The Report of the Independent Commission on the Voting SystemChapter 9

 
 
Chapter Nine: Recommendations and Conclusions
 
1.   The Commission's central recommendation is that the best alternative for Britain to the existing First Past The Post system is a two-vote mixed system which can be described as either limited AMS or AV Top-up. The majority of MPs (80 to 85%) would continue to be elected on an individual constituency basis, with the remainder elected on a corrective Top-up basis which would significantly reduce the disproportionality and the geographical divisiveness which are inherent in FPTP.
 
2.   Within this mixed system the constituency members should be elected by the Alternative Vote. On its own AV would be unacceptable because of the danger that in anything like present circumstances it might increase rather than reduce disproportionality and might do so in a way which is unfair to the Conservative party. With the corrective mechanism in operation, however, its advantages of increasing voter choice and of ensuring that in practice all constituency members (as opposed to little more that half in recent elections) have majority support in their own constituencies become persuasive. Lord Alexander would, however, prefer to retain FPTP for constituency elections for the reasons outlined in the attached note.
 
3.   The Commission recommends that this system should be implemented throughout the United Kingdom.
 
4.   The Commission recommends that the second vote determining the allocation of Top-up members should allow the voter the choice of either a vote for a party or for an individual candidate from the lists put forward by parties. They should therefore be what are commonly called open rather than closed lists.
 
5.   The Commission recommends that, in the interests of local accountability and providing additional members with a broad constituency link, additional members should be elected using small Top-up areas. The Commission recommends the areas most appropriate for this purpose are the 'preserved' counties and equivalently sized metropolitan districts in England. In Scotland and Wales, we see no reason to depart from the units which are used for the return of additional members to the Parliament in Scotland and to the Assembly in Wales with respectively eight and five Top-up areas. In Northern Ireland there should be two Top-up areas each returning two members. In England the Top-up members would therefore in effect be either county or city-wide members from 65 different areas
 
6.   The Commission recommends that the Top-up members should be allocated correctively, that is on the basis of the second vote and taking into account the number of constituency seats gained by each party in each respective area, according to the following method:
  • the number of second votes cast for each party will be counted and divided by the number of constituency MPs plus one gained by each party in each area;
     
  • the party with the highest number of second votes after this calculation will be allocated the first Top-up member;
     
  • any second additional member for an area will be allocated using the same method but adjusting to the fact that one party will already have gained a Top-up member.
7.   The Commission recommends that the proportion of Top-up members needed for broad proportionality without imposing a coalition habit on the country should be between 15% and 20%. A decision on the exact proportion of Top-up members should be governed by the considerations set out in paragraphs 151-154 of this report, which relate to other changes in the pipeline such as the reduction in the number of Scottish seats and the work of the Boundary Commissions.
 
8.   The Commission recommends that the allocation of Top-up seats to areas should ensure that the ratio of constituency to Top-up members is, as far as is practicable, equal in the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom. The allocation of Top-up members to the areas within each of those parts should ensure that each area has at least one Top-up member with the remainder being allocated to those areas with the greatest number of electors. For the reasons outlined in paragraph 142 Northern Ireland should have two Top-up members in two Top-up areas.
 
9.   The Commission recommends that the right to put forward candidates for Top-up member seats should be limited to those parties which have candidates standing for election in at least half of the constituencies within the the Top-up area.
 
10.   The Commission stresses that all members of the House of Commons whether elected from constituencies or as Top-up members should have equal status in Westminster.
 
11.   The Commission recommends that Top-up member vacancies, which are unlikely to be more than two or three a parliament, should be filled by the candidate next on the list of the party holding the seat. If there is no available person the seat should remain vacant until the next general election. Constituency vacancies would of course be filled by the normal by-election procedure.
 
12.   The Commission believes that changes to the existing Rules for the Redistribution of Seats (Schedule 2 to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986) will be integral to the successful implementation of the new system. Bias should be reduced by the use of a single electoral quota for the United Kingdom; and the Boundary Commissions should be given a statutory power to take account of population movement and thus help to keep the result of their work more up-to-date.
 
Secondary Recommendations
 
13.   The Commission recommends that there should be a properly planned publicly-funded but neutrally-conducted education programme to prepare voters for the decision they will be required to make in the referendum.
 
14.   The Commission concludes that the education programme and oversight of referendums generally should fall to an independent commission. This role would fall naturally to an Electoral Commission.
 
15.   The Commission recommends that an independent Electoral Commission should be established to advise Parliament on and have oversight of electoral administration and related matters.
 
16.   The Commission recommends that the Government should put in place arrangements to review the new system after,say, two general elections.
 
17.   The Commission recommends that substantial further changes should not be made without a second referendum.
 
Note of Reservation by Lord Alexander
 
I support all but one of the recommendations in the Report. Whilst I agree with the main thrust of the proposal that an additional member or 'top-up' system is the best alternative to our existing electoral arrangements, I do not share the view of my colleagues that AV, rather than FPTP, is an appropriate way of electing constituency members.
 
This is not an arcane or technical issue primarily of interest to connoisseurs of electoral reform. Quite the contrary. The single member constituency will remain the linchpin of our electoral system, under which about 80% of members will be elected. So it is crucial that the method of election within these constituencies should be sound in principle, easy to understand and above all capable of commanding the enduring respect of the electorate. I do not consider that AV satisfies these tests.
 
