I was reading a blogpost today by Labour MP Tom Harris, who I am inclined to like purely because I confuse him with Labour MP Tom Watson. In it, Harris decries the Liberal Democrats’ proposals for electoral reform.
Electoral reform looks to be coming, and it’s long past time. The current First Past The Post system magnifies majorities — any party winning 51% of the vote in every constituency will have 100% of the Parliamentary seats. (A cynic would think that this is why incumbent governments have been so far unwilling to change it.) In the last election, for example, the Liberal Democrats got 22% of the popular vote, but 18% of MPs, whereas Labour got 35% of the vote and 41% of MPs. A common proposed solution is Proportional Representation (PR), which is what happened at the European Parliament election: each constituency has multiple seats, which are doled out to best match the proportion of votes for each party. This would obviously benefit the Lib Dems and penalise Labour.
The Lib Dems are apparently proposing a Single Transferable Vote system, a form of PR where you also get to nominate a second choice. Harris says they’ve drawn up some ideas for how to divide up these new mega-constituencies that are designed to favour their own MPs as far as possible:
They want electoral reform, not for their own good – oh, no! – but for the good of the nation. … So, rather than leave the drawing of the new boundaries to a politically-neutral body such as the Boundary Commission, the LibDems have helpfully done it themselves. … Simply gerrymandering LibDem-held constituencies using the excuse that their MPs tend to represent rural areas simply isn’t honest. Not that we expect honesty from the Liberals, of course (a prize to the first commenter or Tweeter who claims that by attacking the Liberals I’m betraying my fear of the threat they pose).
Which is all well and good. Possibly they have cynically chosen this variant of PR and this map to maximise the benefit to their party, although the epic smackdown in the comments suggests otherwise. For some reason, I’m inclined to irrationally disregard his opinion because he uses the word ‘gerrymandering’ I have no earthly idea why. But, let’s have a look at Labour’s proposal.
Labour are suggesting Alternative Vote (AV). Here, someone disillusioned with Labour but rightly disgusted by the Conservatives might vote Lib Dem, but nominate Labour as ‘second choice’. In most constituencies that would count as a Labour vote. This is obviously better than a system where left-wing voters are split between two parties and a right-wing minority can seize power, but given how much of Labour’s decline in support has been defection to the Liberal Democrats, it doesn’t look entirely selfless either.
Meanwhile the Conservatives, who despite their own best efforts are still favourites to win the election, don’t seem keen on reform at all, although this could be a part of their cunning electoral strategy of not doing or saying anything at all unless pressed, and then repeatedly U-turning until nobody knows what their position is.
A Heresy Corner commenter for some reason calling him or herself Wasp Box suggested The Report of the Independent Commission on the Voting System as a source of good, unbiased information, and the proposal in there is called Alternative Vote Top Up, which I think is AV with a pool of ‘top-up’ MPs attached to no constituency who would be selected to make sure the overall party numbers were about right. This report was commissioned by Labour, with the Lib Dems’ support, and neither of them are now following its recommendation. So maybe the Liberal Democrats have chosen the system that will benefit them the most, but even granting Harris that, the Lib Dem proposals are a lot better than those of his party, whose own report describes them as “unacceptable”.
I’d say all three major parties are pushing systems that would work out well for them. Quelle surprise. But to me, that just makes Harris’ condescending and sarcastic tone grate that much harder, especially since he’s attacking the one party whose self-interest is nearest to the public interest.