Saturday, 13 February 2010

Electoral Reform: The rules of the game effect the way in which we play

With the expenses scandal and talk of a hung parliament there is increasingly talk of electoral reform these days. The House of Commons passed a bill promising a referendum on the Alternative Vote on Tuesday, and with a potential hung parliament looming the Lib Dems may have unprecedented power in the next parliament allowing them to push their desire for constitutional reform (specifically for the Single Transferable Vote electoral system).

Basically in AV we would all still live in single member constituencies but we would rank candidates rather than simply voting for just one. Candidates would be elected if they get more than 50% of the vote, if they do not the candidates with the least votes would be eliminated and their votes redistributed until one candidate comes out on top. STV would work rather similarly but the constituencies would be larger (say the size of a county) and multi-member in nature (Ireland, which uses the system, has 3-6 members of parliament per constituency) and therefore the system would probably be proportional in nature.

In order to be helpful in the debate several folk have decided to take a look at what the potential outcomes of electoral reform would be. The BBC for example, has attempted to simulate the last few elections under AV whereas Denis Mollison, a Professor of Mathematics at Heriot-Watt University has attempted to create a suggested constituency map for a STV Britain (the map is worth giving a look as in some instances it better represents people's identities better than current boundaries. For example I, a denizen of Weymouth in Dorset, would be in the 'Dorset' constituency rather than the somewhat sillier 'Dorset South'. It also cuts the number of MPs from nigh 650 to 513, satisfying another desire of reformers). Mollison attempts to simulate the 2005 election. For comparisons sakes here are the 2005 election results and their simulated results according to Mollison and the BBC.




Lib Dem

Vote Percentage




Actual Seat Percentage




Simulated AV Percentage (BBC)




Simulated STV Percentage (Mollison)




Note: Figures are expressed as a percentage of BRITISH votes and seats rather than United Kingdom seats and votes as Mollison did not simulate Northern Irish seats.

However these simulated figures miss a very important point. The institutional rules in effect in British politics effect the way in which we vote. One in five people tactically vote, theoretically under STV and AV there is no need for this. What's more electoral reform will no doubt result in a proliferation of new parties with newfound power and possibilities. Simulating election results under different systems is not practical.

However what we can do is look at a country who went through a similar electoral reform, and fortunately there is one. In 1996 New Zealand switched from First Past The Post to the Additional Member System, a type of proportional representation. At the 1993 election four parties won representation (and two of those held only two seats). At the 1996 election this had become six parties, some of which were genuinely powerful. The rules had changed, and so did the way in which New Zealanders voted as a result.

If voters did not feel they had to tactically vote how many would have voted Lib Dem in 2005? Would more vote Green? UKIP? BNP? Would new parties form? (Say a libertarian party, or an 'Old Labour' socialist party?) Would more independents be elected? The point is that we cannot even begin to predict elections under different electoral systems until the systems are implemented. Elections are like a game, and the electoral system is like the rules of the game. Changing the rules of the game changes the strategies of different players, sometimes in unexpected ways. For example the assumption is that voters will rank candidates sincerely, but in Australia parties regularly make deals and recommend other parties to their electorates for their other preferences. For example in the 1950s a party broke away from the Australian Labor Party called the Democratic Labor Party. The DLP was composed primarily of anti-communist Catholics, who felt that ALP had drifted too far to the left. For twenty years the DLP told its voters to preference Australia's right-wing party, the Liberals, keeping them in power, in an attempt to force the ALP to move closer to the centre. The DLP never won any seats itself in the Australian House of Representatives, but its preferences were enough to keep the ALP out of power. Some electoral reformers dismiss AV as a minor change to the status quo, vaguely worth bothering debating, but if minor parties use it right it could lead to a sea change in the behavior of political parties in Britain.


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