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Congratulations to Mike Thornton (now MP) and the Liberal Democrats for holding the seat on 28 February. It has long been difficult for a Government party to hold or gain bye-election seats and the Liberal Democrats had the additional disadvantages of Chris Huhne’s lawbreaking, the allegations against Chris Rennard and Labour’s accusation for nearly three years that they have been propping up an unpopular Conservative Government.

The Liberal Democrats lost a large share of the vote compared with their performance in 2010, so they are not out of the wood, but their victory does mean that the other parties have been rather premature in writing the them off.

If they still have a sizeable representation in the next House of Commons and no other party has an overall majority, they may be a coalition partner again and be able to influence Government policy; e.g. on bringing local government elections in England and Wales up to the standard of Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Although Labour had very little chance of winning, it failed to gain votes from either of the Government parties, which is precisely what the main Opposition party has to do to win a general election. It slipped from 3rd to 4th place.

UKIP did exceptionally well and might even have won the seat if its high profile leader, Nigel Farage, had had the courage to stand, but they garnered the protest vote. At the next General Election, they may gain votes compared with 2010, but it is still extremely unlikely that they will win any seats. They may just take enough votes off the Conservatives to help Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

In comparative terms, it was the Conservative Party that did the worst of the three – or perhaps four – major parties by falling from 2nd to 3rd place behind UKIP. Although gaining a bye-election seat would normally be hard for a Government party, they should not have fallen to 3rd place behind what is still a fringe party in national terms. They do not look like obvious winners of the next General Election.

Although no-one can know what the political situation will be in two years’ time and it is hazardous to extrapolate from a single bye-election to a General Election, it rather looks as though the Conservatives will lose it and Labour will win it by default and without much enthusiasm by voters.

Indeed, it is quite possible that the voters will move to the right (e.g. from Conservative to UKIP) and the Government will move to the left from a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition to either a Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition or an outright Labour Government. Such is the way of the UK’s rather curious and inefficient 19th century First Past The Post voting system.

Despite the Liberal Democrats’ undoubted achievement, let us not forget that no candidate including the winner achieved even one third of the votes, so the new MP’s mandate is severely limited.

Not knowing how people would have voted with a different voting system, we cannot be sure what the result would have been in Eastleigh if voting had been by Alternative Vote (AV). It would have depended on how the 2nd choices of Conservative voters split between the Liberal Democrats and UKIP. However, whichever of them had won would have had a mandate from over half the voters in the final round of counting.

In a General Election in which UKIP is unlikely to be close to winning any seats, AV in single-member constituencies would protect the Conservative Party from votes being wasted on another right-of-centre party that cannot win any seats. What a pity for Conservatives that they succeeded in their opposition to AV in the 2011 referendum!

Of course, for real reform, we need the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies to maximize voter choice, provide fair representation of voters’ views and be fair to all parties.

STV would help Italy and the UK

Is, as supporters of First Past The Post (FPTP) claim, the chaotic political situation in Italy evidence that all PR is bad? No, it is merely evidence that Italy’s particular kind of PR is bad and, perhaps, that they have other problems arising from their political culture.

Electoral reformers in the UK are as critical of the Italian list voting system as we are of the UK’s First Past The Post system in single-member constituencies.

For both countries, the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies would be an improvement. It would introduce PR to the UK’s House of Commons. It would probably reduce the number of parties in Italy and make the country more stable. In both countries, it would improve voters’ freedom of choice and make MPs more accountable to their constituents. It would also enable voters to indicate, through their later choices, which kind of coalition they would like.

Readers may like to visit http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/blog/the-italian-impasse
to read more about this.

Reform in Israel? - STV & Citizens' Assembly

Israel debates electoral reform from time to time but, just as UK MPs are reluctant to change the First Past The Post system by which they were elected, so members of the Israeli Knesset are reluctant to change the national list PR voting system by which they were elected.

