Friday 2 July 2010

Representation in Democracy (AV Modified is what the Con-Lib coalition needs)

AV Modified is what the Con-Lib coalition needs in order to provide what the Lib-Dems require and what both Conservative and Labour MPs can be persuaded to swallow.

1. The Con-Lib coalition is a wonderful expression of the character of our political traditions of compromise and practicality. We should all welcome it as a step on the road to re-enforce our representative democracy which has been smothered under adversarial ideologies fostered by the FPTP System. This Coalition-Government, unlike other governments for decades, is a majority government, elected and backed by 59 % of the voters. However it is based on a freak result that is unlikely to recur while FPTP rules in its present form. The adoption of AV will not only increase democratic representation but it could bring about much wider participation of the electorate from the recent low levels of around 60 per cent.

2. Most important of all is that together with Labour that has pledged to back a referendum on AV in its Manifesto, the proportion of the actual voters of the last election backing AV stands at 88 per cent representing the votes of the three big Parties. Therefore a referendum on AV becomes mandatory in this Parliament. The terms of this referendum and how it will operate however should be explained clearly in a simple and unambiguous manner to the public leaving no place for confusion. Only a single YES or NO answer to one clear question can be effective and can induce a majority of the public to participate.

3. A big advantage of AV over other systems is its flexibility; this makes it possible to introduce it gently without going against the grain of our traditions where the relationship of the MP to his/her constituents is sacrosanct. The British balk at revolution. AV provides the evolution which we all prefer. AV retains the FPTP System with its backbone of the Constituency. It simply modifies the FPTP slightly without drastically changing its essence. In addition if AV is applied wisely it can strengthen rather than weaken the status of Parliament and Parliamentarians, lying so low lately in the eyes of the public. Moreover by keeping the FPTP system intact, AV can preserve the stability of future governments. The doors for Hang Parliament is not open ajar.

4. For all these reasons it is imperative that while introducing AV we are careful not to disturb the way voters have been accustomed over the generations to cast their votes. Voters are used to vote with one X for one individual candidate that belongs to a party. Even an independent is deemed by the constituent voters as belonging to a one-member party. Changing that will result in even less participation as indeed happened at least in England both in the elections for the European Parliament and the London Mayor. If you ask a voter who represents him/her in either institution they will tell you which party but very rarely can an actual voter point out which elected individual represents him/her.

5. Some MPs and certainly many Conservatives consider AV in its present form as giving two votes to those who sticks to the traditional one ballot to choose one individual candidate. So how to proceed? The answer is simplicity itself. Instead of confusing the busy citizen with a list of candidates to choose one and grade the others in a long list of preferences the voter can choose his/her preferred candidate and his/her party as is the case today. If that specific vote doe not succeed in electing the Constituency MP “CMP” in a simple majority that vote goes to that candidate’s party and added together with such other unsuccessful votes nationwide to elect a limited number of Party MPs “PMP”. Say 100 PMPs or a 20 per cent of the present total MPs.

6. By substituting the long lists of graded preferences and passing on the unsuccessful votes to the candidate’s party, this version of AV gives some weight to the votes of unsuccessful candidates and brings fairness into the electoral process. AV in this modified version preserves the Westminster model of FPTP for the traditionalists and infuses it with a dose of PR to satisfy the innovators ensuring a greater representation. Thus AV in this way carries electoral reform without an upheaval.

7. This modification of AV is borrowed from another electoral system called TR Total Representation. (A brief summary of it can be found on : which is the Electoral Reform Society website. I urge all those interested in electoral reform to read it.) This modification of AV renders it more effective and useful if we really are serious at reforming our present system of FPTP.

8. The Lib-Dems’ zero option of “PR or nothing” kept them for decades as a protest party. And so they would have stayed after the recent elections. It is the failure of the Conservatives to gain those extra 20 seats that gave an unexpected opportunity to Nick Clegg. To his credit he exploited it to the full. Now a door is opened both to improve the Lib-Dems’s present and future influence in politics while reforming the electoral system for his party’s sake as well as that of the country. Politics is the art of the possible. A bird in hand is better than five on the tree. If the Lib-Dems push now for this version of AV and secure a YES vote in the referendum they can at least be sure of achieving a partial reform that both big parties could reluctantly swallow while giving the Lib-Dems the non-recurring chance to double their seats in the Commons. An AV simulation of the results of the recent elections that follows using this version of AV shows just that. It is based on re-calculating the figures from the real results.

