Monday 18 July 2022

One big step forward is better than none


A key part of the PM’s last stand as he attempted to deny the wishes of those who foolishly think that honesty, integrity and decency have a role in Conservative politics was his repeated claims that ‘he’ had some sort of personal mandate from the 14 million people who voted for the Conservative Party in 2019 under his leadership. Constitutionally, it’s rubbish, of course. The only people who voted for him were the electors in his own constituency; as far as the rest of the UK was concerned, people vote for individual candidates in individual constituencies and the identity of the PM only becomes known when it becomes clear who can get a majority of MPs to back him or her in the House of Commons.

But that which is constitutionally true and that which is true in practice aren’t necessarily the same thing at all, and there is a real sense in which Johnson actually had a point. Anyone who’s ever been involved in an election campaign will know that (at parliamentary level, anyway – local councils are a rather different kettle of fish) many people vote for the party rather than the candidate (and that’s at least partly based on their perception of the party leaders), some without having much of a clue about who the local candidate actually is. Then there’s the donkey vote – the idea that a donkey with the right colour rosette would still win in many constituencies because of traditional party loyalties. And it’s also why the idea that paying a larger salary would attract more people of ability is a very silly one – it’s more likely to encourage greedy donkeys. With the exception of a very small number of very marginal constituencies, the idea that the personal attributes of the candidate are the prime driver of his or her election is a convenient fiction, and even in those constituencies the difference made by the candidate is, well, marginal. A system which pretends to base itself on the idea that there is a direct and very personal relationship between elected members and their constituents is basing itself on a fiction – a convenient one for those elected individuals who have an over-inflated view of themselves, but a fiction nevertheless.

That brings me to the debate about the electoral system to be used for the expanded Senedd in Cardiff. Many of those arguing against the d’Hondt system do so on the basis of supporting the fiction referred to above: the idea that people can and should choose individuals rather than parties to represent them. Having to rank people, even within their respective parties, on the basis of preference may encourage some to think a bit more about the individuals, but I’ve yet to see any hard evidence that they do so in sufficient numbers to make voting for most people other than a question of choosing a party and sticking to it. (For sure, there is evidence of that at council level – but that’s with smaller constituencies where people can become well-known as individuals; the extent to which the same happens at parliamentary level – especially with the huge constituencies being proposed – is doubtful to say the least.)

There is no ‘perfect’ electoral system, largely because there is no universal agreement on what are the most important objectives. Personally, I have always favoured STV, but for rather different reasons. Under d’Hondt, the votes of those who support ‘minor’ parties (i.e. those which don’t reach the threshold for representation) are effectively completely disregarded, whereas under STV, their second, third (and so on) choices can influence the election outcome. In terms of maximising the influence of every elector, that simply seems to me to be a better approach. The d'Hondt system, on the other hand, does provide a very direct relationship between first choice party and overall outcome across the electorate as a whole, and unquestionably makes it easier to legislate for gender balance within the Senedd. Both have advantages and disadvantages, but both provide for a much more proportional outcome than any system in use in the UK (apart from Northern Ireland) currently. We also know that, with STV, the larger the number of seats in a constituency, the more proportional the eventual outcome. But that can become unwieldy under some circumstances. Imagine, for instance, six-seat constituencies (as proposed for the expanded Senedd) fought by six parties each putting forward six candidates – the ballot paper would include 36 names with electors being asked to rank as many or as few as they wish in order of preference.

Given that the proponents of d’Hondt for the Senedd already have the majority needed to implement their proposals, any real debate in Wales is about trying to convince the Labour Party to change its mind, an outcome which seems unlikely. Sometimes it’s just better to take the improvement that’s on offer, even if there’s only a vague hope that it might lead to something better in the future. And Welsh Labour’s conversion to a fully proportional system, even if not the one many of us would choose, is a huge step forward.


Anonymous said...

I think you are right. It may not be perfect but it is significantly better than what we have now. I would suggest that you are not quite right with your assertion that the qualities and views of some MPs do not have a significant impact on the final result. In at least a handful of cases the candidate has made a huge difference. I would suggest Caroline Lucas and George Galloway have made massive differences in the constituencies they have stood in.

Anonymous said...

A version of PR such as d'Hondt will usually result in political parties coming together and agreeing a common way forward and this will because they have to negotiation and compromise. At the end of the day this will ensure that a broad consensus is agreed. No bad thing in my opinion.