I was asked what I thought of this anniversary of the 5th May blogpost by Milena Popova.
I don’t disagree with the analysis of the last 18 months. The Yes campaign was badly run. Most of the post referendum analysis started with “It wasnae me.” Unhelpful when you want to re-group and what you need is some discussion on how to keep a mass reform campaign going. The sort-of-promised support for local groups doesn’t appear to have materilised (1)
So I share the frustration with where the pro-electoral reform campaign is now and how we got here. Does that mean that I agree that we should say the Viaticum over the body of Electoral Reform? I’m not nearly so pessimistic about the longer term outcome, or even the medium term outcome. As Warren Buffet might say “Look at the fundamentals.”
Current and Future Usage of Electoral System.
The citizens of the UK are increasingly exposed to electoral systems other than First Past the Post(2). Scotland uses the Additional Member System of PR for Holyrood, the Single Transferable Vote for local elections (and the Alternative Vote for local council by-elections.) Wales uses a form of PR for Assembly Elections. Northern Ireland uses STV for Assembly elections. London has the same electoral system as Scotland for its Assembly elections and uses the Suplementary Vote for Mayoral elections. A few more cities in England will also be using that system for their own mayoral elections over the next few years. Perhaps 1 in 5 voters are already regularly using PR for devolved chamber elections.
For European elections most of the UK uses the D’hondt form of PR to elect MEP’s(3)
So the British electorate is already exposed to a variety of electoral systems. Directly elected police commissioners and an elected House of Lords increases the breadth of alternative voting methods in use. In fact, so many different electoral systems do we have in use in the UK that barely a year goes by without somebody somewhere using a non-FPTP electoral system and a different one each time. (4) (6)
The British electorate is increasingly able to use different electoral systems. They get to see how different electoral systems affect how their votes turn into representation. They see what different systems do to the choice they are offered and what they do to politicians’ behavior. Politicians too are growing up using and being elected through different electoral systems. They are more used to the compromises required by different electoral systems.
I think the direction of travel is towards more widespread use of different electoral methods. Lords Reform and local councils in England and Wales are both potential next steps.
Using different electoral systems is important for campainging reasons. It removes a number of the stronger arguments of the status quo camp. We’ve always used FPTP, it’s the British way – increasingly we don’t and increasing it isn’t. Other electoral systems are too complex and you can’t predict the results. Millions of Britons now use them annually and do so effectively. You can’t be sure what sort of madmen you will get and the coalitions will be a shambles. I think many Britons can see how their votes translate in the representation they are getting. They can see that in Scotland PR has lead to stable, even dull, government without a swivel-eyed lunatic fringe appearing. (10) They have more experience of the way coalitions work, or don’t work. They can see the differences for good and bad of the different electoral systems.
Electoral reform, to some extent, is already happening.
There are a number of ways Lords Reform is important for electoral reform more broadly.
Firstly, it gives an electoral foothold for a variety of political parties other than Labour or the Conservatives. UKIP, the Greens, the SNP and the Lib Dems could all expect to pick up seats in an elected House of Lords using STV. This is important for two reasons. It gives those parties credibility (7), it gives them paid positions supported by the State in the form of salaried members and staff and Short Money, it gives them a platform. Secondly, each of these parties is in favour of electoral reform in principle.
Secondly, at some point a UK government is going to be dependent on UKIP, Lib Dem, SNP or Green votes in the House of Lords for something. At some point the quid pro quo for not sparking a vote of no confidence will be movement on electoral reform.
Thirdly, an elected House of Lords using STV would mean the whole British electorate was using STV for one half of a general election. (8)
Fourthly, an elected House of Lords using STV already is electoral reform. That’s STV in use in the UK at a Westminsiter general election. I know some genuine electoral reform activists who would consider that not only good progress but the perfect outcome. Let’s just sit with that for a moment. STV used at a UK general election in my life time.
Broad Electoral Trends.
The electoral trend since the war has been steadily lower turn outs and a steady increase in the vote share of the Not-The-Labour-or-Conservative-Parties-Party. There seems no reason for this trend to reverse. I’m sure the Liberal Democrats are going to suffer a drop in vote share at the next General Election. I expect they will lose many seats (9). I also expect this to reverse somewhat after the 2015 election. I also expect UKIP to continue to poll well.
At some point we are going to end up with another coalition. Probably not in 2015 but perhaps in 2020. Probably involving the Lib Dems but it might be a centre-right coalition of UKIP and the Conservative party. If you are negotiating a coalition with one of the main two parties and you have an interest in electoral reform what is the big take away from 2010? Don’t faff about with referenda for your third choice electoral system. Insist on legislating for STV.
The more elections we have where smaller parties poll millions of votes and get a handfull of seats the stronger our case for reform.
A network of pro-electoral reformers and reform organisations was created. It still exists. It needs some careful nurturing. My experience in Edinburgh was that a fair few people who had never taken part in a political campaign got involved. I’m still in touch with quite a few of them. Many of them are still pro-reform campaigners – for a given value of campaigning.
We’re all a bit more experienced. We know better how to organise. We know better what happens if we don’t trust our instincts when we are badly lead. We have a long, long list of things we’d do differently if we had the chance. Next time round we won’t be campaigning for our third choice option.
I don’t want to appear Poly-Annaish about the strength of the existing reform network. It’s in dire need of some attention from the ERS and UD. It could easily evaporate into an effective nothingness, especially if there is nothing for it to do or to celebrate in the next twelve months. However, it still exists. It still breaths. The evening before the anniversary of the 5th of May I was at a meeting of the Edinburgh group. I know there are internal reformers actively engaged in making the two reform organisations better at organising reform.
I think the fundamentals are good for electoral reform in the UK. We already have a variety of elections using different electoral systems and we are adding more. We have a big chance and a big success in House of Lords reform. We may have STV introduced next year for elections in 2015. The electoral trends favour our arguments and give us opportunities and we have the remnants of an organisation that is trying to promote reform.
So, is Electoral Reform dead? I’d echo Mark Twain, rumours of its death are greatly exagerated.
(1) and I write this as one of the convenors of one of the more successful local campaigns who has both an Electoral Reform regional office and the former Chair of the ERS in my city. Unlock Democracy have also not picked up the phone to check in. (Saying that, I’ve not phoned them.)
(2) or to give it its Sunday name, Single Member Plurality voting.
(3) NI uses STV – FTW.
(4) Since 2010 I have used FPTP (SMP)(5), the Additional Member System and STV.
(5) I’m sorry I just can’t help using the proper name for FPTP – because it says right on the title page how poor a system it is.
(6) This excludes the large number of people who use different election methods for civic organisations such as University student bodies and Unions.
(7) if they earn it – BNP local councillors I’m looking at you.
(8) I know the elections are going to be stagered but still 50% of our chambers will be elected using STV.
(9) and they may, ironically, end up with as many elected Senators as they do Representatives. I refer interested readers to the history of the Democrat Party in Australia and the dictum of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague, “Sometimes influence is more powerful than power.”
(10) Unless you count Baron Watson of Invergowrie, the notorius fire raiser of that most radical of parties; the Labour Party.