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Saturday Supplelement- PR in the UK

5.14.2005

Recently in G2 there was an article explaining the theory behind the newLabour obsession with choice and consumer power. The main thrust of the theory is that choice allows us to balance the power of a consumer’s voice within a service with the power of taking ones custom elsewhere in protest at bad service. Choice is a tool which should allow those who desire to do so hold institutions to account and in effect by raising the prospect of exiting the service ones power of voice becomes enhanced. This is not intended as a comment on the merits or not of choice merely of consistency in newLabour thinking.
Giving choice to consumers is seen as a means of redressing a power imbalance between institutions and those who use them. Choice is a stick that the consumer can use to threaten any service provider with-"improve or we leave". It is theoretically used to balance voice and exit, ie complaint of leaving. For newLabour the appeal is obvious, middle England would always have been best disposed to choice, they could afford private but wouldn’t automatically chose it if the public services were of good enough quality. The argument counter to this is that its effect on the less well off is not very beneficial. The effect of consumers leaving a service can be the removal of that service and the less well off who rely on it have no choice but to pay.
My point is this, why if newLabour is such a strong advocate of choice in the public realm has it not become a strong advocate of choice in the civic realm? The current electoral system means that the first person to pass the post wins. On the face of it many would say why not? This is why not, in an average constituency many candidates secure less than 50% of the vote to become elected. Therefore an MP for the next parliament is only effectively representing anywhere from 30% to 50% of the electorate. The extent of under representation when looked at on a national level means that any party with 35%-40% of the national vote can secure 60%and of the seats in the parliament (roughly 45% votes and 60% seats for Labour in 2001 and 35% and 55-60% seats 2005)
This is not necessarily how it has to be; newLabour can place far more power in the electorate’s hands. Choice would be a very fine lever of power to begin with. The current system embodies almost everything that newLabour sees as wrong in the provision of public services, namely that power lies in the institutions hands and very little weight is given to the voter’s voice. The voter is almost powerless to force change in the institutions that govern Britain. One can reply ‘what about exit?’, well 40% of the electorate decided to exit this time by abstaining and still government takes no notice, it only attempts to woo the ever shrinking number of willing voters.
The only option is choice. The time has come for the U.K. government to examine a means of giving voters real power. The vote can be an enormously powerful tool. Here are two of the simpler options available to those who could and should empower voters.
The first option is to maintain the principle of one MP per constituency. Voters currently place an ‘x’ beside their favoured candidate. There is one count and the most votes wins. There is no minimum threshold for candidates to pass in order to be deemed elected, no minimum number of constituents whose support is required to elect an MP.
There can be. The government can implement a threshold of 55% or some other number of elector as a minimum support required for candidates. But surely no candidate could on one count only gain 55% of the vote across the country? They don’t have to do it on one count. By allowing voters to replace ‘X’ with ‘1,2,3,4…’ we can begin to change the one count only policy. All that is required of voters is to vote in order of preference, irrelevant of party and all according to choice. What it means is that those candidates with lowest votes get eliminated and second preferences distributed until such time as either a) a candidate accumulate over 55% of support across ballots or b) no candidates are left but one.
The other option is more complicated and requires more work. This option increases immeasurably the fairness of the votes to seats ratio and makes candidates more reliant on voters. It is a broader system of P.R. where a party can receive its number of seats according to proportion of votes received and allocates them according to a pre agreed list; this however removes mps from constituency work and requires a correlated strengthening of local government in order to meet constituency needs. In a country attached to the idea of local constituency MPs there is also the PR system which adds members across a constituency. By making mps dependent on population in a constituency one can increase proportionality. Such a system as our own PR-STV is a wonderful example of proportionality and the added bonus of tied constituency representation. Jack Straw voiced his concern over the detachment a list system or Additional member system creates within the body politic. It is funny he never addressed the STV system. This solution was built in Britain and exported to two colonies for expirement. Ireland and Malta are still the only two countries in the world to use PR-STV. It must have been two succesful at ensuring fair distribution of power to be countenanced by the british establishment. The arguments for and against becomes increasingly academic as one discusses method but what we should all agree on is simple.
A candidates must be made to listen more closely to constituents. A party must be made more accountable to public desire. If people are given a real and powerful choice then they may reengage with the electoral system, if we desire people to have more voice we must give them more choice. For the progressives in the UK think of the damage to the conservative party a lib-lab one-two vote could have done. No wasted vote, no unheard voices and all choices making a difference. It might not suit our politicians but for those who believe in the power of choice the logical extension is right before your eyes.

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