP could win seats would be if there was a strong candidate from one of those parties that supporters of the other parties would vote for tactically, whether as their first or subsequent preference, in order to unseat the incumbent MP. This is in fact what happened in the Australian seat of Melbourne, won by the Greens yesterday, as first-preference supporters of the Coalition – with its notoriously hardline anti-Green leader – hypocritically transferred their subsequent preferences to the Greens in order to defeat the Labor candidate, who came top in terms of primary votes. This shows just how pernicious tactical voting can be under AV: the Greens benefiting from Coalition tactical votes designed to beat Labor, whereas normally Green voters transfer their vote to Labor.

So don’t believe it when people try to claim that AV eliminates tactical voting: far from it. Nor is it remotely proportional and, arguably, fair in terms of awarding the win to the most popular candidate in each constituency. You could argue that the overall result in Australia, in terms of seats, is proportional to the extent that, in most seats, it came down to a straight fight between the main left-of-centre and right-of-centre candidates, and that these two fundamental positions were evenly matched overall. But this does consolidate the dominance of only one left-of-centre and one right-of-centre party – or, in England, two left-of-centre parties and one right-of-centre party. And, on top of which, AV would perpetuate the electoral divisions between the different English ‘regions’, making Labour only a party of the Midlands and North, and the Lib Dems only a party of the South; while the Tories are the only real right-of-centre alternative nationwide.

No wonder the Tories were so keen to put AV, and not PR, into the coalition agreement! And perhaps there was some cynical calculation on the part of the Lib Dems to the effect that permanent three-party politics, which is the most likely consequence of AV, would at least assure they had a quasi-perpetual influence over Westminster’s unaccountable governance of England.

Alternative alternative voting systems, part four: TMPR

TMPR stands for ‘Two-member proportional run-off’. This is another method that I’ve invented, in the wake of ARV, which I discussed in the last post in this series.

TMPR is a blend of, and compromise between, the UK’s present single-member, highest-plurality system (First Past the Post – FPTP); an instant run-off, majority system such as the Alternative Vote (AV); and a multi-member proportional system such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV). It contains enough of what’s good about each of these systems to offset what’s bad about them, which I aim to bring out in my detailed analysis below. So TMPR ought to satisfy proponents of each, although – like compromises in general – it may end up satisfying no one.

TMPR offers all of the following benefits to some degree:

  • It’s crudely proportional
  • It preserves the close link between an MP and his or her constituency
  • It would largely eliminate ‘safe’ seats
  • It would ensure that the great majority – i.e. significantly more than 50% – of constituents have at least one MP they’ve voted for as their first preference or, if not, as a second preference, making parliament much more representative of voters
  • It respects the majority and, failing that, highest-plurality principles
  • It gives voters the option to vote for their genuinely preferred party as well as exercising a tactical vote
  • It would give the smaller parties a much greater chance of making a break-through than FPTP or AV
  • And it would be easy for voters to understand what to do and how to get the most out of the system.

This is how the system works:

  • There are two seats per constituency: larger two-member constituencies would need to be formed by merging two existing adjacent single-member constituencies (with allowance being made for proposed boundary changes, so as to ensure that the constituencies all had roughly the same population size)
  • Parties can field two candidates, who are numbered one and two on the ballot paper
  • Voters have a first- and second-preference vote, which they must use for different parties; they can limit their vote to only a first preference, if they wish. Votes are for parties, not individual candidates: each party’s candidates and the order they appear in the ballot paper (1 and 2) are determined by open primaries, so that voters have already been involved in selecting the individual candidates before the election
  • Any party gaining over 50% of first preferences automatically wins both seats: candidates 1 and 2
  • Any party gaining over 1/3 of first preferences but not more than 50% automatically wins one seat: this goes to the No. 1 candidate for that party
  • If two parties gain over 1/3 of the vote but neither wins over 50%, they each gain one seat, and that is the end of the election: these seats go to each party’s No. 1 candidate
  • However, if no party or only one party gains over 1/3 of the vote, all the parties remaining in the race (obtaining exactly 1/3 of the vote or less) enter an instant run-off
  • This works by adding the second preferences of all voters – including those who’ve indicated the party that has already succeeded in obtaining over a 1/3 of the vote, if that is the case – to the first preferences
  • If one party has already won a seat and obtains over 50% of the combined total of first and second preference votes after the run-off, it wins both seats. Similarly, if no party has won a seat on the first-preference votes but one party obtains over 50% of the combined total of first and second preference votes after the run-off, it wins both seats
  • Otherwise, the winner of the outstanding seat (or seats, if two are still available) is simply the party (or parties) that obtain(s) the highest total (and second-highest total, if two seats are still being contested) of combined first and second preferences.

