Alex Massie

Does Cameron Understand How PR Works?

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This is, I'm afraid, a real question and one to which the answer would appear to be no. Today's text comes courtesy of John Rentoul and his colleague at the Independent on Sunday, Jane Merrick. On the matter of voting reform here's what David Cameron has to say:

JM: Is it true you once said if you had to have electoral reform then STV [Single Transferable Vote] would be better than AV [Alternative Vote]?

DC: My problem is I don’t see AV as effective reform, because you keep the constituency link, but you could end up with a more disproportionate result. It seems to me AV doesn’t really do it. I remember from my studies when I was studying under the great Vernon Bogdanor: STV, you can make lots of arguments for it because you are able to choose between candidates of a party so there’s some choice involved. The problem is you lose the constituency link. I think of my own county of Oxfordshire, this is exactly what would happen with STV – everyone would spend all their time in Banbury and Oxford and little old Witney and Carterton and Chipping Norton would never get a bloody look in. So you lose the constituency link. And that I think, in all that’s wrong with our politics, something really to hold on to is this link. Even as Leader of the Opposition, there’s not much that happens in Chipping Norton or on the housing estates of Witney or in the RAF mess at Carterton that I don’t know about. That’s the great strength of our system. And also being able to throw out the Government. So I am, have been, for as long as I can remember, opposed to electoral reform.

So, as you can see, it would seem that Cameron has barely the faintest idea of how STV works. There's really no other satisfactory explanation for his claim that adopting STV would "lose the constituency link". There are - and we'll come on to them in due course - problems with STV but losing the constituency link is not one of them. Indeed, if anything the trouble may be the other way round as the constituency link becomes too powerful. 

Either Vernon Bogdanor's Oxford classes aren't all they're cracked up to be or Cameron's memory is not to be trusted. Because STV in multi-member constituencies does exactly what it promises: each constituency sends several members to parliament. This is not difficult to understand and, anyway, merely a variation on the ancient and not-at-all-daft system of double-member constituencies that we used to have in this country anyway.

The problems with STV are not that the constituency link is broken but that, even more than other arrangements, is encourages a transactional kind of politics. Politicians are rewarded on the basis of how much they bring back to the local area, not on whether they're really a fit and proper person to be sitting in parliament in the first place.

Secondly, the competition can be as much within parties as between them as your first task is to beat your parties other candidates to top the poll and secure your seat before the messy business of transfers begins. But this in turn does hand considerable ppower to the party bosses - not merely in terms of selecting candidates - but in organising the party vote. For example, if Candidate A is going to meet the quota easily on the first ballot, a certain number of supporters or supporters in a given area of the constituency will be advised that, rather than give Mr A extra, un-needed votes, they should give Mr B their first preference and Mr C their second even though these gentlement are unknown to them and from the far side of the constituency. In other words, managing the vote becomes a vital skill in STV elections. Perhaps the most important skill.

And so, to take Cameron's Oxfordshire example, "little old Witney and Carterton and Chipping Norton" would indeed get a bloody look-in because a sensible Tory party would put someone from those areas on the bloody ballot so they could scoop-up most of the first preferences from those areas as well as, in due course and if necessary, transfers from the other Tory candidates in Oxfordshire.

STV certainly isn't a fool-proof system - for instance in Ireland its helped crooks and chancers who enjoy a large personal following to be returned to the Dail even when they've been so-disgraced that they've been disowned by their own party - and the election can sometimes be decided by whichever party is best at squeezing a third seat from a constituency that by rights might be thought likely to only send two of your boys to parliament.

But to pretend that it abolishes the constituency link or that you somehow can't change the government with STV and that FPTP is the best, most perfect, only foolproof system in the whole world is, I'm afraid, nonsense. And if this is what Cameron really believes then does he think all elections in the United Kingdom should use FPTP?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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