We Need to Talk About Proportional Representation (Again)

07/10/2014 17:16 BST | Updated 07/12/2014 10:59 GMT

What with constitutional matters the real political hot topic of the moment, with calls for a revision of where power is concentrated and how it can be used very much the immediate legacy of the independence referendum, as well as Cameron's boisterous conference rhetoric on a Bill of Rights giving sympathetic media the opportunity to trot out their best 'finally/told you so' front pages, is it not also the perfect time to revisit our electoral system?

Surely if we are planning to renegotiate the entire basis of our politics in terms of who votes on what, it may be worth asking how are those votes accounted for and what do they actually mean?

But we only recently said no

This is the inevitable first line of defence or argument against another referendum or even simply consultation on a possible new voting system. Clegg and co did their best a few years back, but ultimately, the people spoke and it was First Past the Post all the way for them.

Except that wasn't really what that referendum outcome meant was it?

What that outcome pointed to, and pointed to in very clear language, was that people were against AV. The public did not want to adopt a system with the potential for more political unfairness and that's fair enough. Clegg himself even once called AV a 'miserable little compromise'.

But a vote against AV is not necessarily a vote against PR and it most certainly isn't by default, a vote for First Past the Post.

There are a multitude of options available, as all in politics well know, that would offer something more effective than our current system. STV(Single Transferable Vote), AMS(Additional Member System) and the unused but eminently sensible AV+(Alternative Vote Plus) all provide solutions to many of the pitfalls that accompany our current voting system.

Does it really matter?

Put simply, yes. Let's take the last election as an example, and let's imagine we had used AV+ (like AV but better) rather than FPTP to tot up the votes. As it was with FPTP:

Tories received 307 seats (47% of total available seats) on 36% of the national vote,

Labour received 258 seats (39% of total available seats) on 29% of the national vote

Lib Dems received 57 seats (<9% of total available seats) on 23% of the national vote.

Doesn't that seem a bit odd?

With AV+, that imbalance would be addressed to an extent -

Tories 275 seats (42% of available seats),

Labour 234 seats (36% of available seats)

Lib Dems 110 seats (17% of available seats).

While it's not full-blown proportionality (STV would result in a 37%, 31%, 24% split of seats respectively), it does offer to begin bridging that gap that is threatening to become a chasm. What's more, it provides representation for parties that ought to have it, at Westminster. The Greens for example, received 1% of the national vote in 2010, and yet only have one seat. Under AV+, they could expect to have three to eight seats which would provide them with much more agenda-setting power than they currently possess.

Surely, for an electorate whose interest in politics is rapidly reaching its nadir, a transparent and fair voting system that offers representation for all views (and yes that does include Ukip and even BNP) would help stem the tide and fight against the flow of apathy. The often repeated line of 'my vote doesn't matter' is so much harder to shout when it's obvious exactly where your vote is going and what it is doing. Proportional and semi-proportional systems provide this in a way that plurality systems like FPTP simply cannot.

So if FPTP isn't the answer, what is?

AV+, the much debated and arguably derisorily ignored system posited by the Jenkins Commission in the early days of the last Labour government, is the most plausible and sensible of all available alternatives to the current order.

AV+ gives that perfect compromise of proportionality and plurality that would, if we're honest, be a political requirement in this country - the recent AV referendum shows that straight proportionalism is perhaps too alien to our sensibilities, too 'namby-pamby rainbow coalition' for the (more idealistic than real these days) kitchen sink, adversarial left and right battles than have come to define British politics. AV+ is a compromise, but one of those rare compromises in which all sides ought to finish up better off than before.

The 'we need a stable government' brigade (who have somehow managed to escape rebuke during these years of coalition that FPTP is supposed to safeguard against) would be happy because in 'landslide' years like 1997 for example, the result would be the same. Strong governments will remain strong governments, and weak governments will be no more affected than they are currently under FPTP. The main vote and general logistics of it all stay broadly the same.

To appeal to those intent on maintaining the status quo, one cannot underestimate the meaningfulness of small processes - voting for one candidate from a list, with one choice from each party (the main vote), for example - if these can be ensured and safeguarded while enacting a more broad change overall, then you're on to a winner.

The PR-backers would be similarly appeased with the promise of at least a 15% element of proportionality underwritten into the system (each voter gets a second vote for a 'local' candidate from a choice of multiple candidates per party, that would ultimately makeup 15-20% of the overall elected body) and the obvious step towards to a fairer and more transparent system is something they would never resent.

We need to talk about PR

It's time it was back on the agenda. The way our politics works, we all know that even if it starts gaining traction now, it still won't be until the sunset days of the next government that it will be fully addressed (at least). So yes, we had the conversation a few years ago, but a) it wasn't quite the right conversation and b) it wasn't held within a climate of proposed constitutional upheaval, which following the indyref, is where we are today.

Now is the right time to start talking about it. Because after all, if we really are better together, we should probably start trying to prove it. A revamped, refreshed and radical new voting system, or at least a dialogue about the possibility of one, would be a great start.