Looking East as British system goes south

U.K. could end up with a voting system closer to Japan's


In the months preceding the Lower House election last year, an ambitious Ichiro Ozawa, destined to become Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) secretary general, headed to Britain to study the “Westminster system.” His aim was to bring Japan’s politics closer to that of Britain, to weaken the power of the bureaucrats and strengthen the position of politicians, particularly those in the DPJ, which looked increasingly likely to wrest power from the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the August poll.

Fast forward one year and Britain is headed in the opposite direction. An election earlier this month delivered disappointing results for the Labour Party, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Labour was ousted from government after 13 years, the Lib Dems failed to live up to expectations, and the Conservatives have still not received a clear mandate from the British people for 17 years and counting. A coalition deal between the Lib Dems and Conservatives has led to the possibility of electoral reform for Britain and a “Westminster system” more closely resembling the Japanese model.

Britain’s current system for general elections, first-past-the-post — meaning that the candidate with the most votes wins the seat — has long been criticized for, among other things, ensuring that bigger parties win more seats per vote cast nationwide, and for “wasting” the votes of millions who cast ballots for candidates that come in second or third place. For these reasons, any consideration of reform in British politics seemed likely to include some form of proportional representation (PR), long seen as the holy grail for the Lib Dems and — until now — their only way out of “third party” purgatory and into government.

Proportional representation is a system whereby parliamentary seats are allotted according to the percentage of votes cast for each party. Under this system in Britain’s recent election, the Conservatives with 36 percent of the popular vote would have won 36 percent of seats, Labour 29 percent and the Lib Dems 23 percent. Under the first-past-the-post system, however, this translated into 47 percent of seats for the Conservatives, 40 percent for Labour and a mere 9 percent for the Lib Dems.

However, under the new Tory-Lib Dem government’s proposals, which will be put to a referendum, PR will only be used in elections for the upper chamber, the House of Lords. The Alternative Vote (AV) system proposed by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg for elections to the House of Commons, on the other hand, tinkers with yet retains the first-past-the-post principle many of his party colleagues so vehemently oppose — a fact that may come as a surprise to anyone who heard Clegg announcing the reforms last week.

“The current voting system, first-past-the-post, is a major block to lasting political change,” Clegg said in his first major speech as deputy prime minister Thursday.

Critics in the British media were quick to point out that adopting the AV system did not represent the sort of radical change a move to proportional representation would have.

Under AV, the electorate rank local candidates in order of preference, with the first to take more than 50 percent of the vote winning the seat. If no candidate gets more than half the vote as first choice, the last-placed candidate’s votes are then redistributed to the remaining candidates according to the second- choice picks marked on the losing candidate’s ballots. If after this there is still no candidate with above 50 percent of the vote, the second-to-last candidate’s votes are divided among the remaining candidates in the same way, and so on until somebody receives over half the vote. In other words, the system can be described as first-past-the-post, but where the post is placed at 50 percent of the votes cast.

Inevitably, a discussion has begun to take place now about whether the reform proposed by Clegg goes far enough, and there is a chance the fragile coalition government may be pushed toward PR reform.

“A proportional choice should be included in any referendum,” wrote openDemocracy cofounder Anthony Barnett on the New Statesman blog.

But what would a PR system look like and what would its consequences be?

A look at Japan’s system sheds light on one type of PR that could be considered. A plurality system of voting is used in Japan that sends politicians to the Diet via two separate votes.

In the Lower House, the electorate votes for 300 single-seat candidates using the first-past-the-post system and 180 in 11 districts through a proportional representation system. Of the 242 members of the Upper House, 96 are assigned for six-year periods through national PR.

“The smaller parties — the Japan Communist Party, New Komeito — have benefited from PR in Japan. And the only reason the Social Democratic Party (SDP) can survive today is because of PR,” explains Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. “Older parties with fairly clear ideological leanings tend to benefit. Those parties can cut a corner through the PR system, but of course cannot become big enough to govern the country.”

However, major parties have found ways to use the PR system in Japan to their own benefit, as a brief look at the strategies of Japan’s political parties in the 2005 and 2009 Lower House elections shows.

