Page last updated at 12:35 GMT, Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Should we elect MPs on reality TV rules?

Balloting the electorate and the viewers

By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

A radical new voting system proposed by Gordon Brown which would allow the public to rank prospective MPs in order of preference has been compared to that used by TV's X Factor. The links between voting for a reality TV star and a politician don't stop there.

Reality TV fans are asked to pick a favourite. If that person gets knocked out, they pick another - and then another if that person is also sent home.

Viewers of last year's X Factor might have plumped for Jedward, then, when the terrible twosome were booted off, Olly Murs. Equally, fans of BBC's Strictly Come Dancing might have backed Jade Johnson, then switched to Chris Hollins after her departure. Olly and Chris may not have been their first choice, but they liked them enough to propel both into their respective finals.

Gordon Brown as Jedward in Conservative poster, and David Cameron as Jedward in Labour poster
Both main parties see the parallels - deploying Jedward as a means of mocking the other

Both TV contests use a voting system not dissimilar to the Alternative Vote system, which Gordon Brown proposes holding a referendum on. While the current "first past the post" system requires voters to mark an X by a preferred candidate, under the Alternative Vote model voters rank prospective MPs in order of preference.

Labour's plans have been attacked by the Tories, who accused the PM of wanting to "fiddle" the system, and the Lib Dems, who said the plan did not go far enough.

But Labour MP Martin Linton is a fan and made the link between the Alternative Vote model and the X Factor model.

"Not only the Mayor of London is elected in this way - and other mayors - but indeed when people vote in the X Factor they are essentially using an alternative vote because candidates are eliminated. Admittedly in the X Factor over a long period of weeks, but they're still eliminated one by one."

In psephologist speak, it's a "majoritarian system" - the winner is the one the most people approve of (or dislike the least). And it also gives them a chance to punish those they do not wish to see in office by ranking them lowest, says Stephen Coleman, professor of political communication at Leeds University.

How they work: alternative voting systems

X Factor
Strictly Come Dancing
Gordon Brown
I'm a celebrity...get me out of here
Big Brother
BACK {current} of {total} NEXT

"It gives you the chance to eliminate who you don't like, that's quite important. Under our [present, first past the post] voting system, if you are a Labour supporter in a safe Conservative seat, or vice versa, there is very little you can do to register your displeasure and that's frustrating."

But critics say it's a system - whether in the Big Brother house or in a house of representatives - that favours the moderates. The "Marmite characters", those most loved or hated, tend to get eliminated, leaving the final choice between vanilla and, er, vanilla.

"The winner is the one who is most aggregately popular. It's a maximisation of compromise," says Mr Coleman.

Wicked whispers

Peter Kellner, who runs polling firm YouGov, says the closest political example to the talent show format can be found across the Channel.

French presidential hopefuls 2007
From this field, Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal went into the final

In the first round of any French presidential election, a host of candidates square up on the ballot paper. If none win an overall majority - as happened in the last election, in 2007 - all but the two most popular are eliminated. A second round of voting is held a fortnight later.

The other constant is the presence of judges or experts. These people already exist in our democracy - the "commentariat" of columnists and TV pundits who give a daily commentary of who's in and who's out in British politics.

"The voters watch the politicians and pay attention to what Trevor Kavanagh [one time influential political editor of the Sun] is saying. And on X Factor, we have Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Louis Walsh and Dannii Minogue mediating in the same way.

"The question is how much influence do they have at election time? In the same way, I'm not sure how much influence the judges have in X Factor."

He believes the influence of bloggers speculating on the minutiae of political personalities will grow, just as bloggers affect the voting on talent shows.

"You could argue that Danyl Johnson in X Factor suffered because of the stuff that was rumoured to have happened in the house. It was not on the programme but the tabloids and blogosphere were full of it."

HAngus, the mascot for Hartlepool United Football Club
H'Angus the Monkey, voted mayor of Hartlepool in 2002

With talent shows, the public enjoys ignoring the judges' verdicts to support characters like John Sergeant or Jedward. And politics throws up occasional personalities like Enoch Powell who are despised by the commentariat but popular with the public. But there's a limit to their advance in politics.

"The Jedwards of politics are Jimmy Goldsmith or Oswald Mosley, and get spotted much more quickly or decisively for who they are than in X Factor. The best analogy is the monkey elected to be Mayor of Hartlepool."

These characters are initially popular but never win high office in politics, he says.

Getting to know you...

But if the parallels bear up for Mr Kellner, fellow psephologist John Curtice is less certain the custodians of democracy have anything to learn from reality TV voting models.

"My first question is - so how long do you want an election to go on for?"

The British way is to get voting in a general election done and dusted in a day. Yet Mr Curtice acknowledges that the reality TV format of running over several weeks has a parallel in places such as France and Ukraine where voters return to the ballot box after an initial elimination round.

