Electoral Reform (Stage 1), How to win a referendum Part 5.

A strategy to move the project of voting reform toward an eventual and successful conclusion will follow the following path.

We will create a collaborative and co-operative working group, from across the political spectrum, to undergo a process of voting system evaluation to determine the best system to present to the people. The evaluation methodology will include polling to determine those aspects of a voting reform package that people would be likely to support in the event of a referendum. Clearly, it makes sense to know what people would vote for and what they wouldn’t before presenting them with a choice.

Which system to use is a current and major obstacle in moving forward, because different organisations are very set on their own preferences, and are not minded to change their views unless persuaded by information other than, but in conjunction with, logical argument, which rarely works on its own when minds have already been made up. Knowing that people wouldn’t vote for an aspect of a system one has loved for some time can be very persuasive.

The group will also hone better arguments and develop a campaign strategy to get these messages across to the people.

Senior people from other parties and organisations that support voting reform will be invited (in Jan 2018) to be a part of this group, and it is hoped that they will see the benefit of a unified approach.

Settling upon the eventual system to be presented to the people is a critical and pressing task. All organisations who want to bring this about should be aware that speaking with one voice and spreading the same message in a consistent form amplifies the effect of any campaign.

However, this is about how to win a referendum, specifically a referendum to change the voting system from FPTP to something else which is more proportional.

Imagine a football, cricket or boxing match. The best sides, the best batsmen or the best fighters have a competent and robust defence as well as flair and excitement in attack. The finest stroke player in the world will not prosper if he can’t keep out a straight ball and boxers tend not to progress very far if they keep being hit.  Teams and individuals alike rely upon a solid defensive capability, switching to attack when the time is right and the opportunity clear.

A referendum takes on a very similar pattern. There are two sides, one of whom wants change and the other does not. All the tactics that apply in a sporting contest will also be in play in a referendum. In sporting parlance, we may see some gamesmanship, a bending of the rules, which certainly happens in political competition as well as sporting ones. Weaknesses on both sides will be exploited to the full, some misrepresentation will occur and even some untruths. We could rely upon the reporters of the event to point these out and hope that people will be observant, or we could ensure that the chosen system has no catastrophic weaknesses and that any weakness it does have can be robustly defended.

Knowing this, any system put forward to the people must have, not only the advantages of wider representation, but also a solid defence against the inevitable attacks. It will be of no consolation to cry foul after we’ve lost, because we didn’t like the way the opposition went for our poorly defended flank.

When it comes to choosing a voting system the weaknesses are even more important than the perceived strengths and the evaluation methodology embodies in the process described above will be designed to make sure we know what they are for each system so that we can avoid a seemingly perfect solution, but with a soft underbelly, and present the best winning prospect to the people.

The most important characteristic of a voting system, therefore, is not how proportional it is, or how many other places use it, or how many PR geeks like it. It is, its ability to win a referendum. Only a systematic evaluation with polling input will be able to determine the best outcome.

Electoral Reform (Stage 1), The arguments for voting reform. Part 4c.

On 5th May 2011 the UK held a national referendum and the people were asked the following question.

At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?

The result was a resounding NO.

The reasons for that result were many and varied but two things have changed since then:

1.     2015, a time when the election results were seen to be outrageously unfair, has been and gone

2.     There are far better arguments for voting reform than those relied upon in the 2011 AV referendum campaign (and still principally relied upon by many campaigners today).

The 2015 general election highlighted the severe limitations of FPTP. The SNP received 1,454,436 votes and achieved 56 seats, whilst UKIP received 3,881,099 votes and 1 seat. This stark disparity drew people’s attention to the unfairness of the UK voting system. Most had recognised that FPTP was an ‘imperfect’ reflection of the desires of the populace.  However, the flaws in the system were, arguably, mitigated given that it was believed to be more likely to provide majority government enabling the governing party to discharge its manifesto promises without hindrance; in other words, strong government, which appeals to the voting public. We now know this isn’t true.

Apart from the fact that the argument as presented is largely false (and I have detailed why this is so in earlier articles), the balance of perception was changed by this stark and scary result. Whether or not one was a UKIP supporter, everyone thought this to be grossly unfair and it was, quite simply, a game changer.

However, with the passage of time, the outrage fades. The 2017 general election, as with all elections held under FPTP, still had its unfairness (The DUP with 8 seats, 292,316 votes, and UKIP 594,068 votes, 0 seats, Green Party 525,665 votes and 1 seat), but it didn’t register with most people as dramatically as did the 2015 result. The election before last, for most people, does not have the immediacy of the last one. Whether the Prime Minister was aware of this, or factored it into her calculations when she called the 2017 general election, is unknown but one effect of that was to dim people’s sense of unfairness in the electoral system and set-back any political pressure for voting reform that based its entire argument around this single concept.

The arguments around fairness of representation are still strong, but they are not enough, by themselves, to change the voting behaviour of the people. Even then, the usual arguments tend to focus on how MPs are elected to the House of Commons yet fail to address the imbalance between a member’s electoral support and the voting power they exercise, when in the house.

Angus Macneil, the MP for Na h-Eileanan An Iar, was elected to the Westminster parliament in 2017 with 8063 votes. He is currently the chairman of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee. Stephen Timms is the MP for East Ham with 47,124 votes. There are many candidates who received more votes than Mr Macneil, but they, and their supporters are severely short changed by this arrangement.

Whilst these representatives have widely differing electoral support, they exercise the same voting power in Parliament. That means that the voters of Na h-Eileanan An Iar have 5.9 times the influence of an East Ham voter. In other words, they get 6 votes to a Londoner’s 1. Our parliament has been subject to an evolutionary process since 1215 and The UK parliament was born in 1707. It is understandable that, at that time, they needed a system which was transparent and unequivocal, so voting was determined by entering either a yes lobby or a no lobby and members would be counted as they entered. This system doesn’t allow for counting half a person, so each member counted as one because there was no other way to do it.

