Monday, 1 October 2001

Representation in Democracy (Total Representation ‘TR’)

A New Electoral System for Modern Times.
Total Representation (‘TR’) is based on the premise that every single vote cast in elections has to end up with some representation in parliament, whether directly or indirectly.

It avoids the most serious defect of the First-Past-the-Post System, under which votes cast for the successful candidate are represented in parliament, while all the rest of the votes i.e. those cast for the unsuccessful candidates (which may be more than 50 per cent of the total in some constituencies) are left unrepresented.
The Proportional Representation System “PR” on the other hand does allow representation to all votes cast and gives them equal weight, but it encourages small political parties and splinter groups, resulting in weak coalition governments, where factional rather than national interests take over.

‘TR’ offers a solution, by combining the positive elements of both systems, PR and first-past-the-post.

In order to implement ‘TR’, parliaments would have two classes of MPs who would be equal in every way save for the manner by which they were elected. One class would be the Constituency MPs (CMPs) who would be elected on a constituency, first-past-the-post basis, exactly as they are today in the UK. They would continue to fulfil their duties and obligations towards all their constituents, dealing with individual problems and grievances at meetings and surgeries. The other class, Party MPs (PMPs) would be elected by pooling all the votes cast for the unsuccessful candidates in the constituencies and dividing them proportionally among the parties, who would announce before the election the lists of all their constituency candidates in order of priority.

For ‘TR’ to succeed in its objective, the ratio between the number of Constituency MPs (CMPs) and the Party MPs (PMPs) is crucial. I believe this ratio should be around 80:20 (or 75:25) in favour of the CMPs. This numerical ratio ensures the strength of the CMPs in parliament and consequently a degree of government stability, backed by the majority party in parliament. And, just as important, it keeps the direct bond between individual MPs and their constituencies. The 20 per cent of PMPs on the other hand ensure the existence of a built-in opposition in parliament backed by representation, so that the voices of minority interests are heard speaking with authority on the floor of parliament.
This would be the case even if one party were to win all the constituencies: the majority party would secure 80 per cent of the seats, but that would still leave 20 per cent of the seats for the opposition parties. This built-in opposition, which lies at the heart of any democratic, open society, based on real representative democracy, should help to counter to some extent the ‘tyranny of the majority’ that John Stuart Mill warned against. Once this built-in opposition is safeguarded, the more the ratio is moved towards, say, 60:40 the more the system tilts towards PR with all its disadvantages.

It is important when talking about rights, freedoms and justice in an open society to bear in mind that all these concepts revolve around the idea of vibrant social dissent or opposition of one kind or another, whose existence is essential and whose legitimacy has to be recognized and respected by all sections of the community.

The concept of opposition in general, and political opposition in particular, is the kernel at the core of an ‘Open Society’. It is the door through which changes find their way to transform society. Its absence renders a society ‘closed’ and backward looking. Political structures therefore should contain such a kernel, institutionalized as an integral part of their structure. This kernel must have the freedom to grow or wither away within its wider social context. This is what the ‘Open Society’ is about. And yet this does not mean automatically that ‘opposition’ is there merely as a permanent obstacle to the way the majority of a community wants to govern itself. Permanent representation for the opposition must be, and traditionally has been in the UK, at the heart of representative democracy in order to fulfil its function. Hence the concept of ‘Her Majesty’s Opposition’ in the Westminster parliament, which to outsiders looks like a quaint, contradictory expression of British eccentricity, is in fact an essential ingredient of the UK’s tolerant constitutional arrangement. We should therefore not visualize the concepts of majority and minority as two inherently static, adversarial sections of the political structure. Rather we should see them as parts of the same community, stimulating each other in a permanent ebb and flow of movement and change.

How ‘TR’ Works?

To implement ‘TR’, the country would be divided into electoral constituencies, as is the case in the UK today. Candidates would be fielded within the constituencies either as party nominees or as independents. The votes cast for the successful first-past-the-post candidates would gain their representation through the newly elected CMPs. The votes cast for all the unsuccessful candidates in all the constituencies would be pooled together and distributed proportionally among the unsuccessful candidates to elect the PMPs of the various Parties (Lists) that have fielded or sponsored them as candidates in the constituencies in the first place. Therefore all MPs (CMPs and PMPs) would have started as candidates in the constituencies whether sponsored by national parties or by independent groups.
This is a crucial element of ‘TR’. Unlike pure PR (Proportional Representation), in ‘TR’ the bond between the constituency voters and their chosen candidates are preserved and would probably survive even when a candidate failed to secure a CMP seat. Such unsuccessful constituency candidates would be heartened by the knowledge that they might end up as PMPs, if not in that very general election then in a future one. So ‘TR’ would encourage high calibre candidates to offer themselves in what today are considered un-winnable constituencies.

The merits of ‘TR’ are clear: the system is simple to operate and easy to understand. Voters continue to vote for a single candidate in their local constituency. But, most importantly, ‘TR’ modifies the first-past-the-post element of the constituency system with its failed candidates and wasted votes that have contributed to the apathy among UK voters.

‘TR’ as outlined above can be adapted and modified for any democracy but especially for emerging democracies or old democracies with changed circumstances. In fact, when examined closely it is a system which can be applied in any country and to any democracy. It is a ‘fits all’ system.

I have written separately brief proposals on the practical applications of ‘TR’ to the prevailing political circumstances in the UK (especially with regard to the House of Lords) and Israel (with regard to its parliament, the Knesset). These are the two countries I know well and whose political developments I have been watching closely for half a century. It is especially interesting to examine these two applications, as they would be approaching ‘TR’ from opposite directions – the UK moving from constituency-based, First-Past-the-Post System to ‘TR’ and Israel from Proportional Representation “PR” to ‘TR’.

Aharon Nathan, October 2001