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England calling – Britain needs electoral reform but the abolition of first past the post  (FPTP) is not the answer – April 29, 2015

As parties outside the British political mainstream garner more and more support the call for electoral reform will increase.. It is not simply that the coming general election will produce a House of Commons whose representation will be  radically different from the votes cast , because that has long been a feature of the British electoral system. What is different this time is the number of smaller parties such as Ukip and the Greens who will  gain significant electoral support but few MPs . The position is further complicated by the unbalanced devolution which allows non-English seat MPs to sit in the Commons and vote on English matters while English seat MPs cannot vote on the issues which have been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

After the election there are likely to be renewed calls for  some form of PR to replace FPTP for Westminster elections. This would be a mistake because it would simply  be to swap one unsatisfactory electoral system for another.

There are two major problems with any form of PR:

(1) The link between the parliamentary representative  and a constituency is necessarily broken.  There are mixed systems with some members  elected for constituencies and some from a party list,  but they are very messy and do not thoroughly address the main objection to FPTP, namely, the failure to produce representatives  in proportion to the votes cast nationally.

(2)  Experience shows that  where proportional  systems exist the political classes   almost invariably transmute into conspiracies against the electorate.  This happens because majorities for one party are rare and where there is a situation of more or less permanent coalition no party can stand on a meaningful  manifesto  for the obvious reason that no government will deliver on any party’s manifesto or come close to it unless a coalition is comprised of parties whose policies are next to identical.   This means politicians can rarely  be held to account for failing to deliver.

It is also true that many  forms of  PR are complex compared with FPTP and  the  types  of PR which would be likely to be adopted  are  the  ones which would have fair degree of complexity, for example, the Standard Transferrable Vote.  Such a system would confuse a significant part of the electorate – ten percent of the UK population have IQs of 80 or less –  which could drive those people away from participating in elections.   Nor is it clear that having first and second or even more preferences invariably  produces something closer to what the electorate wants.  As I pointed out above, it is rare for any two candidates, even those of the major parties, to represent policies which  overall  are similar enough to make the second choice  a really satisfying option.

What would be better than PR?

I suggest Britain retains the  first past the post system with MPs representing the people who elect them, but moves from single-member constituencies to double-member constituencies .  This would have dissolve much of the objection to FPTP as it is now and bring additional benefits.

How would it work? Each  constituency  would have  roughly double the size of  the present constituencies.  A maximum of two members  for each political party would be able to stand in each double constituency.  This would allow a  single party to get an overall majority. Electors would  be able to vote for two candidates.  The two candidates with the most votes in each constituency would be elected regardless of how far behind the leading candidate the second candidate came.  Second or additional preferences would not exist.    The beneficial  effects of such a system would be:

  1. a) It would undermine the idea of safe seats.  There would still be constituencies  which returned one party over and over again, but the likelihood of both MPs in a constituency coming from the same party  would be relatively small because of the much greater  size of the double constituencies. In most cases this would mean a much more mixed electorate both socially and politically than in constituencies half the size.
  2. b) the constituency connection of the voter and MP would be maintained .
  3. c) Electors would be able to vote for the candidate they favoured with a greater chance of getting them elected.  If the voter favoured one of the two presently major parties there would be a very strong chance that at least one of  their chosen candidates  would be one of the two candidates sent to the Commons.   But even electors who voted for the lesser parties would have some real expectation  of success for their chosen candidate,  because there are many constituencies where the second  party in a constituency is not Tory or Labour. In addition, the fact that  those coming second in an election could  be elected on a substantially smaller vote than those coming first would increase the likelihood of minor party candidates being elected. Moreover, once such a system was up and running and electors saw  how it worked, the patterns of voting could and almost certainly would begin to change with more and more people being willing to risk voting for what are now  smaller parties.
  4. d) Such constituencies would allow for MPs of radically different views to represent the same set of electors. This would mean most electors would be able to have an MP to represent them whose party policies bore some resemblance to the policies they Even if  an elector was in a constituency which had two MPs of the same party, they would still have a choice of two MPs to go to for help  and advice.
  5. e) Because two MPs from different parties would be elected in each constituency and there is greater opportunity for minor party MPs or even independent MPs being elected, the relationship between votes cast and MPs elected for each of the parties would be much closer than it is under the FPTP system we now have now.   However,  unlike PR the double-member constituency would  only mitigate rather than remove entirely  the disproportion between votes cast and seats obtained  under single-member constituencies. This is worth tolerating  because it would avoid the undesirable   state of  permanent coalition.   In terms of party representation and electoral support it would be a halfway house between what we have now and the conspiracy of permanent coalition which is virtually guaranteed by any form of PR.

Other changes to improve alter the balance of power

Other changes to alter the balance of power between voters and politicians to favour electors should be made:

Institute a  power to  for electors to  recall of MPs through a referendum conducted in their constituency.

Citizen initiated referenda on the Swiss model, with tight legal underpinning to ensure that politicians abide by the result  of a referendum and take   the necessary practical steps to  ensure that the will of the electors is realised .

Not perfect, but probably the best which can be done

What I propose would not entirely remove the anomalies and unfairness found in our present FPTP system, but it would remove most of the poison in the system  by giving smaller parties much greater opportunity to gain Commons seats,  whilst retaining the good things such as constituency representation and the simplicity of the system.

It is worth adding that a significant part of Britain’s present electoral deficiencies stem substantially from Britain’s membership of the EU (which increasingly constrains what her major political parties can offer by way of policy) and the imbalance of the present devolution settlement which leaves England out in the cold.  If Britain left the EU and switched to a true  federal system  which included an English Parliament that in itself would make the present British system function more democratically and would enhance the benefits of the double-member solution I propose.

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