We are no longer in the 18th century and do not have to do things the way they did. The existing system, is time consuming, archaic, requires members to be present and spawns an absent buddy system to cater for members who are not able to attend the vote, often because of government business. More importantly, though, is the unmerited influence it hands to members with sparse support and the reduction of rightful influence from members with much greater support.

The artificial equalisation of an MP’s voting power is a distortion of their underlying support, yet most ‘PR’ systems fail to address this inequality.

Both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party are opposed to changing a system that suits them so well. Tony Blair rather liked his 187-seat majority in 1997 so promptly ditched the manifesto pledge to hold a referendum on PR. Gordon Brown’s promise to do the same thing also floundered for the same reason, that of self-interest. One can’t quite divorce the benefit to smaller political parties of voting reform, and it is often presented as the single motivation for smaller parties wanting this change. Nobody, however, gets elected without the weight of votes so, such an argument is misdirected as it is the people who benefit through the election of representatives that reflect their points of view.

Many people don’t bother to vote, because they do not see their vote as having enough value for them to bother to post a letter or pop down to a local polling station. Only those who perceive their vote as having enough value will vote, meaning that huge numbers of people are left out of the process. The apathy surrounding elections other than a general election is even greater, and results in appalling turnouts at Parish, Borough, Town and County Councils, Unitary Authority, European, and PCC elections, because the value of these votes is perceived as being even less than the parliamentary one. The Brexit (72.2%) and Scottish Independence (84.6%) referendums, on the other hand had higher turnouts. Its not about how easy it is to vote, but what value people attribute to it. Doing things that increase the value of an individual vote will increase participation.

It is a powerful argument, still, that greater participation, inclusivity and direct representation will result in better government as well as a sense of involvement for many more people. It is not, however, the only argument, and probably not the best argument, but it still needs to be made.

Electoral Reform (Stage 1), The arguments for voting reform. Part 4b.

Weak government can never address fundamental issues.

FPTP will always result in weak government when more than two well supported parties contest a general election. In the UK 2017 general election, we had seven parties that polled more than half a million votes, despite the unusual conditions surrounding it. In 2010, there were five parties that passed this figure and, in 2015, seven again.

Even with the extraordinary polarisation of opinion that characterised the 2017 election and the consequential sucking away of support from smaller parties, there were still seven political parties with over 500,000 votes, yet, of course, with wildly varying levels of eventual representation.

When the voting system denies people representation, a contradictory set of circumstances prevails. The 2017 results created a hung parliament, with the governing party dependent on a very small party for survival (the DUP, who got nowhere near half a million votes) and, as a result, the government is visibly weak in all respects. The governments of 2010 and 2015 also suffered from this same problem to differing degrees and, whilst this weakness was material, it wasn’t immediately obvious.

The 2015 general election delivered a small Conservative majority in parliamentary seats yet with only about 20% of support in the nation. They achieved 36.8% of the votes cast and 24.4% of those who registered to vote. Ironically, the hung parliament of 2017 delivered national support of around 27%, with 42.4% of the votes cast and 29.2% of those registered to vote.

Typically, an estimation of the numbers of people who were eligible to vote but failed to register takes a couple of points off the lower figure, hence around 22% and 27% of overall support respectively for the 2015 and 2017 elections.

Applying the same criteria to the 2010 coalition government would have given them around 36.5% of overall support; a significant increase.

Overall support may well be a better indicator of the relative strengths of governments than the number of seats won:

  • 2010, higher overall support, lasted 5 years, made significant changes, reduced deficit etc and won two referendums.
  • 2015, very low overall support, lasted 2 years, lost a referendum, a prime minister and a chancellor and achieved very little.
  • 2017, still low support but much higher than 2015 and suffering a loss of majority. Could last longer than the 2015 government but will be unable to even implement basic manifesto commitments.

Support in the country is a factor and here’s why.

Just because people don’t vote doesn’t mean that they don’t care. It also doesn’t mean that they don’t have political opinions, nor does it mean that they won’t air them, but in ways that aren’t easily measurable, even though they may be very effective. These opinions will be expressed on social media, in the pub, at a football match, at home and at work, and will add to a collective opposition that influences the attitude of society, as a whole.

There multiple conduits through which feelings, denied expression in our electoral mechanism, will find their way into the public domain, and they can be sufficiently destabilising to cause governments difficulty and may be sufficiently strong to cause them to fall. The unexpected support that the Labour party received in the 2017 general election, may well have been the only way that many could express opposition to the Conservative government’s program. Not so much support for Labour, perhaps, maybe just registering opposition to the Conservatives.

The argument is, that FPTP produces weak governments and coalitions produce stronger ones because the broad support for the governing coalition is much higher than, even a HOC majority of a single party. It follows, therefore, that we should seek an electoral process that maximises overall support which is then, more likely to provide better government.

Higher overall support, by its very nature, will also provide the parliamentary majority necessary to implement a governmental program. Just having the majority of seats, or a cobbled together majority with very small parties, as is the case now, only provides the illusion of authority. FPTP will, in a multi-party state, always deliver governments with low overall support, thereby subverting their legislative ambitions. The idea that it is only the parliamentary majority that counts only sees a part of the picture.

The lack of overall support means that governments are unable to do the things they should do, and instead only attempt the things they think they can get through.

As a nation we can do better.

We have many socio-economic issues that, instead of being placed on a sustainable foundation, are constantly tinkered with. It’s probably not an absence of ideas, but an absence of political ability that prevents the necessary action being taken. A minority government attempting radical and far reaching change does attract massive opposition, often politically driven, and with the delicately balanced and highly polarised political situation we now have, such risks are usually seen as being too great to take. However, with a government that has much higher overall support, the scope for opposition is a) smaller and b) not able to derail necessary changes so easily.

