Who should be voting on electoral reform?

In which Dr Aust lets another member of the family have the pulpit.

This will probably be the last UK election-related post – something I suspect some readers will be glad of – unless I write later about our new Minister for Universities and Science. However, as you have probably heard enough from me on politics, I thought I would let another member of the family have the last word on events last week.

As those who read my “Electoral Eve Wavering” post may remember, my dad, who is the real scientist in the family, was a Labour candidate for Parliament back in the 60s. Later, in the 80s, he was an early member of the now defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP).

As you will see from the letter below, which he wrote to send to one of the national newspapers, he is not a tremendous fan of our current voting system.

People with long memories may recall that the SDP allied itself with the Liberals for the general elections of 1983 and 1987. I will quote from the Wikipedia entry:

“The Alliance did well in the 1983 general election, winning 25% of the national vote, close behind Labour’s 28%. Because of the British “first-past-the-post” electoral system, only 23 Alliance MPs were elected.”

You might detect a pattern there.

Anyway, I will let my dad speak for himself.  He has chosen his own pseudonym.


“In the 1966 General Election I failed to get elected to the House of Commons by a margin of considerably less than one thousand votes, running as a Labour candidate under the leadership of Harold Wilson. At the time I was sad about this; though those were the days of Wilson’s ‘White heat of scientific revolution’, I was the only working scientist who came even close to election in that Parliament.

About a year later, I received a letter out of the blue from the former Liberal candidate who had run against me and had gotten around 3,500 votes. He wrote that he thought that he and I were of a single mind about most things, and that he was sorry that by splitting the left-of-centre vote he had facilitated the election of the Conservative candidate.

On Election Day last week I voted tactically in Oxford West and Abingdon for the Liberal Democrat candidate, Dr Evan Harris, who had been a progressive Member of Parliament for our constituency since 1997 and is outstandingly supportive of the scientific community. Dr Harris was beaten by 176 votes after a recount, but there were 5,999 Labour votes in the constituency – 10.6 % of the turnout – and most of them, I feel sure, would have preferred Harris to the Conservative who was elected. Why did not more of them vote tactically, as I did? The answer must be that tribal loyalties run strong. That is fair enough; the result is not democracy by any sensible description, however.

In retrospect I am not sorry that I did not get elected in 1966: I am sure I have been a better scientist than I would ever have been a politician. For Dr Harris, though, and for many like him, the outcome is tragic and undemocratic. I was born in the latter days of the second Labour Government of Ramsay Macdonald – later reviled for leading a governing coalition in the national interest. I shall now probably die under a Tory Prime Minister. It saddens me that in the 80 years in between we have still not mastered the art of democratic electoral compromise that has served our German neighbours so well since 1949.

Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats had an historic opportunity early this week. They could have insisted on a free and binding vote in the new House of Commons on an Alternative Vote system for the next General Election as the price of their support for David Cameron’s government. The Liberal Democrat Party owed this opportunity to the country, and especially to their supporters, and Clegg certainly owed it personally to Evan Harris. There is, I believe, now a majority within the 2010 Parliament for this minimal first step in progressive change, as there was among the thinking electors who made up the left-of-centre majority vote on May 6th.

I am now sad that Mr Clegg has dissipated the opportunity. Though he did not actually renege (as Tony Blair did after the 1997 General Election) he has settled for a meaningless commitment to a referendum on electoral reform, with the precise question to be put not specified. It is a certainty that the Tories will fight furiously against this reform: time and again we have seen how ‘First Past the Post’ fosters their cause. It is the politicians, though, and not the populace, who must sort this matter out. Regrettably, most voters do not understand the subtleties of the system they use already,  so a referendum for change will almost certainly prove abortive.”


Oxford, 12th May 2010


PS  from Dr Aust: For those curious as to what the coalition parties actually agreed on electoral reform, here is the actual text:

“The parties will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies. Both parties will whip their Parliamentary Parties in both Houses to support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote, without prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum.”

(Italics mine)


PPS An interesting game for conoisseurs of British political “third party” trivia is to spot the former SDP members in the current cabinet. Interestingly, they are by no means all to be found among the Lib Dems. As best I can tell, the list is as follows (Cabinet Ministers in bold):

Ex-SDP Tories:

Andrew Lansley (Sec State, Health), Greg Clark (Minister, Decentralisation), Chris Grayling (Minister at Dept of Work & Pensions), Stephen O’Brien (Minister at Dept for Int’l Development).

And ex-SDP Lib Dems:

Vince Cable (Sec State, Business), Chris Huhne (Sec State, Energy & Climate Change), (Lord) Tom McNally (Minister of State, Ministry of Justice) Paul Burstow (Minister at Dept of Health)


9 Responses to “Who should be voting on electoral reform?”

  1. Cybertiger Says:

    Spiritually, ethically, morally, the former MP for Oxford West and Abingdon “is as low as a snake’s belly in a cartwheel rut”. People generally, even intelligent people, simply do not recognise the psychopath. The psychopath, particularly the intelligent one, is a considerable challenge to society, and especially the ostensibly decent one.

