UK General Election May 2015: David Cameron's Conservatives win, but 63% of voters lose.

 

Our Voting System's Knackered!

 

"There is no greater gamble on earth than a British general election"
James Middleton, Secretary of the Labour Party 1936

 

Our Victorian voting system strikes again! In the 2015 General Election, the Conservatives won 51% of the seats and took absolute power with only 37% of the vote, the Labour Party polled nearly three quarters of a million votes more than it had won in the previous general election but ended up with 10% fewer seats, the Liberal Democrats had just over 1% of the seats to show for 8% of the vote, while the UKIP have only 1 seat (0.15%) even though they polled 12.6% of the vote.

 

As bad as these mismatches are, they pale into insignificance compared with what our undemocratic voting system, known as First-past-the-post, has delivered north of the Border. The Scottish Nationalists took 95% of the Scottish seats with just 50% of the Scottish vote, thereby giving them a wholly disproportionate and undeserved representation in the UK Parliament and creating an impression worldwide that support for independence in Scotland is a lot stronger than it actually is. As a result, the Scottish question and Scotland’s interests will dominate this Parliament, even though Scotland’s entire electorate represents just 8% of the UK total.

 

The 2015 General Election result could have been worse; our Victorian voting system is so inefficient that the winners can end up losing! In 1951, the Labour Party won more votes than the Conservatives, but the Conservatives won the election. In February 1974, the Conservatives won the most votes, but Labour won more seats.

 

What on earth is wrong with the UK's voting system?

 

Once you know how the voting system works, you will understand why it's misfiring.

 

To begin with, we may call it a general election but in truth there are 650 separate "stand-alone" elections held on the same day, one in every local constituency, each electing one Member of Parliament who invariably belongs to a political party. The voters in each constituency put an X alongside the name of their favoured candidate and the constituency's Member of Parliament is the candidate with the most votes. The party with the most Members of Parliament wins the election and forms the government. Simple!

 

But there's a problem with our Victorian "First-past-the-post" voting system. It still works of a fashion, but it has never been very efficient, wasting huge numbers of votes shovelled into it and producing a rather rough end result. Moreover, this wheezing contraption has never been modified to accommodate the greater political sophistication of today's voters who are more educated, less deferential & trusting, better informed and more eclectic in their politics than they were a century ago.

So, let's take a look under the bonnet to see what's wrong and what can be done to put things right.

 

Blues v Reds- and then Yellows, Greens and Purples!

 

Up until some time after the last war, consumer choice for the man in the street was very limited in everything from holidays to hoovers - and politics. In the Southport constituency of 1955, for example, voters there had a choice of just two candidates in that year's general election. The result was as follows:-

 

R. Fleetwood-Hesketh

Conservative

30,268 votes

70.2%

P. Cameron

Labour

12,827 votes

29.8%

 

 

 

 

In individual constituencies up and down the land in 1955, most voters were offered similar meagre choice but at least Mr Fleetwood-Hesketh's victory was clear-cut with the support of well over two thirds of those who voted in his constituency. However, let us fast-forward sixty years to the 2015 General Election result in Southport which showed a very different picture:-

 

J Pugh

Liberal Democrat

13,652 votes

31.0%

D Moore

Conservative

12,330 votes

28.0%

L Savage

Labour

  8,468 votes

19.2%

T Durrance

UKIP

  7,429 votes

16.8%

L Rankin

Green

   1,230 votes

  2.8%

J Barlow

Southport

      992 votes

  2.2%

 

The number of party candidates there mushroomed to six, reflecting the profusion of parties that have sprung up over the decades; there are now about 400 registered with the Electoral Commission. Even so, while the UK has changed beyond recognition in so many ways since 1955, we are still using the same old Victorian voting system to elect our national government and clearly it can no longer cope with the increased number of parties in the Premier League of British politics, as the available vote splinters into smaller and smaller shards within the confines of a single member constituency. As a result, Southport’s Liberal Democrat squeaked in with the support of only 31% of those who had voted. And, as bad as the Southport result was, it was not the worst; in a 9-party punch-up in Belfast South, the SDLP’s candidate Alasdair McDonnell took the seat with only 24.5% of the vote!

 

Our voting system is only 26% efficient!

