13 July 2010

Widening the Scope

All the focus of electoral reform has been on the voting system used for the general elections that send MPs to the House of Commons. This is understandable - the outcome of a general election gives us our national government, so the importance of this election is (rightly or wrongly) much higher than other elections. However, I fear the Lib Dems may be missing other electoral reform opportunities. The systems used for European and local elections are in need of reform just as much, and they may be a politically easier reform to make.

Elections to the European Parliament in the UK use closed list proportional representation, with the exception of Northern Ireland, which uses the Lib Dem holy grail of Single Transferable Vote. While this gives a highly proportional outcome, the system has the big drawback that the electorate can't choose the specific MEP they wish to be represented by. The European Parliament feels like a distant, opaque, unaccountable organisation (the only time the media gives any coverage is when the right-wing press choose sensationalise the legislation that is being debated). Getting the names of the candidates on the ballot would be a small step on the way to providing some transparency. The rules of the European Parliament means that there is only one other option instead of party lists: STV. David Cameron doesn't like party lists either:

PR comes in many forms but more often than not you find yourself voting for a party rather than just one person. Under our current system, when you put your pencil to the ballot paper you're putting your cross against someone's name — one person to represent your interests, to go to if you have a problem: one person whom you feel a direct link to. A move to faceless politics would sever this local link and damage voter engagement.

So maybe the Tories be open to the idea of moving the whole of the UK from lists to STV for European elections.

For local elections we currently use first-past-the-post in multi-member wards (I know, more than one representative, madness!). However, if the result of the referendum is people choosing to reject FPTP for AV, why should the election of our local councillors still use the rejected system? The referendum should be on the electoral system used for both national and local elections. If that was the case, and the referendum was successful, local elections would use AV with multi-member wards... sounding similar to something? All that would need to happen would be to align the electoral cycle so that both councillors in a ward are elected at the same time (saving money and increasing turnout), and kaboom, STV! Wards tend to have just two councillors; it would be nice to merge some boundaries to double this and get a more representative system.

Last but by absolutely no means least, the House of Lords' replacement (lets call it the Senate). There is no historical precedent of having a constituency link to a Lord/Senator, so there is no need to have this idea of a extra-strong one-to-many know-them-like-the-back-of-my-stalkee's-head relationship. Nick Clegg has guaranteed us Lords reform. He must push for STV in the new Senate.

With only the promise of an AV referendum squeezed out of the Tories in the coalition agreement, it is easy to feel a bit disheartened about ever getting to the STV that the Lib Dems have always desired. However nothing I've described feels anywhere near as difficult as general election reform. There are plenty of electoral reform wins available if the party plays its cards right.

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