Psephology 101, Or Why Britain Should Embrace Electoral Reform

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).

Polling Station, 2010 UK General Election

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.

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14 Responses to Psephology 101, Or Why Britain Should Embrace Electoral Reform

  1. Ozboy says:

    According to the ABC’s psephologist Antony Green, the difference between the first count and recount in Western Australia between the Australian Christians and the Shooters and Fishers Party came down to just one vote – in an electorate of 1.3 million voters!

    A fresh Senate election in WA now appears certain.

  2. The problem can be summed up in two words – Nick Clegg

  3. Ozboy says:

    Larry Pickering’s take on the WA Senate election circus (click through to his blog):

    WA Senate Election, 2013

  4. farmerbraun says:

    Talk about :- “Every vote counts”. It is quite credible . One vote has the power to swing a result.

  5. Ozboy says:

    The new Speaker of the House was installed yesterday, in the traditional manner. Auntie Bronnie may have a background that is occasionally more, um, lively, than the matronly persona she adopts these days; yet I have no doubts that she meant every word in her acceptance speech, and she is well-placed to restore some much-needed dignity to our Peoples’ House.

  6. farmerbraun says:

    Slightly off to the side , but OZ , you can have this shameless bastard back any time that you like. There is no place for deceitful, manipulating arseholes like Russel Norman in Godzone:-

    One of ours is he? There are so many vultures like him who come out of the woodwork every time a storm hits or volcano erupts, it’s hard to keep track – Oz

  7. farmerbraun says:

    Uh-huh. Garden variety home-grown socialist – figures.

    I think you can keep him – Oz

  8. Ozboy says:

    Kevin Rudd announced last right he was quitting politics.

    Good riddance. But I think Bolt’s analysis was too simplistic. I’m guessing there are other reasons for his departure, in particular his having made clear to him the consequences to himself of staying.

    UPDATE Fairfax and the ABC haven’t reported it. But News Limited’s Australian website this morning had Rudd’s departure at the top of the page, and put this story right next to it at the top (they’ve since separated them).


    UPDATE Curiouser and curiouser… the link I gave above is now broken, and the story has been pulled from all News Limited websites. From Yahoo 7:

    Senior ALP figure in Vic rape allegation

    Victorian police are investigating an historical rape allegation against a man reported to be a senior Labor figure.

    The sexual assault is alleged to have happened at a Victorian Young Labor camp in Portarlington, near Geelong, in 1986 when the victim was aged 16, The Australian reports.

    The woman, who now lives on the NSW Central Coast, wrote about the rape on Facebook, but does not name the alleged attacker, the paper said.

    The newspaper says lawyers for the man said he strongly denied the claims, which were unsubstantiated and without foundation.

    Victoria Police said they were investigating a report of an alleged historical sexual assault.

    “As the matter is subject to an ongoing investigation it would be inappropriate to comment further,” it said in a statement.

    And even the ABC are reporting it now. This could get ugly, real fast.

    UPDATE The Australian have kept up one version of the story, which includes this line:

    Despite the timing of Kevin Rudd’s resignation from parliament last night, The Australian can confirm the man is not the former prime minister.

    Well, we will leave it at that then. A coincidence after all. But a mighty unfortunate one, nonetheless. Rudd is guilty of many things, but does not deserve that sort of guilt by association.

    Andrew Bolt says he knows the identity of the accused (I’ve since found out who it is as well, but remember they’re only allegations at this stage). However, Bolt also advises caution – name no names, leave it to the cops. Like all the other investigations into former and serving politicians. All the more chance of justice finding the bastards eventually.

  9. Kitler says:

    Well I’ve just moved to Denver a liberal stronghold where they worry about sea level rise in the mile high city and in this now multi cultural melting pot things seem to be booming. Anyhow a few piccies of naked granite for the discerning gentleman geologist….
    As for the UK the only solution to reform lies in stringing up the bar stewards on the embankment and curiously on a UK show called QI the host mentioned the ancient Greek form of Demos which was that representatives were chosen by lottery at random among those allowed to vote, which did not include non citizens, women or slaves, if memory serves me correctly at the end the term allotted they were judged by their fellow citizens and if found wanting in their behaviour were punished.

