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 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:
- 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.
- The constituency connection of the voter and MP would be maintained .
- 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.
- 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 favour. 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.
- 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.