Tom Parkin is a Liberal Democrat activist from Sheffield and editor of Liberal Base. He runs a personal blog at tomparkin.org and can be found on Twitter @tompjparkin.

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(Note: This is an unaltered submission made in March 2018)

An assessment of ‘Voting Power’ system as the best means to offset the imbalance of representation formed from using First Past the Post (single member plurality) electoral system in British general elections – Tom Parkin, March 2018.

INTRODUCTION

In February 2016, I put forward a short proposal to the Electoral Reform Society titled, ‘Making the United Kingdom A Democracy’. The proposal gave a brief summary of the ‘Voting Power’ (VP) system, which aimed to reduce the inequalities and distorted results produced from our current single member plurality system. I.e. First Past The Post (FPTP).

Nine months earlier, the Conservative Party had won a majority in Westminster with just 36.8% of the popular vote. The main opposition party however, increased their vote share from 29% to 30.5%, but lost twenty-nine seats. Similarly, in 2015, the Liberal Democrats under Nick Clegg won 2.4 million votes and secured eight seats in parliament, whilst the Scottish National Party (SNP) received 1.45 million votes and fifty-six seats.

There appears to be a connection between the proportionality of a country’s electoral system and voter turnout at general elections. In the United Kingdom for example, voter turnout has fallen from mid-70% in the 1990s to the mid-60% from 2005-2015.[1] Over this period, Britain’s traditional two-party system of the Labour Party and the Conservative Party expanded to include the Liberal Democrats in 1988 as well as the Green Party of England and Wales, UKIP, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalists. However, the expansion of multi-party politics has actually led to fewer people participating in elections. This is because multiple political parties split the vote, allowing candidates to win elections with a small percentage of their constituency vote. If more candidates win with small majorities, then the distortion between total vote share and seats widens. This gives voters the impression that their vote is worthless and so fewer voters turnout at election time.

This distortion has led to the accusation that FPTP is not fit to serve as the system used in multi-party political elections. For that reason, a referendum was held in 2011 between keeping FPTP or switching to Alternative Vote (AV). The result was 6,152,607 votes in favour of AV (32.1%) to 13,013,123 against changing the current system of FPTP (67.9%). The referendum result was decisive, and yet 113,292 (0.59%) cast blank or invalid votes in protest against the referendum. Although there were many reasons for doing so, the number of blank/invalid votes is significant enough to take note.

My proposal is an attempt to reach a compromise between the evident inadequacy of FPTP as a proportional electoral system and the fact that 67.9% of voters defended it in a referendum in 2011. The proposed system – Voting Power (VP) therefore, maintains the system of single member plurality, whilst awarding parties the appropriate amount of voting power in the voting lobbies of the House of Commons. I will explore Voting Power as an alternative to FPTP as well as AV+ and STV, the two systems raised as possible replacements in the Jenkins Commission Report of December 1998.[3] I will discuss some of the difficulties in using VP during Westminster by-elections, select committees nominations and defections of sitting Members of Parliament. These issues were raised by the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), which agreed to review my proposal in July 2016.

[1] https://www.idea.int/data-tools/question-countries-view/521/137/ctr

[2] http://www.politicsresources.net/area/uk/mps-maj.htm

[3]https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20131205101204/http://www.archive.official-documents.co.uk/document/cm40/4090/4090.htm

The Jenkins Commission – A Summary

After the 1997 general election, the New Labour government established a commission, led by Roy Jenkins, to examine possible alternatives to First-Past-The-Post as a means to elect Members of Parliament to the House of Commons. At the general election, the Labour Party had promised to set up an ‘independent commission on voting systems’. The commission was established in December 1997 and reported with recommendations in December 1998. Lord Jenkins considered two alternative systems to FPTP: The first was AV+, which comprised of 80-85% of seats being elected using the original AV system and another 15-20% of seats being elected with top-up representatives. The second system was STV (Single Transferable Vote). STV is also known as ‘quota preferential proportional representation’.  This system was eventually rejected on the basis that large constituencies of 350,000 electors were needed to ensure the fairest method of counting the votes. This would have led onto a large number of candidates appearing on ballot papers, which the Jenkins Commission concluded was impractical.

VOTING POWER (VP): It’s aim and how it differs from First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) and Alternative Vote (AV)

The VP system is unlike FPTP and AV because it does not seek to change how electors cast their votes, how these votes are counted, or how seats are awarded to candidates. Whilst AV proposes a change to the way in which electors vote, VP does not. VP would preserve the current means by which electors vote. I.e. by placing a ‘cross’ next to the name of their preferred candidate. Under VP, there is no preferential voting or ranking of candidates.

For that reason, VP does not propose to change the means by which votes are counted in their constituencies in the same way AV does. Under VP, as with FPTP, the candidate with more votes than any other candidate wins the election and therefore, a seat in the House of Commons.

