We Need STV, Not “PR”

(I hope the following is coherent — I’ve been sleep-deprived for much of the last week, and really don’t feel very good)

We no longer live in anything that could be made to convincingly pose as a two-party system, even if you squint a bit. Nor do we live in the two-and-a-bit party system we had from 1981 through 2010, where Labour or the Tories would get a massive majority and the Lib Dems would have a handful of seats.

At the next election, while the Lib Dems’ vote has haemmoraged, the party is still likely to get twenty or thirty seats — the same levels they were getting in the 90s — through targetted campaigning and the incumbency factor (I was predicting 35 until recently, and that’s still possible, but would require rather more competence in getting a liberal message out than we’ve seen). UKIP topped the poll at the European election and look likely to come third nationally, but seem unlikely to get more than (at the very most) one or two seats in the election. The Greens are polling better than they ever have, and may still overtake the Lib Dems in support, though I doubt it. And the Scottish National Party have more members than any UK-wide party now, I believe, with the Scottish Socialist Party and Scottish Greens all doing fairly well.

Some of this I’m very glad about, some of it I’m much less happy about — I’ve often said that I wish the two main parties in the UK were the Lib Dems on the liberal side and the Greens on the authoritarian centralist side — but all of it’s a fact. It’s looking incredibly unlikely that any party will even get as high a share of the vote as the low share the Tories got in 2010, when they got most votes but couldn’t get a majority without going into coalition with the Lib Dems.

In fact it’s possible, though not likely, that the following absurd situation could happen next time — the Tories come first in popular vote, but second in seats, Labour come second in popular vote but first in seats, UKIP come third in the vote but get no seats at all, the Greens come fourth but also get no seats, and the Lib Dems come fifth but get enough seats that they get to be the kingmakers who decide what party or parties form the next government.

I don’t think that’s going to happen — I think the Lib Dem vote will recover enough, and UKIP’s vote will drop off enough at an actual election, that those two parties will be pretty much neck-and-neck in the popular vote in May, with the Greens a distant fifth — but it’s not at all unthinkable.

Three years ago, after the massive failure of the AV referendum (still the most upsetting public event of my lifetime), William Hague was crowing at Conservative party conference that electoral reform was “dead for a generation”. Now the political system has become so chaotic and unpredictable that we’re starting to see kite-flying articles in the Tory broadsheets talking about how the Tories should consider putting “PR” into their manifesto for the next election. I don’t think that will happen, but electoral reform is not looking anything like as unthinkable as it did after the referendum — and if something as blatantly stupid as the scenario I outline above happens and we don’t get reform, I could see riots happening.

The problem is that the kite-flying we’re seeing talks about “PR”, not about a specific system. And this is dangerous. It’s partly the fault of the Lib Dems, for spending decades talking about “PR” rather than systems — and that was something that helped sink the AV referendum, when a load of thick bastards who thought they were being clever said they’d only vote for “full PR” without really knowing what the words they were saying meant.

There are actually at least three criteria that, in my view at least, need to be met to consider a voting system truly representative. Proportionality is one — the result should lead to roughly the same proportion of representatives for each party as there were people who voted for it — but it’s only one, and to my mind the least important of the three. The system should also be preferential — it shouldn’t discard as pointless all the votes that don’t go to the top two candidates, which the Biggest Loser system we’ve got now does — and it should allow people to vote for specific candidates, or more to the point *against* them. If you’ve got an incompetent representative, you should be able to get rid of that person even if they’re in a generally-popular party, and conversely if you’ve got a good independent candidate they should be able to win even without being a member of a party.

AV was my second-favourite choice, because it had both those latter two conditions. It isn’t proportional, but it is preferential, and it allows you to vote for individuals rather than parties. Other voting systems have these aspects in different measure. The only one I know of that has all three is the single transferable vote, or British Proportional Representation (to give it the name which would possibly sell it to more voters, and by which it used to be known). This is the system that the Lib Dems have always advocated, and it is also the one that the Electoral Reform Society, among others, campaign for.

And we need to start advocating for British Proportional Representation now, and constantly, and explaining the difference between that and just “PR”, which isn’t “full PR”, but is “only PR”. There are many proportional systems out there, and some are profoundly undemocratic. The Bloody Stupid d’Hondt System (to give it its full name) that we use for the European elections, for example, is hideously undemocratic even though it’s proportional — voters get to choose from lists of candidates chosen by the parties, with no control over which individual their vote helps elect. This moves control and accountability away from the voters and toward the party leaders. We all remember times when unpopular individual politicians from all sides have been kicked out by their local voters because of their personal unpopularity, even when they’ve been important figures in their parties (naming no Michaels, Peters, or Lembits). We’ve also seen, less often but occasionally, strong independent candidates get elected. Having a PR system like d’Hondt would ensure that that could never happen.

We need proportionality, but it must be balanced by the ability to vote for individuals. We need to make sure that if we do get electoral reform as a result of the current mess, it’s not a stitch-up that transfers power into the hands of four voters named David, Ed, Nick, and Nigel.

No to PR, yes to STV.

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20 Responses to We Need STV, Not “PR”

  1. The resurrection of electoral reform is a wonderful thing, and let it flourish; and yes, STV or British PR over D’Hondt and its party lists (didn’t Jack Straw once say D’Hondt was the only PR system he’d consider, because he considered the authority of the party sacrosanct?).

  2. Nick says:

    Unless they’ve had another surge, I think the SNP are just the third largest party – they were reporting c75,000 members, and the last I saw Labour have around 190k and Tories 130k. It’s still a phenomenally large % of the Scottish population, and probably makes it one of the largest in Europe in relative terms.

    And I hate to be a pedant, but D’Hondt refers solely to the method of counting, rather than the voting method. D’Hondt is the simplest form of the ‘highest averages’ method of counting, where the totals are divided by an integer increasing by 1 each time someone’s elected. It tends to favour larger parties slightly more than other commonly used methods – Saint-Lague or Droop/largest remainder – but doesn’t refer to the way votes are cast. What I think you’re saying you’re against is closed-list PR systems (and I entirely agree with you), and I think a lot of the objections that people have had to PR in practice has been because they don’t like closed-list systems because they’re so used to voting for individuals in other ones.

  3. Mike Taylor says:

    The reason I was heartbroken by losing the AV referendum is because that voting system wouldn’t have required me to lie about which candidate I want to get elected. Next to that, all the other benefits are down in the noise for me. I want to be able to vote for the good guy, not the least worst of the bad guys.

    (I think this what you mean by “preferential”, amirite?)

  4. Iain Coleman says:

    While I agree in principle about voting for people not parties, in practice that point can be a bit overblown. In many constituencies, parties will find it is their best strategy to field only one candidate. Certainly that’s my experience of Scottish local elections.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I imagine though that those parties are the ones who receive few votes under the current system. I’m thinking more of, for example, the Labour voter who might want an MP with the expressed values of Diane Abbot but lives in Blunkett’s constituency (or vice versa). Smaller parties tend (with obvious exceptions) to be more homogeneous, so this would be less of a problem for their voters, I’d imagine.

      • Iain Coleman says:

        No, that’s not how it works in practice. I forget the formula, but basically you can determine the number of candidates that it is sensible to put up in a given seat by the level of support you have in that seat. Obviously it’s never less than 1, but the threshold to get to 2 is quite high, and getting above 2 is very rare indeed.

        So you would expect a Westminster election by STV to go something like this. The multimember constituencies would be formed by combining 3 or 4 single-member constituencies (modulo a little jiggery-pokery, no doubt). Where a party finds that a few of its safe seats have been combined together, it will put up two candidates (or, very exceptionally, three). The other parties will each put up one candidate in that constituency. Where no one party is clearly leading – perhaps safe seats for different parties have been combined, perhaps marginals have been combined – then each party will put up one candidate. If a seat returns four members, and Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem and UKIP put up one candidate each, it’s not going to be hard to predict the outcome.

        In places, the process of moving from single-member FPTP to multi-member STV will involve combining, for example, three safe Labour seats into one three-member seat in which the Labour party will only find it sensible to put up two candidates. This will generally result in some local bloodbaths, which will have considerable entertainment value for those not directly affected.

        • plok says:

          “No, that’s not how it works in practice.”

          Kinda curious about that; could you elaborate? Where are you taking your examples from, etc.? I confess I don’t know about the countries that actually have STV. Couldn’t even list them.

          • Iain Coleman says:

            Scottish local government. I campaigned in two council elections by STV in Edinburgh, and was involved in campaigning during some of the transition from FPTP to STV. That said, the high-level strategy in terms of numbers of candidates and so forth was derived from Ireland.

          • MatGB says:

            He is, technically, correct, STV only gives real choice between candidates from the same parties in really large seats, in Scotland they went for small wards, I forget the size but roughly 3-5 members, which makes it manageable but does mean a party actually loses out if they put up too many candidates. STV works best in terms of voter choice with larger seats, but that has the disadvantage of large ballot papers (I don’t count this as a major disadvantage but some do).

            For a large amount of really good analysis of actual real elections run under STV, nwhyte.livejournal.com has done a LOT of stuff on Northern Ireland and Republic elections over the years, there have been cases where parties (the SDLP in particular) have lost seats on transfers because they put up too many candidates.

            The Australians solve this by having “above the line” voting, where parties agree preference transfer pacts and you can simply vote for, well, a set of votes. I dislike like this, but the Aussies also have compulsory voting which I also dislike.

            STV isn’t a perfect voting system. It’s the least awful of all the voting systems I’ve studied and allows for smaller parties and independents to have a chance, especially in larger seats, without anyone “wasting” their vote or making a guesswork tactical vote (as under, for example, the EU elections, where “stopping the BNP” was a popular tactical vote campaign, especially in the North West in 2009.

  5. J says:

    It won’t happen, though, because all the same arguments the ‘No’ campaign deployed against AV will still apply, with the exception of the ‘it’s not “real” PR’ one; but that I think will be outweighed by the fact that you’d be asking the British public to vote for multi-member constituencies, which would be a bigpsychological change to the electoral system.

