The big problem with PR, one of the main arguments against it in fact, is that exactly this lack of a constituency MP and any personal responsibility that makes the people elected personally unaccountable. This is a real danger, the European elections are a perfect example, the parties choose a list of candidates and voters choose their preferred parties. Nowhere does any member of the general population get any say in who shall be their MEP. This is great for giving sinecures to loyal party members, or for getting weird and embarrassing people far away from Westminster.
This is, from the point of view of accountable and democratic government, obviously not satisfactory. It's the victory of the party over the people.
A solution to this is an open primary. That is, before the main election there are open, public elections to decide who will be the candidate from each party. The most well known example of this is in the US presidential election. For months before the final presidential elections there are votes for who will be the candidate from the two main parties. This way the people dont simply have to choose between two possible candidates, the final two are chosen by a wide electorate to then be put to the whole population.
Ok, enough of theory. Practice is needed. We have 3 real groups of legislators to select (I dont care here (as always) about sub-national and local elections) ie, the Lords, the commons, and the MEPs.
We are promised in the holy gospel according to Clegg that the government will present:
proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of Proportional representation.
It is likely that this will advocate single long terms of office.
Ok. So we're picking people on the basis of PR, serving single long terms. This is not, and is not capable of being, a recipe for personal accountability. Single long terms means that after a Lord is elected they will have almost no incentive to do anything (short of recall powers). With this kind of a disadvantage for good governance right at the start we need something to redress the balance.
To introduce the system currently used to elect MEPs for the Lords would be an unambiguous disgrace. There is no accountability at any stage for MEPs. If we are to have either a national or (more likely) a regional PR system then some kind of primary election is an absolute must. There must be some way to say who the representative from each party will be. Now we could argue till we're blue in the face about details, but the gist has to be something like this:
An election campaign over the whole constituency (probably the regions as with European elections, but some other convenient sub-division of people works just as well) where each candidate from each party can explain why they should be chosen above everyone else in their party.
An election, within that area, with a wide electorate. I dont mind if that means you have a fully open primary (ie everyone regardless of party preference can vote), a restricted vote (ie you can vote for candidates from only one party, or a properly closed primary (ie you must be a fully paid up member of a party to vote). But the election must be held with all the normal precautions (and sadly until there's been dramatic reform that means you cant have a postal vote - I'm sorry, you may as well not bother our postal voting system is so hopelessly corrupt) and must output an ordered list of people.
The winners of these elections (however they are decided) determine who gets the seats if that party wins n seats. This way the number from each party is decided by PR and is properly fair and representative, and the candidates have at least some personal credibility.
Exactly as above.
There is a huge problem with running this kind of thing in the commons. Which is that UK constituencies are tiny. They cant support a large party membership in most constituencies. The first and so far only primary election in the UK for an MP cost £38,000 for one party for one constituency. Very very few areas have the capacity for local parties to run and pay for such things, and it seems hard to imagine that much support for the cost to be supported by government. As a very rough estimate suppose that each of the (say 600) constituencies to have such an election for say 5 parties, gets as a very rough figure £100 million. Obviously if this is institutionalised it can be done far more efficiently, but say we cut this down to the £80 million of a general election this still doubles costs which might be difficult.
There is also the practical problem that it's hard to find enough candidates to make it worth while in many areas. I imagine if you put forward all 5 members of the Glasgow conservative party (I jest I jest) you wouldn't have enough of a contest to make it worth while.
I would love to see open primaries wherever they can happen easily. The problem is that many people in the Tory and Labour parties see this as the be all and end all of political reform. Simple they say, have open primaries and you can keep FPTP.
Umm, not really, they are way more expensive than they need to be, and wont be very effective considering the small number of quality applicants in many areas. (Dont get me wrong there are many local parties with many important and viable candidates, and I would love to see open primaries for them, but this cant be universal). I would like to suggest that in many area the intra-party competition will only ever be of limited importance and the inter-party competition is key.
And this is exactly the area (hello high horse) where AV can help. AV can allow you to kill two birds with one stone. The key areas of real political turmoil and controversy where our current system are largely seen to fail are in two parts with, it seems to me, one cause.
All women shortlists
Ok, not just them, but they are a good example, what I mean here is central party choosing one candidate who is not wanted locally. This means that either the local party voters must vote for a candidate they dont want or (as with the Blaenau Gwent 2005 election) put up an independent alternative candidate. This has obvious dangers of vote splitting. Obviously Blaenau Gwent was a safe labour seat, but if the same thing happened in an even slightly marginal seat the two labour candidates would half the number of votes they got. This vote splitting could have been disastrous for Labour meaning they would have been almost forced to stick with the unwanted candidate Maggie Jones. This is undesirable.
A lot is talked about this thing called tactical voting, I want to explain what I mean when I say tactical voting, why it's bad.
Suppose for simplicity we consider a seat with 3 major parties. Everyone has a favourite and a second favourite party and it is known by opinion polls and history that one of two parties will win. Voters of the third party can then either vote genuinely for their own party or vote for their second choice. The question for them is which way will (on the balance of probabilities) give them the best expected outcome. I.e., does a vote for their third party candidate make it sufficiently more likely that the third party will win to make it a better decision than a vote for the second preference making it more likely that they will win.
This is a choice that often comes down on the side of voting for the second party. This means that many people vote for their second choice, which genuinely distorts the true result. There was a poll shortly before the last election (anomalous time I know) asking "If you believed the Lib Dems had a genuine chance of victory how would you vote?" The polls suggested the Lib Dems winning a landslide majority, in fact, they lost seats. And this isn't just a Lib Dem point, I dont consider myself loyal to the Lib Dems, there are countless seats where the third party in elections is often just as popular as the two top parties but is nowhere near them in votes cast. Examples of this can be found for all parties.
Splitting costs and AV
Both of these questions boil down to one thing. Vote splitting. In first past the post if you run against an identical candidate you get half the vote, so it is very hard to get a diverse collection of politically similar candidates to stand as they fear eroding the support of people similar to them. This is a problem as it reduces voter choice and leads to poor candidates and poor representation of parties similar to existing ones. The bigger labour is the harder it is for the Greens or other "left" parties to gain power, the bigger the Tories are the harder it is for UKIP or other "right" parties.
The answer, as I see it, to both of these failures can be provided by AV.
In the first case the independent Peter Law could quite happily run along side Maggie Jones, complimenting her, explaining why she was a great choice and why people should put her second, but ultimately why he was the better candidate.
In the second case everyone can honestly vote for people in the order they want them. That way you get both advantages of the two way decision above, you increase the chance your candidate will win and increase the chance that your second choice will win.
This way the big two problems are solved in one fell swoop.
Is it not contradictory of me to say that Open primaries are awesome and the way to go for MEPs and Lords elections but that AV is better for MPs? No, and I'd like to suggest why.
The difference between full national or regional PR systems and electing MPs is the size of the constituency and thus the number of people involved.
The problems with FPTP in the commons are significant, but this is spread over a huge number of constituencies, so that the problems in each constituency are small, the second best candidate winning not the first by some measure, or a party getting a thousand fewer votes than they should etc. This kind of problem is not really well dealt with by an open primary, they are hard to run.
The problems with PR are significant in each constituency. And the AV equivalent, STV, would be far too hard to be practical with potentially dozens and dozens of candidates. So here open primaries are vital, this may be just about the only contact that most people will ever get with their representative.