 

When you go to the polls for a general election, you have just one vote, which is counted only for your constituency's contest. It does not otherwise influence the national result; it is not added to any national total for the party of your choice. So, if you were a Green voter in Southport, yours was one of the 69% of the votes cast there that had no effect on the result, nationally or locally. Is this typical? Yes, it is; in 2015, just over half of the MPs were elected on a minority of their constituency vote. Moreover, we mustn't forget that there are many other places, known as "safe seats", where the result is a forgone conclusion, like in Liverpool Walton, where Labour's Steve Rotheram won with 81% of the vote. As impressive as his majority of 31,222 votes had been, they were surplus to his requirements, they didn't count in any national tally, and so represented wasted votes of a different kind.

 

It has been calculated that in 2015, 50% of all the votes cast were for losing candidates and a further 24% cast were surplus to the winners' requirements, which means our voting system is only 26% efficient. 

 

650 lotteries to elect a government!

 

Considering the results in Southport, Liverpool Walton and all the others in between, it seems more by good luck than good management that past governments have in any way reflected the national vote for parties in a general election, which any man in the street would suppose should determine the outcome. Two models illustrate what can happen when individual constituency results are lumped together to obtain a national result.  

 

Albion City Model Election

Red Party Votes

Blue Party Votes

Albion North Constituency

15,000

18,000

Albion Central Constituency

29,000

  4,000

Albion South Constituency

16,000

17,000

Total Votes Won in Albion

60,000  Reds win more votes..

39,000

Total Seats Won

     1

    2  but Blues win more seats!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The "Albion City" model above shows how our voting system can misbehave even in a straightforward 2-party contest in 3 seats. In this model, the Reds' 2 to 1 superiority across Albion in terms of votes is not matched in terms of seats because much of the support for the Reds is represented by surplus votes uselessly piled up for the Reds in Albion Central, so the Blues win more seats.

 

A similar mismatch actually happened in the 1951 General Election. Back then, the Liberals were a music hall joke, the nationalists were nowhere, and the Greens, the UKIP and the issues that spawned them had not been invented yet. It was a straightforward fight between Labour and the Conservatives but the voting system yielded the following national result:-

 

1951 Election

UK Votes

UK Seats

Labour

13,948,883  Labour won more votes..

295

Conservative

13,718,199

321 but Conservatives won more seats!

Liberals & others

     929,512

    9

          

 

 

 

 

 

A slim majority of voters chose to continue with the post-war Socialist project but the voting system gifted the election to the Conservatives instead.

 

It gets worse....

 

The system's creaky enough with just two parties in contention but, once other parties join the fray, it degenerates into a game of chance, as shown in the second model, where 3 parties are contesting 3 seats.

 

Britannia City Model Election

Red Party Votes

Green Party Votes

Blue Party Votes

Britannia North Constituency

12,000

11,000

10,000

Britannia Central Constituency

  7,000

12,000

14,000

Britannia South Constituency

13,000

11,000

  9,000

Total Britannia Votes

32,000   Least votes…

34,000   Most votes…

33,000

Total Seats Won

   2      but most seats!

    0        but no seats!

    1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clearly there is something very wrong with a mechanism that has the potential to give the party with the least votes the most seats and the party with the most votes no seats at all, even with the same number of voters in each constituency.  

 

First-past-the-post is bad all-round

 

First-past-the-post is bad for national government

 

The system's crucial flaw lies in the number of ineffective votes locked inside single member constituencies, either as useless surplus votes cast for the winning candidate or as wasted votes cast for losers. There is no way of utilising them in a national context or of recycling the constituency votes to obtain a more representative outcome locally. A national result can turn, not so much on how people vote, but where they live. The Power Commission of 2006 catalogued an increasing awareness among voters of this systemic waste and a realisation that general elections were yet another postcode lottery. This does not inspire confidence in, or support for, any government elected in this way.

 

Certainly, no Conservative Government in living memory has ever been elected on such a tiny percentage of those who turned out to vote – 36.9%. Moreover, when you consider the abysmally low turnout – 66.1%, this means that the present government has the backing of just 24.4% of the entire electorate, not the most convincing of mandates, given the host of challenging and potentially unpopular decisions that need to be taken in this Parliament.    