    From the fount of all knowledge…..that is never wrong or biased.

    “election by lottery was the standard means as it was regarded as the more democratic: elections would favour those who were rich, noble, eloquent and well-known, while allotment spread the work of administration throughout the whole citizen body, engaging them in the crucial democratic experience of, to use Aristotle’s words, “ruling and being ruled in turn” (Politics 1317b28–30). The allotment of an individual was based on citizenship rather than merit or any form of personal popularity which could be bought. Allotment therefore was seen as a means to prevent the corrupt purchase of votes and it gave citizens a unique form of political equality as all had an equal chance of obtaining government office.

    The random assignment of responsibility to individuals who may or may not be competent has obvious risks, but the system included features meant to obviate possible problems. Athenians selected for office served as teams (boards, panels). In a group someone will know the right way to do things and those that do not may learn from those that do. During the period of holding a particular office everyone on the team is observing everybody else. There were however officials such as the nine archons, who while seemingly a board carried out very different functions from each other.

    No office appointed by lot could be held twice by the same individual. The only exception was the boule or council of 500. In this case, simply by demographic necessity, an individual could serve twice in a lifetime. This principle extended down to the secretaries and undersecretaries who served as assistants to magistrates such as the archons. To the Athenians it seems what had to be guarded against was not incompetence but any tendency to use office as a way of accumulating ongoing power.”

    Thought you’d been a bit quiet lately, mate. I reckon you’ll like Denver a whole lot more than Memphis. For me, it is close to “Galt’s Gulch” in Atlas Shrugged. And I believe there’s a booming IT sector. So enjoy! Oz

  10. izen says:

    Not surprising that the subject of psephology elicits an underwhelming trickle of enthusiasm, despite ozboy’s lucid exposition. It is a subject generally considered to be the preserve of policy wonks and those concerned with the abstract, theoretical processes of governance rather than the pragmatic reality of conflicting political ideologies. Part of the reason for the indifference to the details of voting systems is that it seems theoretical. Tgere is no clear link between the nature of the voting system and the type of political system that results. At least not one that is not better explained by contingent social factors that make multi-party coalitions more likely in societies that may also adopt proportional or preference multiple vote systems.

    I am wary of dismissing the issue however, the last time suggested that Oz was concerned with obscure arcania it turned out to be a significant factor in the long depression of the 1890s. However it is difficult to see a clear narrative that links voting systems to the form of political power that arises in various nations.

    The oldest democratic systems look like tribal councils, with the various clan chiefs, warlords or local representatives meeting to decide issues at the national level. Such tribal leaders are representatives of their constituents with limited autonomous authority. There is usually a process to repudiate or replace a clan chief who fails or makes unpopular choices. One man one vote for a local representative from a short list evolves from this as population size and social complexity increases. The locality is often historically contingent, defined by geography or industrial/agricultural communality. The Icelandic claim to be the oldest extant parliament can be acknowledged as a version of this deep root, the arab dobah might be another example.

    More sophisticated voting systems seem to most often bet adopted where a society or state emerges without deep historical roots that shape its democratic constituencies. They seem to be most common in newly independent nations, except when the new ruler is a totalitarian dictator who always gets at least 90% of the popular vote. Where there is no commitment to multiple or even two party politics there is clearly little role for voting systems that are intended to embody greater fairness or better political stability.

    Voting systems are probably just a part of the political machine that is the context in which they function. As an ex-PM has recently observed in the UK, whoever you vote for, a predominately private educated, aristocratic moneyed elite seem to be well over represented on the people elected. I don’t doubt that the voting method, along with the way in which candidates are selected and constituencies are defined can shape the political system. But I am also certain that the historically embedded money and power in any nation also manipulate the democratic system to perpetuate their dominance. The gerrymandering that has distorted US congressional elections are a topical example, but the etemology of the term gerrymandering shows its not a new problem.