David Newman wrote in the “Jerusalem Post” today, “The introduction of constituencies to ensure regional representation, a mixed system based on constituencies and national party lists, the raising of the lower threshold to five and even 10 percent, as is common in many countries, direct elections of prime minister – these ideas have been researched and proposed ad nauseam, but have never been taken up seriously by the Knesset.”

He is certainly right to question the national list system currently used in Israel but, from our experience in the UK, we would caution against constituency or mixed systems using First Past The Post (FPTP) for the constituencies.

A “pure” FPTP constituency system would not be proportional. It would be unrepresentative and we cannot believe that that would be acceptable in a country that, for all the faults in its present voting system, has at least always enjoyed proportional representation for all its parties.

Mixed systems are neither one thing nor the other. They take the faulty FPTP constituency system and tinker with it to reduce some of its faults.

The Single Transferable Vote (STV) system in multi-member constituencies combines the best of list systems (party proportionality and fair representation) with the best of constituency systems (direct, personal, links between representatives and voters and direct accountability of representatives to voters).

STV also has other advantages, not enjoyed by either list systems or other constituency systems:

• It provides more choice to voters than any other known system.
• It can provide proportionality, not only between political parties but also between any other groupings (e.g. religious or gender) that matter to voters.
• It actually provides a closer link between representatives and voters and more accountability of representatives to voters than any other system.
• Unlike most systems, it increases voters’ power.

Unfortunately, the very great advantage for people, democracy and nations that it increases voters’ power is the very reason that it is unpopular with many politicians. More power for voters means less power for political parties and it is usually political parties that decide which voting system to use. All round the world, they usually choose systems that suit themselves.

In most advanced nations, politicians have made laws and regulations to control the activities of various professions, such as medical practitioners, lawyers, police officers etc. but who controls the politicians? In theory in so-called democracies, it is the voters at election time, but the voters are allowed only to vote by the system that the politicians have chosen so, in practice, voters often have little or no control.

The solution to this problem is to remove the choice of voting system from the control of politicians. For example, a Citizens’ Assembly could take evidence from fellow citizens, experts and abroad and then recommend a system for voters to choose in a referendum.

Failure of PCC elections

The ERS published an excellent report (“How not to run an election”) yesterday on last November’s elections for Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales and the appallingly low turn-out (15.1%; i.e. fewer than one in six) in the elections. Unfortunately, its summary (which is probably all that most journalists will read) omits the reasons people gave for not voting and the ERS’s highly pertinent criticisms of the voting system that the Government imposed.

According to the ERS, 19% (nearly a fifth) of non-voters gave their reason for not voting as “I don’t agree with electing police officials this way.” This is a very fundamental reason. These people do not sound apathetic or likely to be persuaded to vote in future at a better time of the year or with more information about the candidates. They sound like politically aware citizens who have taken conscious decisions not to vote because they totally disagree with electing police chiefs and/or the voting system used to elect them. It is not so much an abstention as a boycott.

The ERS rightly explains that the Supplementary Vote (SV) system used for these elections is an attempt to remedy some of the defects of First Past The Post elections, but depends entirely on voters’ ability to guess who the leading two candidates will be in the first round of counting. Many successful candidates were not elected by a majority of even the few votes that were cast. The Alternative Vote (AV) system would have been easier for voters to understand and use and would have produced fairer and more representative results.

Although proportionality cannot be a prerequisite for any election of single representatives, at least a preferential system like AV in single-member constituencies maximizes voter choice, minimizes wasted votes and empowers voters rather than political parties.

When a body, such as a Parliament or Council is being elected, the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system in multi-representative constituencies achieves the same as AV but more so plus proportionality.

South African reform?

South African, Eusebius McKaiser, queries in http://www.news24.com/Columnists/EusebiusMcKaiser/Electoral-reform-is-no... whether South Africa should replace its party list PR system of voting with a constituency based system.

In brief, he says the list system should be replaced, but goes on to warn against some of the disadvantages of First Past The Post (FPTP) constituency elections, except that it does not seem to have occurred to him that constituency elections do not have to be FPTP. Consequently, he mistakenly ascribes all the disadvantages of FPTP to constituencies.