VP however, does not award each elected MP one vote in the lobby of the House of Commons. This is where my proposal differs to FPTP and AV. Under VP, some MPs will have a fraction of a vote, whilst others from different parties will have multiple votes to cast. MPs are awarded multiple votes in the lobby of the House of Commons on the basis that their party has disproportionately fewer seats in parliament than their share of the total vote. As of 2015, this applies to the Liberal Democrats, who won 7.9% of the vote, but took just 1.2% of the seats. UKIP also received a higher percentage of votes than seats, with 12.7% of the national vote but just 0.2% of seats. The Green Party of England and Wales received 3.8% of the popular vote, but like UKIP, just 0.2% of the seats. Plaid Cymru won 0.6% of the popular vote but 0.5% of the seats. MPs representing these parties would therefore, receive more than one vote to cast in the lobbies of the House of Commons.

The Conservatives took 36.8% of the vote in the 2015 general election and 50.8% of the seats – giving them a majority. The Labour Party also gained ‘overrepresentation’ from FPTP, having taken 35.7% of the seats and just 30.5% of the popular vote. Other beneficiaries include the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) with 0.6% of the vote and 1.2% of the seats and the Scottish Nationalists with 4.7% of the popular vote and 8.6% of the seats in the House of Commons.

The reallocation of voting power between MPs redresses the imbalance of practical political leverage and legislative power between political parties and ensures that all electors are empowering their chosen party in the next parliament, whoever they vote for and in whichever constituency they live. VP ensures that if a party receives 25% of the popular vote, then they should hold a block 25% of the vote in the House of Commons, regardless of how many of their candidates have managed to receive a simple majority.

To put this into context, Caroline Lucas MP was the only Green Party candidate to win a simple plural majority in 2015, thus making her the only Green MP elected in 2015. Under the current system, she would have just one vote in the House of Commons. However, VP would award Caroline Lucas with a block 3.8% control of the House of Commons as this is what her party achieved nationally that year. 3.8% of the votes in a House of Commons of 650 seats translates into 24.7 votes. (See calculations below). Therefore, as Caroline Lucas walks through one of the lobbies, she would take 24.7 votes with her.

Figure 1:

For the 2015 parliament, the ‘voting power’ of MPs is as follows:

  • Conservative MPs – 0.73 votes each
  •  Labour MPs – 0.85 votes each
  • SNP MPs – 0.55 votes each
  • Liberal Democrat MPs – 6.42 votes each
  • UKIP MPs – 82.55 votes each
  • Green MPs – 24.7 votes each
  • DUP MPs – 0.5 votes each
  • Plaid MPs – 1.2 votes each

The benefits of VP:

  • All votes have an equal value in empowering political parties in the House of Commons.
  • The way in which electors cast their votes remains the same.
  • Like FPTP and AV, VP retains the constituency link between a Member of Parliament and their electors. This means that MPs could continue to be responsible for a geographical area of the country.
  • Respects the appeal of simplicity that FPTP has to electors, as shown in the results of the 2011 AV referendum.

The Problems with VP:

The cost of keeping a constituency link between an MP and their electors is that varied voting power in the House of Commons could result in the interests of some areas of the country being better served by representatives with high voting powers in the lobbies of the House of Commons, than other constituencies where their MP holds less than one vote. Such areas include Brighton Pavillion under Caroline Lucas MP, where the area would be served by an MP with 24.7 votes, compared to Worcester, which under Conservative MP Robin Walker, would have just 0.73 votes.

Here lies a valid criticism of the VP system. The voting influence of some constituency MPs would be greater than that of other constituency MPs from overrepresented parties. This variation of voting influence in the lobbies is not however, exclusive to VP. During the Second Cameron Ministry, Chris Grayling MP (as Leader of the House of Commons) put forward a proposal of ‘English Votes for English Laws’ in the form of a Standing Order on 19th October 2015 and a written statement on 20th October 2015. [1] This was part of the government’s devolution plan for England and Wales. With no devolved parliament of their own, English and Welsh MPs could not exclusively vote on devolved issues affecting the English and Welsh regions. Under constitutional law, Scottish and Irish MPs have a right to vote on all legislation placed before the House, regardless of whether it is a devolved matter or not. 

The proposal is relevant to Voting Power because the Second Cameron Ministry was prepared to install different levels of voting power between Members of Parliament. The difference is that under EVEL (English Votes for English Laws), the levels of voting power were determined along national lines as opposed to party groupings. Before the recommendations to change the procedure to pass a bill became law, any bill that passed its third reading in the House of Commons was sent with approval to the House of Lords, unless it was a ‘money bill’, in which case, it was passed directly for Royal Assent. Under the new ‘EVEL’ changes, a bill would have to pass through a fourth ‘stage’, known as a Legislative Grand Committee – made up of the 533 MPs representing English and constituencies. No Scottish or Northern Irish MPs could be part of this committee and therefore, had no vote on legislation at this final stage, effectively creating a ‘two tier’ system not unlike that proposed under VP.

