The right result, under the circumstances

So, we have a Conservative PM heading a coalition government. I don’t think that’s surprising at all. What does surprise me is that there are still people – other than the knee-jerk Labour diehards or opportunists from the Celtic fringe – who think that the LibDems have made the wrong option.

I think Gordon Brown has earned a lot of respect for the way he’s conducted himself over the last couple of days. But, seriously, what else could the LibDems have done? There’s no way that a coalition with Labour would have worked, and even to try would have demonstrated utter contempt for democracy. They really only had three serious options: coalition with the Conservatives, a “confidence and supply” agreement with the Conservatives or to force a second election. The latter would very probably have resulted in a Conservative majority, which presumably they don’t want either, so some form of a deal is the only realistic course of action. All that matters, therefore, is how far they can push in in negotiations in order to get the best out of the agreement. Given that we don’t yet know the details of that agreement, I don’t think anyone can realistically accuse them of selling out or betraying anyone’s trust. Whether they got the right deal is something that only time will tell.

A proposal for Parliamentary Reform

I’ve explained in a previous article why I think that STV in multi-member constituencies is the wrong choice for electing the House of Commons. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want change. I do want change – I just don’t want change that will weaken the foundations of representative democracy.

The simple fact is that true proportionality is fundamentally incompatible with constituency-based representative democracy. Any attempt to reconcile the two within one system will inevitably involve a compromise which fails to meet either desire.

My preferred solution, therefore, is not to attempt to solve the problem within a single system. Instead, my preference is to have both proportionality and constituency-based representative democracy. And I think that the method of achieving that is staring us in the face.

Discussion of PR always seems to revolve around altering the voting system for the House of Commons. But, at the same time, there are also proposals for a reformed – and elected – House of Lords. I think that these should be linked. Instead of treating each as a separate issue, we should be looking at not merely a different voting system for the Commons and an elected Lords, but rather a reformed Parliament – that is, both the Commons and the Lords – which retains the best elements of both Houses and yet brings the institution as a whole into the 21st century.

My proposal is simple. Retain the existing single-member constituency system for elections to the Commons, with members elected by FPTP as at present (or a simple ranking system such as AV or Condorcet). But replace the Lords with an entirely proportional chamber, with seats distributed according to the total percentage of votes received by every party at the general election. After the election, each party with more than a minimum threshold (I would put it at 1% of the total vote, from candidates fielded in at least 10 constituencies) is allocated seats in the Lords according to their total vote and they then fill them with whoever they choose. Yes, that’s a party list system, but in this case I think this is the best way of doing it because the Lords are not intended to be representatives. These members of the reformed Lords would, like members of the Commons, be full-time members of the legislature and paid a salary accordingly. However, unlike members of the Commons, they would not be eligible for second home expenses as they have no constituency to answer to and hence no need for two official residences. And I would retain a small number of cross-benchers in the Lords, appointed by an independent appointments commission that is not controlled by the government of the day.

What that means is that every vote would, in effect, count twice – once for the individual MP in the voter’s constituency, and once for the composition of the Lords. No-one’s vote would be wasted, as even if they don’t get the MP of their choice they do influence their party’s position in the Lords.

However, if this was all that was done, it wouldn’t really change much, given the current dominance of the Commons. So I’d add a few other changes, to ensure that the newly proportional Lords does have an effect. Firstly, I’d amend the Parliament Act so as to make it much harder for the Commons to force a Bill through even if it’s defeated in the Lords. Ultimately, I’d still retain the primacy of the Commons in order to avoid the possibility of legislative deadlock where the two houses simply cannot agree, but I would make it impossible to use this on a routine basis. Secondly, I’d get rid of the convention that in the case of a hung parliament, the incumbent PM remains in charge and has first dibs at forming a government. Instead, I’d make the rule that the leader of the party with the largest share of the popular vote becomes PM, full stop. If that leaves him/her in charge of a minority government, then tough – they’ll just have to get on with it and negotiate with the other parties as necessary. But there will be no “kingmakers” – a smaller party can’t pick and choose which major party to form a government with, as only the most popular party will have the right to appoint the PM.

Taken together, I think these reforms would create a stronger, more inclusive Parliament, while still retaining the current best features of both the Commons and the Lords.

Why I don’t want STV

Some form of proportional representation may be on the cards if any form of deal is done between the LibDems and another party to form a coalition government. But what form of PR? The one most commonly bandied about by supporters of PR is the Single Transferrable Vote, or STV, used to elect multiple members from larger constituencies.

STV works fine for relatively small electorates with a reasonably limited number of candidates, particularly where there are no real “party” distinctions. But it has a number of weaknesses which, in my opinion, make it unsuitable for electing a Westminster-style legislature.

Firstly, electing a multi-member consituency weakens the link between an MP and his/her constituency by making it a many-to-many relationship instead of one-to-many. That may not seem much of a problem, but it represents a fundamental change to the concept by which our parliamentary process operates – it wouldn’t be just a minor tweak.