    Perhaps the future holds a non-local, solution to the problems of candidate selection, constituency definition and voting preference. When the majority of the population is connected via smart devices which define their identify as much, if not more than their address, especially as it is the conduit for much of their social and probably work interactions, then real democratic polling on issues as well as candidates becomes feasible with the results available to be measured on the total, local or demographic level. That also presumes radical changes in the process of governance and the role of political parties and the tribal ideologies they perpetuate. As such i acknowledge it is hopelessly optimistic, whatever new technology and social changes bring I suspect that the UK government will still be dominated by scions of the old families and a preponderance of ex-pupils of Eton.

    Thanks for dropping by Izen; I was curious as to what you’d make of this.

    I doubt you’ll ever get rid of an entrenched privileged class from the body politic (down here, both PM Abbott and Opposition Leader Shorten went to exclusive Jesuit schools); yet Daniel Hannan at the DT described the idea last month (currently being trialled by the UK Conservatives at least) of US-style primaries. A slightly different issue to my article (which dealt with elections, not preselections) but an idea which, extended to all parties, would do much to democratize politics and put power back in the hands of the people. Which is why it has Buckley’s of spreading – Oz

    UPDATE: Incidentally, Izen, I’ve given my interpretation above on why Great Britain rejected electoral reform at the 2011 referendum. But I’m sitting here in Tasmania, half a world away. You’re there, and you (presumably) voted on it. What do you think?

  11. izen says:

    Because I work in different places I have often missed the chance to vote over the last few years, even ifci was highly motivated to do so! The few occasions recently when i did have the opportunity I utilised it to ‘spoil’ the ballot paper.

    I did not vote in the referendum on proportional systems. It was clear beforehand that the vote was going to be strongly against and as I remember it was presented in the media as a pointless sop to the new coalition partners, the libdems, to cater to their vote reform strand.

    The trouble with primaries to preselect candiates for political office is that gets coopted by special interest groups with ideological extremism and polarization or regulatorycapture by economic interests.
    The events in Falkirk are a case in point.

    I’m not sure your argument against primaries is very compelling. When candidates are selected by a party machine behind closed doors, or by party branches artificially “stacked” purely for the purposes of pre-selection, where’s the democracy? It has the effect of turning ordinary people off the political process entirely (branch-stacking is also a major problem down here, on both sides of politics). But if all registered voters in a constituency were able to pre-select candidates, you would not only end up with popular and worthwhile candidates, but people would feel a sense of ownership and responsibility in the political process, far more than the current situation, in which they get to choose right at the end between tweedledum and tweedledee, neither of whom they asked for – Oz

    Update: Or are we talking about two different things by “primaries”. I mean open pre-selection by all voters. Reading your comment again, it looks like you mean pre-selection by party branches, which I agree is easily corrupted.

  12. izen says:

    @- Update: Or are we talking about two different things by “primaries”. I mean open pre-selection by all voters. Reading your comment again, it looks like you mean pre-selection by party branches, which I agree is easily corrupted.

    I think the distinction is moot. Pre-selection by all voters may be the theoretical goal, but in practise it is a party {back-room deals} selection of the candidate list and voting by the political activists. There is also the problem of primaries in which one party is in a large majority over the other so that the opposition voters potentially have the ability to choose the candidate who would stand against the candidate they favour.

    In my more cynical moments I think that any indication that a person would want political office is a strong case for their exclusion from any position of authority. And that the Babylonian lottery system of selecting any person at random from the total eligible population has its advantages!

    Ha ha, the “Reverse Groucho Principle”. We’ve all harboured that thought at one time or another.