However, he struggles to see how a presidential-style head-to-head run-off can work in a parliamentary democracy, where voters are electing a local MP.

Mr Coleman, however, says the reality TV model allows voters to get a more rounded picture of the hopefuls.

"In elections people vote for parties rather than candidates because they don't have the sort of access to MPs that we get to reality TV contestants - following them over a period time gives you a chance to think about who you want to vote for."

John Sergeant "performs" a tango
Disliked by judges, loved by voters

It's sometimes said one of the factors that switches off the public from politics is the sheer weight of information voters now have access to. Faced with a plethora of spin and stats, some feel unable to make an informed choice... and so opt for no choice at all.

So how about a panel of officially-appointed independent experts who could cut through the morass of information to deliver pure, unadulterated facts?

Mr Curtice snorts at the idea, believing it would amount to nothing more than a "guided democracy". The phrase is synonymous with the style of government established by President Surkarno in Indonesia in 1959 - democracy with a dash or autocracy. In essence - not a democracy.

"I think the last time we had that was when we had limited franchise," says Curtice, "and that's why the people who did vote, would do so for whoever was the local landowner."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

"And the common room was painted this very ugly colour by popular vote." This is the risk of scoring candidates: The second choice is more likely to get elected than the first choice as many people will vote for a spoiler candidate - one they think has no hope of success - simply to promote their favourite candidate. It also does not address this representational democracy we suffer from. As things stand, more votes could be cast for party A than party B, but party B would still get in, simply because they won more seats by a small margin than party A, who might win their seats by large margins. Either ditch representation and opt for a proportional system, or ditch parliament and opt for a house of representatives, each independent of a political party. Then we might have democracy.
Steve Powell, Wolverhampton

Steve, this sounds much more like it. Take the choice away from contrived parties and vote for local individuals, answerable to local parliamentary councils. Too good for the current lot to accept, but an excellent notion, nonetheless.
Paul Williams, Marlborough, Wilts

Remember the 2007 Scottish Council elections? They brought in the STV (similar to AV) for the first time. Although a good idea in principle with no vote wasted, many voters did not understand the system, wasting votes. There is also the likelihood of a coalition - not necessarily a bad thing... we've had one since 1999 and no real issues.
Heather, Inverness

Martin Linton is wrong in claiming that AV is the system used by talent shows. The talent shows all use multiple round voting, where someone is eliminated after each round and the voters get a chance to cast another vote with this information. This is known as Exhaustive Voting, and is rarely used in large elections, but is used in small elections. (Votes for presidents etc may sometimes use a two-round system as a compromise.) Interestingly, it is always claimed that multi-round voting is impractical en mass, but the talent shows have shown just how simple it could be and how effective it is.
AW, Kent

I find it interesting that you use reality TV and French presidential elections to compare with this proposed system, and then complain that a system that works for a presidential system (where there's only one post to be filled) wouldn't work with with a general election (where there are hundreds). Obviously! Why don't you just compare to the electoral systems for general elections in other countries? It's used in Australia without any difficulties. As for those who worry it would be too complicated to understand - FPTP is pretty darn simple, but most countries in the world use something more complicated, like AV or some form of PR. Are Britons afraid they won't be able to understand a system millions of others use in many different countries around the world?
Eileen, Dublin, Ireland

STV would be a breath of fresh air for our politics. With a third of Britons (opinion polls indicate a hung parliament) not wanting either Labour or the Tories, it would see the election of other parties in large numbers with alternative views. More women, more ethnic minorities and more honest politicians not afraid to say how it is to the voting public.
Richard Denton-White

We have this system in Australia, works for us!
Chris, Perth, Australia

I myself was a candidate in an election using this very system in university elections nearly 40 years ago. I lost out in a second or third round, but was happy that my voters had their second choice votes transferred to one of the other candidates. In the first past the post system, a candidate can win with as little as 20% of the vote if say there are half a dozen other candidates who all poll less than the "winning" candidate. At least with STV, electors can express who they don't want to win by giving them either a very low ranking or no preference at all.
Tony, Bury St Edmunds, UK

Under this system, your vote is never wasted on what you think is a great candidate with an outside chance, which also has the benefit of making all those "Only X can stop Y getting in here!" graphs in the pre-election junk mail completely obsolete. This is a system used because it is deemed to be fairer for a great variety of things, from student politics to deciding which city will host the Olympics. Its only downside is that it is more demanding to count the votes, electronic vote counters would be required to have the results in on time. If we can make machines that read cheques correctly, we can certainly make one that reads ballot papers, and probably quite quickly too.
Gavin, Oxford

