UK electoral reform bill

UK PM Gordon Brown is proposing a bill before parliament that would provide for a referendum on replacing FPTP with Alternative Vote. The referendum would be held by October, 2011.

Of course, there is one big catch: Labour is unlikely to be in government by then, as most indications are that it will lose the general election that must be held by spring, 2010.

From the Guardian:

Ministers, who agreed the move at a meeting of the cabinet’s democratic renewal committee (DRC) yesterday, believe that the prospect of a referendum will have three key benefits. It will:

• Allow Labour to depict itself at the general election as the party of reform in response to the parliamentary expenses scandal.

• Make David Cameron look like a defender of the status quo. The Tories, who are opposed to abolishing the first-past-the-post system, would have to introduce fresh legislation to block the referendum if they win the election.

• Increase the chances that the Liberal Democrats will support Labour – or at least not support the Tories – if no party wins an overall majority at the election, resulting in a hung parliament. The Lib Dems have traditionally regarded the introduction of PR as their key demand in any coalition negotiations. While AV does not technically count as PR, many Lib Dems regard AV as a step in the right direction.

The proposal is itself a compromise:

Some ministers, such as the home secretary Alan Johnson and the culture secretary Ben Bradshaw, were keen for Labour to burnish its reformist credentials by staging a referendum on the same day as the general election.

The prime minister resisted this option because it might have prompted Tory charges that a failing government was trying to save its skin by changing the electoral system for the election after next. The Electoral Commission has also made clear that it does not believe referendums should be held on the same day as general elections.

Speaking only as a political scientist, it would be nice to have another AV system! It also would be very interesting to see how a Conservative majority government, if one were to result from the 2010 election, would respond to the law on the books requiring it to hold a referendum that it does not want.

34 thoughts on “UK electoral reform bill

  1. Sadly the referendum will never happen because the next parliament will repeal the act, in the unlikely event that the bill survives the well-deserved ridicule it is going to attract. The Blair and Brown governments have been promising a referendum on electoral reform since before Tony Blair became prime minister. It is unsurprising they are now promising one for after they lose government.

  2. Let me, as someone who actually lives here in the UK, say that I would NOT want to have AV as our electoral system! It’s unlikely that this proposed referendum will ever take place; indeed, the bill may be rejected by their lordships since the Labour Party does not have a majority in the upper house. Critics here see this plan as a cynical, partisan move.

    Tom Lundberg, University of Glasgow

  3. And as for how the Tories might respond… John Howard 1996-99 might offer a precedent: ie proceed with the referendum but campaign against it on the grounds that (a) the proposed change goes too far to satisfy conservatives, and (b) the proposed change doesn’t go far enough to satisfy radical reformers.

  4. Well, the French Socialists, during Mitterrand’s first term, were far more brazen than UK Labour now. They actually changed (from majority-plurality to districted PR) before an election they expected to (and did) lose.

  5. If Obama were to introduce a bill in Congress to adopt AV for the House of Representatives, we would be having a totally different discussion. Instead of dwelling on Brown’s political motives, we’d be debating the merits of Obama’s proposal — at least once we had gotten over the initial shock.

  6. Well, the French Socialists were more brazen from that perspective. On the other hand, they did have a record of advocating PR for most of the Fifth Republic’s life to that point. de Gaulle brought back the single-seat runoff system over their protests, I believe. So it was partly ideology, and partly electoral advantage. Also, the Socialists introduced PR for the first national lower house after they won a majority – as opposed to sleeping on the issue throughout the 2001 and 2005 elections, as UK Labour did.

  7. Funny how the Labour Party, as soon as it looks like losing, starts to discuss changing the voting system. Yet the Conservative Party, which has lost three elections in a row and faces an electoral playing field that seems tilted absurdly against it, resolutely refused to consider such defeatist talk.

    Labour’s sudden interest – or, for those with long memories, revival of interest – in electoral reform can be dated fairly precisely. I am bound by that old self-denying ordinance not to name names, but something happened on 27 June 2007. That something virtually ensured that the party was doomed at the forthcoming election; it was also when the party’s policy began to shift.

    That shift was completed by Gordon Brown’s party conference speech in September. The Labour Party is now committed to changing the voting system, but only after the election, and after a referendum to approve the change. With surprisingly little fuss, the governing party now advocates a system called the Alternative Vote. Well, I call it a system: all it means is that voters would mark the ballot paper with numbers to show the order of their preferences rather than a single cross. It might make big differences to the results of an election. The main one being that the Liberal Democrats would win more seats than they would otherwise. But, because no one expects Labour to win the coming election, its promises of what it might do after that are not taken too seriously. As I say, for Labour, losing and electoral reform go together.

