Sunday, July 28, 2013

EU polls: let electors vote for the person, not the party

The "Closed list" version of the D'Hondt system as currently used in Britain for electing Members of the European Parliament is one of the least democratic systems of election ever devised.

In ny opinion, the best test of how effectively a system of election works in practice is very simple:

How easy is it for the electorate, if they so desire, to "throw the rascals out?"

Admittedly, the first past the post system (FPTP) often performs poorly on the same test.

Just look at Copeland Council or most of the other councils where the same party has been returned for decades.

Far too many of them, like Copeland, are among the worst run councils in the country. And when I say this about Copeland that is not just me scoring party political points, it is a matter of objective fact that Copeland got one of the half dozen worst scores in England for satisfaction among the council's own residents as found by a national survey commissioned while the previous government (e.g. of the same political persuasion as Copeland council) was in office.

However, FPTP does produce changes in governments. And under FTPT, provided you have a local electorate which pays at least some attention to what is going on, a politician who badly disgraces himself or herself can and will be removed. Often the disgraced individual will stand down of his or her own volition or be sacked as the party's candidate, or if this doesn't happen, such people can be and sometimes are removed by the electorate (e.g. Jacqui Smith, Neil Hamilton.)

The trouble with closed party list systems is that the electorate doesn't get to choose the person they are voting for, they only get to choose between the people on party lists.

That in turn means that the individual at the head of the list of a major party can practically get caught robbing a bank the day before the poll and still win election the following day. And it can be quite difficult for the electorate to "call a party off the field" the way they can in a first past the post election system.

A report published by the LSE for the Electoral Reform Society and publicised in an interesting post and discussion on the "Political Betting" website here looks at the possible consequences of one possible solution, moving from "Closed lists" to open lists. This would mean that instead of having to accept one of the complete slates put forward by a political party or other group, with no ability to influence the order, the electorate would vote for a particular candidate as well as a party, and the party list would be ranked by the voters rather than the party.

Unfortunately a bit too much of the discussion of this report concentrates on which party would benefit from this and not enough about whether it is actually a fairer system. The report suggests that the Conservatives, and to a lesser extent the Labour party, would benefit at UKIP's expense because those voters who wanted to be certain their vote would help elect a Eurosceptic MEP would have the option of voting for a Eurosceptic Conservative or a Eurosceptic Labour candidate as well as the option of supporting UKIP.

The language used in the report repeatedly says that the Conservative Party would benefit at the expense of UKIP but it would far be more accurate to say that those Conservative candidates who were preferred by the electorate would benefit at the expense of those UKIP candidates who were not.

Personally I would support open lists over closed lists even if it didn't produce a benefit for the Conservative party because it is a vastly more democratic system and would be better for the country.

The conclusion of the LSE report makes some further points about why MEPs and candidates who were standing for election under an open list system would have much stronger incentives to engage with and work for the electorate as a whole and not just their own party's members and activists. That conclusion reads as follows:

"Thinking more broadly, there are two reasons to expect voting behaviour to differ under different ballot types.  First, open-ballots encourage candidates to compete for votes by increasing their constituency work, delivering infrastructure projects, and building a strong local profile. This is because candidates are aware that through these activities they can build their own ‘personal vote’ on the open-list, which improves their election prospects vis-à-vis their co-partisans. The incentives to do this are much lower in the closed-list system (where no personal vote is possible), and we should therefore expect different voting outcomes to the extent that candidates engage in such activities. This phenomenon has been widely studied in the political science literature.

"Second, the experiment implemented here shows that the difference between open- and closed-lists also matters when one party takes an extreme position on an issue that divides other parties. Giving voters the opportunity to vote for their preferred candidate (not just their preferred party) allows them to vote for a mainstream party, whilst still enabling them to exercise their preferences on an issue that is orthogonal to the main dimension of political conflict. Our study therefore shows that preferential voting for candidates can matter not just for valence issues, but also when voters have information about the differential policy positions of candidates within political parties."

The open-list system is used in EU Parliament elections in 18 of the 28 member nations - it was Tony Blair who landed the UK with closed party lists and Britain could change it. We should do so.

Postscript added 31st July 2013

Just in case it is not obvious from the date of the above post, I would like to make clear that everything above was written and published three days before the results of the membership ballot for the final selection and ranking of Conservative candidates for the European parliamentary elections in 2014 were made known to the Conservative party by the Electoral Reform Society, who conducted the count, or to applicants to be candidates.

So when these opinions were written and published I did not know whether I would myself be a candidate, let alone what position on the Conservative list for the North West Region I might be offered as a result of the vote by party members in the region.

I have been strongly opposed to the closed party list system since it was introduced by Tony Blair fifteen years ago. I would have remained against it whether I had been offered the top place available, the last place, anywhere in between, or had not been on the list at all. 

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