    But I’d disagree, that the distinction is far from moot. Because the average voter out there isn’t a political tribalist, but a citizen concerned with taxes, economic security, and even (gasp) the environment. So for that reason I’d discount the notion of large numbers of voters attempting to sabotage the opposite party’s pre-selection process.

    As to random selection, well I recall many years ago, a mayoral contest in a large regional city in New South Wales. As a bit of a joke, a group of people put up as a candidate a homeless man who was a well-known sight in that city’s central public park. They put up posters and flyers for him, and lo and behold, he was actually elected! And according to all reports, in office he displayed the uncommon wisdom of a political outsider and ended up doing a damn fine job. I suspect, though, that the principle would not be popularly accepted on a national scale until the powers and scope of government have been drastically reduced.

    A revolving “executive officer of the week”. Now, where have I heard that before? Oz

  13. izen says:

    @- Because the average voter out there isn’t a political tribalist, but a citizen concerned with taxes, economic security, and even (gasp) the environment.

    I disagree. The average voter IS a political tribalist. People may be concerned with taxes, economy and even {shock!} environment, but this is mediated in a context of voting for the party who most closely matches your views. Single issue campaigns can arise, like UKIP, but they are invariably transient and have no impact on the political core.

    The main political parties would also have a vested interest in framing any primary as political tribalism, your ideal picture of concerned citizens is something political organisations are motivated to inhibit in the interests of compliant supporters.

    Perhaps there’s a cultural difference between Britain and Australia, but down here, even most “rusted on” voters for either main party aren’t what I’d describe as political tribalists. This has been proven in the shift in Labor’s primary vote which I described back here, which had more to do with the economic and social progress made by groups once regarded as part of their core constituency.

    But assuming such tribalism did indeed exist, the solution would be the American custom of registering one’s political allegiance beforehand. So in Britain, only “registered” Labour voters could participate in Labour pre-selections, and so on. It would still put pre-selection in the hands of the broader community (as opposed to party hacks) and gives them a far greater sense of ownership of the political process – Oz

    As it seems to be only you and me in here at the moment, I’ll try to bash out something new over the weekend.

    Update – scratch that 😡 I’ve been called overseas for a week, heading off Sunday. Might try something brief tomorrow.

  14. karabar says:

    Concerning Rudd’s announcement of resignation (has he actually done it yet?) I have a few concerns related to the fracas precipitated by the treachery in the ABC and Fauxfacts :

    a) There is no doubt that Krudd gave the approval for the wiretap attempt in 2009
    b) The left wing press has been sitting on this information since June
    c) Krudd conveniently says he is going to resign the week before the treacherous Fauxfacts press, the Alarmist Bull Co-operative, and the British Pravda dump the information

    What are the chances that some watermelon clued Krudd into the coming news dump, and in order to avoid as much embarrassment as possible decided to zip.

    The irony here is that while senior Labor figures (!) are calling on Abbott to apologize to SBY, it was Rudd all along who treated the Indonesians (and for that matter, all non-white, non-Christian foreigners) with no small amount of contempt. Whether or not Rudd, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith or Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon knew of the phone-tapping, or signed off on it, is immaterial: the doctrine of ministerial responsibility applies. Nor did Rudd, when he announced his thought-bubble Manus Island solution to illegal arrivals, bother to consult or even warn SBY beforehand. Abbott, on the other hand, has gone out of his way to show every consideration and courtesy to the Indonesians.

    The Indonesian government knows all this, of course, and speaking as someone with some knowledge of that country, IMHO the whole thing’s an almighty media beat-up, driven by ideologues in the Fourth Estate who loathe Abbott and long since abandoned objectivity to undermine him in any way they can. At a business level, Australians and Javanese get on fine. Many Javanese would secretly approve of Rudd’s espionage activities, as they have little love for their own corruption-riddled government anyway. A storm in a teacup, which will be a distant memory when SBY winds up his presidential term in the near future – Oz

    Update heh heh, even former head of Badan Intelijen Negara (Indonesia’s intelligence agency) seems to agree!

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