You may recall back in August, I railed against the undemocratic farce that Australian federal Senate elections have become. As indeed it has. Since the election in September, things have turned from farcical to downright embarrassing. During a contested recount in the Western Australian senate poll, it transpired that about 1,400 votes from two separate booths had gone missing, despite a concerted task-force effort to locate them.
If you followed my discussion back then about above-the-line Senate voting, you will appreciate that the order in which micro-parties are eliminated, even those which garnered a few dozen votes, is crucial to the ultimate outcome. As it turns out, two minor parties were separated by just 14 votes, which means an appeal currently before the Court of Disputed Returns is likely to be upheld, and a fresh Senate election held in Western Australia. We are therefore unlikely to know the precise composition of the new Federal Senate, due to sit on 1 July 2014, until early next year at least. A shemozzle, in anyone’s language. For those who are keen, I have a reading exercise for you before we dive into the discussion below. Gerard Newman, former Chief Statistician of the Australian Parliamentary Library, wrote an excellent paper in 1989 comparing electoral systems around the world. I’ve referred to it on this website a number of times already. Its URL on the AEC website keeps changing, so I’ve taken the liberty of reproducing it here. I’ll be referring to some of its main talking points below.
In contrast to the dog’s breakfast of the Australian Senate, our Lower House elections, on the other hand, are the envy of the world. The Australian federal House of Representatives is formed by a geographic division of the nation into 150 electorates of equal population, within limits defined by statute. The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) periodically re-draws electoral boundaries to maintain this. Elections are held every three years (or earlier, but the length of parliamentary terms is a subject for another day). Each electorate is single-member, and voting is by the Alternative Vote, also known as the Instant-Runoff Vote. If you’re unfamiliar with Alternative Voting, this short AEC educational clip explains it in detail:
The principal advantages of the alternative vote are that, not only is it easily understood, and enables voters to cast second- and third- preferences in a sophisticated, tactical manner, but it also overcomes the problem of vote-splitting, particularly in electorates where two “conservatives” are pitted against a single “progressive”, or vice versa.
Britain bequeathed to the world its system of parliamentary democracy, so as an antipodean colonial I’m a bit reluctant to start lecturing the British about anything to do with democratic institutions per se. But when it comes to the actual process of selecting representatives of the Lower House, I believe Australia’s system is streets ahead—so much so, that I would have no hesitation in recommending that Great Britain should adopt it forthwith.
The vote-splitting problem of Britain’s first-past-the-post system, now inherent with the advent of UKIP, was neatly illustrated in March this year by the result in the Eastleigh by-election:
The Conservative, UKIP and (anti-gay-marriage independent) Danny Stupple cumulatively received just over 55% of the vote. Labour polled just 9.82%, at a time when it was in Opposition and the protest vote tends to increase. Clearly, Eastleigh is an overwhelmingly conservative electorate, yet the Liberal Democrat candidate gained the plurality, and hence the seat. The splitting of the conservative vote between Con and UKIP resulted in the electorate’s clear intent being thwarted.
This would not have happened here in Australia. Under our preferential system, voters place a 1 in the box beside their preferred candidate. Candidates are listed in random draw order to eliminate the “donkey vote” (avoiding the situation that existed early last century,when ballot papers were listed alphabetically, and major parties routinely fielded candidates with names like Aaron Aardvark). They can optionally also list a 2 next to their second-preference candidate, a 3 next to their third preference, and so on. If any candidate receives 50% plus one first-preferences of the votes cast. he or she is immediately elected. If (as in Eastleigh) no candidate receives 50%, then the candidate receiving the least votes is eliminated, and their votes distributed to other candidates on the basis of second preferences. If there is still no candidate with an absolute majority, the elimination and redistribution process is repeated until one candidate finally has over 50%.
Had our system been used in Eastleigh, the process would have continued until the three main candidates remained (the remaining candidates combined having less than the 17.94% of the vote required to push the leading candidate over the line). Hutchings, the Conservative, would have then been eliminated, almost all of her preferences likely going to James, the UKIP candidate, who would then have been elected.
Proponents of the status quo (such as Colrouge last March) might respond, “how is the election of a candidate with 28% of the vote fairer than the election of one with 32% of the vote in the same ballot?” But this misses the point entirely. No candidate gained an absolute majority of the vote. And I daresay that there are many more of Eastleigh’s voters who couldn’t stand the Liberal Democrats, than those who can’t stand UKIP. In the absence of an absolute majority, you have to take into account voter disaffection as well as first preferences. Preferential voting allows for this.
