Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill - Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Contents

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" campaign.

    — 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 to voters.

    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 Ballot,[32] 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 concentrated.

  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.[33]

  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.[34]

  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 elections.

  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 citizens.

  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.[35]

  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[36].


  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: Back

33   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) Back

34   See for example Walker, Perry (2010) Crowdwise Briefing (London: new economics foundation). Available at: Back

35   For more information on deliberative approaches like a Citizen's Convention see Walker, Perry (2003) We the People (London: new economics foundation) Back

36   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: Back

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