The current debate on reform of the House of Lords as well as a comment received on my last post about America has got me thinking about electoral reform in the UK.
While some have argued that the overwhelming defeat of the referendum asking about AV (Alternative Vote) has ended debate, I don't believe that is the case.
AV is a bad system - it's NOT proportional and has never been Liberal Democrat policy. To support it as strongly as he did was a mistake by Nick Clegg but I suspect that in the Coalition negotations after the May 2010 election, the Conservatives were not even prepared to put the option of the Single Transferrable Vote (STV) on a referendum ballot so scared were they that it might pass and so fearful were they of the consequences for their party if it did.
As the wise old farmer would opine at this point, turkeys rarely vote for Christmas or indeed Thanksgiving for my US readers.
The problem with the debate on electoral reform is that it has become fixated on "systems" but I think it's time to take a step back and ask ourselves what kind of democracy do we want.
There are, in effect, two options - majoritarian or proportional. Were there simply two options, Conservative or Labour, Republican or Democrat, it would be simple. The party getting more votes wins - we can all understand that. It's simple and unambiguous. 51% is a majority, 49% isn't.
Unfortunately, most political cultures in most countries aren't that simple - there are a plurality of parties all vying for influence and power. Let's assume you have a country with a four-party system and the election produces the following result;
Party A: 40%
Party B: 30%
Party C: 20%
Party D: 10%
Now, the majoritarian will say that Party A should be the governing party because it has received the greatest number of votes or, put another way, fewer people have voted against it than against the other parties.
Ok, the proportionalist will say, I agree they have the most votes but they don't have a majority. Why should a party with 40% of the vote get 100% of the power? In any case, isn't it likely that a number of those who voted for Party A didn't do so because they voted FOR A's policy or programme but because they were opposed to B, C or D.
Doesn't matter, says the majoritarian. The reason WHY people vote for a party or a candidate doesn't enter into it - the votes are in the A column so A should form a Government or try to. IF they are able to get the support of other parties for other parts of their programme, so be it.
Yes, argues the proportionalist, but if 60% of the voters don't agree with an A policy, it won't get passed which will lead to paralysis and there will have to be another election. Of course, Party B could put forward its idea and see if other parties will support it. Government then becomes a process where competing legislative ideas are put forward and debated and voted on.
That's not how Government works, says the majoritarian. The party in Government has won the right to put into practice its ideas - modern Govenrment cannot function as a mish-mash of contradictory ideas which happen to be popular at the time. Governments need to be able to put into effect the ideas in their programme even if they don't have the majority to do it but because they think they are the right ideas.
But, says the proportionalist, a lot of what Government does and proposes isn't in the election manifesto. Surely, proposals need to be debated and discussed within Parliament - that's how legislative bodies function in a democracy. They aren't just rubber stamps for the Executive.
In practice, both agree, Governments and Parliaments don't function that way. IF no party has a majority in terms of seats, the horsetrading between parties begins.
Ah yes, says the majoritarian, the shabby horsetrading of Coalition. It's wholly unsatisfactory. It's not what people voted for - they voted for a party to form a Government not for a shabby deal where neither party gets what it wants.
But, argues the proportionalist, if Party A does a deal with Party C, those groups have a majority in the legislature. They have the votes to get legislation through. As long as the two parties agree the legislation, that's fine. Theoretically, Party A will get 2/3 of what it wants and Party C 1/3.
That isn't the point, replies the majoritarian. Would those who voted for Party C have done so had they known the party would go into Coalition or support Party A and would the voters of Party A have voted for that party had they known they would have gone into Coalition with Party C?
And that isn't the point either, responds the proportionalist. The parties have to work with the result the electorate has given them - I agree no one or very few vote for a Hung Parliament but it can and does happen. Are you saying that the people should be told to keep voting until they produce a majority? That's a prescription for anarchy.
If the electoral system allowed for second choices, you'd have a clearer idea as to which of the other parties was the second or third preference of Party C's supporters. IF the voters of Party C clearly show by their second preferences that they prefer Party B to Party A, the leaders of Party C will or can be guided as to which way they should face in any Coalition negotiation.
But would parties work that way, argues the majoritarian. Shouldn't Party A simply say, this is our programme, support it or oppose it but if you oppose key elements, we will resign and trigger a fresh election.
Why would that happen, argues the proportionalist. If Party A tried to put forward a programme which the other parties clearly opposed and was defeated, that need not mean another election. If Party B, C and D were able to come together on a common programme, then they could govern as a Coalition.
So the party winning the most votes and seats ends up in opposition, that doesn't sound very democratic, says the majoritarian.
But they didn't win a majority, argues the proportionalist. Their policies and proposals attracted more support than those of other parties, it's true, but that doesn't translate to legitimacy if it's not a majority. As a majoritarian, how can the largest minority be the same as a majority? If the proposals of the other parties do have the support of a majority, why can't that majority be more legitimate than the largest minority?
And so it goes...