Electoral reform in the UK: moving towards a fairer system

Anyone who has lived in Britain or who follows British politics will know that, following the 2010 general election in the UK that ended in a hung parliament and resulted in a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, it was announced that there would be a referendum on changing the electoral system. Specifically, if the British people so wished it, the country would move from a first past the post system to what is known in Britain as the alternative vote (known in the USA as instant run-off voting). With the referendum scheduled for May 5th, to coincide with local elections, the campaign seems to be heating up on both sides.

I’ve lived in countries with different voting systems – the UK and the US, with one-round majority voting; Ireland, with its single transferable vote; Belgium and the Czech Republic, with party-list proportional representation; and France, with a two-round majoritarian system. As a result, electoral systems are something that people would probably tell me I’m a little too obsessed about. I think, however, that they fundamentally define how people view politics.

I believe that democracy matters, and that people should have the right to choose from a full range of political ideologies, philosophies and approaches. That means that I tend to lean towards proportional representation. I think that coalitions and compromise are good and healthy for the body politic, because they teach people that we can disagree on many issues and still find a middle ground. At the same time, my time in Belgium (and, to a lesser extent, in the Czech Republic) has taught me that the fragility of coalition politics, with months of negotiations to form a government after every single election, can damage people’s trust in politicians, leaving the door wide open to populism and extremism.

As a result, I’m conflicted – between democracy and stability. I’ve gone back and forth on this many times. But the system proposed by the current coalition (one which is already used in Australia), is a wonderful compromise.

Britain, like the United States, currently has a system known as first-past-the-post. What this means is that the voter has a list of candidates, and gets to put a cross or a tick next to the one he wants to fill the seat up for election, making a filled ballot look a bit like this:

It’s the simplest way of voting – pick the guy you want. It works perfectly in an election with just two candidates. Yet as soon as one introduces a third, let alone a fourth, fifth or sixth, the system no longer works. Consider, for a second, that there are two left-wing candidates and one right-winger in an election. The left holds a clear majority (let’s say 60%), but is divided more or less evenly between the two candidates. The right, on the other hand, only has the support of 40% of the population, but is united behind one candidate. If the result is 40-30-30, the right-winger beats the two leftists and gets elected. Yet a majority of the population wanted a leftist – they just couldn’t decide on which one they wanted.

Voters know this, though – which means that they vote tactically. Assuming a more or less bipolar (left-right, conservative-socialist, or whatever other political cleavage you want) electorate, each side will coalesce around the most viable candidate or party broadly sharing its political views. Over time, you get a political duopoly, which is what you see now in the USA. This is bad for democracy. While one could argue that parties themselves become coalitions as a result – centrists and more rabid partisans within the same party – it is wrong that the electorate assumes a vote for a third or fourth option is a wasted vote. And yet it is – consider what would have happened if all of the people who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 had instead voted for Al Gore.

Supporters of the first-past-the-post system would argue that, despite these flaws, their way of voting is both the simplest and the one which ensures the greatest stability. This is only partly true. Majoritarian systems tend to produce stable, one-party governments with strong, one-party oppositions, ensuring a stark contrast between two opposing political philosophies in elections. One could argue, on the other hand, that while third parties with uniform national support gain few seats, if any, strong regional parties actually benefit from majority systems. Canada is the best example of this: the Bloc Québécois generally wins most of the seats in Quebec, meaning that forming a majority government has become more and more difficult of late; proportional representation would actually weaken it.

But I digress. Majority systems almost always produce stable governments in relatively culturally homogenous countries with no major regionalist movements (the 2010 election in the UK was a major exception). While coalition and compromise can be wonderful things, Belgium, Holland, Italy and many other European countries have suffered from major political instability as a result of their proportional electoral systems. It could be argued that this is the price of true democracy – but what if there were a third way?

France and Australia both have the answer – though Australia is closer to the mark than the French. There is an easy way to ensure stability while giving the electorate a greater choice. How? Have more than one round of elections.

France is well-known for its two-round electoral system (though it is not the only country to have such a system – I’m just using it as an example). What happens, concretely, is that voters are asked to pick twice – first, from the full list of candidates, and then from the top two. That allows voters on the left and right to vote with their hearts in the first round (communist, green, socialist or whatever else on the left; market liberal, gaullist or nationalist on the right) and with their heads in the second. That makes the ballot look a little like this:

What that means is that voters aren’t forced to pick the lesser of two evils right away – they can pick whomever they want in the first round, and then whichever candidate is closer to their political ideology in the second. That means more choice, and more democracy as a result, but with a clear left-right cleavage, and stable, coherent majorities, in the end.

This system works perfectly with three candidates. Let’s take our two left-wingers and one right-winger from the previous example, but with one of the two left-wing candidates getting 35% and the other 25% (the right-wing candidate still gets 40%). Under the French system, the top-placed left-wing politico gets to face off in a second round against the right-wing man or woman. The left will coalesce around the guy with 35%, and give him a clear majority in the run-off.

Yet it starts to break down when more than three candidates are introduced into the mix. France’s 2002 presidential election is a perfect example. With sixteen people running for the presidency, of which eight were from the left, the left-wing electorate was divided. The then Prime Minister and socialist nominee Lionel Jospin only received 16.18% of the vote, while three trotskyists received a sum total of over 10%; Noël Mamère of the greens, as well as left-wing eurosceptic Jean-Pierre Chevènement, both got over 5% each. As a result, Jospin didn’t even make it into the top two, losing out to far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen.

This meant that the 2007 election brought with it calls from the left (largely heeded) to vote for socialist Ségolène Royal in the first round – meaning that other left-wing candidates were largely ignored and marginalised. While it allowed France to avoid another 2002 scenario, it meant that voters were pressured into voting for frontrunners instead of being able to listen to their conscience.

That’s why the alternative vote – the system being proposed in the UK, and which Australia already uses in national elections – is so attractive. Instead of turning up twice to vote in two rounds of elections, voters have one ballot, where they list candidates in order of preference. That would look something like this:

If you’re a left-wing voter and you really like the greens, but know they won’t win, you can still vote for them under this system. It’s very simple. You put a one against the guy you’d really love to win, a two against your second choice, a three against your third, and so on, giving your last preference to the bloke you’d really hate to see elected. Ballots are then counted, and the candidate with the lowest number of first-preference votes is eliminated. His second preferences are then distributed among the candidates left in the race. This process of elimination continues until someone ends up with 50% of the vote.

What this means is that voters can both vote their conscience and still pick the lesser of two evils. Taking our previous example, if we have four left-wing candidates and two right-wingers, there’s a good possibility that under a two-round system there won’t be a single leftist in the second round. With the alternative vote, as candidates are eliminated, their preferences are redistributed, meaning that the guy with the most broad-based support ends up getting elected.

Looking at Australia, apart from the 2010 election (which produced the same kind of hung parliament as we saw in Britain), stable majorities have always been formed, yet people are allowed to pick their favourite candidate without fearing that their vote will be wasted or that their choice of a third-party candidate will mean their least-favourite politician will wind up getting elected. That means more choice, stronger third parties, more competition in elections, and a more informed and intelligent electorate.

It’s a simple yet elegant way of balancing stability with democracy. If British voters have any sense, they’ll go for it.


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