Written evidence submitted by the New
Economics Foundation (nef) (PVSCB 08)
nef believes fundamental reform of the
UK's electoral system is needed to achieve a better, fairer and
more sustainable economy and society for all. We therefore welcome
the referendum on electoral reform and back the "Yes"
However, we feel that the process for
designing and initiating the referendum has been highly undemocratic
and that the Alternative Vote system on offer is not the system
which best meets the criteria for a democratic electoral system.
We call for this issue to be looked at
again by a citizen's convention.
1.0 nef's position is that our political
institutions require fundamental reform. In particular our system
for electing MPs is simply not fit for a modern, multi-party democracy.
The Alternative Vote (AV) system has a number of advantages over
our current system.
1.1 nef argues that an electoral system
should be chosen based on how far it meets five key criteria:
1. Equality: offering all voters equal electoral
power. Essentially, this means an electoral system which is fair
2. Proportionality: ensuring that the value of
a vote is the same, no matter which party or candidate it is for.
Essentially, this means an electoral system which is fair to parties.
3. Responsiveness: Citizens should have access
to a responsive representative who understands the needs of their
area. At the moment, this is achieved through the MP constituency
link, but other systems may offer similar benefits.
4. Independence: Representatives should have
an appropriate degree of independence from the party hierarchy,
and instead encourage them to consider the views of their electorate.
5. Transparency: The electoral system should
provide as clear as possible a signal of voters' preferences,
without distortions such as tactical voting.
1.2 It should be recognised that these criteria
may be in conflict and that no electoral system will completely
fulfil all of them. The process by which a system is chosen must
offer an opportunity for all the options to be evaluated against
these and other criteria in a considered and democratic manner.
1.3 It's also worth noting that the electoral
system is not the only barrier to meeting these criteria. Other
factors, such as voter registration processes or candidate selection
procedures will also have an impact.
1.4 As described in the nef report Spoiled
our current, "First Past the Post" (FPTP) system produces
a highly unequal distribution of electoral power amongst voters.
Voters in the roughly 20% of constituencies which are marginal
have much greater influence over the composition of the government
than those living in safe seats. In all seats, FPTP also undermines
transparency by encouraging tactical voting, as, for voters, influencing
the result means voting for a party with a chance of winning in
that constituency. Furthermore, FPTP is disproportionate, leading
to overrepresentation of larger parties and under representation
of smaller parties unless their support is highly geographically
1.5 We welcome the referendum on moving
to an Alternative Vote system. We support the implicit recognition
of the principle that it is for citizens to decide on major constitutional
issues, not their elected representatives. We also hope that the
referendum opens up a space for national debate about our political
institutions and the possibilities for reform.
1.6 We feel that AV has significant advantages
over FPTP and support a "yes" vote in a reform referendum.
AV offers all voters the opportunity to signal their political
preference via their first vote, without sacrificing their political
power. It will therefore offer a truer picture of public preferences
and tactical voting at the level of first preferences making the
system more transparent. AV will also increase somewhat the number
of seats which are contested, reducing inequality of voting power
to a limited extent.
1.7 We also welcome the use of preferential
voting for Westminster elections. Preferential voting (the rating
of options in order of preference rather than selecting a single
option as under FPTP), which is used in AV, offers a more nuanced
way for voters to express preferences and is used by nef in some
of our public engagement tools.
1.8 However, AV will not make significant
strides to responsiveness, independence or proportionality, and
does not offer sufficient progress towards equality. Therefore
we would not recommend it as a final settlement for Westminster
1.9 Further, we feel that the way this referendum
has come about has been profoundly undemocratic. The options to
include on the referendum were decided in secret negotiations
between representatives of those who have the most visible vested
interest in the system: the major political parties.
1.10 We believe that, in keeping with the
principle that it is for citizens to decide on major constitutional
issues, not their elected representatives, we call for future
decisions on electoral reform, and other similarly significant
constitutional issues to be made in a way which puts the design
of the question, as well as the final decision, in the hands of
1.11 One model of how this might work is
a citizen's convention. A citizen's convention is a gathering
of a representative group of citizens, which could range in size
from 50 citizens to more than a thousand. These citizens would
be asked to consider the criteria, look at the evidence and make
a recommendation as to the options which should be put to the
wider public in the form of a referendum. To assist them in the
decision they would be aided by a neutral facilitator, have access
to expert opinions from all perspectives and be given time to
share views and experiences. A process of this kind will enable
participating citizens to apply their own values, knowledge and
experiences to the question of what electoral systems should be
considered, and make informed and considered recommendations to
the wider public.
1.12 An outstanding example of how this
might work in practice is the British Columbia citizen's assembly
where a panel of citizens were empowered to make a recommendation
on electoral reform for the state legislature.
2.0 Achieving a Great Transition to a fairer,
more sustainable social and economic system will require decisive
and ambitious action by central government. For this to occur,
government will need to come under sustained pressure from citizens
and civil society organisations to offer a counter-balance to
influence powerful groups who benefit from the status quo.
In order for the pressure for change to be effective, we need
an electoral system which offers all groups in society access
to electoral power, instead of concentrating it in a number of
affluent "marginal" areas, and one which permits a wide
range of voices into formal political debates instead of shutting
out all but the most established.
6 September 2010
32 Marks, Nic (2005) Spoiled Ballot: Why less than
three per cent have a fair share of democratic power in Britain
(London: new economics foundation). Available at: http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/spoiled-ballot Back
For an authoritative examination of the features of different
electoral systems see Hix, Simon et al (2010) Choosing an electoral
system (London: British Academy Policy Centre) http://www.britac.ac.uk/policy/choosing-electoral-system.cfm Back
See for example Walker, Perry (2010) Crowdwise Briefing (London:
new economics foundation). Available at: http://www.neweconomics.org/projects/crowd-wise Back
For more information on deliberative approaches like a Citizen's
Convention see Walker, Perry (2003) We the People (London: new
economics foundation) http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/we-people Back
For more information see Perra, Leo (2004) "A Presentation
on Province-Wide Citizen Participation", a presentation to
the Sino-Canadian Seminar on Public Participation in the Legislative
Process, given July 13 2004. Available at: http://www.citizensassembly.bc.ca/resources/china/China_presentation.pdf Back