On Voting Reform

Some time ago, I stumbled across a website called The Political Compass, whose authors use two dimensions, not just the popular one (left vs right) to define political leanings. The dimension added is "authoritarian" vs "liberal", which makes sense to me and apparently to many others, as the site seems to be well known and popular. Moreover, they argue, correctly, that it makes no sense to adjust things dependent on the political fashion of the time. To do so would be to mask the gross changes in political battleground, which would be deceptive. Indeed, one graph (end of page) shows the "track" of the UK Labour and Conservative parties in the last two decades, in which Labour starts off somewhat to the left, but "New Labour" jumps notably to the right (and towards authoritarian) of the former Conservative party, who then in turn drift further right. Anyone can take the test the site provides, and they also plot the estimated positions of selected parties, so you can see where you stand.

So, I took the test. I won't bore you with the result, except to note the important point. My result was not particularly close to any of the national political parties in England. A fact that explains my current difficulty at election time in selecting a candidate. The result is that I am effectively disenfranchised because of the "first past the post" voting system here. With no large-ish party "nearby" electorally I become one of the famous "floating voters" who resort to voting on issues. Even then I realize this is no good: frequently politicians say one thing for the election and do something else afterwards, so voting for issues is really pretty pointless.

One ironic aspect of the stalemate in the recent general election was that a smaller party, the Liberals, who have a long standing desire for voting reform because their support base is more dispersed, in a position of sufficient power to require a serious look at voting reform. Sadly for me, the proposed choice is between First Past the Post, the current system that favours parties with dense areas of support, and AV, the alternative vote. AV means that in close-run situations, second preferences can be taken into account. If used, it is likely to have effect mainly in marginal seats. In "safe" seats, that is, seats with a high proportion of voters for one party, votes for others will still be as ineffective as before. A much fairer system, the Single Transferrable Vote, would according to the Electoral Reform Society have a much larger impact.

One way, however, to look at the vote for or against AV is that if it came out in favour of AV, it would open up the question in the future as to whether some other system might be a bigger improvement still. If voters reject AV, it seems highly likely that no government will try again anytime soon. I know that for some people, this is the very reason to reject AV, even though its effects will be limited. However, I believe that the current coalition government is not the disaster that some in the media present it as. The current system selects for density of support; those parties that have regional "strongholds" are preferred over those that don't. When voters get fed up with one party and change their minds, this system ends up with a flip-flop from one stronghold-capable party  to the other. As such parties are pretty distinctive, I don't believe this is good for the country or the economy. The Coalition, however, seems to me to be the best option for the country of those that were possible. Both the Liberals and the Conservatives are having (to greater or lesser extent) to adapt to not being "it", and I believe it is doing them good. Partly because they are acting as check-and-balance on each other. Both the recent New Labour "regime" and the previous Conservative "regime" started off reasonably but became more and more .... arrogant? ...extreme?... or something like that, as time went on.  The result has in both cases been an eventual trouncing at the polls. My hope is that the coalition won't get derailed in that way. Sadly, political reality being what it is, however, that is most likely because they don't survive long enough anyway...

So where does this leave us, the voters? While STV might be a fairer system, it seems pretty unlikely to be adopted here, so my next best solution is this: every voting form has an additional option on it: "none of these". Voters selecting this option can thus register their willingness to vote, even if they can't vote for anyone standing: an abstention. If MPs can abstain, why can't voters?  Of course, having a "none of these" option gives rise to the possibility that they select that option as the winner. This isn't a problem: it's democracy in action: the voters are clearly saying "we don't like these candidates". Thus the election should be run again with different candidates. There would be an additional benefit to democracy, even if the "abstentions" didn't force a rerun. A seat with a large number of abstentions is a signal to parties that (a) something is wrong and (b) there might be scope for parties other than those that normally run that seat.