Responding to my piece pondering the calamitous performance of Ed Miliband, long-time reader Nigel Sedgwick offers some excellent points on electoral reform in the UK. Posted previously as a comment, but worth looking at properly:

Charles writes: “Here in the United Kingdom our “first past the post” voting system produces some amazing anomalies.” Though this is a minor part of his blog posting, I’d like to pursue it a bit.

This is not least because this electoral problem is one that is going to affect the UK sooner and more long-lastingly that the failings of any particular losing politicians. The trouble is that this amazing anomaly is bigger (IMHO) than all the preceding electoral anomalies. Somehow, Parliament is going to do something about it: and that is the danger.

Almost exactly 4 years before the just completed general election, the UK had a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) versus the First Past the Post Vote (FPTP). AV was soundly trounced, by around a 2:1 vote. Thus it is very difficult to view AV as a likely candidate for the SOMETHING that Parliament is likely to do. Nevertheless, IMHO, AV is the best step forward – and was those 4 years ago. Around that time, I wrote on Samizdata, how the AV system (in fact 3 variants) allows each voter to express more information about their desires as voters; this based on information theory and the concept of entropy; and showing between 2 and 3 times as much voter information as FPTP, depending on the detailed variant of AV.

The first danger we now face is that there will be increasing, even overwhelming, desire for the so-called Proportional Representation (PR). However, PR is only one aspect of what voters as a group might want. Each and every electoral system offers, though only really on average, more or less PR than other voting systems. I view PR as a feature rather than an objective, even though (to an extent) that feature is desirable. So we risk a single feature, which FPTP does badly at, becoming the main or sole desire.

Without adopting AV, there are two other primary mechanisms for getting more PR. Both of these, I view as undesirable. Firstly there is the concept of Party Lists. But this means giving up (partially, or totally as we have with EU elections in the UK) the concept of voting for the candidate. That I find abhorrent. It moves from our current method of general elections (combined selection of government by political party and protection against government by individually elected MP) to drop that protection: of a person who, when all the chips are down and the nation’s back is against the wall, will do the right thing and stop bad government in its tracks. Simply put, it replaces parliamentary democracy with political party oligarchy.

Next there is the concept of multiple seats in each constituency. This may well be done using the Single Transferable Vote (STV) electoral system, which is effectively AV with 2 or more persons elected per constituency. Here again, we lose the concept of selecting a single personal representative for parliament. We have this, at close to the extreme, with EU MEP constituencies, of which mine (SE England) has, IIRC, 12 MEPs to represent me: which makes me feel I have none. [Note: for elections to a second chamber, such as a revised House of Lords, I am not against 2-seat, or even at a pinch 3-seat, constituencies. But we really must retain at least one house of parliament where there are only single seat constituencies: hence an unambiguously identified personal representative of each person who lives in each constituency.]

It worries me extremely that we will move to either Party Lists or multi-seat constituencies without even reconsidering that AV is: (i) more desirable than either on theoretical grounds; (ii) less of a change from FPTP than either. I hope Charles is content to carry this message.

This analysis of course – it replaces parliamentary democracy with political party oligarchy – describes why so many people in post-communist Europe where Party List systems usually hold sway are so fed up with politics. It s next to impossible to heave someone from public life once they have a party foothold. See Poland.

I myself (admittedly without having looked at all this in any detail) would go for a system based on larger constituencies but with two candidates elected per constituency. Nigel thinks that this dilutes the idea of a single representative, and it does. But any outcome is some sort of messy compromise. My scheme (a) keeps defined electoral areas and a clear idea of immediate personal + political accountability, and (b) all but guarantees that the two MPs elected per constituency together command a clear majority of local voters (ie is basically ‘fair’). If parties want to run two MP candidates in any one constituency, fine by me. Let them gamble on getting two MPs if their positions are overwhelmingly popular in that area while hoping not to split the vote to allow in one of their foes.

I don’t favour STV or AV systems (lots of sub-species) as they may have mathematical rigour but seem a bit too fancy and likely to empower a soggy centre. The huge political merit of some sort of first past the post system is that it is so simple/crude and clumsy, yet somehow has usually led to stable governments with an explicit mandate to do things (for better or worse) involving tough changes and not merely muddle along as a messy compromise.

All of which said, I wonder how one would model a two-member constituency system and its plausible outcomes eg in our most recent UK general election. Maybe easier to bring that system in for Poland, where they don’t have constituencies and will have to invent one from scratch, than in the UK where the task of redrawing larger constituency boundaries and dropping what has evolved over centuries would be fraught with controversy?

Anyway, thanks to Nigel for making his points so clearly. This one will not go away, either in UK or Poland and maybe elsewhere too.