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.

The Political Dimension of Voting Reform

cropped-David-Allen-170815.jpgThis article is principally about the political dimension of voting reform. However, to aid this discussion and present a fresh and different perspective I have designed a new voting system which has none of the drawbacks of the PR systems and eliminates most of the unfairness of FPTP. It also presents the results of 2010 and 2015 as they would have been under my newly designed F2PTP (First two past the post) voting system. You can see the paper here F2PTP Voting System.

The focus upon political considerations is not made in isolation but as supportive of an approach that hasn’t already been rejected.

Voting reform is going to be a hot topic for, at least, a period of time over the next parliament because of the stark and quite obvious disproportionate nature of the FTPT voting system in a multi-party state. However, simply because a change might be the right thing to do, that in itself doesn’t mean that it will happen and from where I’m sitting I can’t really see why the governing party would support a change to a voting system that has handed them majority power time and time again.

There also isn’t much likelihood of support from the second largest party either. Despite the fact that they performed very badly in the 2015 general election the same system has given them majority power also on a number of occasions so it is hard to see how Labour could see such a change benefiting them. As it happens the now, rather irrelevant SNP, have stated that they do support a more proportional system despite the fact that by doing that they would consign themselves forever to less than half the seats in Scotland even if the exceptional support for them were to be sustained. On the other hand they may well be showing unusual foresight. Campaigning with the message vote SNP and keep the Tories out might not play so well in 2020.

The people have already had their say on one system of PR brought about because of the peculiar circumstances that created the lopsided coalition in the last parliament which created that referendum opportunity which may prove to be unique. The willingness of the Liberal Democrats to abandon their student support in favour of the AV red line was clearly self serving and probably seen as such by the populace so PR, at least in AV format, was crushed.

Support for ‘voting reform’, which in reality is taken by almost everyone to mean one of the PR systems currently recognised, is championed by UKIP, Liberal Democrats, Greens and all the parties who didn’t get the number of seats they would have gained under a more proportional system. Politically though, getting any kind of change has to overcome some serious obstacles.

  1. People perceive that those seeking voting reform do so simply because it will benefit their own party in exactly the same way as in the example above.
  2. PR has already been roundly rejected in a UK wide referendum. Even though it was one type of PR system they all have the same fundamental flaws, work in more or less the same way and give more or less the same results. That’s how ordinary people see it.
  3. The single but significant advantage of FPTP is that it is the most likely to secure majority government and we seem to like that even though it can easily be achieved with a minority vote.

As it is unlikely for any party to gain over 50% of the votes cast, any system which is more proportional will lead inevitably to permanent coalition government so coalition government itself has to become an acceptable concept to the British people? As it happened the odd couple performed beyond the expectations of many in the last parliament.

However, there is a strong argument for greater proportionality and that is underpinned by the millions of voices that achieved no representation at all.

  1. Of the obstacles noted above 1) can be countered by choosing a system that doesn’t overly benefit small parties but provides measured but significantly improved representation for the supporters of major UK parties left stranded by FPTP.
    1. All systems have a mechanism to deny representation to smaller or fringe parties. Firstly, there are a limited number of seats but more importantly government must be for everyone and it may be disruptive and anti-social for sectarian movements or single issue parties who may, by virtue of PR, be in the undeserved position of being handed a large bargaining chip with which to serve their own cause to the detriment of the nation as a whole.
    2. PR systems set this level arbitrarily FPTP has an automatic bar set quite high though as we’ve seen nationalistic parties also benefit disproportionately. F2PTP (see above) sets this bar automatically. Second place works, third place doesn’t.
    3. Enhancing representation for parties who have significant support yet denying it for those with moderate or little support is likely to be seen as more acceptable.
    4. A system that improves support for major parties but not to the levels of PR may well be the right middle path.
  2. Obstacle No 2) can easily be overcome by offering a system that isn’t one of the PR monsters vying for supremacy.
    1. The nation, having already and overwhelmingly rejected a flawed PR system is unlikely to clasp another similar system to its bosom.
    2. Amongst the principle flaws of PR is the anomaly that some people get one vote (or it is used only once) and others get two (or used twice). A major disadvantage is that bodies that could help the cause of reform are likely to be the architects of its failure because of their adherence to the ridiculous. Amongst others the Electoral Reform Society will obfuscate extensively to pretend that the two votes versus one vote isn’t what it, quite obviously, is. They have adopted what might become known as the ED strategy (latterly now the JC strategy). We’ve picked it/him so will defend that decision to the (inevitable) death.
  3. Obstacle No 3 has to rely upon the simple and evident unfairness to millions of people.
    1. It is a powerful argument and now it the best time to make it. The majority government FPTP returns is quite divisive in its representation. It may try and work for everyone but only a few have a say in its formation. Other systems spread representation more evenly and if more people get the representative they voted for and know that is more likely then more will engage with the progress.
    2. The Conservatives got the most votes so would still govern but, with required support from other parties which many may see as a good thing. The question is, and without any real leverage as the situation is now, how do we move the reform issue forward?
    3. Were it to be possible to adopt a system that would have actually benefitted the Labour party in 2015 their support might just be enough to swing the tide. After all, the Conservative majority is small. F2PTP (2015) actually benefitted the Labour party in terms of seats but would have made no difference to voting power in the commons.

Don’t hold your breath though! The aptly named Electoral Reform Society have already pinned their colours to STV, a form of PR very much like AV or AV+ only more complicated. UKIP, in the absence of anything else are also mooning over forms of PR (let’s still remember that referendum folks). In fact, the only reform options on the table both fail to negate 1) and 2) above. Were I to be mounting opposition to the ‘reform’ being suggested I would simply say that PR has already been rejected and these small parties are only looking to benefit themselves.

What’s needed is simplicity, transparency and a degree of proportionality.

There are some political mines along the way that the reforming bodies aren’t really looking at, being otherwise immersed in the detail of their own infallibility. It is simply not credible to press for a referendum on the same thing (more or less and in the eyes of the electorate) we had a referendum on a few years ago.

The self interest argument is strong, particularly if a system is backed which gives the most to each small party.

We need to try and get everyone on board including Labour. You can’t do that with any of the favourite PR systems.

All in all the electoral reform movement has to take into account what can be achieved and operate with a little more political savvy. It’s the people we have to convince at the end of the day.