He points out the power the parties have with list voting and the advantage voters would have if they could directly elect their MPs, but he also warns against gerrymandering and other disadvantages that he perceives in constituency based systems including, “the sometimes anti-democratic influence party leadership wield in England [sic], for example, where constituency based elections happen”.

The disadvantages he sees in constituency based elections are mainly to be found in FPTP single-member constituencies and not in STV multi-member constituencies as I have pointed out in my comment on his blog.

He likes the idea of a hybrid voting system, but I suspect he has not considered STV; perhaps had not heard of it when he wrote his blog.

Gay marriage

The Conservative Party is divided in the country and the Commons on same sex (i.e. gay) marriage and it seems likely that there are similar divisions in the other parties although they may be less obvious.

Does the Commons represent the views of the country on this issue and do individual MPs represent their constituents on it? No-one really knows partly because it was not an issue at the last General Election and partly because, even if it had been, most people would have voted for their usual party even if they had to clench their teeth because they did not share the candidate’s views on same sex marriage.

Take the Surrey Heath constituency for example. The Conservative MP, Michael Gove, supports same sex marriage but the Chairman of the Conservative Association, Geoffrey Vero, opposes it. Who can tell which speaks for the local party, let alone the constituency as a whole, on the subject?

The Single Transferable Vote (STV) lets voters express their views on such non-party matters without voting against their party.

Suppose Surrey Heath had merged with neighbouring constituencies and the enlarged constituency had elected five MPs by STV. The Conservative Party could have nominated four or five candidates. As Surrey is very Conservative, three of them could have been elected but the voters would have decided which.

If the candidates’ views on same sex marriage were important to Conservative voters, those views would have influenced how they voted. Then they might have elected two who supported same sex marriage and one who opposed it or vice versa. Indeed, they might have elected three who opposed or three who supported. Whatever the result, the successful candidates would have represented their voters’ views on this controversial issue.

Europe – Change partners or no partners?

In trying to change the UK’s relationship with our European partners, David Cameron may well destroy his Conservative Party’s relationship with its Liberal Democrat coalition partner.

David Cameron has announced his intention, if he remains Prime Minister after the next General Election in 2015, of renegotiating the UK’s membership of the EU and then holding a referendum on the UK’s continued membership.

If, as Mr Cameron must hope, his announcement staunches the haemorrhaging of Conservative votes to UKIP, it must increase his chances of winning the election, but what then? To win outright and form a single party majority Government, the Conservatives must not only regain votes from UKIP, but must also win over Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters and there is little sign of that as yet.

Although anything is possible within the next two years, the best that the Conservatives can hope for at present is to retain their position as the largest single party and be in a position to lead another coalition government. If so, who would their partner be?

Labour and the Liberal Democrats have already criticized Mr Cameron’s new EU policy so it is unlikely that either of them would want to be in a Government whose main purpose was to renegotiate with the rest of the EU. UKIP does not really want to negotiate; it simply wants to leave the EU. In any case, it is a fairly safe bet that UKIP will still not have any MPs after the next General Election.

Although of course there have been some strains between the coalition partners, the Government has held together, but Mr Cameron’s EU speech is likely to alienate the Liberal Democrats and make it very difficult for them to work with the Conservatives after 2015. He may well have driven them towards Labour, which many individual Liberal Democrats see as a more natural ally than the Conservatives anyway.

The key question for electoral reformers is whether, if no one party has an overall majority in 2015, will the Liberal Democrats insist on STV, at least for local government in England and Wales, as the price of their support for one of the two major parties?

One of the Liberal Democrats’ problems is that they have been too nice in the past. Some of them get quite embarrassed about pressing for electoral reform because they might benefit from it. They need to be more realistic. In any case, STV would be good for democracy, the people and the country as a whole. Liberal democrats need to stand up and say or, better still, shout that. Perhaps the reality of being in Government since 2010 will have hardened them and made it easier for them to proclaim their belief in STV, which is one of their core policies.