I’ll discuss the principles behind these features of TMPR as I proceed with my analysis of its merits based on the criteria I’ve used to rate other systems, including FPTP and AV, in previous posts in this series.

My first criterion is: Does every vote count / is every vote counted? With TMPR, as in all forms of instant run-off voting (IRV), you can get a situation where some of the votes are ‘not counted’ and therefore don’t count towards the final result: second-preference votes that are not needed to produce the final result, i.e. where two parties have already won the seats available based on first preferences. However, unlike AV, it is quite simple to include the second preferences in the presentation of the election results, even if those preferences haven’t been used, whereas it’s not the proposal, under AV, to publish the totals of all the preferences for all the parties.

Providing the totals of first- and second-preference votes would enable people to compare the results for when only first preferences are counted with those when you combine them with second preferences. This would provide valuable information for analysing patterns of tactical voting and the degree to which voters for larger parties also support the smaller parties (by voting for them as their second choice), and vice-versa: the ways in which voters for the smaller parties switch their allegiance to the larger parties in their second preferences. This relates to the discussion below about the extent to which TMPR would enable voters to send a message to politicians.

The question, ‘Does every vote count?’, mainly implies ‘are there any wasted votes under TMPR?’; i.e. does every vote count towards the final result? Well, one significant advantage of TMPR over AV is that the run-off uses the second preferences of all voters to determine the result, and not just the second and subsequent preferences of a greater or smaller minority of voters, as in AV. This is fairer and more consistent.

In addition, a greater proportion of voters’ first preferences influence the result than under FPTP and AV. For a start, a party needs to obtain only over one-third of first preferences to be guaranteed a seat; and if two parties cross this threshold without obtaining more than half of the vote, this means that over two-thirds of voters’ first preferences have been used to determine the winners of the election. If one party does gain over 50% of first preferences, this still means that the very minimum quota of first preferences that can influence the result is 50% plus one vote. This is in contrast to AV, where – despite what is generally said – the winner can still obtain the support of only a minority of voters, and even then, this is only on the basis of votes transferred from other parties.

Then, if second preferences come into play, this means that the votes of an even broader cross-section of the electorate are involved in shaping the result. One of the reasons for allowing second-preference votes for a party that has already secured one seat (by winning over 1/3 of first preferences) to enable that party in theory to win over 50% of combined first and second preferences (and thereby win both seats) is to provide an extra incentive for voters to use their second preferences for other parties. Otherwise, voters who had awarded their first preference to the party likely to finish second in the ballot (e.g. Labour) might be tempted to ‘bullet vote’, i.e. not indicate a second preference in case that damaged the prospects of their first preference in the run-off. However, as that could run the risk of allowing the leading party (e.g. the Tories) to win both seats (for instance, by capitalising on second-preference support from Lib Dem voters), voters of this sort would have a motivation for using their second preference, even if this were for a party that did not stand a chance of catching up with their first-preference party (e.g. the Greens). You could call this a ‘wasted vote’; but those votes could in fact be for minor parties that such voters genuinely sympathised with, and this mechanism would then provide a means to boost the support that minor parties receive.

So, for a combination of these factors, I’d award TMPR four points out of five for this criterion: in the absence of a clear overall majority for one party, a much higher proportion of votes are involved in determining the winners than under AV or FPTP. But there are still some votes that are not involved in determining the result.

In terms of my second criterion, is the system proportional?, I’d award TMPR three points out of five. This relatively mediocre score is despite the fact that, unlike all the single-member systems I’ve discussed up to now in this series, TMPR is proportional in its actual design. That is to say, the rationale for allowing parties to win one seat once they cross the threshold of 1/3 of the vote is that this figure represents the minimum proportional ‘quota’ required to qualify for one seat in a two-party constituency – on the basis that no more than two parties can obtain over 1/3 of the total vote. This is the same principle that is used in multi-member STV: in a four-seat constituency, the quota for a candidate to win a seat is one-fifth plus one vote.

