The term “PR” covers a range of different systems.
This is often not understood. What is really important is that we all try to understand the pros and cons of each system, so what I propose to do in successive posts is to explain each system in as straightforward a manner as possible. I’m going to make it clear which parties support which systems. And I’m going to give my opinions. I hope you do, too.
But first, I’d like to outline the First Past The Post (FPTP) system.
This is a simple system. You vote for a candidate. The candidate with the highest number of votes wins.
Advantages; it’s simple to use and simple to administer. It delivers (usually) a definite winner. It maintains the link between MP and constituent. It keeps small parties out of parliament.
Disadvantages; it gives extremely unproportional results, even between the big three parties. Small parties don’t get a look in. The importance of the link between MP is overstated. It locks voters and politicians into a seesaw system which bores and occasionly outrages the electorate and makes the politicians complacent.
The Conservative Party favour the retention of this system, giving as their reason the keeping out of small unwanted parties which might make the process of governing more difficult, and the need for strong government.
The next system I’m going to explain is the Additional Vote (AV) system.
This system isn’t a great deal more complicated than FPTP.
The voter is to indicate her/his preference by numbering them in order. If there are six candidates in the constituency, s/he may list them in order 1 – 6. Some variations will say you MUST list ALL the candidates; or possibly “at least three”.
The real complication comes in the counting. In the first instance, all the first preferences are counted. If no one candidate has more than 50% of the vote, the bottom-placed candidate drops out, and the second preferences counted and added to the remaining candidates votes. This continues until one candidate DOES get more than 50% of the vote.
The point of this is NOT to create a greater proportionality of result, but to elect MPs, all of whom have more than 50% support in the constituency, and therefore a parliament with more than 50% support in the country.
There are huge questionmarks over this system. Firstly, it’s rare that 100% of any constituency turn out to vote in any election, so the 50% target still isn’t 50% of the electorate, just of the turnout. Secondly, this system can and often does lead to LESS proportionally divided representation in parliament. Thirdly, voters can use their preferences to produce perverse results, electing candidates who have few first choice votes.
This system is currently favoured by Gordon Brown; but it’s possible Labour might be in a mood to negotiate.
The Single Transferable Vote (STV), like all systems, has several variants. At one end, it barely touches the problem of proportionality except between the three main parties (and, strangely, since they have set their faces against it, would probably benefit the Tories); and at the other end, would be reasonably acceptable to those in search of true proportionality.
The way it works is as follows.
The constituencies would be several times bigger than at present, anything from three times (not so good) to six times (ok) bigger. Each participating party would supply a list of that many candidates. The voter would give her/his vote in order to the parties (in some versions, to the candidates). The votes are counted, and the seats divided in that constituency according to that proportion (with some complicated calculations).
The advantage is a certain level of proportionality. This is like the system used in EU elections; so we are all aware it can benefit small parties. In the version where the size if the constituency is only three times the current ones, with only three MPs being elected per constituency, it’s clear that only the main three parties – with some exceptions – will benefit from any increased proportionality.
The disadvantages are the unweildyness of the voting slips, the complexity of the counting, giving rise to far more challenges, and, in the large constituency version, the weakening of the link between MPs and constituencies. I’m not convinced this is a valid objection, but then I’ve never been an MP.
Finally, the Additional Member System (AMS).
Each constituency is the size of two current constituencies. It elects a single member connected with that constituency, probably by FPTP, and votes cast in the constituency are pooled with others across either the region or the nation to determine the proportions by which the parties top-up their constituency MPs.
Each voter has two votes; the FPTP vote for the constituency MP, and the National vote for a Party, not a candidate.
The parties then top-up from their pre-published lists of candidates.
The advantages are that the resultant share of seats reflects as closely as possible the share of votes; it retains the MP-constituency link; it allows smaller parties to participate on a basis which allows them to grow or wither according to their merits; it isn’t much more complicated for either voter or counters to administer.
The disadvantages are that it lets in parties like the BNP; but to my mind, battling against them in the open is better than trying to ignore them; there are two “classes” of MP, and this proved a minor problem in Scotland when it was first tried; the parties get to choose who to include in the top-up, not the voters – but there are ways round that eg by ensuring that those who lost with the highest number of votes in the FPTP part get in first, but, if you’ve published your list beforehand, the voters know who they’re voting for.