- Alan Smith considers the merits of different voting systems
In a general election for a Member of Parliament one places an ‘X’ against the name of a candidate. This has the effect of a small but finite increase in the chances of that candidate being elected. In most cases, where the candidate represents a party, it also has the effect of a smaller but still finite chance of that candidate’s party forming the government that results from the general election.
The wasted vote
It is convenient at this point to consider the Myth of the Wasted Vote. For example, in a two-candidate election where the winning candidate gets, say, 30,000 votes and the losing candidate gets, say, 10,000 votes, it can be claimed that all the 10,000 votes cast for the losing candidate are ‘wasted’ in that they did not produce the desired result. In fact, except where there is a dead heat or a majority of one, every vote, considered as an individual action may be said to be ‘wasted’ since the absence of that vote would make no difference to the result. Generally, votes are only significant when similar votes are aggregated together.
First Past the Post
The candidate that a voter would prefer to win the seat generally represents the party that he would prefer to form a government. Where this is not the case, the voter must consider which is the more important choice. Then he must think about what he would like to achieve.
If he wishes to vote for his favourite candidate come what may, he votes for that candidate and thus does what he can to achieve his goal. On the other hand, if he wishes to influence the result in his constituency he must draw up a short-list of those candidates with a chance of winning and then either vote for the candidate that he most wants to win or else vote for the candidate with the best chance of beating the candidate he most wants not to win.
I am in favour of this First Past the Post (FPTP) system. Together with the internal layout of the Commons Chamber, with two sets of benches facing each other, it offers the best chance of producing a House of Commons with an actual governing party and a potential governing party.
Another system of voting is the Alternative Vote (AV) whereby, in a single-member constituency, each voter places candidates in order of preference and multiple counts take place, initially using the first preference. Then the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and his votes distributed among the other candidates using the next preference until one candidate has an overall majority and is declared the winner. Whereas FPTP chooses the most popular candidate, AV produces the least unpopular candidate. Which is preferable for choosing Members of the House of Commons is a moot point. Certainly AV is less likely to produce a potential governing party from among the opposition.
AV is a simple step in the direction of Proportional Representation (PR). More complex models involve multi-member constituencies: the closed-list system and the open-list system. In the closed-list system, used for European Elections in Great Britain, the voter can only choose a party and then the appropriate number of seats is allocated to each party from a list in the order that each party itself has chosen. In the open-list system, used for European Elections in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, the voters themselves place candidates from one or more parties in order of preference in a manner similar to AV. I have argued that the closed-list system used in Great Britain should be replaced by the open-list system (‘A Voting Strategy for the European Elections’, The Quarterly Review, Spring 2009). The higher voter turnout in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic over Great Britain supports my view.
There is some truth in the view that the political parties are increasingly failing to offer a real choice. This can be used as an excuse by the idle so that they can turn away from the political process and watch I’m a Nonentity, Get Me into There or whatever. However, for those who honestly can see no real choice in the political process there is a need for them to register their abstention in a positive way. This need is met, in many constituencies, by the Official Monster Raving Loony Party (OMRLP). The votes cast for the OMRLP should be monitored by the mainstream parties as an indication of public dissatisfaction with politics.
Before the European Elections in 2014, Professor Ged Martin, an old school friend now living in the Irish Republic, wrote: ‘If I lived in Britain, I would simply echo Blackadder’s slogan when he ran Baldrick at the Dunnee-on-the-Wold by-election: “A rotten candidate for a rotten borough”. The European Parliament is a joke assembly, so surely there is no alternative but to vote for a joke party.’ If, by the next European Elections, the OMRLP contested and won a seat in the European Parliament their victory might achieve the reform that rational argument has so far failed to do.