Wobbly Government and other fallacies

 

We have considered the deficiencies of our existing voting system, what system should be introduced to improve matters, and what systems are to be avoided. We conclude with a summary of arguments used by those who oppose reform and how they can be countered.

 

Fallacy 1: "In the 2011 referendum, voters decided not to reform our voting system"

 

No they didn't. In the 2011 referendum, voters were asked: “At present the UK uses the First-past-the-post system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the Alternative Vote system be used instead?”  The electorate was not asked: " Do you wish to reform our voting system?"  or anything else. AV was a Coalition compromise, little known and, above all, not proportional. It was hardly surprising that it did not find favour and the voters’ verdict represented a clear rejection of AV, rather than a ringing endorsement of First-past-the-post. In any event, the subsequent undemocratic result of the 2015 election concentrated minds and an opinion poll conducted by ORB after the election found that 61% of voters supported voting reform. Clearly, as the current fluid political situation in Scotland has demonstrated, the result of a referendum, however recent, can be rendered irrelevant by subsequent developments. Nowadays, shifts in political attitudes take place with bewildering speed and governments must keep up.

 

Fallacy 2:- “STV is far too complicated for voters to understand"

 

It's a brave politician who dares to suggest that British voters are too stupid to number candidates in order of preference! In fact this argument commands far less clout than it used to, due to the number of different voting systems that the electorate has been called upon to use thanks to various constitutional changes introduced since 1997. As for STV itself, when it was first used in a public election in the British Isles for elections to the Sligo Town Council in 1919, there was a 73% turnout and only 1% of the ballot papers were completed incorrectly, quite an achievement in view of the complete lack of TV and radio and very rudimentary public information. STV was subsequently introduced for all elections in Eire. Since that time, Irish voters have appreciated the empowerment that STV affords and, over the decades, they have repulsed attempts by politicians to take it off them!

 

Fallacy 3: "The counting of an STV election takes longer and is too complicated"

 

Opponents of reform criticise the complication of STV counting but Returning Officers in Northern Ireland experienced no difficulty when STV was introduced there for local and Assembly elections in the 1970s. The methodology for manual counting is concise and the accuracy of the count can be checked for all to see at the end of each stage. While a manual STV count does indeed take several hours longer, elections and eliminations take place during the counting process, stage by stage, so the political drama unfolds as the votes are being counted; there is no having to wait until the end before winners start to emerge. In any case, the extra time required for the manual counting of an STV ballot is surely a small price to pay to achieve a more democratic election, which, after all, takes place only once every 4 or 5 years. By way of a footnote, while the writer prefers manual counting, the Scottish authorities resolved to speed up the counting process when they introduced STV for their local government elections. This involves the scanning of ballot papers whose images are then “read” and counted electronically.

 

Fallacy 4: "Multi member constituencies will destroy the personal link between an MP and his/her constituents."

 

As stated earlier on, single member constituencies are a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of our Parliament and the personal link which MPs like to think exists with an electorate in a single member constituency is in most cases non-existent; in a Hansard Society Survey of 2013, only 22% of voters could name their MP. Of course, your average party hack will prefer a constituency all to himself, without having to work with other MPs representing the same patch, some of whom may, horror of horrors, belong to other parties! If we wanted a voting system designed to suit party politicians, then of course we would insist on retaining single member constituencies. But we do not. We want a voting system that benefits voters and, as previously observed, it surely stands to reason that a 21st century constituency containing educated people of different sexes, ages and cultures with different attitudes, beliefs and aspirations will be far better represented by several people than by one person. In any case, Parliament has since 1997 approved the adoption of numerous voting systems which required the use of multi-member constituencies. If Westminster Parliamentarians were quite prepared to saddle their colleagues in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, local government and those fighting European Parliamentary elections with multi-member seats, why are they so unwilling to adopt them for the House of Commons?

 

Fallacy 5: "STV will aid the election of extremists."

