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In for the count

Almost any system is more democratic, more empowering and more representative than that used in British general elections. We need to grasp the rare opportunity to campaign for change, says David Beetham

November 1, 1998
12 min read


David Beetham is associate director, Democratic Audit


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The alternatives explained

By the time this is published, the Jenkins Commission should have recommended a new electoral system for Westminster, to be put to a referendum in a straight choice with “first past the post”. All the indications are that it will be recommending “AV plus” – a hybrid which dilutes electoral proportionality in an attempt to meet the objections of sceptics in the Labour cabinet who remain wedded to single-member representation in the constituencies, single-party rule in parliament and no outflanking of the Labour Party by red or green. Jenkins’ proposals will open the debate on electoral reform to an audience beyond those who can recite the subtle differences between AV, SV, STV and AMS. One reason why the debate so far has been such a turn off -in spite of opinion polls showing majority support for electoral reform – is because it is rarely about democracy. As growing numbers of people are becoming alienated from the political process, the debate needs to focus on which electoral system can best empower voters by extending the range of political voices, by treating all voters as equal, by offering an effective choice between parties and candidates and by providing an incentive to vote. Which system is most likely to produce a parliament able to hold government to account? Which system best enables voters to hold their representatives to account? Which would produce a parliamentary assembly most representative of the cultural, regional and social diversity of the people?

We are about to enter a period of unprecedented experimentation, with no fewer than six different types of system in use for different elections in the UK. The experience of other systems will influence the debate: the range of political choices opened up in the elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly and in the build-up to the vote for the Scottish Parliament , for example, as well as the options closed down, as in Labour’s centrally controlled lists for the Euro-election.

In a parliamentary system like ours, in which we do not vote separately for the legislature and head of government, elections serve several functions simultaneously. One is to elect a parliament that is representative of and accountable to the voters and can hold the government to account. A second is to help choose a government and provide it with a mandate for its term of office. Electoral systems must be judged in terms of how democratically they perform each of these functions through increased empowerment of voters and equalising the value of their votes.

These democratic criteria derive from the two key principles of popular control and political equality which the Democratic Audit has been using for its audit of political institutions in the UK. Unfortunately, the government did not give the Jenkins Commission specifically democratic criteria to work with: extending voter choice and electoral proportionality certainly are democratic, though they require clearer specification; maintaining the link between MPs and geographical constituencies may be, though it depends how it is interpreted; “stable government” is not particularly democratic. The last two criteria could simply mean: keep single-member constituencies and single-party government regardless.

The first purpose of elections is to choose a parliament that, as well as producing a government and deciding upon its legislation and taxation, has the task, on behalf of the people, of holding it continuously to account. Parliaments are usually referred to as representative assemblies, and the political system that produces them as a “representative democracy”. In this context, “representation” involves two different ideas: the first relates to popular control; the other to political equality.

On the principle of popular control, representation sees political representatives as agents of the electorate: appointed by them; accountable to them; and removable by them. The accountability of political representatives to their electorate is primarily as spokespeople of a party following a distinctive programme and leadership, and only secondarily as individuals exercising a personal responsibility. So there should be clear responsibility and accountability to the electorate of party groupings in parliament; and their parliamentary strength should be sensitive to changes in support in the country as a whole. As a secondary consideration we should also look at how electoral systems enable voters to reward or penalise representatives for their individual conduct of office. Collective and individual accountability depend on effective voter choice between parties and between individuals.

On the principle of political equality, representation embodies the idea of the elected assembly as representative of the entire electorate – as a microcosm of the country. It should broadly reflect the political opinion of the country, as indicated by the distribution of votes for the different parties and their programmes. The original idea of “microcosm” was that the decisions of the legislative assembly should mirror what the people as a whole would decide, if they could assemble to deliberate on their own behalf. For this reason the proportionality of party votes to seats is called simply “proportional representation”.

We also have to consider pluralism or diversity. Society in the UK contains a rich diversity of cultures and identities as well as political opinions. The argument that its representative assembly not be monopolised by metropolitan white males, operating under the banner of two monolithic political parties, is a strong one.

There is also geographical proportionality: a constituency system ensures that parliament reflects the distinctiveness of particular regions. There is also the demand that parliament should reflect the social composition of the electorate. Shared identities and experiences are important as well as the political opinions that may cut across them. No electoral system on its own can guarantee this last form of proportionality, but some (SYV, AMS and list systems) favour it more than others.

If political equality were realised and votes really did count equally, regardless of where people live, which party they vote for and which social group they identified with, then parliament would indeed be representative of the electorate in all these respects. Each would have its proportion according to its distribution among the population.

How are electoral systems to be judged on the accountability of representatives to their electorate; the representativeness of parliament; and effective voter choice, voter equality and incentive to vote?

“First past the post” (FPTP) performs abysmally on all these criteria. The collective accountability of parties to the electorate is limited by the often arbitrary relationship between the popular vote and the number of parliamentary seats obtained; individual accountability is non-existent, since there is no choice between candidates of the same party. Parliament is unrepresentative of the spread of political opinion in the country and its regions; it excludes smaller parties; and it does nothing to encourage a more socially representative assembly. Votes count very unequally depending on which party you vote for and where you live. The incentive to vote is diminished by the existence of so many safe seats, and the parties’ concentration on swing voters in marginal constituencies.