[1] http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-7339 

Below are four areas where it may be difficult to impose a Voting Power system at Westminster. These include by-elections and defections, the election of Independent MPs, appointment of select committees of the House of Commons and finally, the issue of a party winning a large section of the popular vote, but no seat using the FPTP method. Some of these issues were raised by Doug Cowan of the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), as part of his review of the original VP proposal in February 2016.

Westminster By-elections and a Defection of a Sitting Member of Parliament. 

If a Member of Parliament dies or resigns from the House by taking the title of ‘Crown Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds and of the Manor of Northstead’, [1] then a by-election is automatically called in their constituency. 

Because VP allocates varying numbers of votes in the lobby to different MPs, depending on their party affiliation, the votes of every member of the House would need to be recalculated if a seat changes hands to a candidate from another party as a result of a by-election/withdrawal of the party whip.

This is the same in the case of a defection of a sitting member from one party to another.

For example, in the case of Mark Reckless MP, the former Member of Parliament for Rochester and Strood, his defection from the Conservative Party to UKIP would have led to the recalculation of every member’s voting power. Reckless, as the only UKIP MP, would have 82.55 votes to cast in the lobbies, up from the 0.73 votes he would have had as a Conservative backbench MP. With Conservative representation having declined from 306 to 305, the voting power of Conservative members would have risen from 0.73 votes to 0.77 votes. Overall however, the aggregate voting power of the Conservative Party block in the House of Commons would have remained the same at 36.1% – or 234.65 votes.

[1] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1975/24 – House of Commons Disqualifications Act, 1975, Chpt 14, Para 4.

The Election of Independents as Members of Parliament.

Some MPs are either elected as independents or take no party whip and therefore sit as independent MPs. Their voting power cannot therefore, be calculated in the same way as members who sit in an affiliated position. 

The voting power of Independent MPs is calculated as follows:

If an Independent MP wins 45% of the vote in their constituency, then they will be awarded 0.45 votes in the lobbies of the House of Commons. This means that their voting power is a reflection of the support they received from their constituents, effectively strengthening the constituency link between a member and their electors. Note that under AV+, explored in the Jenkins Report, 15-20% of members would be elected as top-up members, having no constituency link at all.

An obvious suggestion is to give all independent and non-affiliated members of the House one full vote in the lobbies. However, this could incentivise affiliated members with less than one vote, to sit as independents in their own right, but unofficially take their party’s whip. This political calculation could boost a party’s control of the House of Commons disproportionately to the share of the popular vote they received at the most recent general election. This point was raised by Doug Cowan of the ERS, who questioned whether UKIP MPs could have struck a deal with the governing Conservative Party whips to maximise their total voting influence in the House lobbies had VP been used during the 2015-17 parliament. 

Select Committee Nominations

Since 2010, Chairs of Select Committees have been elected by the whole House using a secret ballot, as opposed to sitting members on the respective committees. It is expected that parties are represented on these committees in accordance with their presence in the House of Commons. Since 2010, party blocks have selected their own ordinary members using whatever system they see fit. [1]

Voting Power would not alter this system, except apportion the number of ordinary member positions between party blocks in line with the total voting power of each block (i.e. the popular vote), rather than based on the total number of MPs that block has in parliament. 

In some cases, parties may not have enough elected MPs to fill the positions that party has allocated on every select committee. For example, since 2015, UKIP and the Green Party of England and Wales have just one elected MP. If these parties are allocated more than one seat on a select committee, then any vacant position is to be filled by a fellow party member from the House of Lords. 

If the total number of party representatives in both houses is not enough to fill all eligible select committee places, then it is up to the party to decide which other party block can freely fill any vacant select committee places which remain.

Whilst sitting on the committee however, ordinary members have equal weighted votes, no matter which political block – if any – they affiliate to. This preserves the power of the Chair of the Select Committee, elected by the whole House.

For example, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee during the 2014-15 sitting was supported by the following members (excluding the Chair): Ben Bradshaw MP (Lab), Angie Bray MP (Con), Conor Burns MP (Con), Tracey Crouch MP (Con), Philip Davies MP (Con), Paul Farrelly MP (Lab), John Leech MP (LD), Steve Rotheram MP (Lab), Jim Sheridan MP (Lab) and Jerry Sutcliffe MP (Lab). This totals four Conservative MPs, five Labour MPs and one Liberal Democrat MP. The chair for the period, John Whittingdale MP, is a Conservative. Excluding the chair, this gives the Conservatives 40% control of the committee, Labour 50% and the Liberal Democrats 10%.

Under VP, the Conservatives would have 36.1% control – leading to the appointment of four Conservative members. Labour and the Liberal Democrats would have three appointments each. 