Fairer voting will include the views of people not catered for in FTPT elections. When their votes count, more will engage, and the result will be a broader reflection of how people feel. Coalition is an inevitable consequence of taking on board the desires of many more people, but it is likely, as opposed to 2010, to be a coalition of the similarly minded, and will lead to a government that has a chance of addressing the structural changes we need, whilst moderating the tendency to cater to one’s financial backers.

We are all aware that the Conservatives receive a great deal of money from big business and the Labour Party from trade unions. Big business doesn’t worry unduly about the quality of life for working people and neither do trades unions. The former, are primarily concerned with a legislative framework that benefits their business and the latter, by definition, cater for ‘members only’, with little consideration for working people in general. Governments tied to their paymasters aren’t going to do what’s right, only what pays.

  1. High on the list for substantial reform and the creation of a sustainable model would be national healthcare, for too long just a political football.
  2. The provision of affordable housing and the significant reduction in immigration needed to realise this aim.
  3. A national transportation strategy and a longer-term energy policy.
  4. Education and higher education.

Almost every sector needs substantial revision but that doesn’t happen because weak governments, have as a priority, their own self-interest.

Better government, coalition government, is more likely to produce stability and the progressive improvement in the welfare of our citizens, as opposed to the repeated swinging from one ideology to another every few years. As such it is a powerful argument for voting reform. If more people become engaged in the electoral system and more people vote for the ideas they want, a coalition government with a broader and bigger overall support base is more likely to ensue.

It is an argument well worth making.

Electoral Reform (Stage 1), The arguments for voting reform. Part 4a.

Coalition is a good thing.

During the ‘This Week’ TV programme (2nd November 2017), Michael Portillo introduced a novel argument against PR. He asserted that it was responsible for the Israeli government’s rather inflexible approach to the Palestinian problem, the creation of new settlements, and the obstruction of progress towards a political solution. The argument suggested that because, under PR systems, everyone and his dog gets a say, it has led, and would lead in the UK, to very small and possibly extreme parties holding the balance of power, leading to more extreme positions being taken by the governing party than they otherwise would.

In the Israeli election, they use a nationally proportional system, which is not generally considered to be a preferred option for the UK but, even under that system, Michael Portillo’s observations don’t really hold true. The Likud party won the most votes and 30 seats (UK equivalent 163 seats) and formed a coalition with four other parties none of whom achieved less than 6 seats, (UK equivalent 33 seats). It is unconvincing to argue that coalition partners with the UK equivalent of 54, 41,38 and 33 seats represent minority extreme views. In the Israeli example, the coalition is broad and the parties in the coalition all have significant support. In the UK the opposite is true. The tail, DUP (292,316 votes), is currently and vigorously wagging the Conservative dog (13,636,690 votes).

As it happens, we have a clear example of minority party pressure over the Irish border question. The DUP don’t want an Irish border so, despite there being a range of options to resolve this which support the Brexit decision, the Prime Minister has submitted to their complicating demands because of the unstable electoral position our voting system has created.

However, Michael Portillo raised a very important point, even though his rather poor example tends to show the opposite of his intention. He used the Israeli example to support the assertion that proportional voting systems are more likely to give small and extreme parties the whip hand scenario. The Israeli coalition is made up of parties with substantial support whereas the UK system of FPTP has produced a coalition which is exactly the one sided, ‘tail wagging the dog’, scenario he was decrying.

The reality is that FPTP is far more likely to create this sort of situation and more likely also to polarise voting intentions. That has led directly to the weak governmental position we are now in.

What Michael Portillo really meant, was that FPTP is best for the Conservative party and, ironically, also the Labour party as it ensures the polarisation of voting intention, brings into play extreme views, affords very small parties the whip hand and perpetuates the likelihood of continued two-party dominance in UK politics, which is exactly what they want.

Our voting system will ensure that one day, maybe the next election or perhaps a later one, the Labour party will win again. We will once again take a step backwards, there will be another financial meltdown, the only option for salvation will be presented as the Conservative party and Labour will be in opposition for another generation or two until people, once again, forget how economically infantile they are.

This passing the parcel suits them because it ensures that UK governance is shared between diametrically opposing ideologies and they get to share the power periodically, with the longer periods being Conservative. It was paused for a period of time whilst ‘New Labour’ (a Conservative light approach) temporarily acted with financial probity before reverting to the norm. The country and its people, who regularly suffer these contradictory approaches, never get to know what it feels like to continually progress.

Ironically, had this been a truly proportional system as used in Israel, the DUP would have achieved 6 seats and the UK results would have looked a bit like this:

Conservative 275
Labour 233
Liberal Democrat 48
Labour and Co-operative 27
Scottish National Party 20
UK Independence Party 12
Green 11
Democratic Unionist Party 6
Sinn Fein 5
Plaid Cymru 3
Independent 3
Social Democratic and Labour Party 2
Ulster Unionist Party 2
Alliance 1
Speaker 1

 

However, there is a ‘but’, and it’s a huge ‘but’. Were the electoral rules to have been different then people’s voting behaviour would also have changed, potentially dramatically. The above results would have been very different. You can play around, though, with the likely coalition options.

A powerful and well supported argument against FPTP, kindly provided by Michael Portillo, is that it is more likely to hand undue influence to parties with little support, that by their very nature are likely to be either extreme, or nationally focussed as opposed to UK focussed. That applies more so in the UK because of the coalition of countries we have as FPTP affords much higher than proportional representation to Scotland, Wales and, of course, Northern Ireland.

When voters know their votes are more likely to count, when they can truly vote for the party, the person, and the ideas they want to support, they are likely to do so in far greater numbers than they do now. In the 2017 general election, standing as a UKIP candidate, I was often told by my supporters that their vote was being ‘lent’ to the Conservative Party because they had promised Brexit and because they were in pole position to deliver on that promise. Despite that, and the fact that UKIP failed to put up candidates in all constituencies, the party still got just under 600,000 votes, ironically twice as many as the DUP. Some people will keep the faith which is why parties with no hope of winning under FPTP still get some support.

However, when the rules change, that faith will be kept by many more people.