X Factor type voting would be brilliant if it includes several episodes to enable voters to get involved. To do this you could add elements of scenario planning: each week for a month we could set potential labour/Conservative/Liberal cabinets political dilemmas representative of the future (global warming, Iran war, double dip depression etc) and give them an hour to produce policies in response with fly-on-the-wall cameras showing us how these are arrived at and thus revealing the strengths and weaknesses of the politicians involved. Outcomes of these policies could then be predicted by computer models run by a team of three independent experts and the public vote on these in order of preference. The cabinet which collects the greatest accumulated popularity over four programmes would be the next government. What do others think about this?
Philip Iszatt, Coleford, Somerset, UK

We used this voting system at university for our student union positions. I helped count one of the ballots and it can get quite complicated with all the re-allocations. I don't trust the government to correctly count the voting under this "new" system so it would be best to stick to the current one.
Charlotte, London

Charlotte, no-one would trust the government to count votes, that's why they don't.
Dave, Hythe

Gordon Ramsey shows often on his TV programmes that the public is not erudite enough to choose an evening meal without limiting their choice, and the chef in charge isn't capable enough in dealing with too much choice. Transfer that metaphor across to an already apathetic electorate and you have Conservative voters complaining they have no real alternative on the centre-right, and that Labour and Liberal will sweep up a disproportionate number of additional otherwise "wasted votes", whilst some Labour voters complain we're not even sure we want to vote for our own party at the moment let alone a hatful of unrepresentative alternatives. In my opinion this whole idea of electoral reform is absurd. Under FPTP we have avoided hung parliaments and on the whole, provided the country with a Government which, if not always representing national consensus, is the party the people felt were the best people for the job given the alternatives.
Fred, Coventry, UK/Leuven, Belgium

What this article doesn't say is that Stuart Drummond (H'Angus the Monkey), mayor of Hartlepool, got re-elected twice - quite possibly because he wasn't, and to some respects even now isn't, part of the political landscape.
Sacha, Hartlepool

He gets voted in because the football fans keep voting for him. When you ask them why they vote for him, the replies are normally the same - he gets on the train with them to away games, or is on Facebook, or other stupid reasons why you would vote a monkey to the mayors job. He won by 884 votes last time round, so fingers crossed he is on his way out.
Tracy, Hartlepool

The idea of simplifying voting is very good and key to increasing turnout - one of the reasons people don't vote is from laziness and complacency. The main reason now for no party taking a decisive lead is because Labour supporters are choosing not to vote, rather than vote Tory. And I know people who don't just because they can't be bothered to make the effort to find their nearest polling station. If voting consisted of texting, e-mail or phoning, then turnout would be significantly higher. Though obviously there would be all sorts of issues in regulating this. A freephone number would attract a lot of interest, and I personally feel everyone should be compelled to vote in a democracy.
I think what we should see is a system where votes for MPs and the PM are separate. People would have a round of national voting to decide who the PM would be between the major parties - this would mean a Tory supported in a strong Labour area would still have a valid vote, and vice versa. Then vote for a local MP, allowing people to focus on who will best run their area, not who will best run their country. But then that raises problems of having a PM not in control of the Commons... it seems there is no ideal solution to a perfect democracy.
Jack, Haverhill

Jack, you can't have a system where you vote for an MP and PM separately. The PM is simply the leader of the party that returned the most MPs. We indirectly vote for the PM by voting in our MPs. Under your system Labour could win a clear majority of seats in parliament but Cameron could be elected PM, which would be nonsensical. Who would form a government then? And who would sit in Cabinet - Labour or Conservative MPs? You could find that 500 Labour MPs are voted in but having to sit on the opposition bench because Cameron got voted in as PM and his 50 MPs are sat on the government bench.
Dave, Liverpool

OK then - three candidates for a post, 50% vote for candidate A with candidate C as second choice and 50% vote for candidate B with candidate C as second choice. Who gets in?
Jon, Leics, UK

It would be a dead heat between candidates A and B, with C eliminated and no votes to redistribute. As with the current first past the post system, it'll then be up to the returning officer to sort it out - I believe in theory it would come down to drawing lots. However, there would doubtless by arguments in court about spoiled ballots, etc, and the election would end up being re-run.
David, London

Jon, given that they are both equally popular, it would be a toss of a coin, just like now, but now if the top two candidates each get 20% of the vote, and the remaining field gets 60%, we are left with an MP commanding the support of only 20% of his constituents. AV seems a sensible option which would allow far more votes to actually make a difference. Take Wiltshire North, my former constituency. At the last election, the Conservative candidate polled 46.9% of the vote. If you discount everyone except the top two candidates, you might have got a different result that reflected the 53% of voters that didn't vote for him, and might have encouraged the 30% of people that didn't vote to come out.
Darren, Hong Kong

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