[1]http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-information-office/brief-guides/select-committees.pdf 

If a party fails to win in any constituency with a simple plural majority, but receives a significant percentage of the total vote, how is this total vote represented in the new parliament? 

So far, each of the examples used have assumed the election of at least one party candidate to parliament that can represent the entire national vote in the House of Commons lobby. But what if no candidate wins a simple plurality? 

For example, had UKIP not won in Clacton in 2015, 12.7% of the electorate would have no UKIP MP to vote on their behalf in parliament. In this situation, the UKIP candidate that won the largest share of their constituency vote in that election would be appointed as a top-up Member of Parliament and would vote on behalf of the entire party in parliament. Top-up MPs exist under the STV system explored in the Jenkins Commission Report of December 1998 and are not a distinct feature of VP. To prevent every party without representation appointing a top-up MP of their own, parliament must set minimum conditions for a party to qualify for a top-up member. Such conditions could include a minimum 5% of the popular vote needed to qualify for an additional top-up member to be appointed by parliament. This 5% minimum would result in any top-up member having at least least 32.5 votes (5% of 650) in the lobbies of the new parliament. This cut-off figure seems an appropriate measure to prevent abuse of the rule by minor political parties without elected representation of their own. This cut-off point is successfully used in the German federal parliament. Top-up members would have the same voting rights as any other MP and could sit on committees and represent parliament abroad etc… Unlike most other MPs however, top-up MPs would have no constituency links of their own.

This could result in a parliament of over 650 MPs as one or two top-up MPs could be appointed. However, the voting power of MPs from all other political parties would be calculated by dividing their total share of the popular vote by the usual 650 seats.

Why not use AV or STV?

AV and STV are the two major alternative electoral systems discussed by Roy Jenkins in his 1998 report. AV is currently used in federal elections in Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. In the UK, Alternative Vote is not used to elect any legislative body. However, within internal party structures, such as the British Labour’s leadership and deputy leadership elections, AV or ‘redistributive/rounds voting’ was used in 2016, 2015 and 2010. 

First, this investigation must immediately reject AV on the grounds that it was not approved of during the 2011 referendum on the matter. The purpose of this investigation is to find a solution that respects the result of that referendum and therefore, another alternative must be found.

However, there are other reasons to reject AV. It is not, for example, proven to be any more representative of how the electorate vote than the incumbent FPTP. The Winter 1997/98 edition of Charter 88: Citizen magazine – now called the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) – highlights that had Alternative Vote been in place during the 1997 general election, then Labour would have gained 453 seats to the Conservative’s 95. This demonstrates an even greater level of distortion as under FPTP, Tony Blair actually won 419 seats to John Major’s 165. Jenkins made this point clear in a Guardian long-read on 30th October 1998. In the article, Lord Jenkins outlined that ‘there is not the slightest reason to think that AV would reduce the stability of the government; it might indeed lead to larger parliamentary majorities.’ 

STV has been used to elect 127 members to the Scottish Parliament since 1999. In the same Guardian article, Jenkins argued that this system is ‘sufficiently strong for very serious consideration’. However, in 1998, Jenkins rejected STV as the system to use in UK-wide elections as it would disproportionately disadvantage the Conservative party – particularly in urban and semi-industrialised areas. However, when reading Jenkins’ analysis here, it is important to consider demographic and geographic shifts in voter behaviour and allegiance over the past twenty years. The discriminatory nature of STV towards the Conservatives or any other political party may no longer prove to be the case.

CONCLUSION 

Voting Power (VP) is an attempt to maintain the will of the British people and keep FPTP as the system to elect MPs to the House of Commons, whilst reducing the inequalities this method produces. VP therefore, ensures that like FPTP, Members of Parliament keep their constituency link by continuing to represent geographical areas in the House. In addition, electors would use the same style ballot paper and place one ‘cross’ next to the candidate of their choice. Counts would be conducted in the same fashion and the timescale of the election would not change.

On the other hand, the introduction of top-up seats as well as a variation in the voting power of Members of Parliament, would provide smaller minority parties with the representation they deserve. 

Without change, FPTP is unfit to serve as the system to elect Members of Parliament in a political landscape, now crowded by more than just the two main parties. In the 1950s, many parliamentary seats were a straight race between Labour and the Conservatives, requiring the winning candidate to receive more than half the total vote. However, as seen in Belfast South in 2015 where nine candidates stood for election, MPs are being elected with a lower share of the constituency vote than ever before. Alasdair McDonnell MP won the seat for the SDLP with just 24.5% of the vote. [1]

[1]http://www.eoni.org.uk/Elections/Election-results-and-statistics/Election-results-and-statistics-2003-onwards/Elections-2015/UK-Parliamentary-Election-Results/UK-Parliamentary-Election-Result-Belfast-East-(2) 

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