An implied requirement, in Michael Portillo’s analysis, is the establishment of a substantial level of support before being eligible to enter the legislature. We are talking about setting the bar high enough to weed out the nasty extremist views that might otherwise gain enough support, in PR type systems, to have a parliamentary voice. FPTP does this too well. The bar is so high that most people’s votes are either wasted, or unsuccessful. The result is a governing party with little real support from the populace. I’ll elaborate on this aspect in the next article.

The concept, though, of a lower bar than FPTP, but higher than the total number of votes divided by the total number of seats, is important and necessary if we wish to keep the direct link between a geographical area (constituency) and directly elected representatives. It is interesting to note that the system I designed, and the one which I hope UKIP will present in the mix for evaluation, F2PTP (www.makevotescount.co.uk) does this admirably. It’s also worth noting that most of the arguments against a more proportional system, aired in the parliamentary debate recently, were directly aimed at deficiencies in the existing group of PR systems and their complex compromises. These arguments are targeted at PR design compromises to which F2PTP is totally immune.

The thrust of this argument, therefore, is that proportional systems are less likely to create ‘tail wagging dog’ scenarios than FPTP, as is clearly the case in the current parliament. The evidence is that the broader base of views will be sufficiently large to ensure that majority will is exercised properly and not hijacked by vested interest groups. That is a very powerful message to present to the people.

Electoral Reform (Stage 1), Evaluation, making it work for us. Part 3

The Electoral Reform Society, a 134-year-old organisation which hasn’t yet achieved its principal objective, yet is, surprisingly, proud of this, lists 9 voting systems, under the heading ‘Type of voting system’. They do not include the voting system I designed F2PTP (www.makevotescount.co.uk) despite the fact they have known of it for over two years and I have corresponded with them about it, though not to any great extent, largely because of their disinterest.

One wonders, then, what qualifies, in their view, as a ‘voting system’? Clearly, it isn’t a voting system, so it must be something else. Such an approach, is a part of a series of reasons that obstruct the progress of this very necessary reform and typifies the approach of organisations and, perhaps political parties to overlook, or even dismiss ideas that don’t fit their pre-determined ideologies. The ERS doesn’t list F2PTP as a voting system, not because it isn’t one, it clearly is, not because it isn’t in use anywhere yet, as they list other, ‘theoretical’ systems, but because of its source. Anything that hasn’t grown up through their ‘politically correct’ processes, simply doesn’t count.

As it happens their ‘preferred’, system for a UK general election is STV (Single Transferrable Vote); that is set in stone, and that is part of the problem.

That’s pretty much the view of other pro-reform organisations and the result is the growth of pro-reform, but dispirit organisations, each with their own view of their own preferred systems and their own preferred campaign strategies. Their work does keep the subject alive and does broaden general awareness, but what they haven’t achieved is any identifiable progress to change the election that really counts.

My approach is to draw together all the groups that want reform and work collectively towards making it happen. This means, as a priority we must all agree on the eventual voting system that will be put to the people. That means evaluation. As it happens, evaluation can be a very powerful tool.

Notionally, an evaluation process is straightforward, one sets the criteria, that which the voting system would ideally produce as outcomes and the practicalities and disadvantages of its processes, weight that criteria, because some criterion may be less important or less significant as others, then measure each of the voting systems against the weighted criteria to produce a result. All the voting system electoral outcomes require a certain amount of modelling and projection, based upon real votes in past elections, but there are well known techniques to determine the outer limits of the models and a valid comparison of this part of the evaluation process can be made.

Were we to leave it here, little would be achieved. Despite the obvious benefit of choosing something that best meets one’s own needs, it has not been done, to my knowledge, with voting systems. People use all sorts of associated information to validate their preferences. That might be that they use this system there, or many countries already use this system, or this system is technically the most proportional. However, any evaluation process, as I’ve described, has never been carried out.

Nevertheless, inbuilt and stubborn prejudice is unlikely to be resolved by simply arguing that one view has greater validity than another. So, we need a mechanism to break this deadlock. A mechanism exists, and it is polling.

Not only do we need to set and weight criteria, but it makes sense that the setting and the weighting of such criteria would do well to take into account the views of the very people that may well be asked to decide on the outcome.

The Swiss, before drafting legislation that will, on conclusion, be put to a referendum, embark upon a process of official opinion polls to find out what’s likely to go down well and what to avoid. The eventual legislation, therefore, is far more likely to be approved in a referendum if the principles discovered through the polling process are represented in the proposed law.  It is simple and effective, and that’s probably why our government doesn’t bother with such things.

However, I digress.

Establishing the opinion of the people is a powerful tool. For example, were one to think that the simplicity and transparency of a particular system was important, yet meet opposition from those who felt differently, a poll that suggest people wouldn’t vote for something they didn’t understand changes the game entirely and it is an opinion that cannot be argued with. The people’s view is also a politically useful tool, because part of the polling process can also assess the likelihood, given much better political arguments, of people voting for candidates that support voting reform.

Where technocrats disagree, the opinion of the people can settle that far better than lengthy argument.

The intention, then, is to invite representatives to come together to partake in an evaluation process to decide which of the available voting systems would be the best one for United Kingdom general elections. When we get to this stage it would represent real progress and practically, as well as politically, achievable. My intention is to move the project forward and it is likely to be a step by step process.

A potential problem remains, though, as to how many organisations, or political parties, will want to be involved in such a process. That we don’t yet know, however, it wouldn’t end the innovation as UKIP would be able to carry it out whatever the inclination of others might be to partake, and unwillingness on the part of others would not play well politically. Refusing to consider, which is what evaluation is, shows unreasonableness and bigotry, not the sort of public face these organisations want to project.

The next article in the series will outline new arguments for electoral reform and how we can use them to change the importance of electoral reform as most people perceive it.

Electoral Reform (Stage 1), Party teams and co-operation. Part 2.

A policy team is part of a process whereby grass roots members have a say and a vote on party policy. It is the process by which policy will be developed and through which members can become directly involved.

