How shall we vote?
Part of the deal for the Tory-LibDem coalition government is that there’s to be a referendum on electoral reform. But is electoral reform really necessary?
We might as well give our answer straightaway: No, it isn’t. A majority seeking to replace capitalism by socialism only requires one thing of an electoral system under capitalism – that it should allow a majority opinion to reflect itself as a majority of seats in parliament. Socialists are not interested in whether the system ensures a strong and stable government of capitalism nor in whether it ensures a fair representation of capitalist political parties. As the existing electoral system in Britain does allow a majority viewpoint to be translated into a majority of seats, we see no point in diverting any of our energies from our task of working towards the emergence of a socialist majority to supporting electoral reform within capitalism.
Voting in socialism
However, since socialism will be a fully democratic society we do have an interest in what is and what is not a fair electoral system since such a system will be an essential part of the democratic decision-making and administrative structure of socialist society.
From the point of view of democratic theory, an electoral system should ensure that the persons elected really are representative. The case against the first-past-the-post system that applies in Britain is that it does not necessarily do this when there are more than two candidates. This is because it allows a candidate to be elected with less than 50 percent of the votes (that is to say, against the will of a majority of the voters), as were most MPs, of all parties, in the recent general election.
There are various ways of avoiding this. Organising a run-off between the top two candidates in a second ballot (as in France) or, what amounts to the same thing, allowing voters to place the candidates in order of preference (1, 2, 3, 4, etc) and, if no candidate gets 50 percent, to eliminate the bottom candidates and redistribute their votes amongst the others until one of them does reach this figure. This system, known as the Alternative Vote (the mysterious AV the media talks about), is widely used in trade unions for the election of their officials and is the system that is to be voted on in the proposed referendum.
A variant of AV, known as the Supplementary Vote or Instant Run-off, is already used in England for the election of mayors. Under it voters vote 1, 2 only (or just “1” if they want) and, if no candidate gets 50 percent, then the No 2 votes of the third and other candidates are redistributed between the top two. In other words, there is no chance of the candidate finishing third getting elected, as is possible under pure AV.
The system favoured by the Liberals is neither of these but the Single Transferable Vote (STV), which is used in regional and local elections in Northern Ireland and in local elections in Scotland. Under it voters again place the candidates in order of preference but in a multi-member rather than a single-member constituency. A candidate is not elected unless, and until, after successive redistributions of the votes of the bottom candidates, they obtain a certain quota of votes. It is frequently described as a system of proportional representation even by its partisans but in fact it is not. It is essentially a system, like the Second Ballot and the Alternative Vote, for ensuring that those elected attain a minimum level of representativity. It is only incidentally that, in a context of competing political parties, it ensures the representation of minority parties enjoying a certain minimum, but not necessarily low, level of support amongst voters.
As all the above systems are compatible with democratic theory, no doubt, depending on historically-inherited circumstances and the preferences of people in a particular area, they will continue into socialist society for the various delegate bodies that will form part of its democratic decision-making structure, along with other systems such as choice by lot (as for juries today).
Proportional representation, properly so-called, is a different matter as it presupposes the existence of competing political parties and was in fact devised precisely for such parties. It requires multi-member constituencies (which can be the whole country, as in Israel and in Scotland and Wales for the election of MEPs) and party lists rather than individual candidates. A great variety of PR systems exist (a different version, mixed with first-past-the-post, is used in mainland Britain for the election of regional assemblies in Scotland, Wales and London) but these are all based on the principle that the seats should be allocated to parties in more or less strict proportion to the number of votes obtained.
The essence of democracy is popular participation not competing parties. In socialism elections will not be about deciding which particular party is to come to ‘power’ and form the government. Politics in socialism will not be about coercive power and its exercise and so won’t really be politics at all in its present-day sense of the ‘art and practice of government’ or ‘the conduct of state affairs’. Being a classless society of free and equal men and women, socialism will not have a coercive state machine nor a government to control it. The conduct of public affairs in socialism will be about people participating in the running of their lives in a non-antagonistic context of co-operation to further the common good.
Socialist democracy will be a participatory democracy rather than the choice every four or five years, with or without proportional representation, between rival bands of professional politicians that passes for democracy today.