    When Labour was last in opposition, for 18 years, much of the party was obsessed with changing the voting system. That obsession vanished like a half-forgotten dream after the landslide, leaving Roy Jenkins labouring in vain to devise a plan for reform that no one could remember at the time, let alone now.

    So it is with a weary sense of having been here before that some of us survey the revival of the old Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, and the cross-party Make Votes Count: organisations that convey a sense of period as evocatively as the Pet Shop Boys or Depeche Mode – also still with us, slightly against expectation.

    Yet while these great cycles have swung the Labour Party from one side of the battlefield to the other and then back again, the Conservatives have kept a steady course. […]

    A new study reveals that the electoral system is not as unfair as it looks. An article by Galina Borisyuk, Ron Johnston, Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher in next month’s issue of Parliamentary Affairs shows that equalising constituency sizes would not remove the pro-Labour bias. Professor Thrasher summed up: “Our research shows that equalising the electorates is not the key issue. Labour’s real advantage currently stems from a better distributed vote – it acquires fewer surplus and wasted votes than its rivals.”

    It would seem that Tory and Labour voters behave differently. Tories turn out to vote wherever they are; Labour voters seem less likely to bother if they are in a safe seat, whether it is safe Labour or safe Tory, and are more motivated in marginal seats. That fits with what we know: that Tory voters tend to be older, and more likely to regard voting as a civic duty. The implication is that the voting figures conceal a hidden army of Labour supporters who would come out to vote if they thought it would make a difference…

    – John Rentoul, “Maybe Tories aren’t so stupid after all: When Labour was last in opposition, much of the party was obsessed with electoral reform”, The Independent (Thursday, 31 December 2009).

  8. The alternative vote has been floated before in the UK, in 1929 when Liberal support was required for a minority Labor government. The measure actually passed the House of Commons but died in the House of Lords. Its an interesting speculation what would have happened if it had been enacted.

    The use of the alternative vote in Australia seems to have accompanied a really strong two party system, the strongest outside the US. Its hard to tell what role the electoral system plays in this. But the use of runoffs in France has accompanied a party system best described as two opposing coalitions containing many parties.

    On paper, the alternative vote should help the Liberals, even more in 1929 than today, and may have saved them from the electoral eclipse they suffered in 1935-64. But when you change the party system, the parties will adjust their strategies, and their positions and vote totals will also change.

    My guess is that with alternate vote and runoff systems, the larger parties start cutting deals with smaller parties or their supporters for their second preferences. With first past the post systems, the larger parties try to actively discourage supporters of smaller parties from voting for those parties, or from voting at all, with “lesser of the two evils” and “wasted votes” arguments. Smaller parties will push harder in seats they have a chance of coming in first, at the expense of other areas, because the only way in first past the post systems they can wield influence and get taken seriously is to win a seat somewhere.

  9. The Liberals were politically closer to the Tories before the 1960s, and there even was sort of an electoral pact in 1951, along with the actual electoral pact in 1931. So the Tories would do fine in a system that put more importance on coalitions.

    I think the Tory view is more that first past the post, single member constituencies, is a traditional English institution so they have to defend it. But this view, historically, is also nonsense.

  10. The Australian Labor Party’s eminence grise, Senator Graham Richardson, hit upon a change of strategy that saved Labor’s electoral bacon in the 1990 federal poll (albeit with only 49% of the two-party-preferred votes). Rather than scorning voters who were considering a first-preference vote for minor parties (Greens, Aust Democrats, leftish independents) – the traditional Labor (and Lib/Nat) approach was to warn voters against “wasting [your] vote” on such as these, which is rubbish – “Richo” tried honey rather than vinegar. Labor campaigners actively sought second (or at least second-last) preferences from former ALP supporters who were flirting with defecting. “Okay, you don’t want to vote for us, but please, pretty please, still put the Liberals last”.

    And it worked. Labor got only 39% of first preferences, much less than the 44% for the Coalition and only just over half the combined 17% for all the “non-big-two-and-a-half”, but still got a 78-70 majority. Enough to govern in the House of Reps (although not, interestingly, enough for an absolute majority if there had been a joint sitting – an exception to the usual rule under which a Const sec 57 is often misread as saying “the House of Reps can unilaterally enact a disputed bill after a double dissolution”).

  11. Tom can correct me, but except for the outlier case of 1975, where you could argue who was the government anyway, I do not actually recall a government losing a double dissolution election.

  12. Wikipedia notes that at the first ever DD (5 September 1914), the Cook Liberal government was defeated by Andrew Fisher’s Labor Party. Post, and probably propter, hoc, there were no further DDs until 1951. 1914 was the only DD held with plurality voting for the Senate, too – MNTV, which is plurality on steroids. (There were no DDs held during the era of Multiple Alternative Vote, 1918-48).