I will explain this part of policy development as it applies to Electoral Reform and the importance of developing robust internal communication structures within a party.

A group will be led by the relevant spokesperson for a particular discipline so there will be at least as many groups as there are policy groupings.  Each group will seek applications from the membership for people who want to work with the group and have skills and abilities pertinent to that area of policy. Needless to say, the posts are voluntary but the opportunity to influence and shape policy is, in itself, extremely rewarding.

In the broader system, any member may formally present a policy idea to the respective sage grouping which will then be considered by that group. Depending on the policy idea, it will either be pursued through to full policy development or not. Where a policy idea is not seen as appropriate to pursue, the originator will be advised of the reasons for the decision.

We already have a committed policy of electoral reform, of which voting reform is a major part, so the principal task of the grouping, in this case, is the development of the strategy, arguments and mechanisms needed to actually make this happen.

In the past we’ve not been very good at developing policy and selling it. A major failing has been the lack of engagement with and by the members, but that was not the choice of grass roots members. The party was very central in this respect and, whilst we are generally of like mind with our political outlook, nobody knew enough about our policy ideas early enough to help us disseminate the best arguments. Typically, a manifesto would be  created just before a general election and of no use to all the borough and county council candidates trying to get elected in their constituencies and between general elections. For electoral reform, though, this will be very different.

Getting the party behind a particular policy or a strategy is more than just announcing it. There is huge benefit in interacting directly with members by means of live presentations, social media and, to a lesser extent, video production because it provides an opportunity to refine and improve upon the arguments as well as better preparing our members to speak with authority to the general public. By engaging with as many members as possible, they will be better informed, we will refine our approach and arguments to better effect and we will, through a network of contacts, gain support that might otherwise have been lost.

I intend to follow the same thinking, to bring on board, those outside the party. By engaging with supportive groups, other political parties and influential individuals, we can collectively pursue the strategy I outlined in ‘Electoral Reform (Stage 1), a strategic overview part 1’. In order to get people interested, this group will have a specific and quite different approach.

It begins with a process of evaluation to determine which proportional voting system we would collectively campaign for. It is a critical factor and one which has held progress back. Currently, different groups favour different systems and, once a choice has been made, it is difficult for them to deviate from that course; and it will take something quite persuasive to achieve that. However, it is a decision that, sooner or later, will have to be made, though some want to avoid that preferring, instead, to secure legislation in principle (whatever that means) then, presumably, foist a voting system onto the British people.

I, on the other hand, believe there to be massive benefits in making a decision now as to which system to campaign for and I will outline my reasoning in the next bulletin.

The process, to date, then, would be to create the group for those with a keen interest and something to offer, spread the word, the strategy and the arguments throughout the party and, at the same time, offer the opportunity to like-minded organisations and political parties to become involved in a ‘first of its kind’ evaluation process to further the national argument.

The end-product will be a simple but powerful message to encourage people to vote for parties that support voting reform. ‘If you want this, then don’t vote for that’

Electoral Reform (Stage 1), a strategic overview part 1.

This is the first in a series of papers about Electoral Reform and focuses on the principal issue of voting reform.  That is, to change the voting system to one which engages more people in the process and provides a parliamentary voice to opinions that would otherwise go unrepresented. There are many contending systems, all of which would be far more proportional than FPTP (First Past the Post), which is the current and long serving voting mechanism.

By proportionality, I mean the voting power in the House of Commons that each MP is authorised to wield.  A PR system is designed to be proportional (as much as could possibly be the case) to the numbers of people that voted for each MP.  However, the activity I describe as ‘voting power,’ in most descriptions of PR, is often commonly analogous to, and understood to mean, seats.  This is, in fact, not necessarily the case as voting power is the real issue here and it is not necessarily synonymous with seats. In fact, in some PR scenarios they are quite different.

Proportional Representation is a term that is commonly used to describe proportional voting systems that improve the proportionality between ‘voting power’ and electoral support.

I intend to drive the agenda with new and different arguments, a structured strategy and a perspective on the subject to stimulate interest and thinking on what would be the most significant constitutional change since the establishment of parliament – yes, even bigger than Brexit.

The biggest hurdle to overcome in pursuing this change is not the inbuilt and expected opposition from the vested interests of the Labour and Conservative parties but coalescing the actions of existing support within the country, firming the support of those minded to vote for a fairer voting system but, as yet, not positively engaged, and converting those who hold the view that voting reform is either undesirable, or insufficiently important to sway their votes in a general election.

It is a subject that has been discussed over many years and seen one referendum already, a subject that has wide support with organisations such as the Electoral Reform Society, the reform blog, website ‘makevotesmatter’, and political parties (the Liberal Democrats, The Green Party, Plaid Cymru, the SNP and, of course, UKIP). Despite this wide support, progress has been absent in any real sense. There is always the feeling that something is happening, that the pressure is mounting, but nothing ever does and, before too long, any window that appeared would be closed or obscured by a more pressing national or international situation.

Changing how we elect our parliamentary representatives is a most significant and ground-breaking move, although, to the ordinary elector, it doesn’t look like that. It comes across as just another voting system and may look as if is it is only promoted to improve the lot of one political party or another. That has been the history of these efforts to date. One can only look back and despair at the way the Liberal Democrats squandered a heaven-sent opportunity to advance this cause when they had the chance. However, they are not the only ones. In a recent speech (October 2017), Lord Owen, the former Labour Foreign Secretary and founder of the SDP, reflected on a similar opportunity missed when he said that his greatest regret of that time was not achieving PR.

Opportunities have come and gone, though a further one will appear. It is for this future opportunity that I accepted this position and it is toward this that I shall work. This time, though, the lessons of the past will be heeded and the same mistakes will not be made again.

