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Elect One, Get One Free: Proportional Representation at half the cost

Summary: First Past the Post is unfair, but Proportional Representation creates pointless extra MPs who cost money and represent nobody. I propose the German Mixed Member Proportional system with a twist: the extra “levelling” seats are filled by phantom MPs, not real ones. These manifest as extra Commons votes for under-represented parties, giving each party the power it deserves with no need for expensive and unaccountable seat-fillers.

It’s fairly obvious by now that the UK needs some kind of proportional representation. We can no longer ignore the problem that a party can win more than half the seats with less than half the votes, or get a million votes but no seats at all. But what kind of PR should we use?

The simplest thing would be to abolish our 650 constituencies and give each party a seat for every 0.154% (or 1/650) of the vote it gets. But then we lose the local representation we cherish so dearly. We’d have 650 MPs all living only in London, blind to the needs of those outside the M25. All of them would be chosen by the party, not the people – this makes it almost impossible to get rid of unpopular individuals in major parties. Nobody would feel connected to a single one of them, and most would be totally unknown to the people who supposedly elected them. Nobody would have a responsibility to stand up before the leaders of the nation and defend the interests of John o’Groats or Nether Wallop. How would you choose who to write to about local issues? And why would any of them bother to listen when no locality can vote him out by itself? When everyone is responsible, no-one is responsible – we’d have the tragedy of the commons in the House of Commons.

This thought-experiment illustrates the dilemma of Proportional Representation: you can’t have accountability if there’s more than one winner per area, but you can’t have proportionality if there are no prizes for second place. Going halfway and dividing the country into multi-member regions (as in Norway and the Scottish regional seats) is an imperfect compromise, incorporating the problems of both systems no matter where you draw the lines.

The non-locality problem can be solved with split levels. The simplest way is to have half the seats as single-member constituency seats, like we have now, and half of them as national or regional “levelling” seats. This so-called “Mixed Member Proportional system” (MMP) is used in Germany and New Zealand (ignoring some complications about special Maori seats). Under this system, the UK’s Green Party, which got 1% of the vote but only one seat out of 650, would get an extra 12 levelling seats to bring its representation in Parliament into line with its share of the vote: 13 out of 1300.

Numerically, this is entirely fair. But you’ll have noticed the problem already – there are now twice as many MPs as before. MPs have to be paid a salary and reimbursed for their expenses. A 100% cost increase is the last thing we want after the recent expenses scandal and the financial crisis. There also has to be space for them in the House, which we don’t have – a new building in Central London would cost a fortune and be devoid of the beauty and historical magic of the current Houses of Parliament. Even if we threw out the Lords to make room for the extras, they wouldn’t all be in the same debating chamber.

To get the numbers back down from 1300 to 650, we have to halve the number of constituencies by merging each of them with one of its neighbours. This is no problem in cities, but rural constituencies would become unmanageably large. The MP for Orkney and Shetland has a difficult enough job getting around his constituency without us giving him Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross to worry about. If we leave the rural constituencies alone and merge the city ones, the countryside ends up grossly over-represented. And even if we could somehow get around these issues, we are still left with the problem that half our MPs are party moguls the people don’t know. And it’s still impossible to get rid of unpopular politicians: in 1999, New Zealand’s Michael Cullen suffered a huge defeat in his constituency, but stayed in Parliament as an “extra” because he was high up on the party list.

So is PR forever condemned to be a “least worst” option, unable to overcome the problems of unfairness on the one hand and unaccountability on the other? I think not, and the reason is arrestingly simple: all the problems of First Past the Post stem from the fact that one seat equals one vote in the House of Commons. No allowance is made for the fact that each Liberal Democrat MP has 120,000 popular votes behind him while each Conservative MP only has 35,000. The former ought to count for 3.5 times as much as the latter, but each of them counts exactly once when the division bell sounds.

