I disagree with Guy Rundle (Rundle’s British Isles bites) that the legislation for a redistribution of House of Commons seats can, in any sense, be seen as a sensible reform. What it does is indicate the extent to which the Conservative Party got the better of the Liberal-Democrats in the negotiations for the coalition government.
On the one hand the Conservatives look like getting their grab for seats implemented by ordinary statute. On the other the Liberal-Democrats look like failing to get their sensible democratic reform because we know from experience that mass electorates do not vote rationally in these kinds of cases. The Lib-Dems should have said to the Conservatives: “That which is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. We will vote for the change you want only if you vote for the change we want. If you do not agree then the coalition deal is off.”
There are six democracies in what is known as the “Anglosphere”. They are the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, the United States of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They are all liberal democracies. Once there was a single guiding principle to their democracy but that is no longer the case.
These days Anglosphere countries make for an interesting compare/contrast situation. That democratic principle used to be that every member of the lower house was directly elected by the people. In the Anglosphere we used not to like the idea of party machines merely appointing members of lower houses to represent us. We insisted on electing every member in a candidate-based election.
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Currently four of these six countries have majoritarian systems based on single-member constituencies. They are the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, where first-past-the-post prevails, and Australia where preferential voting is the system. The other two countries — Ireland and New Zealand — use proportional representation. However, the PR systems are very different from each other. Ireland maintains the principle of direct election by using the Single Transferable Vote (STV). Under that system every member of the Dail is genuinely elected by the people. New Zealand employs the German system, known now as Mixed Member Proportional (MMP).
I have long argued that by-elections are inconsistent with PR yet Ireland and New Zealand continue to have them. Both countries have had three in the current term. In New Zealand it chances that Labour has retained two seats from which its members resigned — Mt Albert in June 2009 and Mana in November 2010. The National Party is very likely to retain the Auckland suburban seat of Botany for which a by-election will be held on March 5. These are first-past-the-post elections in which the ballot-paper simply says “vote for only one candidate” and “vote by putting a tick in the circle immediately before the name of the candidate you choose”.
The unfairness of having by-elections in such a system is illustrated by comparing each of Labour/National and the Greens. Since all nine seats held by the Greens are party-list seats they have no problem with vacancies. A deceased/resigned member is automatically replaced by the next person on the party list. So a vacancy costs the party nothing. By contrast most of the Labour/National seats are constituencies. When a vacancy occurs the party is up for the cost of defending a seat which it may well lose at the by-election.
In Ireland the governing Fianna Fail party is in a dreadful state, having presided over the wreckage of the Irish economy, and is sure to lose office in the looming general election, probably held on March 25. Two of the three by-elections have seen Fianna Fail lose a seat, while one saw an independent replace another (deceased) independent. In June 2009 Fianna Fail lost one of its seats in Dublin South to the main opposition party, Fine Gail, whose candidate secured an absolute majority of the first-preference votes. In November 2010, Fianna Fail lost one of its seats in Donegal South-West to Sinn Fein.
Since the Irish STV system is so very similar to Australia’s Hare-Clark the Irish should replace by-elections with a count-back of preferences of the person originally elected to the seat. In practice that would keep the seat with the party. In New Zealand the next person on the party list should automatically take the seat, as happens in Germany from which their system is copied.
It will be amusing if the Irish election is held on March 25, because that is the day before our NSW election. Both governments will be thrown out with gusto. However, the PR system in Ireland may conceal the devastation of Fianna Fail, which has, until now, been Ireland’s biggest party. Although NSW Labor will lose more than half its seats (reduced from 50 to 23 is my prediction) analysts will conclude that the loss in NSW was, in reality, less severe than the loss in Ireland the previous day.
Two countries of the Anglosphere will have electoral system referenda this year. In the UK in May (in conjunction with Scottish elections) the electors will be asked to replace first-past-the-post with optional preferential voting, known in the UK as the Alternative Vote (AV). In New Zealand later in the year (in conjunction with a general election) there will be a referendum about which I shall report in more detail when the event approaches.
I am not optimistic that the British people will replace first-past-the-post by AV — but they should. If any further evidence were needed of the idiotic nature of first-past-the-post, consider the recent by-election for Oldham East and Saddleworth, the first by-election this term. At the May general election the vote was 14,186 for the Labour winner and 14,083 for the runner-up candidate from the Liberal-Democrats. The conservative candidate received 11,773 votes and the total for “other” was 4478. Since the Conservatives are now in government with the Liberal-Democrats one would have thought the conservative candidate would be withdrawn. But no! There were candidates from both governing parties who split the vote and gave Labour a runaway win at the by-election.
Referenda on electoral system questions rarely produce rational results. What should have happened is that the parliament should have made the change by ordinary statute. That could have been done — except that the Conservatives refused to agree. They insisted on this unnecessary referendum at which they will try to block a thoroughly sensible change wanted by the Liberal-Democrats. I regret to say that I expect the Conservatives to succeed.