Reform Baby!

I am going to talk here about electoral reform, following our hung parliament result last year in the UK Elections.  There’s a poll at the bottom, so please tell me what you think…

Current System

We have a parliament with two “houses”, the House of Commons, and the House of Lords. The purposes of these two are slightly different. Generally, the House of Commons, made of nationally elected MPs, proposes laws, and then the House of Lords accepts, amends or blocks these laws. The two houses act as a check and balance on each other.

For election in the House of Commons, we currently have a system of First Past The Post (FPTP), which means there are a load of constituencies (650ish), and each one gets a clear winner, and the parliament is made up of these winners. Our House of Lords is currently selected by the Prime Minister, and approved by the Queen, with a little help from the parties, with a few bishops thrown in for good measure.

What’s wrong with it?

Firstly, the House of Commons has one big issue: FPTP. It is representative locally – you vote for your local MP – but you get no say nationally. I’ve drawn a graph below, that shows the number of seats each party won last election, contrasted with national percentage of the vote.

Clearly, this is lacking representativeness somewhere, since the Lib Dems got 23% of the vote, but less than 9% of the seats. So we probably need reform here.
Secondly, the House of Lords is undemocratic because none of us vote for it. Labour and Lib Dem both think we need elected Lords. Conservatives quite like the current system, because even those Lords elected by the other parties and Bishops and the like tend to be pretty conservative.

Since these figures are even more unbalanced, it could be argued that we probably need reform here too.

Making changes

So I think its clear that electoral reform could be a good idea. No one knows what’s best, there’s never going to be a consensus, but after a lot of debates with people about this (thanks Nick and Raj), and reading a lot of articles about it, I’ve made up my own mind.

The Lib Dems originally proposed using proportional representation. This means that, to an extent, a party that got 30% of the vote would get 30% of the seats (It’s not quite that simple, but its close enough for now). However, I have two concerns about PR:

Firstly, its not representative locally. Full PR would be that your vote counts nationally, but not locally. So the Tories get 40% of the vote, they go through and choose 40% of the MPs, from all their candidates. The problem with this is that if the voters that know a candidate best choose not to vote for him, his party may still choose to elect him.

The same applies with another type of PR: “Party list“, where your vote counts locally, but still not specifically. Here, a larger area is combined: so where there are currently 5 constiuencies, make it one big one, with one vote to cover all 5 MPs. The parties are listed, you vote for them, and again, if the Tories get 40% of the vote, they choose 2 of the 5 MPs on their own.

Another take on this is “Multi Member” (what the LDs apparently propose, although they are wonderfully vague about it), where you vote for individuals, rather than parties.  The concern is that it can still lead to voting on party lines, along larger constituencies with voters having less knowledge of individual candidates. Again meaning that the voters who know local candidates best would not have control.

Secondly, it is more likely to lead to a hung parliamentesque parties-making-deals situation. I’m not saying that’s definitely bad, but its also not necessarily good. In Ireland, for example, this has led to repeated weaker governments, of odd coalitions between parties that don’t agree on much. In Israel where they use PR, the average government only lasts 22 months. In Italy they’ve had about 60 different governments since 1945. Maybe this is a problem with countries that begin with “I”, or maybe its an issue with PR.

If we look at the best performing countries internationally, according to GDP, we are number 6 worldwide. And of the 5 countries above us: US, China, Japan, Germany and France; *none* uses a full PR system. Only Japan and Germany do a bit, with Japan using PR for 37.5% of seats, FPTP for the rest, and Germany using Mixed Member, which is a cross between PR and FPTP. In other words, of all these countries with strong economies, FPTP is the dominant system. What, would it appear, is the best option for us to take post recession?

There are many plus sides to proportionality: but I feel we should benefit from them in the House of Lords, not the House of Commons.

House of Commons logoThe House of Commons

I propose a single member STV system, with resized constituencies exactly the same size (also known as the Alternative Vote). What this means:

Local representation. Local people have a local say with a local MP. As mentioned above, PR would decrease this, and I feel it is pretty important – surely the best judge of a someone’s ability to represent the people are those who know them, rather than a selection based on what party they belong to?