If we dispense with the “one MP, one Commons vote” notion, we can achieve proportional fairness without doubling the size of the House, without disadvantaging rural areas, and without forcing people to elect total strangers. But how could this work? Consider the German system: 299 constituency MPs elected by First Past the Post, and 299 extras to level the playing field. The extras are literally just there to make up the numbers. So why do they need to actually exist? Why not have “phantom MPs” who always vote in line with the real ones? These could make up the numbers just as well as the flesh-and-blood extras do in Germany, but we wouldn’t have to pay for their salaries, travel, food, dishwashers, cleaners and mortgages, because a phantom needs none of these things. Instead of living in expensive second homes, they can haunt the House of Commons in the form of extra “ghost votes” for the real-life MPs of their party.

This also gives us a solution to the current problem that you can’t vote for a minority party if there’s no candidate for your constituency. In the recent election, nearly half the country couldn’t vote Green even if they wanted to, because there wasn’t a local candidate. Minor parties simply can’t afford to spend their limited resources contesting hundreds seats they know they can’t win. The Greens got 1% overall, but if they’d had 650 candidates instead of only 338, they might have got twice that. This is another way in which First Past the Post punishes smaller parties – not only does it stop them gaining seats, but it stops them even trying in the first place.

The usual MMP solution to this problem is to give people two votes, one for the party which determines the overall allocation of seats, and one for the constituency MP. We could do this: the advantage is that you can, if you want, vote for different parties with each vote, which is useful if you like a party but hate its local candidate. But the disadvantage is that this confuses people – in Scotland, where a similar system operates for the devolved parliament, the 2003 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey showed that most people misunderstood the basics of the system. The alternative, which works for my proposal but not for existing MMP systems, is to list all parties on the ballot paper, and simply leave the “name” field blank for those who aren’t fielding a candidate in that constituency, allowing people to vote for a “phantom”. This preserves the simple and well understood single-vote system we currently have. As both work with my system, we can pick either according to preference.

There are five issues still to be resolved: distribution, overhangs, parties with no constituency MPs, independents, and MPs who change parties or go independent mid-term. I will deal with each of them in turn. This is going into the fine detail, though, so anyone who's not that interested in how I would work out the kinks can just skip ahead to the conclusion.

Distribution

Now that we have these extra Commons votes, we need to work out a fair way of distributing them. Leaving them all in the hands of the party leader would give too much power to his or her constituency: the inhabitants of Witney, Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath and Sheffield Hallam (or wherever the main party leaders happen to be from) would have hundreds more Commons votes than the people down the road. My suggestion is to rank each MP in order of the percentage majority they got at home, put an extra “leader’s hat” at the top (leaving the actual leader in place), and give out the ghost votes one by one in that order until they run out. This allows MPs to use their ghost votes when local issues bring him into conflict with the party view and they want to dissent. The “leader’s hat” is there to take account of the fact that many people vote based on their opinion of the party leader rather than their local candidate – the actual leader would then get these ghost votes in addition to his own, and if he steps down as leader, the hat passes on. But this is a minor detail – it wouldn’t make a huge difference if we did something else, such as allowing fractions of votes.

Overhangs

Overhangs occur when a party wins more constituency MPs than its overall share of the vote deserves. For example, on 6 May the DUP won eight seats, but according to its overall share of the vote it should have seven (out of 1300). Since we can’t give it -1 ghost votes, or sack any of its MPs, it is overrepresented. Overhangs exist in any MMP system and are mostly just tolerated. Germany actually creates even more extra seats when this happens: currently there are 24 overhang seats as well as the 598 it’s supposed to have. Assuming there is a mathematically fair way to do it, this may be the best option in my system since the extras cost nothing to create. Otherwise we could simply ignore the problem and live with the overhang.

Ghosts without bodies

A bigger problem is parties which deserve some ghost votes but don’t have any real MPs to give them to. UKIP got no seats but under MMP would get 41 extras. Who is to wield these 41 ghost votes? We can reduce, but not eliminate, the possibility of this problem occurring with a threshold – a rule whereby a party must get, say, 4% of the overall vote before it can have any ghosts. This has the advantage of keeping extremists out, but this is arbitrary and reintroduces some of the unfairness of First Past the Post (discriminating against small parties). It also creates overhangs when small parties do manage to win a seat despite having less than the threshold overall – a party with 3.9% of the vote concentrated in a small area can win seats, while a party with the same percentage of the vote spread across the country gets nothing. And it’s still possible for a party to get more than the threshold but no seats.

