Could electoral reform really happen?

Could the results of tomorrow’s general election really lead to change in the electoral system? Many commentators seem to think yes. Alan Renwick here offers some reason for caution.

Lots of people are suddenly talking about electoral reform. Never mind that the British electorate voted by 68 per cent to 32 per cent in a referendum in 2011 against dropping First Past the Post in favour of the Alternative Vote (AV) system, there is a growing feeling among some activists and commentators that change is on the way. First Past the Post, the argument goes, works well in a world of two-party politics. But now that we have seven-party politics, it produces absurd results that no one can defend. Pressure for reform will bubble up and force a shift.

We should not jump to such easy conclusions. Major electoral reform happens very rarely – only one long-standing democracy (New Zealand) has ditched First Past the Post since the Second World War. We need to think, first, about how the election result might strengthen the case for reform, and then, second, about what barriers the reform cause might nevertheless face.

Reasons for thinking First Past the Post is broken

If the opinion polls come anywhere close to the electoral reality, the results on Friday morning will strengthen four arguments for saying that our voting rules are in need of serious reform.

  1. First Past the Post forces voters into difficult tactical voting dilemmas. The first argument actually holds whatever the election result, as it relates to the difficult tactical choices that some voters now face. In a straight two-party contest, the voter’s task is easy: you just vote for whichever of the two parties you prefer. In a contest where there are two candidates with a chance of winning and a number of others who are just flying the flag, minor party supporters face a decision about whether to vote tactically and affect the outcome or to express their genuine preference and have that view heard. That can be a tricky decision, but It’s still a fairly simple one. As Meg Russell has pointed out, however, once there are three or more serious contenders, the calculations get much, much tougher. Should an anti-UKIP voter in Thanet South or in Thurrock vote Labour or Conservative? Should an anti-SNP voter in Berwickshire, Roxburgh, and Selkirk vote Conservative or Lib Dem? Should an anti-Conservative voter in Watford vote Lib Dem or Labour? It’s just not clear. The more voters feel the system is preventing them from influencing the election result in the direction they want, the more they may support reformed rules.
  2. At the constituency level, First Past the Post produces many minority victories. In the 1950s, the vast majority of MPs were elected on more than 50 per cent of their constituency vote. In 2010, just 210 out of 650 secured an absolute majority, while eight were elected on less than a third of the vote. The lower the winning candidate’s share of the vote, the less the result can be said to reflect the will of the local electorate and the more the outcome is a lottery rather than a serious election.
  3. At the national level, First Past the Post produces huge inequities. The Liberal Democrats have long complained that the First Past the Post system treats them unfairly: in 2010, they secured 23 per cent of the vote but fewer than 9 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons. The 2015 election looks set to produce even more iniquitous results than that: the SNP could win around fifty seats with 4 per cent of the UK-wide vote, while UKIP might win three times as many votes but only one seat. UKIP (and the Greens) are already calling loudly for reform to redress these imbalances, and these calls will only grow louder once the results are in.
  4. A second hung parliament destroys the case for First Past the Post. The strongest case for First Past the Post has always been that it produces single-party majorities. Whether that is good for governance is less clear than is often supposed. But what is clear is that it is good for accountability: except on those (fairly rare) occasions where First Past the Post gives the majority to the wrong party, the government is formed by the party with most support. That party can then be held to account for whether it adheres to its manifesto or not and, come the next election, voters can throw the government out if they are dissatisfied with its performance. Where no party wins a majority, by contrast, who forms the government is determined, at least in part, by post-election negotiations, and the government’s programme becomes a compromise among two or more rival manifestos. That case for First Past the Post starts to look shaky, however, if two consecutive elections produce no overall majority and the dynamics of the party system suggest these are no mere blips.

Reasons for thinking First Past the Post will survive

All of that will seem to many to add up to a powerful case for fundamental electoral reform. But those commentators who tell us that such reform is therefore inevitable rarely explain the process by which it is actually going to come about. When we start to think about process, we see that electoral reform in fact faces two very high barriers.

The first is that major reform would not serve the interests of either of the two main parties. Labour and the Conservatives will still win around two thirds of the votes at this election – indeed, the polls suggest that their combined vote share will be slightly higher than in 2010. The latest projections put them on over four fifths of the seats. Electoral reform is not going to happen unless at least one of these parties acquiesces in a process that could let it happen. But why would they do so? Both parties will gain seat shares at this election that are substantially ahead of their vote shares. Furthermore, both know that a proportional system would likely lead to a further fragmentation of the vote as the fear of wasting a vote on a losing candidate is diminished. A move to proportional representation would endanger these parties’ status as the only parties capable of leading a government.

Some will point to the fact that Labour is about to be crucified in Scotland as reason for thinking that at least a substantial part of the party will rethink its attachment to First Past the Post. But Labour and the Conservatives have long suffered severe under-representation in parts of the country without seriously thinking about reform, and it isn’t obvious why that would change. The voice of those under-represented areas within each party is not very loud, precisely because they are under-represented. And, for the party leadership, what counts most is always the national picture.