Equal sizes. Ultimately, its fairer, because every MP is selected by exactly the same population size. There would be some exceptions to the resizing – the Isle of Wight would probably remain as one, rather than being 1.5 constituencies – but basically it would be fairer. This is what the government is proposing, albeit with reducing the number of MPs.

Your vote has more value. With single transferable vote, you put the candidates in order of how much you want them. So, if Spiderman, Hitler, James Bond and Chairman Mao were the candidates, you could vote:

  • James Bond 1
  • Spiderman 2
  • Chairman Mao 0
  • Hitler 0

This would mean that James Bond would get your vote. If he got knocked out, Spiderman gets it. If he gets knocked out, neither Hitler nor Chairman Mao get any help from you.

House of Lords logoThe House of Lords

It is claimed that part of the purpose of the House of Lords is to provide a “moral compass”; one of the reasons that there are 26 bishops as Lords. I think this is a difficult issue; a) how do we define UK morality, and b) is the House of Lords the correct place to impose it?

I am a practising Christian, and passionate about morality; but I don’t feel that bishops speak for me. I certainly don’t feel that the Church of England is a good example of “church”, let alone a righteous foundation to comment on the morals of a nation. More importantly, in a democratic system, should they be representing Muslims, Atheists and Jedis?

I feel that the best way to see good morals in government and law is to elect moral citizens to represent you. In other words; I have a higher chance of having a relationship with my local MP than any other MP or Lord. I therefore am more likely to be assured of his moral, ethical and professional conduct. He, is therefore, my choice for a “moral compass”.

Therefore, let’s have Lords elected by the exact proportion of the vote. Each party is given their percentage of votes at the national elections to propose Lords, with Lords elected for the length of the parliament; although many would presumeably continue through consecutive periods, if their party wished.


There we go. All on my own, I have perfectly solved the UK political reform dilemna: legislation being chosen by your locally elected parliament, and the nationwide passing of those decisions being done by a completely proportionally represented senate.

Except its never as easy as that, so tell me what you think in the poll, and leave an argumentative (or affirmative) comment below…

How to change the system?

What should we do to MPs

  • Alternative Vote - more local choice of MP, less proportional. (Also known as Single Transferable Vote) (34%, 12 Votes)
  • Multi member STV - less local choice of MP, more proportional. (29%, 10 Votes)
  • Shoot them all, and let the Queen run it! (17%, 6 Votes)
  • First Past The Post - Stay as it is. (14%, 5 Votes)
  • Full PR - no local choice at all, totally proportional. (6%, 2 Votes)

Total Voters: 35

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What should we do to Lords?

  • Link it to percent of Vote: Lib Dems have 20% of votes, get 20% of Lords. (fully proportional) (68%, 17 Votes)
  • Stay as it is. (12%, 3 Votes)
  • Keep it chosen by the PM and Queen, but ditch the bishops. (tiny bit proportional) (12%, 3 Votes)
  • Ditch the Lords, and let Simon Cowell choose. (8%, 2 Votes)
  • Link it to number of MPs: Lib Dems have 20% of MPs, get 20% of Lords. (a bit proportional) (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 25

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29 thoughts on “Reform Baby!

  1. @Noelinho Well, technically its not a truly “elected” house of Lords: each Lord wouldn’t be on a ballot box and be voted for, they would be chosen proportionally by the parties, (and signed off by the Queen, as they are now).

    There’s currently not a great legal framework for the selection of Lords: but the PM generally chooses distinguished/experts in the field, and there’s a gentleman’s agreement that the PM allows the other parties to choose some. All this reform would do is set this in law, and ensure that the party split is democratically representative.

    Regarding Police Chiefs: well no? You probably wouldn’t want a politicised police chief. But that’s a different issue: The House of Lords is already politicised heavily, with 529 out of 723 (73%) directly affiliated with a party.