My preferred solution is to have no threshold, and allow the leaders of these parties to sit in the House of Commons as “observer members”. They (or rather, their ghosts) can vote on motions and bills but cannot speak (on pain of ejection) or propose bills. This preserves the advantage of keeping disruptive extremist voices quiet while still allowing the section of the public which voted for them to express its view on bills proposed by the others. They would undoubtedly try to cut deals with MPs to offer their support in return for proxy proposals, but at least they are likely to be presented in a less inflammatory manner and are no more likely to succeed. We can avoid disgraceful incidents of outspokenness, such as when Nigel Farage hurled abuse at European President Herman van Rompuy in the EU Parliament, without denying our sizeable Eurosceptic population a fair chance at blocking new EU treaties. Also, if we didn’t disenfranchise these parties, they wouldn’t need to be so loud-mouthed and obnoxious in the first place. There are doubtlessly other potential ways around the problem, but I believe this suggestion at least presents one workable option.

Independents and one-man parties

Another problem is what to do about independents. We could simply treat them as one-man parties – after all, it’s unlikely that anybody would get enough votes within a single constituency to get an additional ghost vote. But it could lead to overrepresentation – if an independent persuaded nearly everyone to vote tactically for him or her, that constituency would have two Commons votes rather than one. The promise of double representation might persuade them to do this, but it seems unfair to the people next door. There’d also be no reason for individuals not to clutter up the ballot papers by forming one-man parties – at least that way they’d have a chance of picking up votes from other places. We’d have 100 parties on every ballot paper in the country, instead of one extra name in 100 constituencies.

My solution is to have a much higher deposit for parties than for independents. This will keep the number of frivolous parties to a minimum. If desired, we could simply say that independents can’t have ghost votes, but some would argue this is both unfair and hardly necessary – if they can win a seat with 95% of the vote, they probably deserve the ghost. However, other solutions may well be preferred, and this can be looked at in more detail.

Changing sides

This leaves only the problem of MPs who change parties or go independent between elections. It’s already unfair that you can vote in an MP of one party only to see him change sides, but it’s even worse if he commands four ghost votes earned by his former party, not himself. One solution is to force the turncoat to leave the ghosts behind and redistribute them within the party. This would act as a deterrent, but could unfairly penalise MPs who have legitimate reasons for defecting. Also, in a single-vote system it would mess up the numbers – how are we to know how many votes the defector got because people liked him personally, and how many because they liked his party? The same problem occurs if you try to redo the calculation of ghosts from scratch. Does the defector goes to the back of the queue for ghosts in the new party even if he won by a landslide? If so, he’s penalised again; but if not, he might be stealing party votes. In a two-vote system, this isn’t as problematic as the candidate vote and the party vote are separate, but it’s still likely that the candidate vote will have been influenced by party considerations.

Fortunately, there’s another solution which has already been proposed for our current system – hold a by-election whenever an MP changes parties or goes independent. Then voters can make a fresh decision with full knowledge of the new facts, and the ghosts can be redistributed on up-to-date figures. The disadvantage is the expense. We would have to decide whether this was a price worth paying.

Conclusion

The “Elect One, Get One Free” system combines the advantages of First Past the Post and MMP while shedding the problems of both. It is entirely fair and preserves local connections and accountability. The few problems are minor and solvable in several ways. It can be implemented at practically no extra cost without substantially changing the number of MPs or radically changing the size of constituencies. I firmly believe this should be on the electoral reform table along with existing systems.

Comments

Camilla,  10.05.10 11:10

Sorry, Tim. I want to read this, but whenever I get to the bit about PR "representing nobody" and losing local representation, I get too annoyed. It is patently untrue. Not having ONE MP for your collection of streets is not the same as lacking local representation. You write as if all MPs are appointed centrally in a PR system, which is not the case.

