MPs are back today from their long summer recess, and the Political and Constitutional Reform Bill is right at the top of the agenda. This is likely to dominate politics for the immediate future, since it might have profound effects on how politics in this country operates.
The Bill combines two different reforms in one package – the referendum on changing the electoral system to the Alternative Vote (AV) and reducing and equalising constituencies. These two issues address what Nick Clegg has called the “deep unfairness” in the electoral system. This unfairness is exemplified by the last two elections: Labour won a majority of 66 with a vote share of 35.3 percent and a lead of just 3 percent in 2005; in 2010 the Conservatives gained more votes (36.1 percent) with a much bigger lead (7.1 percent) but were 19 seats short of a majority in the House.
Plenty of ink has been spilled on the unfairness of it all – and not unreasonably. But it is worth taking a cool, calm look at what is really driving this unfairness before considering what to do about it. Academic analysis demonstrates that most of the apparent bias to Labour in the electoral system is due to turnout (Labour’s safe seats tend to have very low turnout – only one in four of the bottom 50 seats by turnout are not Labour-held while only 2 of the top 50 are held by Labour) and, until 2010, their extremely effective vote distribution, aided by their well-targeted campaigning. According to one study, 26 seats in 2005 were due to uneven constituency sizes out of a total bias of 111, so while it is not an insubstantial problem, it is not the whole story.
Reforming the boundary review process is important for several good reasons – the last one took 7 years while Australia and New Zealand can do it in 6 months; the time lag means that even ‘new’ seats are 10 years out of date; and it has become very politicised as the parties try to gerrymander through the local inquiry stage. Reform is worthwhile, but it’s not going to make election results significantly more proportional.
If proportionality is what motivates you, AV is not the answer either – it can be much more unbalanced than First Past the Post. Again, the academic evidence points in a different direction than many widespread assumptions in the debate. The “unfair” outcome of the 2005 election – a 66 seat majority on 35.3 percent of the vote – would have been made much worse: it would have resulted in a 108 seat majority according to a British Academy study. Indeed, had we had AV over recent decades we would probably now be debating replacing it for something less extreme.
AV only really solves one problem – that MPs can be elected on less than 50 percent of the vote. But this is a problem no-one cared about before the choice of systems for the referendum was introduced. And AV’s solution – recycling votes until someone does get 50 percent acquiescence – treats third preferences (I dislike him slightly less than her) the same as first preferences (I really want this person to be my MP). Great, huh?
Robert McIlveen is a Research Fellow in Policy Exchange’s Government and Philosophy Unit.