16 June 2009

A Calm Chat

Bruce Anderson has written a good article about constitutional reform

In it he makes the oft-stated point that reform needs to be calmly thought out, not a knee-jerk response to the expenses fiasco - very true

However, while he plays the realist he forgets probably the one most realistic feature of this debate: we will not get any reform without strong public backing, the establishment parties will never voluntarily give up their monopolies, that much is evident

The Jenkins Report was calm and thorough, however it never went anywhere because Blair and Labour had no need to use it - anybody who expects politicians to nobly reform the system for the good of the people is frankly barking, and yes I agree with him that the Libs support PR because it benefits them, but that doesn't mean they don't make a valid point

The truth is this public sentiment will not last long, hopefully it will carry into the next election, but apathy with soon return after that - we reformers can go on arguing forever but the wider public won't care about such issues for long, and no longer under threat, the governing party can simply forget the issue

It is true that 'hard thinking in a calm atmosphere' will provide the best result - however who exactly will be doing this? Unfortunately any reformers have to strike while the iron is hot, Bruce Anderson seems to show a remarkable naivety (which means it's deliberate) about how politics is done - in theory all politics should be calm and rational, but it never is, it's based on populism and strategic thinking, the ideal of good governance for the sake of it is an incredibly rare trait - and so reform must be debated now, otherwise it won't be at all

If you wish to see Bruce's not-so-subtle dig at reform you only have to note his example of what happens with proportional systems - Israel

We all know about Israel, with its dozens of parties and not having made it to the end of a term in 20 years, all very bad

But I'm afraid Israel is the extreme, it is often used to stymie proponents of PR but in reality you are comparing a small state, set up under controversial conditions and with pretty extreme racial and religious divides to the one of the stablest countries in the world

Also Israel uses a very basic model of PR - it's a closed-list system based on the national vote, with only a 2% electoral threshold (which was only just introduced) - there are a lot of systems out there that work a lot better

Germany is probably the best example, and which do you think is a better comparison to Britain? The large European nation or the small Jewish state in the middle-east?

Germany is, you might say, a peaceful and industrious nation these days - it's only had two Chancellors since 1998, both pretty strong, and both elected, in a marked difference to what we've had to put up with, and it doesn't appear to be collapsing

Germany uses the mixed-member system (MMP), which is far more robust than the simplistic PR system - it uses FPTP for 299 seats, then tops up the remaining 299 with the share of the vote, meaning that a party with a higher share of the vote but less seats (like the Lib Dems) would receive their extra seats, but also that Labour would keep their directly elected members in 'overhang' seats - there are also stricter thresholds (5% or three seats) that prevent minor fringe parties splitting the parliament, a response to the weaknesses that brought the Weimar Republic to its knees

This is basically the system that has been proposed in Britain since the 70s, and the AV+ system proposed by Jenkins in 1999 was pretty similar, as it is a good way of keeping politicians linked to constituents - it is this system (watered-down, I might add) that is used in Scotland, Wales and London, so when critics start talking about the failures of Israel or Italy just remember it's not the same thing and we've been using it for years already

This system is widely seen to be one of the best - no system is perfect, of course, but in it you get to ensure there is a local link to MPs as well as ensure fairness at the national level - Andrew Neil did raise the point that you can fail to win your own election and then end up in parliament through this system - (so despised people, eg. Mandelson, if he wasn't already appointed Lord Protector, can still win) but this could be balanced with an open-list system as well as 'best-runner up' spots

In the end it may well be seen as a necessary evil of the system, it's a matter for debate whether the flaws of our own system are any better, one can argue that it would be quite fair that the most popular Lib Dem who didn't win an election deserves a seat based on the national vote, as the arbitrary geographical divisions are what separate the electorate

As such, this system has been adopted in New Zealand and is strongly supported in Canada (by a majority, but not a big-enough majority)

So while Israel may have an epic failure of an electoral system, let's look at who among the western world manage a proportional system:

Australia (upper house, run-off in the lower house)
Czech Rep
India (upper house)
New Zealand
South Africa
South Korea (mixed with FPTP)

FPTP (or plurality voting) is used, at least in some part, in 43 nations, less than a quarter of the UN, a select list:

India (lower house)
South Korea (partly)

oh, and Pakistan...

That's about it, the rest are generally former British colonies in the Caribbean and Africa - and as I say, New Zealand have moved away from the British model, Canada seem willing to, and most liberated Eastern European countries have opted for some sort of PR

It leaves the US and the UK as the two major proponents of the system

We can argue all we like over the best system, but it's pretty clear that the world is moving away from the arcane system we dragged out of the Middle Ages

PR may not be the right answer, but we can be pretty sure that FPTP, on its own at least, is the wrong one

1 comment:

  1. I agree that the current system doesn't invite any changes (or any real debate about changes) as it would be like Turkeys voting for Xmas.

    That's one of the reasons why we have to get some independent MPs elected so that they can properly represent their local constituents, and then devise a better system for national government.