An open letter to the new British Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg.
DEAR Mr Clegg (or may I call you Nick, given that you were in primary school when the Liberal Democrats last held the balance of power and I was starting a career in journalism after doing politics, statistics and law at university).
Do not fall into the Tory trap of having a referendum on the electoral system.
I have spent some hours looking in detail over the British election results and I have a much better idea for you.
Now, I know people from the mother country, especially members of the mother of Parliaments, might not want the advice from cheeky colonials, but bear in mind some children grow up to do things smarter and better than their parents.
We in Australia know a few things about referendums and electoral and voting systems. In our Federal system we have eight Parliaments, five of which have two Houses. That makes 13 electoral systems. We have a fair idea of the consequences for political parties when you change electoral systems.
As for referendums, we have had 44 of them in Australia calling for various changes to the system of government, including electoral changes. Only eight have passed.
As a general rule those who want change are only lukewarm whereas those against are vehemently so and scare a lot of people into voting No. The ignorant, stupid and apathetic (and there are a lot of them) say, “I don’t know what this is about, so I will vote No.”
The only referendums to get up in Australia asked really easy questions, like, “Would you like the Federal Government to subsidise you medicines?” Yes, please. Or, “Will you let the Federal Government count Aborigines in the census and give them some help?” Yes, even Australians have occasional pricks of conscience.
But ask whether they want a constitutional guarantee of one vote one value, you’ll get a big No. At a referendum in 1977, 52% said No. They had another crack at it in 1988. The result was even worse: 62 per cent said No.
If you try something more complicated like proportional representation, the No will be even more resounding. And don’t imagine that you Poms are any brighter than Aussies at politics.
Trust me, Nick, a referendum has no hope. It is a Tory trick. By the time you have mucked about organising a referendum and watching it fail, the next election will be upon you and one or other of the major parties will win a majority using the present horribly undemocratic system and you can kiss electoral reform goodbye along with your five Cabinet seats.
Nick, you are only going to get one crack at this, so you better not stuff it up.
Here’s my suggestion. Forget proportional representation. The British people are never going to accept the loss of their local Member. They need someone to whine to and to vote out when they are angry.
What you want is a fairly simple, and seemingly small change. Adopt the Australian preferential voting system. But don’t call it “Australian” because no-one in Britain will accept it. Rather call it something anodyne like the “Full Choice” voting system.
In this system, instead of putting an X beside just one candidate, you put the candidates in order of preference: 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on. When the votes are counted, if a candidate has more than 50 per cent of the vote he or she is elected. If no-one has 50 per cent, the bottom candidate is eliminated and his ballot papers are allocated to the other candidates according to the second preference marked on them. You keep eliminating candidates until a candidate has 50 per cent of the vote.
It is described in Section 240 and 274(7) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act which can be found here: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/cth/consol_act/cea1918233/ The French and Latin Americans achieve a similar result by eliminating all but the top two candidates and having a run-off election a few weeks later. But you would expect the inefficient French and indolent Latins to do things the long way.
In the recent British election, an astonishing 425 MPs did not get 50 per cent of the vote in their electorates. Only 224 managed that.
One candidate in Norwich South, one of your lot as it happens, Nick, got elected with a miserable 29.3 per cent of the vote. More than 100 MPs got less than 40 per cent of the vote. That is, they got elected even though more than 60 per cent of the electorate might not have wanted them. Not very democratic.
Under the “Full Choice” system, if you vote for a candidate who does not come first or second (usually from a minor party), your vote does not get wasted. Rather, the vote counters say: “Well, given your candidate is not going to win, which of the two remaining candidates would you prefer?”
Let’s look at it in practice. Take the seat of Hendon. The Conservative got 19,635 votes (42.34 per cent); Labour got 19,529 (42.11) and the LibDem got 5734 (12.36). Under the present system, the Conservative got elected. Labour got agonisingly close. I bet, though, if you asked those 5734 LibDems who they would prefer to be their MP seeing their candidate did not get up, probably more than 70 per cent would prefer the Labour candidate to the Conservative – even more for a non-Brown led Labour Party.
I looked at all 649 seats. Assuming a 70 percent preference flow between the two Left and Centre Left parties and the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists and assuming the Conservatives would get the preferences of every other minor party, I worked out that Labour would have won about 40 of the seats that went to the Conservatives (like Hendon) and the LibDems would have won about 25. The Greens would have won one.
The Conservatives would have won just 241 seats. That is, 37 per cent of the seats for their 36 per cent of the vote. The LibDems would have got 12.5 per cent of the seats for their 23 per cent of the vote. Labour would have done handsomely at 298 seats, or 46 per cent of the seats for its 29 per cent of the vote – largely because of the presumed preferences from the LibDems.
That might not sound very attractive. But it is better than the present system and a big step, because once you have preferential voting, more people will be willing to vote LibDem because they will not have to worry about wasting their vote as they do now. My guess is that under the present system a lot of LibDem people vote Labour for fear of letting the Conservatives in.
The beauty of the preferential system is that you can keep all the present electorates and all their quaint names. It looks like a modest, acceptable and not scarily radical change.
You could even make the preferential bit optional (so voters can vote just 1, or 1 and 2, and not allocate preferences to every candidate on the ballot paper). Some Australian states do this.
Nick, this is a far more achievable change than risking a wholesale reform that would knocked back at referendum. You may not get another chance for another 36 years.
Yours from the Antipodes, Crispin Hull
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 15 May 2010.