  2. Teek Says:

    Pateraustis: excellent post, although at heart I fear there is a flaw.

    Yes, Clegg did have an opportunity to insist on Parliament simply legislating for AV or some even more proportional voting system – but in not doing so he is being more democratic.

    Alterations to the constitution, such that the UK has, must be done through consultation with the public, and where possible through referenda. It is therefore far more democratic to ask the people what electoral system they want – I firmly believe that voters can see as plain as day the distortion that brings about the sort of result we had to suffer in OxW and Ab – and to enact that choice once made.

    It is precisely in order to make alterations to our constitution democratically that a referendum was chosen, a referendum that with Nick himself is charged with bringing about as Deputy PM.

    So in sum I appreciate the sentiment, but cannot agree that Nick’s missed a trick here – the people must decide, we must have our voice heard, and now we will have the chance…!


  3. Cybertiger Says:

    The voting system and voting reform is the one political issue that should be decided by referendum. It is up to the people to decide how their representatives are selected, not the politicians themselves. And the people should be free to choose the best: the ‘alternative vote’ is not the best form of proportional representation.

  4. draust Says:

    Talking of coalitions…

  5. draust Says:

    People generally, even intelligent people, simply do not recognise the psychopath. The psychopath, particularly the intelligent one, is a considerable challenge to society, and especially the ostensibly decent one.

    Of course, the irony is that I can think of an awful lot of people who would happily argue that those words apply beautifully to Shabby’s hero Dr Andrew Wakefield.

    Re. voting and referendums, I personally have always assumed it would take a referendum to change the voting system. I think part of my dad’s view is that referendums give opportunities to “fix” things under a cloak of “choice”, e.g. by the way one asks the question.

    The famous example is the Australian Republic Referendum of 1999. Everyone was pretty much agreed that there was a large natural majority favouring Australia becoming a republic, and not having the Queen as Head of State any more. However, the referendum question was framed as:

    “[Do you approve of passing a law] To alter the Constitution to establish the Commonwealth of Australia as a republic with the Queen and Governor-General being replaced by a President appointed by a two-thirds majority of the members of the Commonwealth Parliament.”

    This was widely read by the punters as:

    “Do you want Australia to become a Republic, given that the President we get instead of the Queen is going to be some thieving bastard of a politician chosen by all the other thieving bastards in Parliament?”

    Lo and behold, the vote went comprehensively down the pan and Her Maj stays on to this day as Aussie Head of State.

  6. thom Says:

    “I think part of my dad’s view is that referendums give opportunities to “fix” things under a cloak of “choice”, e.g. by the way one asks the question.”

    I think the Australia example is a bad one. It wasn’t the wording that was the problem – it was that voters wanted to replace the existing system with a better one (i.e., that didn’t simply pass over the powers of the Queen to politicians).

    The wording of the referendum will be an interesting test of Cameron’s good will. One positive sign is that presumably Nick Clegg will be in charge of preparing the legislation for the referendum. Also while electoral reform is a major concern, other changes – such as reform of the House of Lords and returning more power to the House of Commons are vital too.

  7. draust Says:

    Thanks for that Thom – fair point. I guess what I meant was that if the Aussies has asked:

    “Would you like Australia to be a republic?”

    A Yes
    B No

    Then the next question could have been:

    “What should the system replacing the Queen be?”

    A President chosen by Parliament
    B Parliament chooses candidates, then run-off election
    C US-Style Presidential election
    D None of the above, go back and have another think

    Now, perhaps that multiple choice design is just the University lecturer in me talking. But anyway, had they set it out like that, the answer would likely have been “Yes” and “D” – but at least then they would be further along, and have had a strong steer to go and take another long think on how to organise a Republic . As it is they still don’t have one.

    Completely agree about the critical nature of the wording of any question here in the UK. I think they should have a first question saying:

    “Do you think First-Past-The-Post is unfair and needs changing?”

    – with subsequent question or questions about (e.g.) AV, or whatever. That way it will be clear whether the electorate really WANT a change from FPTP, regardless of whether they want to vote FOR any particular alternative system.

  8. JDM Says:

    The other problem of course was that those who opposed the change to a republic made a lot of fuss about who the likely president would be.

    So, for the many tricked by this, it was a choice between a system that wasn’t terribly broken, and having the likes of television personalities running the country.

    It’s also worth noting that the city-dwelling well-to-do voted for the change in vast numbers, but were diluted down by the knee-jerking rustics.

  9. draust Says:

    Cheers, JDM. Were you voting in that one?

    I suppose my experience of Australia is overwhelmingly of metro Sydney and some other fairly touristy places, so I’ve never “taken the temp” of rustic rural Australia. Unless you count being driven through the Atherton Tableland on a tourist bus.

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