Monday, 15 August 2022

OPINION: How to avoid the election lottery

WE have just had two polls in quick succession.   With Brexit all votes went into one pot, giving a clear mandate:  52 per cent  out against 48 per cent to remain.  No argument.

But in general elections, we have 650 different pots where the end result can be very different.  Last week, voters actually got almost what they wanted.

The Tories claimed  48 per cent of seats on 42 per cent of the vote. Labour,  40 per cent of seats on 40 per cent of the vote. Lib Dems, only two per cent of seats on seven per cent of the vote.

This was an unusually fair result for First Past the Post (FPP), which is wildly unpredictable.  As in 2005, Labour had  55 per cent of seats on 35 per cent of the vote. The Tories,  25 per cent of seats on 32 per cent of the vote and the Lib Dems,  two per cent of seats on 22 per cent of the vote.

With FPP either of the two major parties can get whopping majorities with the support of barely one third of voters.

Or, as happened in 1951 and again in 1974, the party that came second in votes may win on seats — like turning Brexit on its head.  FPP is a lottery and there is no telling what surprises it may come up with next time.

Why has it not been improved? Germany uses the Additional Member System (AMS), where everyone has two votes:  one for a constituency MP, as in Britain, the other going to a party.

This party vote is used to balance the books so that total seats end up in proportion to votes cast.   The main criticism is it throws up two classes of MPs, those directly elected and the ones from the party list.

Much of the rest of the world uses the straight Party List, with each party putting up a list of candidates in multi-member constituencies, the number elected in each party being in proportion to the votes cast. The main drawback here is that it emphasises the party over the individual and can lead to a proliferation of small parties.

Finally there is the Single Transferable Vote (STV), which again requires large multi-member constituencies, but instead of putting a cross against a name, we are invited to show a numerical preference.  

Proportional systems usually result in coalitions, which most politicians hate, Hung parliaments are not always easy and involve compromise, but they deter extremism.   

As no party in Britain within living memory has polled over 50 per cent of the vote, coalitions are actually what we have been voting for all these years.  They have long been a fact of life for much of the world, often giving better governance than ours.  Surely it’s time to join them with a modern electoral system that gives us what we actually want.

• Rolf Richardson, of Wootton Road, Henley, is a member of the Electoral Reform Society.

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