In 2005, when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was elected for a final time in the “postal vote,” the LDP asked its supporters to back New Komeito in the PR section of the ballot. Then allied with the LDP, New Komeito is a minority party, and as such depends to a large extent on PR votes. Smaller parties can rarely muster the votes to win a FPTP contest, but across the huge regions that make up the Lower House election PR blocks, support is often high enough to ensure a handful of candidates are voted in. Put simply, the LDP used New Komeito to weaken opposition parties’ showing in the PR part of the vote, leaving the LDP free to concentrate on FPTP dogfights.

New Komeito, which was formed by and remains associated with lay-Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai, has a huge nonpolitical following that it can count on to mobilize on Election Day and tick the right box, particularly in the PR section of the vote. In exchange for backing the LDP, what is essentially a religious party held considerable sway over previous LDP governments. New Komeito garnered PR votes from nonsupporters in return.

The PR system has also led to the smaller parties having a significant say in the actions of the current DPJ government.

Despite the DPJ landslide last year, it does not have an absolute majority in the Upper House, and needs the support of its coalition partners, the SDP and Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party), in order to fully control the Diet. Both the passage of the 2010 budget and discussions on the relocation of the Futenma U.S. air base in Okinawa have seen backroom meetings take place between the DPJ and its coalition partners, who won just four seats and 6.7 percent of the vote between them in the 2007 Upper House election.

In Britain, PR may help minority parties wield the influence that the SDP, Kokumin Shinto and New Komeito have enjoyed in Japan.

A look at the results from earlier this month suggests that the far-right British National Party and the Euroskeptic U.K. Independence Party may have the most to gain. After the three biggest parties, UKIP placed fourth with 3.1 percent of the vote and the BNP fifth with 1.9 percent.

Tobias Harris, a political commentator and the author of the Observing Japan blog, questions whether the British electorate wants to give these parties more of a voice.

“Does Britain really want to open the door to the BNP and other unsavory ultranationalist parties, the parties (that) I imagine would be the true beneficiaries of reform that introduced a PR element to the electoral system?” he wrote in an e-mail to The Japan Times. “One could argue that Japan’s mixed system works precisely because the radical right is marginalized (although for some the fact that the mixed system has kept the SDP around is surely a mark against it).”

Harris also points out the similarities between the current coalition government in Britain and those that tend to be made in countries that use PR systems.

“Doesn’t the very existence of the Tory-LDP coalition suggest that the current electoral system can produce PR-like outcomes despite the majoritarian electoral system?”

Another strategy that has been employed by parties in Japan is to put forward candidates for both single-seat constituencies and PR seats. This has meant that some senior politicians have managed to keep their jobs even though they have been booted by their local constituents.

“The introduction of a PR party list system gives more power to senior politicians. So party bosses (in Japan) ended up getting the upper hand, and it has led to some complacency in campaigns. Once politicians knew where they stood on the party list, it is possible that you will know whether or not you are going to be elected,” Nakano says.

Under the Japanese system, it would be difficult to imagine any segment of the British electorate enjoying a “Portillo moment,” as Labour supporters did when then Defense Secretary Michael Portillo, a Conservative, was ousted in 1997. It is also, however, difficult to imagine the huge sums of money the Conservatives invested in trying to oust former schools secretary Ed Balls this year being spent on single-seat contests if top figures had the “insurance” of a prominent place on their parties’ PR lists.

In the runup to last summer’s election, the difference between the number of LDP and DPJ candidates put forward for PR seats was also telling. Heading for a heavy defeat, the LDP fielded only 37 candidates in the PR-only segment of the vote, while the DPJ opted for 59 — a testament to the confidence of the DPJ that it was heading for a landslide victory. The LDP, meanwhile, aimed to keep as many of its politicians in both the PR and single-seat votes as possible.

Though PR does come with challenges, Nakano argues that it may offer a way forward for British politics.

“I tend to think that proportional representation is a good system, but an electoral system alone does not entirely define what sort of politics will emerge. You can push politics in a certain direction, but the outcome will be based on the history of current political parties. It doesn’t necessarily mean you will get a series of small parties — the devil is in the details.”

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