    The British public, as has been shown in two referendums now, is essentially conservative. M.M.C. would be a very hard thing to sell to a sceptical, inherently conservative electorate.

    (And also, you’d have to deal with the ‘we already had a vote on this, why are you making us have another one so soon?’ factor — people don’t like it if it seems like you’re just going to keep asking a question until you get the result you want.)

    • You’re assuming I’m calling for a referendum. I’m not.

      • J says:

        But hasn’t a precedent now been established that you don’t do major constitutional change without a referendum?

        Obviously not a legally binding precedent (no such thing as a precedent that binds Parliament) but a political precedent — there’d be a massive public outcry if any government tried to foist a change in the voting system on the electorate without a referendum, especially it hadn’t been featured prominently in the party’s manifesto.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          I think there’d also be a massive public outcry if the party that came third got no seats, or if the party that came second got the most seats, or any of the many other possibilities that could happen next time. In particular, the UKIP-supporting or UKIP-sympathetic papers would scream about the unfairness of it all.
          There’s also the simple answer for any Prime Minister — “those bloody Lib Dems made it a condition of coalition, blame them, not us.”

          Put simply, there might be political precedent, but the next election may itself be an unprecedented situation.

          (There’s also precedent for the government overruling referendum results — George Osborne is currently insisting that Manchester get a directly elected Mayor, despite it voting against having one only two years ago. And unlike the case of electoral reform, it’s the *exact* thing that was voted against being imposed, not something different — I think we can confidently say that whatever happens we *won’t* be getting AV…)

          • J says:

            I think there’d also be a massive public outcry if the party that came third got no seats, or if the party that came second got the most seats, or any of the many other possibilities that could happen next time

            That is possible, but I don’t think the public outcry over a one-off result like that would be sufficient to bounce the population into supporting permanent change.

            Like the Scottish referendum message: ‘Don’t make a permanent irreversible change to the constitution that will have unpredictable consequences just because you don’t happen to like the result the last election had’.

            Certainly I don’t think it would be sufficient to bounce the population into being okay with such a permanent, irreversible change happening without another referendum.

          • J says:

            To be honest, I don’t think that the vast majority of the British public care very much about the make-up of the House of Commons in terms of seats. I’d be willing to bet that less than 10% of people could tell you to within ten how many seats each of the three major parties have.

            The morning after a general election what people want to know is: who’s in charge now? (And to a very much lesser extent, who’s my MP?, though most people don’t care about that either until they need to contact him or her.)

            Nobody in Britain seems to care that the distribution of seats doesn’t match shares of the national vote; it’s been true for ages and every so often bits of the press go on about it but it never seems to break through into the national consciousness. I think after all this time we can basically say for sure that the British public see elections as a winner-take-all game, and don’t really care about who came second, third, fourth, fifth, etc.

            The only thing I can see leading to any kind of public outcry is if something truly egregious happens, like a party which came 5-10% behind in national vote share getting a comfortable majority of seats. But even in that case, I suspect that what would happen is that the party would be allowed to govern, as people would rather have a stable government, but with the question of its legitimacy a sword of Damocles over it. It would be constantly ‘on probation’.

            Actually I suppose the other thing which might lead to a problem is if Party A has most seats but no majority, and parties B and C form a majority coalition. I don’t think people would like that: they’d see party A as having won but been cheated out of the government. That might cause a public outcry but it’s unlikely to lead to calls for a change of the electoral system, especially to one which has even more chance of producing that result which caused the problem in the first place; it’s far more likely to lead to calls to dissolve Parliament and re-run the election in hopes of getting a decisive result this time.

            (The British people are, quite sensibly, extremely loss-averse and acutely sensitive to downside risk. They don’t get behind any major change with unknown consequences unless the current situation is absolutely untenable, which in this case means the election system failing to so what it is meant to, ie, provide a stable government which the people can then judge and either re-elect or kick out based on its record at the next election. As long as the system continues to do that, I don’t see any great ground swell for change developing.)

    • MatGB says:

      a bigpsychological change to the electoral system.

      Only ecause no one remembers history. Single member seats are a relatively new thing for Westminster, having all seats be single member was a post war innovation introduced by Labour in an explicit gerrymandering as they knew it would favour them—it was enforced single member that caused the National Liberals to give up and form a permanent electoral pact with the Conservatives in 1947.

      Single member seats only became common in 1884 (yeah I know, 130 years, but when people drone on about the “thousand years of history” it’s a tiny proportion). From when De Montford first called Parliament proper all the way through to 1832, Boroughs got 2 MPs each, Counties got 2 MPs each, after 1832 larger boroughs got more seats, then in 1884 the large boroughs were split up into single seats, as were the counties (leading to some interesting weirdnesses, there were some Scottish towns that actually took it in turns to have an MP, I have no clue why).

      @Andrew, it was the British Proportional System, not BPR, and was known as such internationally pretty much until the wave of Independence, the Irish weren’t keen on having a voting system called “British” so changed it, the Aussies still call it preferential voting. Plus, it was used for Westminster for a bunch of seats (the Universities, also abolished in 1948 by Labour, with better cause even if it was a class war policy).

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