In the past couple of weeks I’ve been seeing and getting into quite a lot of discussions on electoral reform.
Here in South Africa our last four elections have been held under the proportional representation system, which, when it was first introduced in 1994, seemed to be a vast improvement on the “winner takes all” contituency system. Now we’ve had it long enough to see the disadvantages, and we’ve been discussing the merits of possible alternatives.
Then a friend in the UK, a retired Anglican bishop John Davies, who was in South Africa in the 1960s, raised the same question, which is also being discussed in the UK, and I’ve recently read some blog posts about it, for example Purple Words on a Grey Background: Electoral Reform. As John Davies put it:
What both of you are saying is that the difference between SA and UK is great – greater than I had realised, really; that is not to be wondered at. I still think that the principle of ‘my MP’ is so important in practice as to be non-negotiable; but in the SA process it may well be an unaffordable luxury. It would be nice to be able to say that we in UK can treasure such a principle because of our greater maturity as a democracy. But this is not a viable claim, really, in so far as only a smallish proportion of our electorate actually takes the democratic facilities seriously – if the strength of a democracy is measured by voter turn-out, we are much less credible than SA as a functioning democracy. But I think that it is a sign of a degree of maturity that there is at present a serious critique of our electoral process; and it may well be that we should move closer to the SA method, rather than assume that SA (or Egypt, for that matter) should move towards ours. At times like the present, people who function as ‘world leaders’ tend to express the hope that troublesome nations should become ‘genuine democracies’; but when it comes to spelling out exactly what that means, rhetoric has to give way to nuts and bolts – and nuts & bolts can come in very many shapes and sizes, as any mechanic knows.
The question John had posed to us was: How, in practice, do you, with the present SA system, relate to the legislature?
And my answer was that in practice, we don’t.
There are no such things as “surgeries” here, because MPs don’t have constituencies, and they represent their parties. Their reelection depends much more on their standing in their parties than on the votes of the electorate.
That is why many people are dissatisfied with the present PR system, and have been discussing possible alternatives.
I think it was the right thing to do in the first democratic election, and perhaps the second. Under a straight constituency system most of the smaller parties would have been wiped out, but I think it was important that they be represented. They represented people who had never before been represented in parliament, and they needed a platform to be able to contribute. In the first democratic election, for example, the PAC got 1% of the vote, and that gave them 4 MPs. Under a constituency system they would have had none.
In the event they turned out to be a bunch of bumbling old men who lived in the past, and perhaps few people would now care whether they were represented or not. But in 1994 it was important, and so with the other minority parties. Only those that got less than 0,25% of the vote would have no representation at all.
If we had a constituency system and a general election now, I think that ANC would take about 85-90% of the seats, with the DA and the IFP sharing the remainder between them. And I wouldn’t feel happy voting for any of them at the moment. At least PR gives me a wider choice.
The great advantage of proportional representation is that it allows minority views to be represented, but it makes MPs accountable to their parties rather than the the electorate, because it is the parties that decide who is on the list of candidates, and their relative positions on the list. This means that ordinary people don’t really relate to the legislature.
In local government we have a mixed system. There are some members of the city council elected by proportional representation, and others elected by wards, so we have two votes – one for the ward candidate, and one for the PR list of party candidates. That seems to give the advantages of both systems, and perhaps we should do that nationally as well.
One of the systems that came up in discussions was the idea of a single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies. It sounded complex, and I don’t pretend to understand it, but it seemed to me that it would fall between all the stools. There would still be no concept of “My MP”.
So I think that the best system would be one that extended the local government system to national and provincial government as well, where one would vote for both a party-list candidate and a constituency candidate, perhaps with the refinement of the Alternative Vote system for the constituency candidates.
Maybe that would be the closest we could get to having our cake and eating it.