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Electoral reform – who would be the winners?

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 21 April 2010

A hung parliament after the next election could mean a move towards a form of proportional representation. But who would benefit from electoral reform, asks independent political analyst Greg Callus.

Polling station (Getty)

With the polls showing the three main parties a mere smidgen apart, and the betting markets now saying a hung parliament might be the most likely outcome of the general election, the possibility of some form of coalition government looms.

The price that the Lib Dems would demand in return for their support is usually cited as including electoral reform: a move away from first past the post (FPTP) elections to the House of Commons and towards a more proportional system (that would coincidentally increase the number of seats the Lib Dems would receive for the same share of the popular vote).

Both Labour and the Conservatives benefit greatly from FPTP, which exaggerates the number of seats awarded to the winning party (and often the second place party too), meaning a government with an overall majority can be elected with barely a third of the popular vote. The losers are smaller parties, whose support is too fragmented to see any MPs elected, even if they win a couple of percent of the vote.

The Lib Dems would be the major winners if a form of proportional representation (PR) were to be used: not only would they likely double the number of seats they would win for the same share of the vote, but they would also be the probable coalition partner for both other major parties for the foreseeable future. In Liberal Democrat dreams, some form of PR would give them almost a permanent presence at the Cabinet table.

Not that Labour are entirely adverse to electoral reform of the House of Commons. In February 2010, Gordon Brown announced proposals that would see a referendum called on introducing alternative vote as a means of choosing MPs.  

Alternative vote
Alternative vote means that voters rank candidates first and second, and the two candidates with the most votes contest an instant run-off (as with the Mayor of London or French Presidential elections). This way, people still have a single MP who represents their constituency, and all MPs can say they were supported by more than half the voters in their seat.

The concerns are that this system is not necessarily "proportional" (a term which Liberal Democrats consider interchangeable with "fair") - you can still get massive distortions of results if every seat uses AV.  

One way round this is AV+, in which there is a "top-up" - an extra group of MPs whose election is based on regional votes for parties. They are added to all the AV-elected MPs to bring the total seat distribution broadly in line with proportions of the popular vote.

Any method of adding MPs to ensure rough proportionality is called additional member system (AMS). The precedent for AV+ can be found in the devolved governments of the UK: the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly both use AMS (though their constituency members are elected by FPTP not AV).

The Lib Dems rebuffed Brown's February 2010 suggestion in public – not least because an election was coming, and electoral reform is a major plank of the Lib Dem manifesto that they do not want to cede to a Labour government.

Their proposal is for a more proportional system than AV or AV+, but not the purest form of PR as might be found in South Africa or Israel. They advocate moving to a system of single-transferable vote (STV), where large constituencies have multiple members. Voters rank all candidates, and “surplus votes” (the votes that a winning candidate could have been elected without) are redistributed on the basis of second preference, and so on.

Lib Dem compromise?
STV is already the electoral system in Northern Ireland, both for Stormont and in European and local elections. The Liberal Democrats would likely improve their current standing both because they would attract Labour and Conservative second/third preferences, but also through increased proportionality.

The question becomes whether the Liberal Democrats would compromise on STV, and accept a system such as AV+ (or even just regular AMS, as in Wales and Scotland) as the price of their support in a hung parliament. Although the Liberal Democrat manifesto refers to STV as their "preferred" solution, their commitment is only to “a fair, more proportional voting system” and leaves the possibility of accepting AV+ open.

Most tellingly, in May 2009, the Liberal Democrats launched a website called which recognised the practical difficulties of forcing the UK to adopt STV, and instead committed the party to supporting a referendum on AV+, to take effect the next general election after May 2010.

Whilst the election campaign and negotiations to follow might see the Lib Dems try to leverage their new-found support to get STV, it seems apparent that the leadership would accept AV+ as a major step towards more proportional voting.

Why would Labour sow the seeds of their own destruction this way? As the party who recently has benefited the most from FPTP (since 1979, Labour have on average won 12 per cent more seats than proportional vote share would have given them, versus an FPTP bonus of only 6 per cent for the Tories), surely Labour want to ensure they can still win power?

The thinking is that AV+, or any other proportional system, would see Labour and the Liberal Democrats dominate politics – natural allies of the centre-Left, who would stop the Conservatives from holding power alone ever again. The factional interpretation is that, in return for recognising that Labour will not hold power alone, knowing that the Conservatives will only ever be able to enact an agenda that a party of the centre-left supports.

There are flaws in this thinking though. Firstly, the moves in the direction of political parties, and the ways in which they respond to voters, are fairly fluid and extremely broad. The party of David Cameron must seem as alien to members of the Monday Club, as Blair's new Labour was to the working men's club. And just because the Lib Dems are a centre-left party now does not preclude a future led by Orange Book Liberals who see the Conservative party as their natural allies.

Furthermore, it is not true to say that the UK is a predominantly centre-left country. UKIP's coming second in the 2009 European elections were a reminder that there is a right wing of Great Britain that doesn't vote always Conservative, but might well vote for parties who would be plausible coalition partners for the Conservatives.

The left might like the idea of never again having a purely Tory government, but a coalition between the Conservatives and more right-wing parties, growing from small beginnings thanks to proportional representation, should maybe give them pause for thought.

Change on the cards?
So if Labour and the Liberal Democrats are able to find a compromise, then what other than a Conservative overall majority on 7 May 2010 might stop this change?

One possibility is the House of Lords, where Labour and the Liberal Democrats combined account for only around 40 per cent of peers. If Conservatives could get a majority of cross-bench peers to block changes to the electoral system, then it would at least impede the introduction of AV+ for General Elections. The coalition Lib-Lab government would either need to appoint new peers (who presumably would vote to abolish their new jobs in a combined Constitutional Reform Bill that would include an elected Senate), or use the Parliament Acts to override objections from Peers.

The prospect of an expected coalition government also forces us to ask how the Lords would see such a proposal (independent of measures that would likely see the House of Lords become an elected body too).

Although there are differences of preference, and the hung parliament would represent a lack of mandate for any particular party manifesto as a whole, it seems plausible that the ambiguity of both centre-left major party manifestos has been designed so that a compromise hammered out in coalition forming can claim manifesto legitimacy (the same measure being supported by voters of both parties).

This would allow the Commons to characterise any Lords voting against the proposal as breaching the Salisbury Convention (whereby the Lords does not oppose later reading of bills passed by the Commons if the proposals were included in the manifesto).

The added factor of needing a referendum on AV might slow the process a little, but would also likely see the Lords more readily accept the changes to the voting system (not wanting to defy the democratic will of the people). Whether there is any chance that, in seeking to preserve the House of Lords as at-least a partially-appointed body, the Lords might sabotage the entire constitutional reform bill is not yet clear.

Lib-Lab coalition
For all the differences that Labour and the Liberal Democrats might claim during debates and on the campaign trail, it seems probable that a deal to put AV+ to a referendum as part of wider constitutional reform would be one of the first measures of a Lib-Lab coalition.

Whether this will have the all effects that are intended (greater proportionality, centre-left dominance and Conservative party decline etc), we will have to wait and see. The open question is how long and how hard the Lib Dem leadership will fight for their preferred option of STV, and whether their massive increase in recent support will give them sufficient leverage to make that a realistic possibility.

Unless the result is even more dramatic than the polls suggest, AV+ is likely to be the voting system for the general election that follows 2010. Unless David Cameron can win an overall majority or get the Lib Dems to support him in coalition instead.

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