 

Some commentators believe that, because STV is classified as a system of proportional representation, it will deliver seats to minority parties with tiny percentages of the vote. As previously stated, while some party list systems of proportional representation are contrived to accommodate the smallest faction by taking into account votes cast at a regional or even national level, the mechanics of STV are designed simply to deliver proportionality of views within a local community, to be represented by just several individuals. This creates a very high 'de facto' threshold. In the Albion example, a candidate would have needed 25% of the vote to achieve election under STV. This constitutes a formidable challenge for third parties like the Liberal Democrats, never mind fringe candidates, but if they do achieve it, any democracy should ensure that such candidates - however extreme or odious- should be elected. In any case, the attributes of STV mentioned earlier will afford most voters sufficient freedom of expression to register their displeasure with incumbents without having to "go to extremes".  
 

Fallacy 6 " Equalising single member constituencies will set things right."

 

Supporters of First-past-the-post claim that current government plans to "equalise" single member constituencies by re-drawing the boundaries to ensure that each MP represents the same number of voters will make the existing voting system fairer. While such an exercise will indeed address certain anomalies, it is mere sticking plaster; it fails to address the crucial flaws inherent in First-past-the-post. As the Albion and Britannia models demonstrated earlier, a party with the least votes can still win a First-past-the-post election, even with exactly the same number of voters in each constituency.

 

Fallacy 7 "STV will mean endless coalitions and wobbly government"

 

Champions of First-past-the-post have in the past held firmly to the view that systems of proportional representation habitually deliver legislatures requiring coalitions of parties to form governments, which are perceived to be weak, and are contrasted with the Westminster experience whereby our existing First-past-the-post voting system delivers single-party governments, which are claimed to be strong and stable. 

 

Clearly what happened in June 2017 has blown this argument out of the water. First-past-the-post has now given us two hung parliaments within the space of 8 years. In fact, there is nothing in the First-past-the-post rulebook which guarantees a single party administration with a working majority; coalitions elected under First-past-the-post have worked in times of war, were the norm in Westminster before WW2 and now operate as a matter of routine in local government. Council officers are reported as actually preferring hung councils to single party administrations; it seems that the quality of decision-making tends to improve because proposals do not go through on the nod and are subject to scrutiny by more people with different ideas.

 

This pre-occupation with single party government seems to be a concern limited to those who have simply become accustomed to the post-war political scene in Westminster and their contention that coalition government is weak and wobbly has been rather undermined by the 2010 Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition. For all the well-publicised bad-tempered arguments, this 2-party government survived a full 5 year Parliament, with MPs of both parties putting aside their differences and working together to oversee recovery from the recession. It has to be said that this would be unremarkable in most other walks of life, where ordinary folk are in the habit of working as a team with other colleagues - even those they don't like - but in post-war Westminster politics, the 2010-2015 Coalition was a singular achievement.

 

A more informal working arrangement between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionists was agreed as the result of the 2017 election and we will have to wait and see if this arrangement lasts the distance. The thing is, as demographic changes eat into the traditional strongholds of the main political parties, perhaps First-past-the-post is about to deliver a series of hung Westminster Parliaments requiring multi-party governments, just as it did before WW2. Perhaps Westminster politicians need to plan for this by adopting a more consensual approach to the governance of our country.

 

Indeed, it could be argued that the electorate has consistently voted for coalitions since the war because no party has won over 50% of the vote since 1935, not even in so-called "landslide" elections. If this pattern of voting were to continue, the introduction of STV might be expected to result in multi-party coalitions. The consequences are a matter for conjecture. Coalitions can work to the Nation's benefit. But even if they resulted in enfeebled administrations, as opponents of reform claim would happen, a majority of the electorate would surely then resolve to abandon the concept of coalition government and instead give absolute power to one party in the following election.

 

The point is, unlike First-past-the-post, whose outcome is about as certain as that from a throw of dice, STV would guarantee that the will of the electorate would be accurately reflected, whether this was manifested as single party, multi-party or no-party government.
  

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© David Green