  2. OK, I get your logic, I agree with some of it and I’m glad you see what I’m saying with police chiefs. The trouble is, by electing these people – whether by name or the familiar rosette – people are expecting them to vote in a particular way. How would this system stop Lords from voting the way the public expect them to and encourage them to really scrutinise policy?

    Although I realise that a proportional system may help with this somewhat, should some other safeguard to put it in place?

    1. @Noelinho And that is where the issue is: Currently the House of Lords has a balance – about 25% are non affiliated. This, presumeably, encourages scrutiny along non political lines too – that said, the Lords fairly commonly take quite a conservative take on, well, everything.

      The key is: how do we fairly, and democratically, choose non politically aligned Lords? Difficult. I don’t have a solution to that one!

      In answer to “How would this system stop Lords from voting the way the public expect them to and encourage them to really scrutinise policy?” – it won’t. We will have to rely on the Lords choosing to perform their job as a “check” on the Commons. That’s what happens at the moment, anyway.

  3. Why do we want non politically aligned Lords anyway? It’s not the civil service, Lords should have the right to align themselves with a party. The Lords are important for providing expertise, I’m not sure that would happen if they were elected.

    With regards to the bishops, I personally (and this is me speaking as an Anglican – intrigued to know why you don’t think our church is any good!) think there should be representatives from all major UK faiths, including different Christian denominations – say, a Catholic, an Anglican, a Church of Scotland/Presbyterian, a Methodist, a Quaker and a Pentecostal along with Muslim, Hindu, Sikh etc.

    I’m a Labour Party member and being on the left of the party, have been paying attention to the Fabian Society (left-wing Labour-affilated group) discussing AV. I disagree strongly with reducing the number of constituencies/MPs, and to be honest I think there are more important things for the left to be dealing with right now. We use AV in our elections (eg the leadership election) and it is a good system, but there are bigger issues at hand at the moment.

    1. @Jade thanks for the comment.

      1. I’m happy with politically aligned Lords too – in fact, I think this would make them more aligned. They wouldn’t be elected – still chosen by parties for their expertise. Just the numbers of Lords for each party would be based on number of votes nationally for that party.
      2. The wording of my comment on the CofE seems a bit harsh in retrospect – I apologise for any offence. However, my point remains, I don’t want to be associated with statements like this
      3. I think a moral group, of various religions (and antitheists) would be an interesting idea, but, as I said, I feel its more appropriate to do this with the MPs.
      4. I agree, reducing number of contituencies just reduces the amount of representation.
      5. Finally, yes there are much bigger issues at hand; but in a post about political reform, probably more appropriate to talk about reform than world hunger lol…

      Did you vote in the polls?

  4. Whilst I don’t agree with the language used by that bishop, I do agree with his sentiment (being a republican like all good socialists) – and it’s clearly nothing to do with his being an Anglican. Not sure how you could have members of faith groups always having a spot in the House of Commons as there’d be no guarantee they’d be elected?

    I did vote in the polls, I am pro-AV but I would keep the Lords as is. And lol of course discussing voting reform in a post like this is appropriate, just talking about the amount of energy the left is spending discussing replacing one system that works for one that works slightly better when the NHS is being dismantled and forests are being sold off!

  5. Yes I support STV.

    This is also in part since it seems to me that most constituencies are either largely labour or conservative, and where you have a lot of one you have a lot lot less of the other (maybe I should research this?) but it seems lib dem and lefter voters are in pretty even numbers most everywhere so we always miss out.

    I feel very fed up too of people telling me that people shouldn’t go on protests as this is somehow unfair as we’ve had our say, when clearly masses of people do not have their views represented by their local MPs and there is no way we are just going to shut up for the next 3.5yrs or so.

    1. @Simon My point was that there is a wide range of variation in what PR (and STV) actually means, and that the Lib Dem website remains unclear in exactly what they propose. As a Lib Dem outsider, I read the whole manifesto, and was left unclear as to what they wanted.

