The Lesson of Red Ken
by Hendrik Hertzberg
Earlier this month, for the first time ever, the citizens of London went to the polls and elected themselves a mayor. This unprecedented event was little noted in the United States. Americans who read the inside pages of the big papers will be aware that London's voters, by picking a maverick who had been thrown out of the ruling Labour Party for running as an independent, stuck a gleeful Cockney finger in the eye of Prime Minister Tony Blair. To summarize the tabloidish high points: Kenneth "Red Ken" Livingstone, cheeky hero of London's Loony Left, trounces hapless, bearded Labour draftee Frank Dobson and skirt-chasing Conservative Steve Norris in rebuke to Blairite control-freakery after Labour hopeful slash movie queen Glenda Jackson quits and original Tory nominee slash potboiler novelist Lord Jeffrey Archer flames out in gamy sex scandal. Great copy. But seeing this story solely from the personality angle is like handicapping the Grand National by judging the jockeys without mentioning horse or hurdles.
The real novelty of the election was the way it was conducted: by a kind of instant runoff. Under London's ingenious arrangement, each voter gets to name both a first choice and a second one. If somebody wins an outright majority, that's it. If not, then all but the top two candidates are eliminated; the second preferences of the eliminated candidates' voters are counted up; the second-choice votes for the two finalists are added to their first-choice votes; and the one with the highest total wins. This is what in fact happened. In the first-choice voting, Livingstone got thirty-nine per cent -- a smaller share, by the way, than Ruth Messinger got when she had her head handed to her by Mayor Giuliani in the 1997 New York City election. Ten other candidates -- three major, seven minor -- split the remainder, with Norris, the Tory, coming in second, at twenty-seven per cent. In the second- preference vote, Red Ken got another twelve per cent -- just enough for a bare majority - while Norris picked up an additional thirteen, for a total of forty per cent.
This was a little too complicated for the American press. For example, the Times -- New York, not London -- simply reported that Livingstone had won "with an estimated 51 per cent of the vote," making it sound as if the voters liked Red Ken better than all his opponents put together.
It may seem pedantic to harp on what looks like mere procedure, but this is one case where the process is the forest. Red Ken is only a tree. The election he happened to win is part of a profound constitutional upheaval that, far more than any Third Way policy tinkerings, will be Tony Blair's lasting legacy. The only aspect of this upheaval to have received much attention over here is the abolition of hereditary membership in the House of Lords. That change, for all its "Masterpiece Theatre" appeal, is less important than the creation of new regional parliaments in Scotland and Wales that are chosen in semi-proportional elections. Most of the members of these parliaments represent individual districts, but, in addition, a few extra seats are distributed among the parties according to their proportion of the over-all total vote. That way, geographically dispersed and/or smaller parties get a share of representation, too. A similar scheme was used last year in the balloting for Britain's delegates to the European parliament in Strasbourg, and a modest move toward proportionality has been proposed for the British parliament itself. London had a city-council election on the day it elected Red Ken, and there, too, an innovative system was employed. The two biggest parties swept district- based seats. But, thanks to proportionally distributed extra seats, the council has a fair sprinkling of Liberal Democrats and Greens as well.
All this ought to be of interest to Americans, because our electoral system is based on an eighteenth- century British model -- single-district, winner-take-all elections decided by simple pluralities -- that Britain is having second thoughts about. For Americans, London's instant runoff idea presents especially intriguing possibilities. It's a way of opening up politics to a wider variety of voices without sacrificing the clarity and energy of a single directly elected executive. As a third-party or independent candidate, you can campaign hard without the risk of being a spoiler and handing the election to the candidate most hostile to your views. As a citizen, you can vote your heart without giving up your shot at picking the lesser evil. London's voting system allows the electorate to speak far more subtly and precisely than ours does. Red Ken won fair and square, because he was at least barely acceptable to a majority. He was the people's choice, but not their first choice. The voters gave him the job, but they were able to specify that they were giving it to him grudgingly. And, if there's one thing American voters would dearly love to be able to express, it's grudgingness.
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