Tuesday, May 11, 2010

'Fairer' voting system is not always a better one

May 10, 2010

Political haggling will be the norm in UK under any new system
By Jonathan Eyal

THE inconclusive outcome of Britain's general election has prompted strong demands for radical change in the country's voting system.

An opinion poll for London's Sunday Telegraph indicated yesterday that half of all Britons wish to see a 'fairer' voting method.

Electoral reform is also the key objective of the third-placed Liberal Democrat Party, now being wooed by both Labour and the Conservatives in their bid to form the next government.

'It's in the interests of everybody in Britain for us to use this opportunity to usher in a new politics after the discredited politics of the past,' Liberal leader Nick Clegg told demonstrators in London over the weekend.

So it appears that the centuries-old first-past-the-post voting system that Britain exported to many of its former colonies - including the United States, India and Singapore - may be jettisoned. But the British will soon discover that reaching a consensus as to what should replace it is going to be difficult.

Britain's current voting procedure has the virtue of simplicity. The candidate who tops the poll in a constituency becomes an MP, and the party with the largest number of MPs forms the government.

The drawbacks are equally well- known. A party that regularly comes second in constituencies can garner a substantial number of votes, yet few seats. This has been the fate of Britain's Liberal Democrats, who won almost a quarter of the ballots last week, but only 9per cent of the seats.

And since constituency sizes vary, parties can win small ones with fewer votes. Last Thursday, the Labour party earned a parliamentary seat for every 33,000 votes it received, while the Conservatives needed over 35,000 votes.

For decades, such drawbacks were ignored because the British method resulted in the swift installation of solid governments. Hours after votes were counted, the new prime minister was in office, and he or she could generally expect five years of uninterrupted rule.

Not this time, however, since no party gained an overall majority. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Liberal Democrats believe that the system is 'broken beyond repair', as Mr Clegg puts it.

But the alternatives are not obvious. There are plenty on offer, to be sure: from the simple allocation of parliamentary seats according to the proportion of votes each party wins, to elaborate procedures allowing voters to decide on a slate of candidates, choosing them in order of preference.

But none of these systems is completely fair. All produce 'wasted' votes that are either discarded or redistributed, regardless of people's intentions. And most will result in coalition governments, with small parties calling the tune. This is the case with Germany's Free Democrats, who have been in government for generations as the junior partner of either the Christian Democrats or the Social Democrats, despite never having attracted more than a fraction of the votes.

It's clear why Britain's Liberal Democrats aspire to a similar position. But it's more difficult to see why Labour or the Conservatives - who have taken turns in running Britain for almost a century now - should oblige.

Labour - which, in terms of parliamentary seats, suffered last Thursday its biggest electoral defeat since 1931 - is desperate to remain in office. Prime Minister Gordon Brown seems to be dreaming of a permanent coalition with the Liberal Democrats, which is ideologically closer to Labour, and has offered an immediate referendum on electoral reform.

It would seem an attractive offer for the Liberal Democrats, except that together the two parties would still not be able to muster a majority. Furthermore, whether the unpopular Mr Brown can head a coalition government remains doubtful.

A Lib-Lab 'progressive alliance', however, if it takes shape, may result in the Conservatives being kept out of power for generations. For precisely this reason, the Conservatives reject electoral reform. Instead, they offer a few changes, such as the creation of equal-sized constituencies, an elected upper chamber to replace the current House of Lords, and a 'commission' to discuss further reform.

The Liberal Democrats are not impressed. But the Conservatives are betting that the debate on electoral change will peter out. And they may be proven right.

For, although large numbers of Britons now support electoral reform, many remain puzzled as to why, days after the latest election, they still don't have a new government.

The simple answer is that secret haggling sessions between politicians will become the norm under any new electoral system. In a perverse way, Britain is already experiencing all the problems of a new electoral system - well before there are any changes.

So the Liberal Democrats have to tread carefully. If they insist on electoral reform as a precondition for supporting any new British government, they risk annoying the electorate. But if they support a government without getting a promise of electoral reform, they could end up with nothing.

A possible compromise may include a Conservative promise not to hold an early election. This could reassure the Liberals that electoral reform may be attempted at a later stage.

In effect, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are hoping to wear each other out, with neither side sure of its chances.


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