Feb 162011

The last parliament ended in scandal, dishonor and disillusionment. The Liberal Democrats, long time champions of electoral reform, achieved a degree of power after the election and their leader got the Electoral Reform brief.

The proposals, however, will make Parliament weaker and likely to be less representative than the existing system. They’ll increase the power of the executive and make it even easier for vanguard cliques (eg. New Labour, the Notting Hill set, the Orange Bookers) to use patronage to force through agendas unpopular with the wider party, let alone the country.

There’s two parts to the bill, the first is the reduction in the number of MPs, but not a reduction in the number of ministers, parliamentary private secretaries etc. which who are obliged to vote with the leadership or face losing their paid government jobs (the “payroll vote”). That’s a pretty clear strengthening of the power of government. Backbenchers get less power, the government gets more.

The second part is the Alternative Vote. While I’m convinced First Past The Post (the current system for elections to Westminster) is unrepresentative, unfair and unfit for the 20th century – let alone the 21st – the Alternative Vote will increase 3rd party representation beyond it’s current low levels at the expense of the already-under-represented second party.

First Past The Post can lead to the “wrong” result such as the 1951 UK general election where the Conservatives won a majority with fewer votes than the Labour party, I’ve yet to come across a more egregious election result than the 1948 Alberta General Election where one party one 51 of 57 seats on 55% of first preferences, up from the 51 of 57 on 50.46% of first preferences. The 2004 Queensland state elections provide a more recent, if slightly less extreme, example where the Australian Labor Party took 63 of 89 seats on 47% of first preferences.

This is because “AV will tend to exaggerate landslides even more than FPTP because a strong tide towards a party reflected in first preferences will tend (at least according to a reasonable hypothesis) to also affect second preferences – basically, a party that is popular will tend to move up in voters’ esteem across the board”, according to a report produced for the Electoral Reform Society.

That was also the conclusion reached by the Jenkins report in 1998, and by Professor John Curtice when he modelled past Britsh election results with 2nd preference distribution based on actual polling data.

It’s pretty easy to see why that might be the case, given a three party system with A polling 42% nationally, B polling 35% and C 23% for first prefrences on the following distribution which roughly matches what happens in the UK:

Seat Party A Party B Party C
1 50 30 20
2 50 30 20
3 40 35 25
4 40 35 25
5 40 36 24
6 36 34 30
7 36 34 30
8 36 40 24
9 25 45 30
10 25 35 40
First Prefs 37.8 35.4 26.8
Seats 7 2 1

Under AV, assuming that each party split its second preferences 50/50 then the following would happen:

Seat Party A Party B Party C
1 60 40 Eliminated
2 60 40 Eliminated
3 55 45 Eliminated
4 55 45 Eliminated
5 52 48 Eliminated
6 51 49 Eliminated
7 51 49 Eliminated
8 48 52 Eliminated
9 Eliminated 57.5 42.5
10 Eliminated 47.5 52.5
Seats 7 2 1

AV wouldn’t result in a net change.

If, however, the voters from Party C showed a slight preference in line with the rest of the country and split 60/40 for party A then the result would be as follows:

Seat Party A Party B Party C
1 62 38 Eliminated
2 62 38 Eliminated
3 58 42 Eliminated
4 58 42 Eliminated
5 54.4 45.6 Eliminated
6 54 46 Eliminated
7 54 46 Eliminated
8 50.4 49.6 Eliminated
9 Eliminated 55 45
10 Eliminated 45 55
Seats 8 1 1

With an increased landslide for Party A.

If Party C split contrary to the “national mood” 60/40 in favour of Party B then it would result in a hung parliament:

Seat Party A Party B Party C
1 58 42 Eliminated
2 58 42 Eliminated
3 52 48 Eliminated
4 52 48 Eliminated
5 49.6 50.4 Eliminated
6 48 52 Eliminated
7 48 52 Eliminated
8 45.6 54.4 Eliminated
9 Eliminated 45 55
10 Eliminated 35 65
Seats 4 4 2

Which more accurately reflects the first preference results for A and B but is probably unlikely – what polling has been done on 2nd preferences for centrist 3rd parties seems to indicate they go with the “national mood”.

Supporters of the Alternative Vote will argue that this is ok because “each MP would have the support of half their constituents”. This is true, however it means that a party which could get roughly close to 50% of first preferences evenly spread across all constituencies and then pick up a minimal number of transfers could achieve massive majorities. I don’t think that’s fair, fairer than our current system or even acceptable. I’m more inclined to think that it’s potentially disastrous.

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