Others will say that the big parties will be forced to accept reform by a combination of the minor parties with whom they have to do deals and pressure from the public who are increasingly dissatisfied with a dysfunctional system.

But that leads on to the second key barrier: the public are just not all that interested in electoral systems. The Independent has reported a poll this week that, it claims, shows that “a majority of people support electoral reform”. The pollsters, it continues, “found that 61 per cent believe the system should be reformed so that smaller parties are better represented in parliament, while 39 per cent think it should remain as it is, with MPs chosen directly by their constituents”.

Unfortunately, this is a good example of how not to interpret an opinion poll. Do we really think – as the sentence just quoted implies – that 100 per cent of the British electorate have a “belief” about the electoral system? That’s bonkers. The reality is that most voters have no clear view about electoral systems – electoral systems are, perfectly reasonably, not things that they think about very much. Lots of people will have responded to the pollsters by saying “don’t know” – but we haven’t been told how many. And, crucially, lots of people will have given a top-of-the-head answer that could easily have been different had the question been worded slightly differently.

The British Social Attitudes survey has regularly asked two questions about electoral reform over many years. One of these asks the following: “How much you agree or disagree with this statement: Britain should introduce proportional representation, so that the number of MPs in the House of Commons each party gets, matches more closely the number of votes each party gets.” Ever since this question was first asked in 1994, it has always produced a substantial plurality in favour of reform: among those willing to express a view either way, well over two thirds have always backed change. But around a third of voters have always hedged their bets, saying either “neither” or that they can’t choose.

The other British Social Attitudes survey question is the following: “Some people say we should change the voting system for general elections to the (UK) House of Commons to allow smaller political parties to get a fairer share of MPs. Others say we should keep the voting system for the House of Commons as it is, to produce effective government. Which view comes closer to your own?” This has been asked from time to time since 1986 and the majority has consistently favoured keeping the system as it is.

So you can get a majority for or against electoral reform depending on the survey question that you ask. The Independent hasn’t told us the question wording, so we can’t be sure. On the evidence they have provided, however, there is no reason to think that opinion on electoral reform is any more supportive now than it has been at any other time over the last thirty years.

But will the election result change that? There is good reason to think it will change things a bit. Some UKIP and Green voters will be angered that their votes have not been translated fairly into seats. The minority of voters who think through the tactical voting calculations in the minority of seats where three or more parties seem to be in contention may well be aggrieved if they find on Friday morning that they have plumped the wrong way. More generally, a wide swathe of voters may feel that it all looks a bit fishy.

But the majority of voters will have voted for one of the two big parties and have no reason to feel personally under-represented in the national result. Most voters are not greatly enamoured by coalition government – so moving to a system that would make such government even more likely is going to be a hard sell. And, as we saw in the AV referendum in 2011, voters have a strong status quo bias on issues such as this: few voters understand the ins and outs of electoral systems; and voters who don’t quite understand the reform that is on offer tend to opt for the existing rules.

So what might happen?

What, then, might happen after the election? Some of the minor parties – though not, of course, the SNP – might push for electoral reform. They won’t make this a strong red line, as they will know that the public are on the whole much more interested in things like immigration, economic recovery, taxes, and the quality of public services. But they might push for some kind of concession. The two main parties will be resistant. But they might feel that some movement on the issue would be a way of responding to diffuse public unease. They probably won’t want to give the issue to a citizen-led constitutional convention, such as the one Labour is committed to: that could be risky and would distract attention from the convention’s core purposes. But they might accept some kind of enquiry process. It is conceivable – though unlikely – that that could lead to a referendum.

So say we do somehow end up with a referendum on some form of proportional system. Then the issue becomes how the public will vote. And here there is no reason to expect a dynamic very different from that in 2011. Almost all Conservative and most Labour politicians will almost certainly oppose reform. Many of the newspapers will denounce tricksy foreign voting models that deprive us of the opportunity to vote a local rascal in or out. Many voters will be bemused by the whole thing. And the majority will probably end up voting for the status quo.

I am not one of those cynics who say that public opinion never matters. Indeed, I have written a lot about electoral reforms that have come about only as a result of pressure from below. But such reforms lead only to reforms of particular types only in certain sorts of circumstances. At the moment, the circumstances that might generate a shift to proportional representation in the UK just don’t appear to be there. That might change – particularly if the main parties start to show signs of a Scottish-style collapse in England. For the moment, however, the barriers to major electoral reform remain very high.

So there will be some pressure for electoral reform on Friday morning and the days thereafter. And this might yield some movement towards an enquiry. Indeed, a shift to something like the Supplementary Vote system that is used to elect the London mayor is imaginable if the main parties think it would help contain UKIP and allow pro-Union votes in Scotland to coalesce.

But the circumstances for the adoption of proportional representation are not present yet. And nothing in the polls suggests they will be present on Friday morning.

 

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