9. AV needs one ballot paper with one vote. By retaining the votes cast for the unsuccessful candidates and using them to elect Party MPs, instead of throwing them to the dust bins, it secures direct representation to every vote cast albeit with different weighting, In this way AV injects a limited dose of PR into the system without destroying it. AV accommodate both Systems of FPTP and PR Proportional Representation in a form of co-habitation.

10. This version of AV requires all candidates (including those competing in Party Lists) to start off by running in the constituencies. It dispenses with long list ballot papers which mix party allegiances and confuse the busy citizen in the voting booth.

11. The PR element of AV 2010 gives an active role and leverage to the runners-up in the constituencies by keeping their hopes alive in between elections even in “safe seats” They are given a chance to compete for a PMP seat at any General Election depending on their level of support or wait for another round at the next. Thus AV converts the rival runner-ups into vigilant watch-dogs, monitoring the incumbent MPs and guaranteeing their constant accountability.

How AV 2010 works
12. AV in both versions, is a constituency-based system. For it to work properly, constituencies need to have roughly similar number of voters each to avoid gerrymandering. This is fair and indeed what David Cameron wants. The majority of seats in parliament, say 80%, will be awarded to the winners in simple majorities of these races, just as they are under the Westminster system today.

13. So each party puts up candidates for election in the various seats. Their names appear on the ballot paper in alphabetical order and next to each name is the party he or she represents. However, these candidates also appear on their own party’s national “list” of all its candidates headed by the party leader.

14. Voters go to the polls and put a cross against their preferred local candidate. Whoever wins a simple majority of the votes becomes that Constituency’s Member of Parliament (CMP) – again, just like today.

15. From then on, the innovations begin. All the “successful” ballots drop out. So if you voted for candidate X and candidate X wins, your ballot is judged to have already secured representation. As for the “unsuccessful” ballots (for example, if you voted for candidate Y, but candidate Y did not win in your constituency) these are placed in a giant nationwide pool – and it is from these unsuccessful votes that the remaining seats (20%) are decided using the PR method and awarded to the various parties to select Party Members of Parliament (PMPs)

16. These remaining seats are allocated proportionally amongst the parties according to a quota of a minimum number of required votes per seat. This is reached by dividing the nationwide number of “unsuccessful” votes by the number of the allocated seats of PMPs. Obviously in an 80/20 FPTP/ PR as recommended here the legitimacy and the status of the PMP is assured by the fact that he/she needs often 3 to 5 times as many party voters countrywide to be elected as that needed by the CMP in the constituency.

17. Unlike in other list-based systems, the way these seats are awarded depends crucially on how the candidates performed in their constituencies. The party leader – if failed to secure a CMP seat directly–should automatically be allocated the first PMP seat secured by that Leader’s Party to avoid disrupting the party in the wake of a general election. All the other PMP seats available to each Party are awarded in priority to the highest scorers of that Party’s Candidates in the Constituencies in the early First-Past-The-Post part of the election. They are most likely also to be the strongest runners-up in their constituencies. Their number in each party depends on the number of votes nationwide that their respective parties gain. Everything therefore depends on the number of votes each potential PMP candidate and his/her party secures.

Arguments in Support of AV(2010)
- Each voter is required to cast only one ballot.
- No votes are “wasted”, with most going on to secure at least some level of representation, albeit with different weightings.
- Its PR element is relatively simple to understand and easy to operate
- All MPs would have to start off as constituency candidates, and all votes are worth fighting for even in “safe seats” because there is a potential prize also for coming second.
- It gives minority views the chance of a voice in parliament without giving them undue influence, because the system is still weighted heavily towards First-Past-The-Post.

Arguments against AV (2010)
- It creates two “classes” of MPs (CMP and PMP) However unlike in other such systems, most of the “Party” MPs would also have to score at least second in their constituencies and therefore would continue to retain a close link with the constituency waiting for the next opportunity notwithstanding the fact that they don’t serve as constituency MPs.
- The centre of the duties of the CMP is the constituency, that of the PMP is to add strength to the Party in Parliament while preparing for the next round of elections.
- All existing constituency boundaries would have to be redrawn periodically (as the case is now) but more to ensure similar and comparable sizes of the number of the electorate in all constituencies in line with the Conservatives’ thinking.