To be logically consistent and fully proportional, TMPR ought to stipulate that, in order to win both seats being contested, a party would need to obtain two-thirds of the vote plus one vote rather than 50% plus one. However, the purpose behind allowing parties to claim both seats if they obtain over 50% support is to make TMPR more like a single-member majority system, and to provide an extra incentive for parties to go out and try to win both seats in areas where they’ve traditionally enjoyed majority support, e.g. Labour in the North of England and Scotland, and the Tories in southern England. This feature ought to make TMPR much more acceptable to those parties, given that around one-third of the current crop of MPs obtained the support of a majority of their constituents at the last election, and the constituencies involved are often concentrated in particular urban or rural areas. Therefore, amalgamating such seats into two-member constituencies, and allowing those constituencies to return two MPs from the same party if that party wins over half of the votes, should not affect the representation of that party in those areas too adversely. However, that’s without taking into consideration any change in voter behaviour that TMPR might produce, such as a greater willingness to vote for minor parties as a first preference.

Even so, TMPR is still more proportional than FPTP or AV, in that, in the absence of an overall majority, it awards one seat to each of the top-two parties in a constituency; and it makes sure that, in order to win both seats, a party must obtain the support of over 50% of voters. TMPR would be likely to generate a significantly larger (and hence, more proportional) number of Lib Dem MPs than either FPTP or AV, whether on the basis of first-preference votes (particularly in the southern half of England) or with the aid of second preferences (in the Midlands and the North of England). In the North and Midlands, there would also be lots of seats returning one Labour and one Tory MP.

In addition, as I stated above, TMPR would give minor parties more of a chance than FPTP and AV. This is because the minimum barrier to win one seat (one-third of the vote plus one vote) is lower than under AV and, typically, FPTP; and because smaller parties stand to gain more second-preference votes from people whose first preference was for one of the three main parties: particularly, where those voters do not wish to provide an advantage for one of the other larger parties by either not using their second preference at all or by giving it to another of the larger parties – but also, if voters genuinely want to show support for one of the minor parties. In this way, you could expect UKIP, for instance, to pick up a lot of second preferences from Tory first-preference voters, and the Greens to similarly gain backing from Lib Dem and Labour first-choice voters. By contrast, under AV, the subsequent preferences of Tory, Lib Dem and Labour voters for those smaller parties will generally not be counted at all, because by the time votes for the major parties are transferred, if they are at all, to another party in an AV election, UKIP and the Greens will already have been eliminated.

All the same, TMPR is a cruder and less granular form of PR than STV, in that the fewer seats are available per constituency, the more the overall result deviates from pure proportionality – as well as because of the 50% rule. Hence, as I would probably award STV four out of five for proportionality, I have to give TMPR only three out five.

With respect to my third criterion, Does the system foster accountability?, I’d give TMPR four out of five. One of the effects of TMPR would be to greatly reduce the number of ‘safe seats’. This is not just because it reduces the number of seats that Labour and the Tories can win on a plurality of the vote (because a plurality of over 33.33% wins you only one out of every two available seats, not both seats as is effectively possible under FPTP) but also because of the system of open primaries. Under TMPR, MPs and candidates from other parties would be obliged to submit themselves for (re-)selection before every election. In addition to determining whether the incumbent MP would be allowed to run again, these open primaries would also determine in which order that MP would appear in the ballot paper for their party, i.e. No. 1 or No. 2. In a constituency where the MP’s party had not obtained over 50% of the vote at the previous election, being listed No. 2 could be tantamount to de-selection, given that only the No. 1 candidate is elected when parties obtain between one-third and a half of the vote.

The point of these open primaries is partly to increase the accountability of MPs to their constituents during their incumbency as well as at election time. But this is also to allow voters the chance to select individual candidates rather than just vote for a party, which is what they do under TMPR at the election. The reason why TMPR does not allow voters to vote for individual candidates – except if parties field only one candidate – is that this prevents the election from degenerating into a highly complex series of tactical calculations (such as one party fielding only one candidate in order not to dilute its vote, to the disadvantage of a more popular party fielding two candidates) and makes it less likely that complicated run-offs are required, as many elections are capable of being decided clearly and fairly based on first preferences alone. Having open primaries compensates for this by allowing voters to pick individual candidates.

In the open primaries, all registered voters would be entitled to be involved in picking the candidates each party would field at the next election. The only voters excluded from the primary poll would be members of other parties. This system would result in virtually no MP feeling totally safe that they could be re-elected time after time. In addition, as the overall election result would be more proportional than single-member systems, parliament as a whole would be more accountable to the total electorate.

