A new book by Alan Renwick and Jean-Benoit Pilet examines the ‘personalisation’ of electoral systems. In this post, Alan Renwick outlines what such personalisation is, what patterns of personalisation the book identifies across European democracies, and what all of this means for the future of electoral reform in the UK. He argues that the importance of personalisation strengthens the case for first past the post for elections to Westminster but that the system used in European Parliament elections in Great Britain is ripe for reform.
Electoral systems are among the most discussed and studied of all political institutions. Few UK elections pass without debate about whether the electoral rules should be modified. Scholars have examined in enormous detail the effects of different electoral systems upon such diverse aspects of politics and life as the representation of women and minorities, corruption, budgetary discipline, electoral turnout, growth rates, and the stability of democracy.
Yet these debates have long been very partial. Though electoral systems are complex things, the great bulk of attention has focused on just one of their aspects: their proportionality, defined as the degree to which they share out seats across political parties in proportion to votes won. As is well known, the first past the post system used for elections to the House of Commons is not very proportional, whereas the various systems used for European Parliament and devolved assembly elections are more so.
Proportionality certainly matters. But it is not the only feature of electoral systems that deserves our attention. Indeed, as voters have become increasingly disengaged from and disillusioned with political parties, we might expect that their interest in proportionality – defined, remember, across parties – has declined in favour of other concerns.
One such concern might be which individual candidates are elected. This is where personalisation comes in. The personalisation of an electoral system is defined as the degree to which it allows voters to express preferences among individual candidates and determine who is elected. At one extreme are closed list systems (used for European Parliament elections in Great Britain and national parliamentary elections in countries such as Spain and Israel). Here, all voters can do is vote for a party: they have no vote for individual candidates. Voters determine the number of seats won by each party, but the parties decide which of their candidates will top their lists and therefore fill those seats. At the opposite extreme is the single transferable vote (STV) system (used for most elections in Northern Ireland, for local elections in Scotland, and for general elections in Ireland and Malta). Voters here rank the candidates in order of preference – they can choose any candidates they wish across as many parties as they wish. And these votes entirely determine which candidates secure office. Between these extremes are a range of systems, including flexible and open list systems (which give voters varying amounts of influence over which candidates will fill each party’s allocation of seats) and first past the post. The latter system allows voters to choose among candidates; but it does not give a choice of candidates from the same party, such that party loyalists have to put up with whomever their party nominates.
The personalisation of electoral systems in Europe
My new book, co-authored with Jean-Benoit Pilet, analyses patterns in the personalisation of electoral systems in Europe since the beginning of the twentieth century. For much of that century, parties really did dominate elections and, in most countries, the idea that elections might also be about individuals received scant attention. Indeed, in some places, particularly among politicians from the left, any focus on individual candidates was seen as a dangerous distraction from the core business of politics: a battle over ideas and principles. Whether the rules should be proportional or majoritarian really was all that discussions of electoral systems addressed.
That has changed markedly, however, since the late 1980s. As our book demonstrates, a substantial trend has emerged in the electoral reforms passed in the last quarter of a century: the degree of personalisation has become a subject of significant attention; and the reforms that have been enacted almost always shift systems towards giving voters greater say over individual candidates. Politicians have recognised voters’ disillusionment with traditional party politics and have sought to enact reforms that respond (or give the appearance of responding) to that mood. Reforms opening up the system to greater voter control have been enacted both in long-standing democracies – Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Iceland, and Sweden – and in newer democracies such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania, and Estonia.
Lessons for electoral reform debates in the UK
How does this relate to the UK? The UK has not participated in the personalization trend, at least for Westminster elections: indeed, though the Alternative Vote (AV) system would slightly have increased personalisation by allowing voters to express multiple preferences among candidates, it was decisively rejected in the referendum of 2011. Nevertheless, three key lessons can be drawn.
- Public opinion can force change in electoral systems – but it isn’t easy, especially in a country like the UK.
Advocates of electoral reform in the UK might initially take heart from experience across Europe: many countries have enacted reforms that empower voters at the expense of party elites, and they have generally done so, at least in part, in response to public disaffection with the status quo; so perhaps the same could happen here. But we should not be too quick. The reforms enacted have in most cases been fairly small adjustments to existing rules, not wholesale redesigns. By contrast, any shift from first past the post would by definition be a major change. Such change is difficult: politicians always remain in control, and most incumbents strongly resist big changes to the system through which they were themselves elected.
- In fact, voters seem to like the kind of personalisation that first past the post provides.
Critics of first past the post in the UK have long argued for alternatives – especially for STV – partly on the basis that they would allow voters to choose among and rank multiple candidates from any one party. The result of the AV referendum in 2011 suggested, however, that most voters have little interest in the extra choice that AV could provide: the voter choice argument, though often made, gained little traction. The evidence in our book adds to this, showing a cross-national pattern. Where voters can vote for a single candidate in a single-member district – as in Germany and France – there is no pressure for further personalisation. By contrast, where voters cannot do that, the introduction of single-member districts is often advocated as the best route to personalization. Such arguments have been prominent in Austria, Portugal, and Poland, and they led to actual reform in Romania in 2008. Patterns like these are probably not surprising when we think about them: voters dislike parties, but they also dislike politics as a whole, and they generally want to keep their interaction with it to a bare minimum; one vote for one candidate keeps things as simple as possible, and seems to be about as much as most voters desire.
- The system used for European Parliament elections in Great Britain is increasingly out of step with the rest of Europe.
European Parliament seats in Great Britain (but not in Northern Ireland) used to be filled by first past the post. That was changed in 1999, when a proportional system was adopted. At the time, this was portrayed as a harmonisation with the European norm: indeed, the Maastricht Treaty established an aspiration that European Parliament elections should follow common procedures across all member states, which has come in practice to mean that some form of proportional representation is required. But the particular proportional system that was introduced was a closed-list system – one giving voters no say over individual candidates. At the time, ministers defended this choice as simple. But it is also the system that creates the greatest distance between voters and their representatives. And it is increasingly out of step with the European norm in terms of personalisation. Only eight of the other twenty-seven member states now use closed lists to elect their delegations to the European Parliament. At the level of national parliamentary elections, just two member states – Spain and Portugal – have stable closed-list systems; Croatia recently abandoned such a system, while Romania and Bulgaria have been oscillating in recent years between closed lists and other arrangements.
Overall, then, the importance of concerns about personalisation probably strengthens rather than weakens the case for first past the post for elections to Westminster. On the other hand, the system used to fill Great Britain’s seats in the European Parliament is ripe for reform. If the UK votes in June to remain within the European Union, that is likely to unleash a wave of debate about how to improve our relationship with the EU. The European Parliament electoral system would be one useful point of focus.
Faces on the Ballot: The Personalization of Electoral Systems by Alan Renwick and Jean-Benoit Pilet was published by Oxford University Press in February 2016. Please click here to order online.
About the author
Dr Alan Renwick is the Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit,