Two birds with one stone

The UK 2015 general election map
The UK 2015 general election map

I’ve been watching the general election with a mixture of fascination, horror, bewilderment and exhilaration. I disagree with all those who thought it was a dull campaign – it may have been very stage managed, but that is because elections are won on television, not on soapboxes, as a survey of which media most influenced voters has made clear: 62% of those surveyed said TV made been most influential in forming them about the election, followed by newspapers at 25%, websites at 17%, radio at 14%, and talking to people at 14%. It has been hugely entertaining and engrossing. The campaign then culminated in a dramatic victory for the Conservatives that seemingly no one predicted (though plenty now tell us that they saw it coming). Personally, as a life-long Labour supporter I felt crushed. Locally I was nevertheless elated, as UKIP (my near neighbours, as previously reported) were thrown out of Rochester. Intellectually, I was fascinated by how strategy trumps everything, if it is aligned to public feeling – which seems to be the root cause of Labour’s relative failure.

The figures from the election are particularly engrossing, and inevitably there is anguished debate about the peculiarities of the first-pass-the-post system, which led to the Scottish Nationalist Party gaining 1.4m votes and 56 seats, while the Liberal Democrats got 2.4m votes and 8 seats, while UKIP enjoyed 3.8m votes and got just 1 seat. Something is not right. Of course, the first-past-the-post system spares us (most of the time) from coalitions and hung parliaments, and it works as a corrective against some passing fashions (if there had been proportional representation for the 2015 general election then UKIP would have ended up with 83 seats). The UK voted firmly against moving from the first-past-the-post system in a referendum held in 2011, so change isn’t going to happen any time soon, if ever.

But I have a plan. It occurred to me over coffee at a sunny pavement cafe, and looking at my notes jotted down on the newspaper, it still looks interesting. So here’s my proposal for UK electoral reform.

We should keep the first-past-the-post system. However, while the 650 first places (or 600 as they will become with the planned electoral boundary changes) should continue to be the means by which Members of Parliament are selected, we should take into consideration all those who came second. Second-placed parties in each constituency, if they reached a sufficiently high enough figure – say two-thirds of the number of votes cast for the winner – should be eligible for election to the second chamber, currently the House of Lords. Obviously this should not be a mechanism for creating a lot of unwanted peers, so the second chamber would need renaming. There should probably have to be a fixed number of them, let’s say 200, so that having come second and with over two-thirds the number of votes of the winner wouldn’t automatically qualify you for the second chamber – the actual number of votes you received would then come into play, as you would need to be among the top two hundred of second votes cast (obviously this would only work with the more balanced number of voters per constituency that the boundary changes aim to deliver). The remainder of what was formerly called the House of Lords (which does not have a fixed membership and currently has 779 members) would be made up of peers nominated by the various parties, as happens now. Hereditary peers and bishops should, of course, be got rid off as soon as would be humanely possible.

Second-place votes in the UK general election 2015, from City A.M.
Second-place votes in the UK general election 2015, from City A.M.

So how did the second votes pan out this time around? The first places went Conservatives 331, Labour 232, SNP 56, Liberal Democrats 8, DUP 8, Others 15. The second place votes were Labour 253, Conservatives 181, UKIP 120, Liberal Democrats 63, Plaid Cymru 6, Greens 4, SNP 3, Others 20. These are figures for all constituencies, of course, and my model would select only the top 200 out of the 630 second votes cast. I don’t have the figures to be able to calculate this, but roughly we can say that it would be 39% seats for Labour, 28% Conservatives, 18% UKIP and 10% Liberal Democrats. The actual second chamber proportions would be determined by the nominated seats, which would be roughly in proportion to the first choice votes in the election.

What would this give us? It would give us the House of Parliament populated by 650 MPs (600 come 2020), representing constituencies through the first-past-the-post system, which the country has only recently confirmed is the system that it trusts. We would get a semi-elected second chamber, based on votes cast in the general election, which would be different in its political balance to the first chamber while still reflecting popular choice, thereby serving as a corrective to the first chamber while not being grossly different in composition and making the business of government more difficult. The voting preferences of the British public would be more accurately represented, so there would be fewer people feeling that their vote had been wasted. There would be a check against people being voted in just because they were second, through the need to reach a two-thirds figure, and then to come in the top 200 of those that qualified under a such a qualification. There would still be the opportunity for nominated members to the second chamber, ensuring that people with a long record of public service (and party loyalty) could continue to perform a function in government. The absurdities of the House of Lords would be got rid of. There would be an extra frisson to election night as candidates coming second would know they had a chance of getting elected to the second chamber, but would have to await results elsewhere before they knew for certain. It should also be an improvement on any alternative vote system, where one person effectively ends up voting for more than one party – this system is only about first preference votes, so better reflects what the electorate actually wants.

Well, I think it looks good. Of course there are problems with it. A major argument against it is that a third of constituencies would end up with more than one representative, while the others would have just the one. I’m still thinking about this, but maybe it could be resolved by the 200 being selected ultimately not by number of votes cast but by proportionate geographical representation. Another solution would be not to limit the second-placers to 200 but to grant a place to all 600 of them, greatly reducing the number of nominated ‘peers’ (and of course getting rid of all the bishops and hereditary peers that remain), though the corrective against minor-placed second militates against this (e.g. if a constituency chose its MP with 30,000 votes and the second person got an insufficiently representative 5,000). Of course it would mean a second chamber filled with UKIP lunatics, but if that’s what the nation wants, then perhaps that what the nation should get, if only to see the folly of their ways, and then vote them out the next time.

Electoral reform, and an elected second chamber. Well I’d vote for it.


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