To be successful we need the following:

1.     The right arguments

2.     The full support of the party

3.     The support and co-operation of like-minded organisations and political parties.

4.     A mechanism to choose which electoral system suits the UK best

5.     A channel through which we can direct the voting intentions of those who are drawn to our cause away from parties that wish to preserve their self-interest and toward parties that support this change.

The present situation is characterised by disparate organisations with different ideas as to how electoral reform is going to be achieved and different ideas as to which ‘off the shelf’ system would be best, with some preferring to leave that hoary old chestnut to the end. Just co-ordinating the effort and goodwill of all these groups can raise the profile in the minds of the public, but it must have an outcome which is controllable. It cannot be left to wishful thinking.

Just like Brexit, we need to progress the spectrum of political power by systematically moving through these stages of influence:

1.     Relevance

2.     Support

3.     Votes

There are only three ways that voting reform can happen. Either the parties seeking government include it in their manifestos prior to an election, a private member’s bill makes it all the way through to law, or a sitting government is so worried about loss of potential support that they promise a referendum on the issue. You may remember that the latter worked spectacularly well for Brexit.

Some organisations see this differently. Klina Jordan, of Make Votes Matter, feels that the first or second of the scenarios I present here are the most likely, whereas I think the referendum option, which has a proven track record, is favourite. Either way, this doesn’t really matter because we need to keep all options open. The reality is, if we gain enough support it will be perceived as voting intention and something will give.

We will create and disseminate better and completely original arguments, drive an evaluation process to determine which voting system is best for the UK, gather together like-minded people, organisations and political parties to spread the benefits of change, and direct voting intentions away from the parties that want to retain the existing unfairness toward parties that support it.

By these means we will make it happen.

The first step is to establish the grouping, which I’ll be discussing further in the next bulletin.

An Opportunity Arises

cropped-David-Allen-170815.jpgI’ve written before on the subject of voting reform but this time I want to focus on a newer form of the argument and some practicalities of achieving a change to our parliamentary selection process.

There are two strong arguments that will be made for keeping the FPTP system and denying a further referendum on electoral reform:

  1. That FPTP, despite its idiosyncrasies, is most likely to provide majority and therefore strong, decisive government.
  2. The British people roundly rejected proportional representation by a 2 – 1 majority in 2011. This is, therefore, not a question that should be asked again so soon after such a resounding ‘no’.

Any attempts to re-generate this issue will have to effectively counter these two powerful arguments and this article is a way to do that. Firstly, I will describe arguments that will severely mitigate the emotional attractiveness of (1); and negate the practicalities of (2). The remainder of the argument will focus on how to bring this about and a further referendum should be called before the general election of 2020. The approach is new, the alternative is also new and both these factors will play a major role in forcing a second referendum. The timing and effort is all important. The quite ludicrous anomalies of the 2015 general election remain a powerful motivator for change but, would the results of the 2020 election to be less dramatically unfair to millions of voters the 2015 election may be painted as simply a freak occurrence and the ace created from this highly unfair distribution of representation may be demoted to a Jack.

Strong Government

When we talk about strong government we mean the ability to drive through manifesto commitments. Although we also want meaningful opposition they alone should not be able to frustrate the will of the government as elected by the people.

The problem is that the desirability of such strong government, as described, is an illusion supported by the repeated failures of this government and the last to implement manifesto commitments. The reason for this is not the existence of a parliamentary majority but an absence of the people’s mandate. The Conservative government elected in 2015 had a majority of 12. It achieved that with just under 37% of support from people who voted, 24.4% of those registered to vote and even less if one includes those eligible to vote but who failed to register.

The result has been a strong/weak/unrepresentative government attempting to drive a manifesto supported by substantially less than a quarter of the population. The current government’s problems stem from this lack of a real mandate which has been replaced by an artificial one only generated by an unrepresentative electoral system. The result is the weakest form of governance influenced more by favour and expediency than the interests of the nation and her peoples.

Democracy isn’t just about voting. In fact, it isn’t about voting at all as any electoral system is just the mechanics by which a democratic form of governance is achieved. Democracy can be more accurately described as ‘government by consent’ whereby the authority of such a government is derived directly from those over whom it seeks to govern. When the mechanism used to achieve this fails, the resulting government lacks that authority and the associated implicit consent of the people and our current Conservative government has just this problem. Even after such a mandate has been achieved government still has to operate within the concept of general consensus, something not well understood by some cultures, hence the failure of the Egyptian experiment some years ago.

This governance by consent has to maintain such consent so, within any functional democratic system the people must also be given a periodic opportunity to confirm, modify or remove such consent from the governing body and to make alternative selections.

It’s the fundamentals of democracy that have to be retained not the mechanics of achieving that and should any particular set of the mechanics fail to ensure truly representative government, with the mandate, the authority and the consent of the majority it has to be changed.

The current conservative government is pandering to a minority opinion and it is unsurprising, therefore, that they run into serious opposition in designing and implementing meaningful change.

The argument that FPTP creates majority, therefore, strong government is untrue. In reality it creates weak government that has far too much opposition from those who do not support it. Even when official opposition is impotent and has lost its way the people make their voices heard through other means. Opportunistic politicians and Lords will use such weakness to disrupt which, in turn, may force changes so that the democratic nature of democracy returns to ‘democratic government’.

This strong/weak/unrepresentative arrangement also encourages ‘short-termism’. The perceived need to obtain a majority next time round colours thinking and severely inhibits long term or strategic policies.

Let me explain by example.

So many of our problems as a nation are entirely due to short term thinking designed to coincide with the election cycle. Energy, for example, should have a 30 to 40-year plan. It is in our long term interest to reduce dependency on oil for reasons far stronger than dubious climate arguments. The air will be cleaner, oil will run out eventually, we won’t continue to artificially enrich states that sponsor terrorism, we could be energy self-sufficient and independent of world influences. A strategic program to encourage new and efficient forms of renewable energy production could include the use of existing fossil resources, in the interim, which may engender less current opposition because the end game is clear. How enlightening it would be to describe our energy creation systems of 40 years in the future and have a plan to get there.