Secondly, STV encourages the belief that you can only be represented by someone who shares your political position. At the moment, we have the principle that an MP represent every resident of the constituency, whether they voted for him/her or not. And my experience is that, for the most part, MPs do take that responsibility seriously – it’s certainly true that someone with a reputation as a “good constituency MP” is more likely to be re-elected, irrespective of their political colour, and that’s a good thing. But if a single constituency has MPs from two or more parties, then the natural tendency is to assume that those from one party represent people who voted for that party, while those from anotherparty represent their respective voters. That’s fine if you voted for one of those elected, but what if you’re not? In my own part of the world, if we’d had STV with, say, three members being returned, then we’d probably have two Conservatives and one LibDem. But who, then, represents the Labour, UKIP or Green voters?

Also, STV tends to lead to unwieldy ballot papers. Again, in my constituency, we had five candidates. If this were a larger constituency returning three MPs via STV, then we’d have at least fifteen, and probably more. How many is too many? (And this, incidentally, is why we don’t have STV for the European elections – despite the fact that party lists are widely unpopular, the size of the constituencies and the number of parties contesting them makes STV entirely impractical). In Ireland, where STV is used and ballot papers are, typically, very long, one observable outcome is that candidates with names beginning with earlier letters of the alphabet are significantly more likely to be elected.

Another issue with STV is how you handle by-elections. Do you re-run the whole election, including the places for the members who haven’t died or retired, or do you just have an election for the one vacant space? The former is somewhat impractical, especially if one of the other MPs happens to be a government minister, the latter will tend to make the result non-proportional – if you have, say, two Conservatives plus a LibDem, and the LibDem dies, then a one-place by-election will almost certainly return a Tory.

A major disadvantage with STV is that the method of counting it is complex. There are, in fact, multiple different methods of counting STV, and in close elections they can give different results. Close results also depend to some extent on purely random factors, such as which ballot papers happened to be counted first. That has the potention for accusations of deliberate manipulation and unfairness, and, even if these accusations are unfounded, they are very difficult to disprove. So STV, even more than the current system, requires a great deal of trust by the electorate in those who manage the process.

Finally, STV is very susceptible to tactical voting. But, given the complexity of the way that STV is tallied, those tactics aren’t immediately obvious to the average voter. That gives an advantage to the STV-savvy voters who are more likely to get what they want than those who simply cast their vote according to their honest preferences.

So I don’t want STV. I do want a reformed Parliamentary system. But adopting STV for Commons elections is not the solution.

The election aftermath, in Abba lyrics

The electorate to Gordon Brown:

Knowing me, knowing you (ah-haa)
There is nothing we can do
Knowing me, knowing you (ah-haa)
We just have to face it, this time we’re through
(This time we’re through, this time we’re through
This time we’re through, we’re really through)
Breaking up is never easy, I know but I have to go

Gordon Brown to the electorate:

Where are those happy days, they seem so hard to find
I tried to reach for you, but you have closed your mind
Whatever happened to our love?
I wish I understood
It used to be so nice, it used to be so good

Peter Mandelson to Gordon Brown:

Chiquitita, tell me what’s wrong
You’re enchained by your own sorrow
In your eyes there is no hope for tomorrow
How I hate to see you like this
There is no way you can deny it
I can see that you’re oh so sad, so quiet

Alistair Darling, to no-one in particular:

I work all night, I work all day, to pay the bills I have to pay
Ain’t it sad
And still there never seems to be a single penny left for me
That’s too bad

Nick Clegg to the electorate:

There was something in the air that night
The stars were bright, Fernando
They were shining there for you and me
For liberty, Fernando
Though we never thought that we could lose
There’s no regret
If I had to do the same again
I would, my friend, Fernando

David Cameron to the electorate:

I have a dream, a song to sing, to help me cope with anything
If you see the wonder of a fairy tale
You can take the future even if you fail
I believe in angels, something good in everything I see
I believe in angels, when I know the time is right for me
I’ll cross the stream, I have a dream
I’ll cross the stream, I have a dream

Nigel Farage, in his diary:

And I dream I’m an eagle
And I dream I can spread my wings
Flying high, high, I’m a bird in the sky
I’m an eagle that rides on the breeze
High, high, what a feeling to fly
Over mountains and forests and seas
And to go anywhere that I please

David Cameron to Nick Clegg:

Don’t go wasting your emotion
Lay all your love on me
Don’t go sharing your devotion
Lay all your love on me

Nick Clegg to David Cameron:

I’ve seen you twice, in a short time
Only a week since we started
It seems to me, for every time
I’m getting more open-hearted

Gordon Brown to Nick Clegg:

If you change your mind, I’m the first in line
Honey I’m still free
Take a chance on me
If you need me, let me know, gonna be around
If you’ve got no place to go, if you’re feeling down
If you’re all alone when the pretty birds have flown
Honey I’m still free
Take a chance on me
Gonna do my very best and it ain’t no lie
If you put me to the test, if you let me try

Nick Clegg’s inner voice:

Voulez-vous
Take it now or leave it
Now is all we get
Nothing promised, no regrets
Voulez-vous
Ain’t no big decision
You know what to do
La question c’est voulez-vous
Voulez-vous…

Gordon Brown to the Labour Party:

I don’t wanna talk
About the things we’ve gone through
Though it’s hurting me
Now it’s history

I’ve played all my cards
And that’s what you’ve done too
Nothing more to say
No more ace to play

The electorate, to all of them:

I’ve been angry and sad about things that you do
I can’t count all the times that I’ve told you we’re through
And when you go, when you slam the door
I think you know that you won’t be away too long
You know that I’m not that strong