  13. I just realized the ultimate example of a party changing the electoral system from single member district to proportional representation to lesson the severity of defeat: the National Party and South Africa in the 1990s.

    Had the first one-man-one vote election been held in the old single member parliamentary constituencies in 1994, I believe only one or two of those seats would have had a white minority. The Nationals insisted on, and got, proportional representation during the negotiatons on the transition.

  14. The ANC was committed to proportional representation from very early in the struggle against apartheid, although it is true the NP suddenly converted from FPTP to PR once they realised they had to surrender control of the franchise, which is all that had kept them in power. Weirdly enough, electoral boundaries were drawn by judges, not politicians, from the establishment of the minority-governed Union of South Africa in 1910.

  15. Alan, how long ago is “early”? I recall the New Statesman reporting, circa 1987-88, that many ANC heavies were interpreting the Freedom Charter’s call for “equal votes” and “majority rule” to mean single-seat plurality elections. (The ANC traditionally received a lot of moral, military and financial support from Eastern Bloc countries, most of which used winner-take-all electoral systems – East Germany was a rare exception).

  16. The ANC has a complex history and the external wing, which operated outside the country during minority rule, indeed depended heavily on the old Soviet bloc for financial and moral support. However, once the internal detainees began to be released and assert their own authority, the Soviet-style institutional ideas were abandoned almost immediately. Mandela, for example, committed to proportional representation as soon as the transitional negotiations began. About the earliest official document I can find is 1991.

    The story is complicated because the NP sought and got PR in the cabinet for the transitional period, but advocated non-proportional representation in the legislature combined with a rotating presidency and a 2/3 supermajority on many decisions. That would have entrenched the NP as the sole white party and given them a permanent veto on legislation.

  17. At one point (around 1992), the Nats were pushing for a Senate of 50 (?) seats in which the five highest-polling parties would get 10 seats each… The only precedent I know for anything like that would be the late Republic of South Vietnam.

  18. From the introduction of the Tricameral Constitution to final acceptance of the Transitional Constitution the Nats seem to ahve proposed more and sillier institutional formulas for entrenching themselves in power than any political movement I know, with the possible exception of the optimates in the Late Roman Republic. Not even the South African NP ever formally argued for assassination as an institution of state, although they actually used it extensively before FW de Klerk became state president.

  19. Also desperately off topic, but I notice filibuster reform” is becoming a live issue. Any chance of trading off actual majority rule in the US senate for a consensus rule like a 2/3 majority to confirm judges?

  20. How much of an issue is bad procedures within a legislative body (eg the US Senate) as opposed to bad procedures making up the legislative body itself?

    The US Senate is not apportioned according to one man one vote. I’m much more interested in either changing how its elected in a more democratic direction, abolishing it, or reducing its powers to the House of Lords/ Canadian Senate level than its internal procedures.

    I agree the relatively new 60 vote barrier is idiotic, its main purpose appears to be to give American political parties another excuse to avoid carrying out their campaign promises.

  21. Ed, two thoughts in response:

    1. As to the “why” – from one POV, the filibuster adds yet another choke point to the already amply-equipped US legislative pathway, and gives even more power to the rurally-weighted Senate. On the other hand, one does see US leftwingers now and then argue that the filibuster helps counter-balance the Senate’s rural bias (esp as that chamber has some important prerogatives not shared with the House of Reps, particularly confirming judges), in that it means the 25 smallest States with only +/-20% (?) of the US population, can no longer ram through an appointment by simple majority (in collusion with a President elected by the also-rurally-weighted Electoral College). Now you need the 30 smallest States, with +/-25% of the US population. (Assuming for simplicity that both of each State’s Senators vote en bloc).

    I have also seen some proposals to keep the principle but alter the details to shift the onus – ie, rather than requiring 60% of all Senators, allow 60% of those present and voting, or even allow a simple majority of the quorum present to clo[t]e debate unless 40% of all Senators are present and vote that the member do continue to be heard.

    2. As to the how – reapportioning the Senate would require a const amendment, easily blocked by those who benefit from the status quo. Abolishing the filibuster could be done by 50 Senators + VP, who have an incentive to do so, but are reluctantly because they might look greedy, and because they want the filibuster in reserve in case they lose the next election. One way out would be to pass a resolution, at the very first meeting after one election, that the filibuster will be abolished (or reformed) as from the next election.