FPTP doesn’t create strong government so we need a system that does.

We Already Said NO

In 2011 we had a referendum on the Alternative Vote PR system which was met with a resounding ‘no thanks’. What on earth would be the point of having another one? Well, there wouldn’t be one but, what if we were to be asking a quite different question?

Much has changed since 2011 and the anti-Clegg vote that transpired. It didn’t take long for the British public to go off the Liberal Democrats. They had tasted something nasty with the tuition fees scandal and by 2011 anything Clegg wanted we didn’t. This shift of sentiment was expressed with devastating effect in the 2015 general election which, it appears, only the Liberal Democrats failed to see coming. There were other reasons for the defeat of AV. Like most conventional PR systems its incomprehensible to most people. PR systems typically remove the direct constituency connection (if in part only for some systems) between a candidate and their electors. It shifts even more power away from the electorate towards parties. Independents generally have less chance. STV, for example takes several pages of explanation to outline how it works and needs a computer to decide who’s won. Complex gerrymandering around first and second preference votes means that some people get two votes and others only one when nobody actually has a real second preference. To make these systems concoct a winner the ‘second preference’ is artificially manufactured by the geeky systems with a breath-taking disregard for reality or simplicity.

So, what if people were presented with a system that significantly widened representation, kept a direct link between all candidates and their constituencies, was easy to explain and with clear results after just one count, enhanced the prospects of independents, made every vote count for a full parliamentary term and met all the desirable criteria better than any other system? Is that the same question we were asked in 2011, perhaps not?

The 2011 referendum was an exercise in self-interest and was seen as such. The next referendum will be about democracy and consent with no favour to any particular vested interests. The sense of injustice brought about by the 2015 general election is palpable. Almost everyone is in agreement that something should change. That is a much more robust starting point.

A Better System

F2PTP

How to Achieve the Next Referendum

  • The 2011 AV referendum was begrudgingly conceded to cement the coalition agreement and keep, by and large, the Liberal Democrats on side.
  • The 2016 EU referendum was begrudgingly conceded because the Conservatives feared a swathe of Conservative voters switching their votes and supporting UKIP.

The next referendum on how we elect our leaders is, therefore, most likely to be achieved by applying exactly the same kind of pressure.

The main parties, Labour and Conservative, are both opposed to a representative electoral system for quite understandable reasons of self-interest. They will argue that this has already been decided but, as explained this argument is flawed. They will also use, what they think will be the killer blow, that FPTP provides strong government, which has also been successfully overturned earlier in this article. A further likelihood is that the sense of unfairness, against all those who voted UKIP, will be seen as in need of redress. The British are staunch opponents of injustice and the sense of it generated by our out-of-date and dysfunctional electoral system was and is palpable, drawing in even those who are not committed UKIP supporters. The ingredients are all there for a massive swing to UKIP to force a further referendum to happen. The most important constitutional questions are now around the creation of effective democratic institutions and the increase of citizen’s power over their governance, thereby ending the drift in the other direction. Evidence of this is very visible as the UK ‘minority’ government stalls in mid-term and the EU dismisses the concept of democratic accountability altogether.

If UKIP can get its act together and put forward a national policy framework including a firm commitment to a robust and effective voting system, there is every reason to think that any beleaguered government will concede another referendum as the safest course of action.

The recent pattern seems to be, when in doubt, hold a referendum and use all the power and resources of the government to try to win it. Truth, decency and honesty please take a short break.

The alternative for both Conservative and Labour parties is a haemorrhaging of votes to UKIP regardless of the result of the EU vote.

What’s the next step

It will come as no surprise to anyone, that new ideas aren’t welcome when their only strength is that they are the best idea. In that respect we are a peculiar species as we value status and position, regardless of how they are obtained, far more highly that we do good ideas. It’s simply who we are.

The oddly named ‘Electoral Society’ (100 years of failure) have no interest in new electoral systems because their internal bureaucracy doesn’t allow fleetness of foot and, of course, everything suffers from the ‘not invented ere’ syndrome which usually supresses any contribution from the ‘little people’. Other hands on the reigns of progress are vested interests (why, for example, cars still burn fuel) but pressure for a change to the electoral system may not be seen as relevant to the money men though, we’ll have to wait and see the reality of that assumption.

We need to get electoral reform up the agenda by talking about it and sharing information and influencing those who might be able to give it a push. Whatever system is eventually chosen it really ought to be subject to a critical review process, as opposed to selection by patronage.

I’m certain that whatever criteria is laid down the F2PTP voting system will outscore any other but, getting to that stage will be require some help along the way.

Pragmatism and Foresight

cropped-David-Allen-170815.jpgI was particularly concerned that most PR systems contain fundamental flaws that cannot be eradicated so I devised a transparent system and applied it to the 2015 and 2010 general elections. That produced a complete set of alternative results exceeding expectations of existing PR systems by any critical criteria one might use to judge them. However, It’s a tough ask to get people in positions of influence to be capable of personally evaluating and adopting new ideas so, it may well remain an academic exercise but, with the consolation that it will not be alone amongst a number of PR systems destined for the same fate, in the UK at least. You can see the F2PTP system here F2PTP Voting System

Smaller, but electorally substantive smaller parties, include voting reform as a part of the mix, citing the great unfairness that resulted from the 2015 general election and seeking, what is seemingly an obvious solution. Change the system so that they can do better. The arguments though, so far presented are poorly constructed and rely too heavily on old ideas.

It might seem odd for someone (me) who spent a considerable amount of time and energy in developing a simple and understandable alternative voting system to now council against that but, sometimes, unless one has immersed oneself in the opposing arguments and practicalities,  it’s difficult to see clearly which way might be the best for the future. PR is always PR and the traditional set of systems almost always create coalition governments. Most systems (Not F2PTP) are also bewilderingly complex, contain arbitrary benchmarks, afford some people two votes and others just one and require computers to determine the results.