My colleagues support AV because they think it important to ensure that every member gains some measure of majority support from the voters in their constituency. Yet most votes in constituencies are cast for a party, not an individual. Once an election is over, however, there is a long-standing tradition that MPs are available to serve all their constituents. MPs do not do this any less well where they have under 50% of the vote. Indeed they need to work hard to garner future support. This healthy convention diminishes the need for the party from which the member comes to have some form of support from a majority of voters in an individual constituency. In addition there will be MPs within the Top-up areas from parties previously unrepresented in those areas who will be available to any voters particularly wanting to consult an MP from their own party.
 
My colleagues also think that AV will contribute to a less confrontational style of politics because candidates will be inhibited from attacking rivals too strongly as they wish to gain their second votes. I do not see it as particularly desirable that candidates from different parties, who are different precisely because they do not agree on all issues, should be pulling their punches in order to seek approval from voters who support other parties. In any event, from my observation of Australia, which is the only single large country to use AV, their politicians tend to be, if anything, more blunt and outspoken than our own.
 
It has also been suggested that AV gives more power to voters and less to politicians. Under AV parties can advise their supporters how to cast their second preference votes so as to favour those parties with whom they might wish to go into coalition in the event of a hung parliament. This is said to have the potential desirable consequence that pre-election agreements as to coalitions, rather than post election negotiations, can be put before the voters. But this raises another concern. Whilst tactical voting is already an increasing feature of elections, AV could further heighten the tendency and lead to attempts by two parties to marshal their supporters so as to gang up on a third. This is precisely what those who are suspicious of electoral reform fear. I think that so far as AV is concerned this fear could prove to be well founded.
 
There was no groundswell of enthusiasm for AV in the submissions we received. The Conservative Party has consistently and clearly continued to express its support for the existing system. The Liberal Democrats have been equally constant in their support for STV under which no individual MP normally has majority support. The Electoral Reform Society also advocated STV. It is true that in the Plant Report SV (a slight variant of AV) was recommended, but the Labour Party has never endorsed this proposal. In its submission to us it expressed no view at all on what was the best electoral system, but highlighted criteria which pointed ambiguously towards either FPTP or AV.
 
I also regard it as significant that Parliament has very recently twice endorsed FPTP for constituency elections under a 'top-up' system for both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. So far as I am aware no one attempted to amend these proposals to introduce AV. To change to AV for Westminster elections would create an unjustified and confusing inconsistency between electoral systems for the United Kingdom Parliament and those two important institutions.
 
While I regard all these practical points as important, I also have a deep-rooted anxiety that AV cannot be regarded as sound or fair in principle.
 
AV comes into play only when a candidate fails to secure a majority of first preference votes. It does not, however, then take account of the second preferences of all voters, but only of those who have supported the least successful candidates. So it ignores the second preferences of the voters who supported the two candidates with the highest first preference votes, but allows the voters for the third or even weaker candidates to have their second votes counted so as to determine the result.
 
I find this approach wholly illogical. Why should the second preferences of those voters who favoured the two stronger candidates on the first vote be totally ignored and only those who support the lower placed and less popular candidates get a second bite of the cherry? Why, too, should the second preferences of these voters be given equal weight with the first preferences of supporters of the stronger candidates? In 1931 Mr Winston Churchill described this proposal as taking account of "the most worthless votes of the most worthless candidates". He went on to describe AV as containing an element of blind chance and accident which would lower respect for Parliament. Churchill's comments warrant even greater weight because at that time he was not unsympathetic to some sensible form of electoral reform. In addition, as all experts on electoral systems have acknowledged, AV can operate haphazardly depending upon the ranking of candidates on first preference votes. David Butler and his expert colleagues drew attention to this in their advice to the Commission and deliberately gave a far-fetched illustration but I will try to demonstrate the point with a more homespun example.
 
Suppose within a constituency, Conservatives receive 40% of first preferences. Labour are second on 31% and Lib Dems third on 29%. Lib Dems second preferences happen to be split 15/14 in favour of Labour. The Conservatives are therefore elected with 54% of the total vote (i.e. 40% + 14%).
 
But now suppose the position of Labour and Lib Dems had been reversed on first preferences, with Lib Dems 31% and Labour 29%. If Labour second preferences were split 20/9 in favour of Lib Dems, the Lib Dems would be elected with 51% of the total vote (i.e. 31% + 20%). So the result would be different depending on which horse was second and which third over Becher's Brook first time round. This seems to me too random to be acceptable. I have one other concern about the use of AV in constituency elections. It is true that in most elections it would apparently have made little difference to the total number of seats gained by each party. But in elections where one main party is particularly unpopular it would punish that party disproportionately. It would have hurt Labour when they were clobbered by the voters in 1983 and similarly hurt the Conservatives in 1997. It would have treated these parties worse than under a 'top-up' system where constituency members are elected under FPTP. All of us take the view that parties in adversity should not be treated unfairly. This seems to me an additional argument for retaining FPTP for constituency elections within an additional member system.
 
In summary, I wholly support the recommendation for an additional member system. But I believe the constituency elections should be conducted under FPTP. This would involve only one change to our current electoral system. It would preserve the relationship between MPs and their constituents of all parties on the basis of a method of constituency election which is familiar. I believe that this single change would both achieve an extension of voter choice and a significant increase in proportionality with the minimum disruption to our current electoral system. It could be simply and powerfully presented to the electorate as leading to fairer representation of their votes both at Westminster and in the Top-up areas.
 

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Prepared October 1998