      In the article “What we stand for: a vision for political reform” it doesn’t actually mention STV at all, except in its guise as AV. There it gets one mention, but it doesn’t even say Lib Dems are in favour of it, just that they are in favour of a referendum on it!

      Since I wrote this article, the Yes2AV campaign has launched, and is now on their site, but still: read through “What we stand for”, or their manifesto, and tell me exactly what political system they feel would be ideal…

    1. @Simon Agreed. There is so much variation, and so many types of PR that I just put “Full PR” in the poll, implying a selection where parties where allowed to choose whatever MPs they wanted, based on percentage of the vote they had captured.

      (As Slashdot say with pollsDon’t complain about lack of options. You’ve got to pick a few when you do multiple choice. Those are the breaks.)

    1. @Shan You got me, typo – was an explanation of “Multi member”, hence why I included that on the poll. Changed now, thanks!

    1. @Rob “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” Didn’t make a comparison to Hitler, just used him as an example of a political figure you wouldn’t want to receive your vote.

      Godwin’s law is more an example of when “someone inevitably criticizes some point made in the discussion by comparing it to beliefs held by Hitler and the Nazis”. Which is not what I did.

      Also, surely, since its a hypothesis involving all online discussions, every online discussion invokes it…?

  6. @Chris: My disagreement lies with your fundamental premise: that because the make-up of the legislature does not reflect the total number of votes cast, the system needs reform.

    In order to assess the merits of various electoral systems, we must be clear about what the most valuable benefits of democracy are – what we hope that it can achieve.

    Why is a more “representative” *legislature* valuable for democracy? Nothing follows from this about the way we are actually *governed*. Nothing follows from this that the policies that will be implemented will also be “representative”. All you get is a more “representative” House of Commons: so what?

    Let’s see who decides on governments and policies in “representative” systems:
    The* politicians*, NOT the electorate because the norm will be coalitions.

    People can rejoice to their hearts’ content that they get a more “proportional” legislature, but look what they lose:

    they can never trust anyone’s manifesto promises; they don’t decide who should be in government (and pass laws); they cannot *dismiss* a government that is woefully lacking and failing (in a coalition, which party is at fault? The coalition parties can always stitch up a deal with another party if they lose support as a whole).

    So we see that a more “representative” legislature leads to a complete breakdown of democratic accountability. To illustrate this point, why don’t supporters of PR want representative *governments*, as well as legislature (i.e. cabinet posts are divided up proportionally)? Because then there is no opposition to hold the government to account! All the politicians will be in it together, with no incentive to listen to the people! So maybe, just maybe, democracy isn’t all about “representativeness”.

    That’s why a two party system is actually BEST for democratic accountability: one side is held inscrutably to account by the other so the electorate are clear about what each offer and their respective failings. The electorate have the power to choose decisively for one or the other. Finally, there’s an in-built inertia for the two parties to move to a position that serves the best interest of the people, as long as politicians are power-hungry and want to win elections. Surely not too controversial a premise?

    1. @John very good point. I didn’t focus tremendously on this, focusing on more how PR is a difficult term, since its actually less representative locally.
      I did state above that I feel full PR isn’t advantageousness to governing – and you are right when you say that what type of government is formed may reduce accountability and efficacy.

      I don’t have a solid answer for this, except that I feel that the main advantage of AV is that it isn’t too radical a change, likely still leading to large party advantages as at present, but ensuring that each voter is more likely to have actually voted for the winning individual, even if they were their second or third choice.

  7. Correct me if i m wrong Chris , but in your chart for 2010 the party with the most votes got the most seats, second got second third got third sounds about right to me?

    1. @Steven Very true. I personally don’t think that FPTP is an awful system, just that I think STV would add a little to it.

    1. Or I actually want to know what my brother thinks about a long article I wrote directly about a topic he is apparently interested in!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. That’s my little girl in that pic lol and her name is midian! this is too funny sorry just had to point that out.

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