AV, Safe Seats, Selections and Primaries

As I said when I first blogged about AV, both sides of the campaign are using weak, wrong and misleading arguments to advance their cases. A perfect example this week was Lord Ashdown’s Sky News interview, where he manages to squeeze at least four incorrect claims about AV in a couple of sentences. He said:

“…no more safe seats, ever; politicians will now have to fight harder to get elected; every vote will count; no MP will get elected unless they get at least 50% of the support of the people in their constituency. Never again will we have more people voting against their MP than actually voted for him when he was elected”“

Today I want to look at safe seats and how to achieve Lord Ashdown’s wish for “No more safe seats, ever”.

No more safe seats, ever?

AV doesn’t remove safe seats. I was originally planning to explain this in detail in this post why it doesn’t, but too many others have done that job too well in recent days and weeks. This post on Fullfact sums it up well. Basically:

  • seats that already have 50%+ of the vote for one candidate are safe now and still safe under AV
  • Seats where the MP has nearly 50% of the vote are safe now and still safe under AV
  • Some seats, where the sitting MP has say 41% of the vote with the rest of the vote spread among other parties, might be safe-ish now (though I don’t know how safe a seat like that would be considered) but could be less safe under AV
  • However, some seats that are currently considered marginal would become safe seats under AV, because some voters might always vote (eg) Labour 1 LibDem 2 “to keep the Tories out” or Conservative 1 LibDem 2 “to keep Labour out”.

Dr Alan Renwick’s briefing paper (pdf) for the Political Studies Association says that AV will slightly reduce the proportion of safe seats, but I suspect it might actually slightly increase them, depending on how many voters feel strongly about keeping out a particular opposing party and how the boundary review comes out.

Either way there’s not much in it. There are many valid reasons to support AV but stopping safe seats isn’t one.

On safe seats

What do we actually mean by a ‘safe seat’? Leaving aside technical definitions of majority etc, I think there are two slightly different meanings of the term ‘safe seat’ being used:

  1. A safe seat is a seat that would always realistically be won by a candidate of one particular party no matter how suitable they actually are for the job.
  2. A safe seat is a seat from which a candidate has no realistic prospect of losing.

Stopping safe seats

Let’s consider the first sense above, where a safe seat as a seat which is the natural province of one political party. A mannequin with a blue rosette would win in Richmond, and if Labour ran a turnip with a smiley face drawn on it in Knowlsey it would still get 70% of the vote.

Political tribalism isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and nor is the fact that some parts of the UK will have concentrations of people with similar political beliefs. That’s the basis of a representative democracy in the first place. But some people object to the idea that particular constituencies should be seen as the natural property of one party.

One way to try and overcome this would be to enlarge the seats to take in bigger areas. For example, we elect MEPs in huge regional constituencies. But the system we use to elect MEPs – the regional list system – also guarantees some safe seats to the first candidates on the lists of the major parties. Whoever’s at the top of the Labour and Conservative lists are going to be London MEPs. Whoever’s second on their lists will also be London MEPs.

Pure PR systems without constituencies, like the system mooted for an elected House of Lords, suffer from this problem even more. A 100% elected House of Lords with closed party lists would effectively be an appointed House, with only the proportion of appointees per party being decided by the electorate. Given that parties will have a fairly good idea of how they’re likely to do in an election, each party will have a huge number of safe seats to dole out to sitting Lords and eager new loyalists before a Lords election.

I don’t think there’s any way of stopping this sort of safe seat, sort of gerrymandering to create marginal constituencies. Safe seats like this are an inevitable consequence of a functioning and stable party system.

A seat for life

The second sense of ‘safe seat’, though, is a different prospect. This is the safe seat as a job for life, where once you’re elected you’re very difficult to boot out. An MP who’s caught robbing a Post Office or putting a cat in a bin could lose, but an MP who simply kept quiet, took holidays and didn’t bother trying could win one of these seats again and again.

Again, neither FPTP nor AV can do anything about this if the sitting MP is from a party that’s locally popular.

The way to stop this sort of seat for life isn’t to change the election system; it’s to change the selection system.

At present, a very small number of local party members – rarely more than a few hundred, sometimes less than ten – select who will run against the sitting MP or replace them if they’re standing down. In a safe seat, those few people can effectively chose the MP.

In the United States, most candidates at all levels of Government are selected by primary elections (primaries), where the public select who will be the candidates for the major parties. People can vote twice – once in the primary and once in the actual election.

The Conservatives have used the primary system a few times: Boris Johnson was selected as the Conservatives’ candidate for Mayor of London in 2007 via an open primary, and primaries were used for a couple of Parliamentary seats in 2009-10. The New Labour pressure group Progress supports the use of open primaries for Labour selections too, and some prominent LibDems also like the idea.

There are lots of pratical differences that make primaries harder to run in the UK than they are in the USA. In the USA, most voters openly register as Republican or Democrat so it’s possible to open a primary election to a mass defined section of the public who support the party doing the election. In the UK, primaries aren’t institutionalised so have to be fully financed by the party holding them, which has to take on the role normally filled by the local council – printing ballots, getting notices of election to potential voters, organising hustings, running the actual election and counting the votes.

There’s one crucial difference though between the US primary system and that which has been discussed and trialled by UK parties:

The incumbent has to stand in the primary

This is the real mark of America’s primary system. A candidate can’t win a safe seat and sit pretty until they choose to retire, because ambitious party members will challenge them in the primary election. In the UK, it is very difficult for a local party to stop their sitting MP from running again.

None of the debate over primaries here has seriously suggested that incumbant MPs should have to run in primaries. Boris Johnson, who was selected in a primary, is not having to stand in another primary to run in 2012; he’s automatically the candidiate.

(Parties sometimes have different practices in multi-candidate constituencies. Labour, I know, holds new selections for MEPs regardless of incumbancy, probably because voters at Euro-elections vote for the party rather than individual candidates)

The primary system isn’t all good news. It leads to a polarisation of politics because candidates have to play to their base rather than focus on the centre. Moderate candidates can be picked off in co-ordinated campaigns like that run by the Tea Party movement in 2010. It can also be easily abused; now, Democrats in the USA are registering as Republicans so they can vote for Sarah Palin in the 2012 presidential primary, calculating that she’s unelectable as President. Similarly, LibDem activists in Totnes voted in the Conservative primary for the candidate they considered the “weakest”.

But if, as the Yes2AV campaign suggests, safe seats are a major problem that creates lazy MPs, then primary elections would be a much more effective solution than AV.

What’s wrong with safe seats?

The background presumption here is that safe seats are bad, are undesirable, and that a good election system would stop them or at least minimise them.

MPs in marginal seats have to devote more time to the constituency; they may do more casework or deploy more staff to their constituency office. Perhaps they’d champion local issues in Parliament.

On the other hand, MPs in safe seats may be able to devote more time and energy to Westminster and may be more independently minded.

Which sort of MP is better is partly a matter of preference and partly the start of a profound discussion about the structure of our democracy which we’ll get to in a couple of blogs’ time.