Although similar to FPTP, the alternative vote (AV) can enable minority centre parties to gain more proportional representation through second preference votes. However, it can produce very disproportionate results between the larger parties and does not improve the prospects of gaining parliamentary representation for smaller non-centre parties. It also shares many of the other disadvantages of FPTP from a democratic point of view.

Of the other systems, how proportionate a parliament they produce, and how equally votes count, depends on how many representatives the constituency has (STV and List), or how large the proportion of additional members is (AMS). AV-plus, with such a small additional element, may do little more than AV to produce a more representative parliament, because the “top up”is likely to go to one or other of the three parties already representated through AV itself. STV, AMS and AV-plus all allow voters to split their vote between parties; STV also allows voters to choose between candidates of the same party. Closed list systems (List, AMS and AV-plus) enable party hierarchies to control the order of candidates and may produce a conformist parliamentary following, as the Labour Party has done with selections for the Welsh, Scottish and European elections. The answer is to make selections the responsibility of party members or to open the list to electoral choice. Any of these systems, however, will increase the electorate’s incentive to vote, and can be used to make parliament more socially representative. They also maintain the link between MPs and their constituencies.

In sum, any system will be more democratic than FPTP. Of these, AMS on the Scottish model, but with the order on the top-up list determined by party members or the voters, and STV as in Northern Ireland maximise electoral choice, as well as allowing smaller parties to gain representation. Both are heralding a renewal of the representative process and a more pluralistic politics.

Supporters of FPTP argue that weaknesses of their system are overidden by the fact that it enables the electorate to determine the government and its programme directly. Proportional systems, they argue, produce unstable coalitions in which the composition of the government and its programme depends on negotiation between parties in parliament, and disproportionate power is wielded by smaller parties and their electorates.

There are several answers to this. First, under FPTP it is not the electorate as a whole that determines the government and its programme since governments are usually elected by a minority of voters. It then uses its unrepresentative majority to bypass dissent. In principle there is nothing undemocratic about a party having to compromise on some aspects of its programme to win majority support in parliament, if the process is transparent. For example in Germany the leaderships of both the SPD and the Greens will take their agreement back to party conferences for debate and approval. This need not mean a party watering down its commitments; indeed, it might generate a stronger social or environmental agenda.

A second answer is to look at how coalition governments operate in practice. Research on this by Ian Budge shows that how coalition governments are formed, and how directly elections shape their composition and programme, are determined more by the nature of the party system and its conventions than by the electoral system itself. In the UK, the proportions of the vote obtained by Labour and Conservatives are likely to prove decisive for government formation in most instances. His research also shows that coalition governments have at least as good a record, if not better, at carrying through their initial programmes than countries with a Westminster model which, he says, makes it “hard to justify the highly disproportional results of UK elections”.

Constitutional change is not a panacea for social or economic problems but it can enable a wider range of voices to influence debate. It can support new forms of mobilisation through a renewal of the representative process, as is already happening in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Labour’s constitutional programme is faltering as it prepares to renege on open government and electoral reform for local councils, consigning us to a continuation of rotten boroughs and single party rule throughout local government, in its determination to hold on to FPTP. We should use the opportunity provided by the Jenkins Commission to campaign for an end to this lousy undemocratic system.

David Beetham lectures in Politics at the University of Leeds. A fuller version of this article is published as ‘Democracy and Electoral Reform in the UK’ by Democratic Audit, Exmouth House, 3-11 Pine Street, London EC1R 0JH.

Multiple choices

Almost any system is more democratic, more empowering and more representative than that used in British general elections. We need to grasp the rare opportunity to campaign for change, says David Beetham

First past the post / Plurality

Each constituency has one representative in parliament. Electors cast one vote for the candidate of their choice, and the candidate with the largest number (not proportion) of votes is elected. Least democratic on criteria adopted here.

Alternative vote

Each constituency has one representative in parliament but voters list candidates in order of preference. If no candidate wins an overall majority of first preferences, those with the fewest votes are eliminated, and the next preferences on their ballot sheets distributed between the remaining candidates until one has a majority. More voter choice but weak on parliamentary repesentativeness and accountability.

Supplementary vote

Like AV but voters are allowed only two preferences.

Single transferable vote

Large constituencies with several representatives. Voters list candidates in order of preference. A candidate is elected once they obtain a given quota of votes, if not by first preferences, then with the help of subsequent ones. Most voter choice, more representative and accountable parliament.

Closed list proportional representation

Multi-member constituencies, but voters have one vote only for a party list of candidates. Candidates are elected by a quota system which ensures broad proportionality between seats and votes. Highly representative and accountable parliament but too much power to party bosses.

Additional member system

Electors cast two votes: one for a constituency candidate elected under FPTP; the second for a list of regional party candidates, ranked numerically. These candidates are elected in numbers required to make each party’s representation as close as possible to the proportion of their vote in the region. “Classic” AMS involves a 1:1 ratio between list and constituency representatives; but there can be a smaller proportion of list representatives. Highly representative and accountable parliament, more voter choice.

Mixed system (AV-plus)

One candidate is elected for each constituency by the alternative or supplementary vote; a small proportion of additional members is elected from party lists for the region. Better than FPTP but may still allow single party government without an electoral majority.

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David Beetham is associate director, Democratic Audit


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