Lessons from Britain’s electoral referendum

Too much coalition wheeling and dealing, and the often extortionate use of power by the smallest parties, has been characteristic of the Israeli system.

This month’s referendum in the UK delivered a clear result.
The British people voted, by a margin of 2 to 1, not to change the electoral system of “first past the post,” in which MPs are elected in 650 single-member constituencies throughout the country.
It was only the second referendum ever in the UK, the first resulting in the decision to retain membership in the European Community back in 1975. It was a strange referendum because the protagonists – for and against the change – were both from the coalition government. The Conservative Party of Prime Minister David Cameron strongly opposed the proposed changes, while the Liberal Party of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg strongly promoted the move toward greater proportionality and representation.
When this coalition government was formed a year ago, the Liberal Party – which has always campaigned for changes in the electoral system – conditioned its agreement to join on this referendum being held.
Major compromises still had to be made. Instead of a referendum aimed at introducing a truly proportional system of government, the Liberal party had to make do with a watered-down version, proposing instead the Alternative Vote (AV) system, which, while far more proportional than the existing system, would still have left a lot to be desired. But even this proved too difficult a hurdle to cross.
The referendum defeat was not helped by the fact that the opposition Labour Party was divided over the issue, with some of its leaders campaigning for the change, others against it. This is ironic, given their public support for electoral change over the past decade. But the existing system offers the best chance for the Labour Party to return to power at some point, as opposed to a more proportional system which would necessitate a coalition government of two and perhaps even three parties. Thus the Labour Party may utter the slogan of “greater power to the people,” but in reality its leaders are aware that a change of this nature would negatively affect their chances in future elections.
THIS IS exactly the opposite of the situation in Israel, where cries for political reform and a change in the electoral system are as old as the state itself. The proportional system used here offers far greater representation than does the British system. In this sense, Israel can be proud of the fact that few countries display such a high level of proportionality and that, compared to almost any other country, hardly any votes are lost here; the vote of each individual really does count. However, this system also enables a multitude of small parties to gain seats, while no single party – or even two parties, as in the UK today – can create a stable government.
Too much coalition wheeling and dealing, and the often extortionate use of power by the smallest parties, has been characteristic of the Israeli system so far.
Past attempts to change the system in Israel have never succeeded.
The only real attempt – the direct election of the prime minister during the 1990s – led to an even greater fragmentation.
This experiment was eventually abandoned, with a return to the previous electoral system, in which we simply vote for a single national list of whichever party we choose and the seats are distributed in direct proportion to the number of votes gained by each party (excepting those that fall below the minimum threshold).
There was an opportunity, back in the 1990s, for the two major parties of the time – Likud and Labor – to change the system in such a way that greater stability and fewer parties would become the order of the day. But a proposal by former minister Meir Sheetrit, on the eve of the elections, was rejected by the Labor MKs, even though there was a clear majority for the two major parties. Such is the level of mistrust between Labor and Likud that they could not even agree to bring in a system that would have benefitted the larger parties. Such a proposal could not even be considered today, because there is no longer a majority of seats in the Knesset held by two, or even three, parties.
In today’s Knesset, where no party has more than 20 seats, there are only medium-sized parties.
Today’s government is, however, relatively stable compared to previous governments, even if it does rely on a multitude of parties for its 61-seat majority. A few changes have been introduced, the most important of which is the requirement of 61 MKs to bring the government down. Previously, a simple majority of members present would have been sufficient. The 61 requirement has made it almost impossible for governments to be brought down every year or two, as had been the case.
Another, relatively simple measure that needs to be introduced is the raising of the threshold for parties to gain entry to the Knesset. In recent years, the figure has risen from 1 percent to 2%, but this is still insufficient. A minimum threshold of 5% – which, compared to many other democracies, is still low – would ensure fewer, larger or medium-sized parties, and would remove the many small ones, which have no more than four seats each. Special-sector interests, such as religious or Arab parties, would not disappear, but would be forced to amalgamate over those issues that unite them rather than fragment over those issues that divide them. And the small splinter parties, which rise and fall on the whims of individuals and personalities and which can hold disproportionate power if they are responsible for the 60th and 61st seats required by a coalition government, would no longer be able to manipulate the system.
The British and Israeli electoral systems represent two ends of a continuum. One sacrifices stability for representation (Israel), while the other sacrifices representation for stability (Britain). Each has its obvious faults, which can be rectified by relatively minor changes, without the need for wholesale reform.
The writer is professor of Political Geography at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.