Monday, 9 July 2012

We Have Never Rejected Proportional Representation

You have to hand it to the Daily Mail as this time there are two articles dealing with reform of the House of Lords, and both get worked up about the voting system. It strikes me that the paper is not defending the House of Lords as it currently is, but is defending a House of Lords that doesn't actually exist.

First up we have David Davis, the Conservative MP for Haltemprice & Howden and former Shadow Home Secretary, with this piece. I have to say it is hard to see how a system where the majority of members of the House of Lords are elected is any going to "become more politicised and partisan, with little reason or desire to defy any government initiative, however misguided" compared to one where most members are there because a party leader appointed them to reward them for their loyalty. There does seem to be a trend of the House of Lords becoming more politicised and partisan now, but that could be due to many ex-MPs being rewarded with peerages and bringing the yah-boo politics of the House of Commons with them when they take ermine. Surely the issue here is not how members of the House of Lords are chosen, but who is chosen, whether by appointment or election.

I have no doubt that after the next election Davis would be just as effective at holding the Conservative-led Government to account as MP for Kingston-upon-Hull West & Hessle (memo to Alan Johnson, the current Labour MP- Davis will wipe the floor with you in May 2015. Don't bother standing for re-election) as ML for Yorkshire & the Humber. And poodles of all parties will be just as poodly in the House of Lords as the House of Commons.

If some Lords are to be elected, we should not use the proportional voting system being proposed in the Bill. This is nothing more than an attempt by the Lib Dems to boost their presence in the upper chamber by rigging the electoral system in their favour.

In last year’s AV referendum British voters emphatically endorsed first past the post, so that is the system we should use. OK, where do we start with that? Are the Liberal Democrats really rigging the system? The editorial has strong views on that. But are they right?

The Upper House would be stuffed with even more party hacks than now and would be permanently hung, with the grotesque prospect of Lib Dems holding the balance of power for eternity

The House of Lords could be permanently hung. So, Daily Mail, tell me when did a party or coalition last have over 50% of the seats in the House of Lords? Wouldn't it seem odd if these days we had the situation where one party had control over the House of Lords and could block everything that a House of Commons controlled by the other party did. Yes, there were the days when the Conservatives could veto a Liberal Government's key measures, but the Parliament Act 1911 swept that system away.

A permanently hung House of Lords, rather than being a wicked plot by scheming Liberal Democrats, is a key part and parcel of the British parliamentary system.

As for the Liberal Democrats holding the balance of power for eternity...

Well, the Daily Mail does like to get worked up about this. Remember the May 2011 referendum on switching from First Past The Post to the Alternative Vote? Get one piece of research that shows that at one general election in the 1980s the Liberal/Social Democrat Aliance could have got 50 seats more under AV than FPTP and extrapolate back over the past 60 years to say that under AV the Liberals would get 50 more seats than under FPTP election after election after election.

Fair enough, if the Daily Mail wants to think that in the 1950s, struggling to get 3% of the vote would see the Liberals with 56 MPs, that's up to them!

But would the Liberal Democrats hold the balance of power for eternity? I had a look at the probable composition of the House of Lords if it had been elected as proposed by the Government. If we take the up to 8 ministerial peers out of the equation and assume the Church of England appoints its full complement of lords spiritual, then we have the Liberal Democrats with 74 out of 462 members of the House of Lords.

Would this be the balance of power? No, as Labour would have 141 and the Conservatives 128. A Labour/Liberal Democrat alliance would bring in 215- 17 short of the 232 needed for an overall majority.

The House of Lords as at Monday was:

  • Labour- 226
  • Conservatives- 213
  • Crossbenchers- 177
  • Liberal Democrats- 90
  • "Others" (i.e. minor parties or people who have left major parties)- 33
  • Bishops- 26
  • An elected House of Lords would be little different from the current one- to win a vote, the Government needs to win over Crossbenchers. To talk about an elected House of Lords giving the Liberal Democrats the balance of power is as sensible as saying the Liberal Democrats (and their predecessors) held the balance of power through the Brown years, through the Blair years, through the Major years, through the Thatcher years, through the Callaghan years etc.

    One thing to note is that under the Government plans, the proportion of the House of Lords that are Crossbenchers shrinks. If, instead of appointing 30 each time, 40 were appointed, then this would bring the ratio close to the current amount (and would lead to 75% of the House of Lords- excluding Bishops and ministerial peers- being elected).

    But what about the voting system? Here Davis is clear: "In last year’s AV referendum British voters emphatically endorsed first past the post, so that is the system we should use."

    However, we were not given the choice of proportional representation. We were given a simple choice- AV or FPTP. The most that can be said is that the people chose FPTP above AV. No other options were on the table.

    One reason for using the large electoral districts corresponding to the countries (outside of England) and the regions (within England) is that there will be no "super-constituencies". When we used FPTP to elect Members of the European Parliament, each European constituency when formed was comprised of 6 to 8 House of Commons constituencies. The Scottish Parliament has the Additional Members System, where each electoral area has between 8 and 10 constituency Members of the Scottish Parliament and 7 additional ones chosen on party lists. An additional MSP can cover the whole area, and there are occasional arguments over who represents whom (I hope that tales of constituency MSPs asking additional MSPs in their area to forward all correspondence from their constituents are apocryphal).

    If we had FPTP on single-member constituencies, then in England each member of the House of Lords would have a super-constituency covering 4 or 5 House of Commons constituencies, which is small enough to get involved.

    Currently, you can lobby members of the House of Lords, but they don't get involved in constituency work. Regional/national members would be remote enough not to get involved in the nitty-gritty of individual cases, but may take on cross-party local issues (alongside councillors, MPs and MEPs). Now picture the situation with single-member super-constituencies. You are an MP of one party, and suddenly find that you are no longer the sole Westminster point of contact for your constituents as next door a member of the House of Lords from another party has opened their office and is inviting people in to talk about constituency issues.

    The editorial refers to AV as "the rudimentary form of P[roportional]R[epresentation]" which shows they don't understand AV nor PR.

    AV is FPTP on steroids, and is the complete opposite to PR. The difference between AV/FPTP and most forms of proportional representation is where the alliances are formed.

    When campaigning in Southampton Test for the May 2010 general election, the objectives could be split into three:

  • Get the Conservative vote out
  • Persuade Labour voters to switch to the Conservatives
  • Persuade Liberal Democrat and minor voters that their interests are best served by the Conservatives than Labour and ask them to vote Conservative
  • If we had used AV, then the objectives would be:

  • Get the Conservative vote out
  • Persuade Labour voters to switch to the Conservatives
  • Persuade Liberal Democrat and minor voters that their interests are best served by the Conservatives than Labour and ask them to give the Conservatives their second preference vote
  • One MP. One constituency. Normally a battle between two candidates from two parties- but what you ask supporters of other parties and candidates to do with their vote is slightly different. But ultimately you are locked in a battle with one opponent. Although some elections would have led to hung Parliaments, in general the result would be a majority Conservative or majority Labour Government. The alliance building is by winning MPs getting the majority of support of those who voted, reaching out to the minor party supporters and floating voters.

    In a pure PR system it is different. There the trend is for hung Parliaments, and the alliance building is between the politicians once elected to try and form a majority administration.

    So, stop this nonsense about AV being a form of PR.

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