It’s clear that the 2015 general election threw up the most stark and visible contrast through FPTP. The SNP gained 56 seats with 1.5 million votes and UKIP only one seat with 3.8 million votes and it is easy to conclude that only a change to the way we choose a government will correct this but what isn’t considered is the probability that whilst solving one seemingly significant problem one could easily create something much worse or much less advantageous under different circumstances. It’s always as well to look at least one step beyond and analyse the range of possibilities that may play out. Had we done that before bombing Libya and invading Iraq, Afghanistan, and supporting the Arab Spring the current troubles may not have turned out to be so unmanageable.

So, what are we to do about voting reform?

What’s so good about PR for smaller parties?

Firstly, perhaps we ought to consider the position of UKIP and others and consider whether or not, despite the election results of the past, it would be to their advantage in the longer term. UKIP secured 3.8 million votes and got one seat but had they got 5 million votes that may well have been 25 seats and 8 million votes 150 seats so you can see that the payback becomes almost exponentially attractive the more votes one gets. This doesn’t happen with any proportional system.

partys with national agendas try to increase support because thay want to speak for all people and not just the fringe of society. Parties like the Greens and Liberal Democrats will always want a proportional system because their fundamentals appeal only to a small proportion of voters. The Greens will never be seen as economically competent and will always be an insignificant party and the LDs don’t have a mind of their own filching bits from all the other parties to appear to be centralist but which has always come across as sitting on the fence so they are unlikely to attract the 6.8 million votes they did in 2010 unless something bizarre happens between 2020 and 2025. Their flagship and solely LD policies were either completely wrong (€) or abandoned (tuition fees). However, UKIP isn’t like that so as a party with a real intention to be in government perhaps it should embrace FPTP or such ambitions could never be realised. FPTP sets the bar very high but, shouldn’t that be the case for a government?

Any party seriously seeking government mustn’t act or look like a protest party, particularly at a time when the Labour party is set to self destruct. Clamouring for some form of PR along with all the other permanently small parties just reaffirms an association with small thinking and short term advantage. That’s may not be how the third party wants to be seen.

Pragmatism

It is unlikely that enough pressure could be applied to get a second referendum before 2020 but, not impossible. It is also unlikely that anything would also happen between 2020 and 2025 unless there was another uneasy coalition and a further referendum extracted from the largest governing party. There are substantive arguments against this happening, not least of which is the fact that we’ve only just had one (2011) so, even with a following wind the opportunity to once again put some kind of PR system to the British people is unlikely to be considered until the 2025 -2030 parliament.

The pragmatic approach would most certainly be to cease wasting breath on something that can’t happen for at least 13 years. All the huffing and puffing in the world won’t change that scenario and the spectacular irony waiting for us at around that time is that UKIP may well be the second largest party by then (under FPTP) and vying for government, exactly the time when we would want the voting system to remain exactly where it is.

There is nothing wrong with pragmatism so if UKIP can’t change the voting system in the foreseeable future then they should drop the subject, come out for FPTP unashamedly and fight for power under the current rules. It would make them look grown up (as a party) and resilient. However, such thinking hasn’t reached the movers and shakers yet but, if it does I suspect this article will be several years old.

The Great British Public

In 2011 the proposal to move to the alternative vote system for general elections was defeated by a 2-1 majority. In referendum terms this was a landslide. It is inconceivable that a change to our voting system could be achieved by any mechanism other than another referendum and even if all that I have said before in this article were to be in error than we would still have this one last hurdle to jump, that of the British people.

PR systems, including mine, all contain one enormous inevitability, that of coalition government. With the UK voting patterns of the recent and not so recent past the likelihood of a single party gaining more than 50% of the national vote is slim to non existent. It isn’t impossible but, dramatic circumstances would need to be in play and even then, when those circumstances has subsided the return to coalition under any PR system would be inevitable. One has to consider why the people, so overwhelmingly, voted no.

There are many opinions as to why AV didn’t fly but little hard evidence. Some PR systems are beset by the same problem, that of bewildering complexity (except mine) and it is also likely that the general public didn’t like Nick Clegg however, there is one major disadvantage that I’ve already mentioned and that is a permanence of coalition government for evermore.

Perhaps the British people don’t like coalitions, or to re-phrase we do like strong government and the ability to sack it. Under most coalitions the government is there in perpetuity and fluctuations in voting patterns simply change the shade a bit. Under FPTP we can and regularly do, tip the government out of bed lock stock and barrel. It is a magnificent expression of people power to consign the most powerful man in the country yesterday to a powerless nobody today. That’s one hell of a lever to give up.

It’s important to realise that referendums are rarely decided on facts or predictions. They always raise an emotional question and they always receive emotional responses which is why we need to gain the hearts and minds of the people to get out of the disastrous EU. However, this complex question is a difficult argument to make because there are so many reasons to leave and so few to stay and whilst that might seem to be an advantage it is confusing and such complexity can be counter productive. However the argument for strong government is simple and memorable and any case against PR would be severely damaged by one single mantra. ‘Do you want to give up your ability to completely sack your government?’

Conclusions

Whilst PR might seem to be to the advantage of UKIP today that may not be the case in the future so they need to be careful what they wish for. UKIP could be in government with 30% of the vote in 20 years but could never achieve over 50%. Why would they want to make it harder to achieve?

It’s not going to happen for at least 13 years anyway so why waste breath now? UKIP would gain credibility and credence by accepting the way things have always been done.

The great British public have already given this idea the heave-ho. They quite like strong government and love being able to turf them out. That is a hard argument to overturn.

I thought a great deal about our voting system, enough to design a new one but, I’m not convinced it is for the best and certainly not now. However, were it to be put to the people again then my system, of F2PTP, is the option all smaller parties should support.

ps: I now have to say and in accordance with my latest article on this site and because of the new analysis detailed in the new article that I do think another referendum could be achieved before 2020. I have also successfully derived an argument to overturn the ‘strong government’ argument and have myself been convinced of the revised paradigm.