Labour and Conservative supporters show no embarrassment at supporting First Past The Post, which benefits them, so why should Liberal Democrats be embarrassed about supporting STV, which would benefit the people generally?

In the meantime, we fear the Labour and Conservative Parties will not suddenly proclaim support for STV, but their party managers must already be thinking about their manifestos for the General Election in 2015. If they could include a commitment at least to review the voting system for local elections in England and Wales, that would open the door to negotiations with the Liberal Democrats if there is another balanced parliament.

The Liberal Democrats may be disposed to support whichever of the two major parties shows the greater interest in introducing STV for local government.

STV in Jersey by 2018?

The Jersey Electoral Commission has recommended STV in multi-member districts for elections to the States of Jersey from 2018. You can visit http://www.electoralcommission.je to see the full report, which also covers other electoral issues.

The island of Jersey is a self-governing Crown dependency with a population of just under 100,000. Its Parliament is called “The States of Jersey”, which has 51 Members now. The island is divided into twelve Parishes which vary greatly in the size of their electoral rolls. At the head of each Parish is a Constable. This is an elected position, which at present carries an automatic seat in the States.

Among other questions, the citizens of Jersey are to be asked by referendum whether they want Constables to remain members of the States. The Commission has recommended that, if they do remain members, they should be elected by AV in single member districts.

We warmly welcome these recommendations for PR and preferential voting and hope they will be implemented. Supporters of electoral reform and their representative organizations may need to help those in Jersey to implement the suggestions.

We must all be very grateful to Derek Bernard (an ERS member in Jersey who first advocated STV and then gave evidence to the Commission), and to James Gilmour and the Proportional Representation Society of Australia, both of whom also gave evidence in favour of STV to the Commission. So far as we know, no other electoral reform organization gave evidence. Derek also wrote numerous letters to the Chairperson of the States’ Privileges & Procedures Committee for three or four years before the formation of the Commission of which she became a member.

So writing to representatives is not always the waste of time you may have thought it was!

STV threatened in Ireland

The Irish Times - http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2013/0126/1224329299320.html - reported today that former Fianna Fáil minister Noel Dempsey has called for electoral "reform", with a reduced Dáil of 100 single-seat constituencies. He also said the Seanad should be retained, with members elected on a list system.

This would not be the first time that politicians in the Republic have tried to ditch STV. Irish Governments have already asked the Irish people twice in referendums and the people had the sense each time to vote to keep STV. It is not untypical that politicians oppose STV because it empowers voters rather than politicians but informed voters, such as the Irish, like STV.

We understand that the voting system in the Republic cannot be changed without the consent of the people in a referendum and we expect that Irish voters will continue to support STV, but we must be vigilant and prepared to help in the defence of STV if necessary.

Electoral law reform

The Law Commission for England and Wales has announced - http://www.lawontheweb.co.uk/news/2012/12/317-law-commission-announces-c... - “a consultation to consider the reform of the UK’s fragmented and outdated electoral law” although it will exclude the elephant in the room of voting systems. Even so, you may want to give evidence on one or more of the many other issues, which the Commission is considering.

The consultation is not to start until late 2014, but the Commission has issued a Scoping Report, which you can see by clicking on the link above and then on another link. Although the Report is 94 pages long, a skim through will probably enable you to indentify those parts that interest you.

Although the consultation is to exclude voting systems, it should do no harm if you gave evidence that the voting system should be changed. Even if the Commission will not make a recommendation to change the system, your evidence that there should be a change will have been recorded and perhaps all the evidence, including yours, will be published.

As the Commission notes in its Scoping Report, most of the basic law relating to elections is based on First Past The Post (FPTP) even though other systems are used for many elections now, so the basic law has had to be adapted on a somewhat ad hoc basis. The Commission hopes to clarify the law by replacing the ad hoc provisions with more codified ones appropriate to each system.

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