AV or not to AV – proportional representation and stuff

Yesterday there was a referendum on changing the UK voting system to something I struggled to understand. The mechanics are easy enough to understand for the alternative vote, but what it would mean aren’t clear to me at all.

For what I guess must be historical reasons Britain groups its voters into relatively small clusters called constituencies, and currently the ~ 70000 voters in a constituency vote for one of the candidates. The candidate with the most votes wins that ‘seat’.

I can see the case to be made for proportional representation, possibly with a 5% minimum vote cutoff, and perhaps we may move to that one day. However, to make PR work, to my eyes we would have to eliminate the small constituency groupings.

The reason for this is that all electoral systems are a map of the voters’ views, and they come with their own distortions. Let’s take a 5% accuracy as good enough – we would then need up to 20 MPs for an area, so each can represent 1/20th of the popular opinion. In a constituency with 40% Lab, 40%Con and 15%Lib and 5% Monster Raving Loony Party, we’d have a chamber with 8Lab, 8Con, 3 Lib and 1 MRL members.

Suffolk, the region I live in, currently has 7 MPs each serving about 70,000 voters so unless the cost of politicians’ salaries is going to rocket up, we’d have to upscale the size of the constituency, to 70,000 * 20 = 1.4 million voters. We could do that – indeed we do when we elect members of the European parliament, where there are 72MEPs representing the UK. The actual process whereby they allocate MEPs strikes me as overly complicated, but doable.

IMO we either have to do this job properly or not at all. Either we get rid of our small constituencies (along with the link to the local people and MPs surgeries etc) and accept the large faceless constituencies that go along with getting a more accurate representation of the vote, or we retain the small constituencies and accept the distortions, but at least we can hold politicians to account for their manifestos, something that is lost with coalitions.

In practice the distorting issues of first-past-the-post voting seem to integrate out over time. I have voted for all the big three parties, depending on the issues of the day, and overall I feel my views were acceptably represented. In some ways the UK stumbles along veering from left  to right as the inconsistencies inherent in any excessive duration of one extreme or the other start to upset enough people that they switch allegiance.

In this way a rough path is trod, in a similar way to how your central heating maintains an acceptable temperature, despite the fact the boiler can usually either be either running flat out or not at all. A set-point is established, and if things are too cold the boiler is run, until the temperature gets too hot, and then it is turned off. The temperature is never exactly what you set, but it’s near enough most of the time.

We’ve had a run of tax and spend for a while, and it was nice for some Britons while it lasted, but now enough voters sort of came to the conclusion we need to stop paying so many people to do nothing. That tends to go too far as well, as anybody who remembers the early 1980s can recall.

So I voted no, either fix this right or leave us with the imperfection we are used to. If we want PR then let’s have it. Perhaps we can have this debate again with the elected House of Lords if it ever happens.

Of course, there’s the other issue of it being one in the eye for Nick Clegg. On the occasions where I have voted LD I was after something reasonably left wing. If I want Tories I’ll vote for them, thanks all the same Nick, I don’t need a proxy. It would have really pi**ed me off if I had voted LD last May and ended up being part of making a a Tory led Coalition happen. Whereas had I voted LD and ended up with a LibLab coalition I would not be too surprised, as I view them as two similar flavours with different emphases.

The trouble with getting a hold of a tiger by the tail. Nick, is that you end up going where the tiger wants to go… Something gives me the feeling that’s not the same direction as where most of your voters wanted to go hence the hammering you got last night. As he said

“Clearly what happened last night – especially in those parts of the country, Scotland, Wales, the great cities of the north, where there are real anxieties about the deficit reduction plans we are having to put in place … we are clearly getting the brunt of the blame,” he told reporters.

“To the many families, in those parts of the country especially, there are some very strong memories of what life was like under the Thatcherism of the 1980s, and that’s what they fear they are returning to. We need to get up, dust ourselves down and move on.”

I’m not sure how you do “move on” from that, what part of “Why are you enabling the Tories to do this to us” do you not understand, Nick?

I don’t know what the results of the AV vote are, but either way it will have served to open the debate. This was rushed and the wider issues of changing the constituency system were not aired well. We may be happy to rattle along using first-past-the-post and accept that over time we get something approximating to what we want, or we may reflect that we would prefer something more accurate in the 21st century. It’s no bad thing to think about that.