  22. When Medibank, the single-payer healthcare system, was established in Australia it took a double dissolution and the first joint sitting to do it. The senate had surrendered after previous double dissolutions and passed the triggering legislation. In 1974 the opposition, which had retained its blocking majority in the senate while not gaining a majority in the house, refused to pass the Medibank legislation and a number of other double dissolution bills, forcing a joint sitting.

    If Australia had the same constitutional arrangements as the US, where the house cannot override the senate, I seriously doubt the Medibank legislation would ever have passed. If the lack of a legislative override had been combined with an extra-constitutional supermajority I am certain it would never have been passed. The filibuster adds to the distortions of a chamber that is already malapportioned in terms of one person, one vote.

    The US senate could abolish the filibuster by simple majority, but they would need 60 votes to get abolition to the floor in terms fo the existing rules. Or there is the nuclear option proposed by the Republicans when they faced a filibuster, of using the vice-president to abolish it.

  23. > “filibuster helps counter-balance the Senate’s rural bias”

    Ie, much as some have argued that giving China and the USA a permanent veto in the UN Security Council goes some way to balancing the “malapportionment” in the General Assembly, where Micronesia has more votes than Indonesia.

    Also, from an Australian perspective it sounds odd that so many Americans (right and left) defend the filibuster on the grounds that it “protects minorities”.

    First, it protects only small and lightly-populated States: any list of the most needy (majority-neglected) or majority-oppressed minorities in US history would have to put African-Americans high above Alaskans and Arizonans.

    Secondly (espec in contrast to Aust), it represents only the majority (or plurality of voters) within each State, mitigated very slightly by staggered terms. As The New Republic once pointed out, if the 12% of Americans who are Black were as well-represented in the Senate as the the 12% of Americans who live in the smallest States, they would elect around 30 of 100 Senators.

    And thirdly, even allowing that a Senator elected by plurality must still care about the swing votes (or absention) of an identified minority group of voters… there is little or no correlation between the Benthamite intensity of that minority group’s stake in a particular bill or appointment, and the capacity of that Senator’s bladder.

  24. I should have made it clearer in my previous post, but I would suggest that the US Senate as currently constituted is simply not capable of abolishing the filibuster, for the reasons outlined in #26. Essentially you are expecting an inherently absurb institution to act in a responsible manner. That is very unlikely.

    But the constitutional amendment difficulty is real. First, the Senate has to act in such an irresponsible manner that the public gets fed up and wants to abolish it. That isn’t close to happening. Even in New York, which probably has the most irresponsible and damaging upper chamber in the nation, there are no proposals to move to unicameralism.

    Also, any amendments have to move through the Senate itself at some point. The only way to do this is through a new constitutional convention. I’m not sure how you get a political climate that favors such a reset. Maybe the history of constitutional reform in Argentina would offer some pointers, there are some similarities in terms of instutional and economic problems.

  25. The Senate itself seems to be a relic of the idea that states were sovereign entitites, so for example if the government were to sign a treaty all the states, or two thirds, would have to sign off through their ambassadors in Washington. Hence the history of supermajority requirements.

    One problem is that the US states haven’t acted in that manner for some time. I think the framers made two serious errors with the initial Articles. First, it was made too easy for Congress to create new states out of territories, but almost impossible to change existing state boundaries or abolish old states. So you eventually got states like Nevada and North Dakota that were created for short term partisan advantage, and then it was impossible to undo that. Second, the Senators were initially elected by the state legislators, but not recallable, so they never quite acted as ambassadors for the state governments.

    If state boundaries corresponded more to economic and cultural realities, and the state governments had some real institutional clout in Washington, then federalism would be much more viable in the US. Instead US states are vestigal political institutions, not really powerful enough to serve their original purpose, but just powerful enough to be used to block reforms. I think there are obvious parellels with the pre-1911 British aristocracy (which moves this back closer to the original topic).

  26. I suspect the framers made their mistake with the Northwest Ordinance 1787. The Articles of Confederation made no explicit provision for new States and the Constitution merely followed the Northwest Ordinance. The differing provisions on slavery in the Northwest Ordinance and the Southwest Ordinance 1790 conveniently set the terms for the Civil War.

  27. > “If the bill passes (both houses–yes, the UK parliament is bicameral)…”

    Well… it’s bicameral in the last 12 months of a five-year Commons term, at any rate, because then the window for an override under the Parliament Act is cut short by the next general election.

  28. You’d really wonder why the Brown government is bothering to introduce a bill that cannot become law for a referendum that will never be held.

  29. The Parliament Act is rarely invoked. Sure, it’s that giant spiked club that the PM keeps behind the door throughout a Commons term. But the fact is that most of the time the Government negotiates changes with the Lords, rather than overrides them. (Let me put a plug in for the research of my student, David Fisk, who studies these under-appreciated second chambers.)

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