Thursday, 16 January 2014

What do MEP and Police Commissioner elections have in common?

Mike Smithson has a post on the Political Betting website talking about the pretty far from perfect voting system to be used in the elections to the European Parliament on May 22nd. He says that the lack of a link between an individual vote and a named MEP depresses turnout. I agree, but the most personal elections (for Police and Crime Commissioners) did nothing to boost turnout either.

Mike's point - which is valid - is that the use of the closed regional list system puts the power in the hands of party selection machines rather than voters. A vote will be for a party and the party will be allocated seats on the basis of the proportion of votes won. So if a party wins two seats in a region then the top two on the party list will be elected. And the ordering of names on the party list is done by the party selection machines.

Of course, there are many other electoral systems which put all effective power in the hands of parties - including the way we elect our MPs in safe seats. But in no other elections in the UK are we forced to vote only for the party name. The result, argues Mike, was a turnout of less than 35%.

But the introduction of elected police and crime commissioners has proved that the most candidate-centric election system has done nothing to boost turnout either. In that election, most parties stood a candidate in most areas, but there was a huge push towards independents and candidates without a party label won eleven polls - perhaps boosted by the run-off system in operation. But the turnout was a hugely depressing 14.9% - the lowest ever recorded in a nationwide poll in the UK.

The reason is more complex than merely the electoral system used. With the PCC elections there was the obvious factor of being a new post and there was no wide understanding of what the role entailed or what difference the choice of commissioner would make to the lives of individual voters. With no such understanding or motivation, turnout was always going to be a tough ask.

Perhaps the same is true with the European Parliament. We might all have an opinion on the EU and Europe more widely, but how many people actually know what the European Parliament does and how many can name one of their MEPs? So EU elections come down to sentiment and a broad view about Europe rather than a more complex decision on issues or the relative qualities of the candidates on offer.

It will be interesting to see if any of the parties get more sophisticated than that. Each will know the likely number of MEPs they will elect in each region and they could decide to focus their campaigns on the 'bubble' candidate - the one who may or may not be elected depending on how well the party does.

This may be more of a tactic for the established parties than for UKIP who will be counting on a tide of sentiment rather than their MEPs record in Brussels (given they rarely turn up and have lost almost half their MEPs to defection and expulsion in any case). But it is a tactic and it may allow the Liberal Democrats to hang on to seats that the polls suggest are lost. Of course, it is an incredibly tough ask to scale up the renowned Lib Dem by-election machine (it still exists) from a single constituency to an entire region. But it is possible and may mean that the party out-performs the polls.

All that said, the government really does need to get on with a move to change the voting system. The change that would make most difference would be to adopt the system already in use in Northern Ireland - STV. This gives the ultimate power to voters to choose between candidates of each party, not just between the parties themselves. Every candidate really would be elected on their merits.

However, the more likely change - and one which would also be a huge step in the right direction - would be to keep the current ballot paper but allow electors to vote for an individual candidate for a party, not merely for the party list. The number of MEPs elected for each party would remain based on the overall number of votes for each party, but the candidates elected would be those most popular with the voters, not with the parties. It's called an open list system and operates in almost half the countries in the EU already.

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