And yes, I know, Britain has already visited this subject in the recent past. In 1997, former Chancellor of the Exchequer Roy Jenkins headed an independent commission into Britain’s electoral system. His report, which you can read here, recommended (in Jenkins’ trademark soaring rhetoric, which by itself makes it well worth reading) that Britain adopt an “AV+”, or “top-up member” system; that is, geographic constituencies use the Alternative Vote, as does Australia, but with the addition of 15-20% non-geographic, “top-up” members to balance the principal defect of AV; that is, that minor parties, though gaining a significant percentage of the national vote, do not have that vote sufficiently concentrated in any one electorate to gain parliamentary representation commensurate with their popular support, thus distorting the will of the people.
The Jenkins report’s recommendations were finally put to a referendum in May 2011 (eight years after their author’s death), at which 67.9% of the electorate favoured keeping the FPTP status quo. I can’t help but think that many who voted against change did so out of partisan political affiliation, and not a regard for democracy. Remember, the referendum occurred before the great rise in popularity of UKIP, and I would lay odds that, were the referendum to be repeated today, a far closer result, if not an actual different one, may have emerged. Indeed, as Jenkins wryly observed in his report, there is in the expressed opinions of many of the most vocal on this issue in Britain, more than a hint of dæmon languebat, monachus bonus esse volebat; sed cum convaluit, manet ut ante fuit.
Still others who are advocating for electoral reform in the UK (and I understand many LibDems are among these) want to do away with single-member electorates entirely, and have a truly proportional representation system in the Commons. Those who are pushing this idea should remember the Bedouin proverb, beware of what you wish for, for it shall surely come to you. The LibDems spruiking this idea cannot see any further ahead than the mouth-watering (for them) prospect of holding the balance of power in perpetuity. But they should also remember that, not only will they be tearing down the cherished notion of local representation (which Member do you write to to address your local issue?), but they will also be simultaneously, for example, allowing the British National Party (Britishernazionalpartei) a foothold in the Commons; who’s to say that one day the balance of power won’t fall to them? I doubt Britain seriously wants to be governed any time soon by a hotch-potch of skin-headed soccer hooligans and brown-shirted SA girly-men, but that’s the sort of anomaly that a poorly-designed electoral system can throw up with alarming regularity. In fact, as Newman’s article points out, this is exactly what happened in Weimar Germany in the 1930s; reparation poverty, hyperinflation and the Great Depression may have been the underlying causes of the rise of Hitler, but the proportional representation system used in Reichstag elections was the mechanism by which it was made possible.
Based on the results at the 2010 general elections, a purely proportional distribution of the 650 seats in the House of Commons would have seen the Liberal Democrats (23% of the vote) hold 150 seats (in other words, the balance of power for the forseeable future), the BNP (1.9%) with 12 seats, and UKIP (3.1%) with 20 seats. Labour, with 29% of the vote, would hold only 189 seats and could only form government as part of a coalition with the LibDems, the Greens, BNP and God knows who else. Beware of what you wish for, indeed.
On the bright side, such an arrangement would also likely see the election to the Commons of at least one MP representing the Monster Raving Loony Party (who would have, for example, the Royal Mint issue a 99p coin in order to save change, and will replace the Speaker of the House with the latest audio equipment).
While there really isn’t an ideal electoral system, there is inevitably a trade off between two evils: disenfranchisement (in the case of first-past-the-post and, to a lesser extent in the case of minor parties, AV) versus ungovernability (proportional representation, in which no one party can form government in its own right and implement a policy platform which is both coherent and consistent).
Since I began my notes for this article back in March, UKIP has increased its standing in the opinion polls, to the point where it is heading the Conservative Party in many of them. I would hazard that, were voters to believe UKIP candidates of being actually able to win seats, as they would under AV, their support would rise significantly higher still. That means that electoral reform is the last thing the Tories want, as it would take from them, possibly in perpetuity, the opportunity to govern in their own right. Labour, too, benefit from the status quo, as they are likely in the next general election to win many constituencies that are nominally conservative, but whose vote is split. And as long as those pair of vested interests remain, electoral reform in the UK is unlikely to again appear on the horizon for many years to come.