Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Chris Davies: I blame the list system

When Chris Davies resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrat MEPs the BBC seemed unsure what his offence was. Some radio news bulletins thought it was that he had drawn parallels between Israel today and Apartheid South Africa.

As the Israeli Supreme Court's decision to uphold the law barring West Bank Palestinians from living with their spouses and children in Israel shows, that is an entirely defensible view.

No, Chris's error was to tell one of his constituents to that he hoped she enjoyed "wallowing in her own filth". After that he had no alternative to resign.

How could an experienced politician make such a mistake? You can talk about the strength of his feelings about Palestine and the number of abusive e-mails he had received, but I think there is another explanation. It is the list system Britain uses to elect its Members of the European Parliament.

Let me explain. At a fringe meeting organised by Liberator at the Liberal Democrat Conference a few years ago, Davies talked about his support for legalising cannabis and argued that it was rather less courageous than it might seem.

He pointed to the low turnout in Euro elections (around 10 per cent in his seat, if I recall the figure he gave rightly) and his own position at the top of the Lib Dem list for his region. Put together, he said, this meant that by his calculation he could lose the support of 99 per cent of the voters in the North West and still keep his seat.

Well, he has learnt differently - or at least that there are limits to what you can say to your employers. But you can see how the list system led him astray. The idea that your chances of re-election have next to nothing to do with the views you express is an unhealthy one for any democratic politician. An electoral system which allows you to persist in that folly is a dangerous one for all concerned.

The list system is an abomination which removes power from the voters and gives it to the party machines. It was wished on us by Jack Straw when he was home secretary. Obliged to choose some form of proportional system for British Euro elections, he chose the worst one of all to make sure that we did not get a taste for exercising more power.


David Morton said...

Yes indeed but how many people with safe seats under FPTP say ridiculous things?

Ann Winterton wasn't elected by list.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

FPTP is a single member closed list system. If you want to vote for the party you are stymied if you hate the candidate, hence the short parliamentary career of one Martin Bell.

Regarding Chris Davies article, he committed another sin in my book which was to suggest that the experience of the Holocaust should have taught them a lesson on how to treat minorities. And referring to apartheid is unhelpful in my book because the marriage ban applies to Palestinians in the occupied territories, not Palestinians resident in Israel. You may think I'm splitting hairs (and I certainly don't think it is as big a deal as his Auschwitz quote), but I don't think it helps us to understand the situation. Israel's problem, at least my reading of it, is rooted in extreme nationalism, not racism.

Anonymous said...

I think your criticism of the list system is a bit off the mark. Sure, the parties choose who's on the list and in what order. But parties choose who stands for seats in FPTP elections, or STV, or any other system. To an extent, that's what parties are for. What a PR list system does is make more parties electable, giving every voter a wider choice of parties that they can seriously consider, which allows them to hold each party accountable for their lists, supposing they care about who is on it. This creates an incentive for political parties to put attractive vote-getters atop their lists.

What would be a better system for Euro elections? STV would require people to rank politicians, including politicians of the same party, that they've never even heard of thanks to the low profile of EU politics. Asking voters to answer questions they don't have the faintest clue about will only drive participation in EU elections even further through the floor.

- Ranald

Anonymous said...

List systems are in my opinion margianlly better than FPTP.
STV is better, despite Ranald interesting point about ranking unknown candidates. But even STV can delvier bad (in my opinion) outcomes if it is misused.

I live in NIreland and we have STV (not list like rest of UK) for the Euros, with all NI being one three seat constitiuancy, FPTP post 18 westminiter seats and STV for local council elections and STV for the (overbloated) 108 seat Assembly - 18 westminister constitiuancies reurning 6 members each.

This latter system poinst up one of STV weaknesses in areas of ethnic or religois conflcit like NI. Unless the constituants are hetrogenous you can end up reinforcing ethic/sectatian/national difference. The 108 six-seater option was choosen to try and ensure the elction of small pro-agreeement parties.
For a six seater the qutoa is about 14%, if the seat contains both republicans and unionists (in their NI senses) then parties know they cannot win all six seats and then seek to maximise theirr ethic vote - how many parcels of 14% can they get. This makes them ignore the "other" side and tends to polerize the parties more. The tendency is for there to be two election battles - one within unionism and one within nationalsim.Recent results show that the more extreme party on both sides get the electoral rewards.

those interested in attracting voes from "both sides" are sqeezed out. A smaller assembly with alrger quotas would force parties to seek at least some transfers from the "other sdie" and therefore moderate thier polcies abit. Even better might be single member constituancies (I never thoguht I would say that being a long time advocaite of STV) with the provsio that the winner must get at least 50% of the valid vote, again this would incentivize polciies that appealed across the divide.

Anonymous said...

Condorcet with Ranked Pairs. Single-member constituencies. Enough said.