What about independent, i.e. non-party, candidates? Well, as in the case of parties fielding only one candidate, independent candidates would have to obtain over one-third of the vote to be elected. If, by some freak, an independent candidate won over half of the vote, they could by definition take up only one seat. So the other seat would be awarded to the party obtaining over 1/3 of the vote or, in the absence of that, a run-off would be held in the usual manner.

Criterion No. 4: Does the voting system allow voters to express the full range of their political and personal preferences, and send a message to politicians? When discussing my first criterion (does every vote count?) above, I argued that counting the first and second preferences of all voters would empower voters to use their vote to let politicians know what they think about them – e.g. by voting for a minor party as a first or second preference (whether out of conviction or as a protest vote). In addition, TMPR significantly lowers the risk barrier to voting for a smaller party out of conviction, as this is less likely to damage the prospects of the party for which you usually tactically vote, given that that party needs to secure only one-third of the vote to win one seat – and you can help them do so with your second preference, if that is needed.

Similarly, as I discussed in connection with my second criterion – proportionality – above, the incentive that TMPR creates to use your second-preference vote in such a way as to disadvantage parties you do not support means that many voters will vote for smaller parties that they genuinely sympathise with as their second preference, albeit also out of tactical considerations. TMPR therefore encourages voters to express both a conviction vote and a tactical vote, and their first and second preferences are more likely to genuinely coincide with their actual first and second preferences, albeit that the party they ‘like’ the most might be indicated as their No. 2 choice, depending on whether voters decide to list either their conviction vote, pragmatic vote or indeed protest vote as their No. 1 choice. So, for this criterion, I again award TMPR four out of five: voters can vote for their two most strongly supported parties, and those votes can both be influential in determining the result while also sending a message to the politicians.

The ability for people to vote tactically as well as out of conviction or protest means that I can give TMPR only three points out of five against my fifth criterion, Does the system mitigate the need to vote tactically? It is true that voters are not obliged to vote only in a tactical manner, as they so often are under FPTP. But there are some tactical calculations that can be made, such as whether and for which party to use one’s second-preference vote so as not to be detrimental to one’s first-preference party. However, there’s only a limited extent to which tactical strategies can actually come off, in that parties whose defeat you might wish to ensure will usually need to win only one-third of the vote plus one vote, and if they do so, there’s nothing much anyone else can do about it.

Finally, my sixth criterion: how easy is the system for voters to understand, trust and use effectively? Here, I’d give TMPR four out of five. Admittedly, it’s a little more complicated than FPTP, to which I gave three points out of five against this criterion. However, in essence, TMPR is pretty straightforward: voters just have to indicate a first and second preference. And it would be easy for voters to work out how to use their preferences to best advantage to try to secure the outcome they most desire, whether that’s both seats being won by the party of their choice (bullet vote just for that party); one seat won by party A and the other by party B (vote for party A as your first choice and B as your second, or vice-versa); or making a protest vote (vote for the party representing your protest as your first preference and then your usual party as your second); etc. I think voters would also realise TMPR is much fairer, in that if two parties obtain between one-third and half of the vote, they both win a seat.

So how does TMPR compare against the single-member systems I’ve discussed thus far? In the table below, I’ve compared the scores I’ve just awarded to TMPR with those for the other systems:

Criterion FPTP AV AppV ARV TMPR
Does every vote count?

3

2

3

4

4

Is the system proportional?

1

2

2

3

3

Does the system foster accountability?

3

3

4

4

4

Does the system let voters express their views?

1

2

3

4

4

Does the system mitigate tactical voting?

1

2

2

3

4

How user-friendly is the system?

3

2

4

3

3

Total scored out of a maximum of 30

12

13

18

21

22

TMPR emerges as the best of the systems discussed in this series to date – admittedly, only by reference to my own criteria and with scores that some would dispute. I’m aware it could seem highly vain to award the largest number of points to the two systems I myself have invented (ARV and TMPR). But I’d love it if readers would take issue with any of the detailed points I make in connection with aspects of each system or with the criteria I’m using to assess them; rather than purely taking issue with the system itself in relation to more technical mathematical-probability calculations or the many specialist technical criteria for assessing voting systems. If I’m wrong to consider that TMPR has the advantages I ascribe to it, then please take me to task on them.

But for now, I hold to the view that TMPR is an excellent compromise between the best of FPTP, AV and STV, the latter of which I haven’t yet discussed. I was originally planning to discuss the AV+ system for the present post in this series. But then I had the brainwave of TMPR, which I was keen to discuss first. So – barring any further brainwaves – it’ll be AV+ next time.