In fact, I would argue your representation is better in a system like the Norwegian, as you are able to tell the people you ACTUALLY voted for (provided they get in) that you will withdraw your vote if they do not behave. You cannot do that in the British system unless you voted for your MP, which half the people in the constituency didn't.

Tor,  10.05.10 11:43

I sort of agree with Camilla, though it is probably worth pointing out that Britain has about 14 times more people than Norway, and only 3.8 times as many MPs, meaning that if you group together the constituencies to create a system similar to the Norwegian one, each MP would have almost 4 times as many people in their constituency as the Norwegian MPs. And while the people would have someone they could talk to about issues, it would make it more difficult for the MPs to visit their entire constituency, which seems to be an important part of what the British consider local representation.

Tim,  10.05.10 11:43

That works in Norway because Norway is small. If we did that here, we'd have to either have so many constituencies that we had the same problem as we do now, or have so many MPs per constituency that they'd lose local representation. It would work in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies, and in English regional devolved parliaments if we had them, but not in a parliament of 650 representing 62m people.

Tim,  10.05.10 11:45

Snap!

Camilla,  10.05.10 12:29

Preamble: Tor said I wasn't allowed to spend a lot of time on this today, but he's at King's Buildings, so...

Your country has more people. More people would be represented by the group of MPs. That is true. It does not change the fact that you are over-exaggerating the negative aspects of PR in a way which detracts from your proposal.

We’d have 650 MPs all living only in London, blind to the needs of those outside the M25.

That does not follow from a PR system.

All of them would be chosen by the party, not the people – this makes it almost impossible to get rid of unpopular individuals in major parties.

Yes and no. They need not be chosen centrally. In Norway you vote for local representatives for your party, and the local party groups do the ordering of priority of its members, I believe.

Nobody would feel connected to a single one of them, and most would be totally unknown to the people who supposedly elected them.

If you mean on a personal one-to-one basis, yes. You rarely know the people representing you. But that is true of your current system at the moment as well. How many people actually know their MP? Do you? If you mean know of, then that is only true of people who do not care about politics.

Nobody would have a responsibility to stand up before the leaders of the nation and defend the interests of John o’Groats or Nether Wallop.

Of course they have the responsibility. And the accountability. Because the main representatives are elected from an area, they represent that area, and you can contact them. More importantly, you can connect the local problem to principles or core values of their PARTIES which makes it more likely your issues will become something more than one representative in the Parliament cares about.

How would you choose who to write to about local issues? And why would any of them bother to listen when no locality can vote him out by itself?

Because issues are covered by policy and ideology. Can you give an example of one of these shadowy cases that can only be solved by an MP who grew up with your grandmother?

When everyone is responsible, no-one is responsible – we’d have the tragedy of the commons in the House of Commons.

As I said, hyperbole is possibly not your friend.

This thought-experiment illustrates the dilemma of Proportional Representation: you can’t have accountability if there’s more than one winner per area

Of course you can. Also, I think that is less of a thought experiment than a polemic.

I don't disagree that your solution may be a better one for Britain than a copy of a Norwegian system. I am just saying that what you are writing about PR is painting it much too black. And it annoys me too much for me to have the energy to read the rest of the post.

Tim,  10.05.10 15:49

Camilla, I think you're missing the point of the first few paragraphs. The idea is to compare two extremes. The system of 650 centrally-chosen MPs is the most perfectly proportional system imaginable. But it doesn't exist anywhere, because there would be huge problems with it. I'm using it as a thought experiment to show what happens at one extreme, and then to demonstrate that the PR systems which exist in the real world are compromises between the problems of one extreme and the problems of the other. As Tor and I have pointed out, an acceptable middle ground between the two extremes is much easier to find in a small country than a big one.

I did have to cut the beginning rather short in order to keep the word count down, so it may be that it would benefit from a bit more explanation.

Let me know when you've mustered the strength to read the entire proposal – or even just the first two-fifths, up to the part where it says you can skip to the conclusion if you're bored – and then hopefully we can debate it on its merits.
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