 

First-past-the-post is bad for the Union

 

Reference has already been made to the undemocratic result in Scotland last May when the Scottish Nationalists took 95% of the seats with just 50% of the vote, thereby weakening the Union, which a majority of Scottish voters had resolved should be maintained a matter of months before.

 

This has happened before in our history, 130 years ago, when Ireland was still part of the UK. In the 1885 General Election, thanks to the use of First-past-the-post in newly created single member constituencies, Charles Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party eliminated all shades of Unionism in the South of Ireland with just 68% of the Irish vote. Nothing could be done in Westminster afterwards without taking Mr. Parnell and his 85 MPs into account. Moreover, the pocket of unrelieved Unionism in the North East of Ireland, also elected in 1885 courtesy of First-past-the-post, laid the foundations of the conflict which still festers on the streets of Northern Ireland to this day.

 

While there are limits to the parallels that can be drawn between Ireland and Scotland in terms of era, culture and politics, First-past-the-post seems to have a tendency to brutalise political debate; it accentuates differences of opinion; it fuels geographical tribalism; it overstates the majority and discriminates against the minority, even to the point of eliminating it altogether. Accordingly there is a case for suggesting that our First-past-the-post voting system is contributing to the destruction of our union with Scotland in much the same way it helped destroy our union with Ireland.

 

First-past-the-post is bad for local government

 

At least First-past-the-post elections for Westminster offer the prospect of a change of government but, thanks to its continued use in local government elections for England and Wales, there are many examples of one-party fiefdoms who rule forever, in many cases inefficient, complacent and corruptible, being untroubled by any meaningful opposition. For example, Rotherham's Council has been in the news recently for its systemic failure to address child abuse. The last time the entire council was up for election in 2004, the result was as follows:-

 

Rotherham Council Elections 2004

% Votes

% Seats

Labour

36

84

Liberal Democrat

22

  0

Conservative

21

11

Independent

14

  5

Others

  7

  0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Labour's taking 84% of the Council seats with only 36% of the vote was an outrageously undemocratic result which deprived Rotherham Council of a viable opposition, which might otherwise have been more effective at holding the Labour administration to account. Notice also how the Liberal Democrats fared compared with the Conservatives.

 

It is also commonplace for a multi-candidate contest in a seat to yield a result which the majority of the voters would not have wished, because of the splintering of the vote. This can happen in any First-past-the-post election, but it can have a particularly divisive impact on elections in local communities. One such example was the election of a British National Party candidate in the Abbey Green Ward of Stoke on Trent with only 27% of the vote in the 2007 local elections. The reaction of the 73% of those whose wishes were thwarted by the system can only be imagined.

 

First-past-the-post is bad for voters

 

When you vote in a UK general election, you will be instructed to sign away your democratic rights with an X - the mark of illiteracy. You've only got one go; if you vote for a loser, you won't get asked about other choices. It's like going into a corner shop, asking for a Diet Cola, being told they haven't got any, and then being asked to leave before you have the chance to choose another drink. Another consequence is that voters who live in safe seats are less likely to be subject to any meaningful engagement by political parties since the result is a forgone conclusion, and so the parties will be concentrating scarce resources in more marginal seats. By contrast, voters living in these marginal seats will be subjected to a torrent of populist propaganda and will be prevailed upon by the front-runners to vote tactically rather than "waste" their vote on a candidate who perhaps was their first choice. Clearly, a system which fails over two thirds of those who vote is bad for voters.

 

First-past-the-post is bad for parties  

 

In their endeavours to win as many single-member seats as possible and avoid alienating any faction, parties will be inclined to put up safe, mainstream candidates, which is why the House of Commons is full of white, middle-aged, middle class males. This puts parties out of touch with the nation's poor, its young, the female population, and ethnic minorities. The promotion of populist policies in marginal seats can also backfire if these policies are not, or cannot, be implemented. As a result, voters become disenchanted with parties and elections, and a process of disengagement between the governors and the governed gradually eats away at the fabric of our democracy and civil society.

 

First-past-the-post is bad for the Country

 

The phrase "First-past-the-post" conjures up visions of a horse race. Certainly, political parties are apt to treat an election as if it were a sporting contest, thanks to our Victorian voting system. First-past-the-post encourages adversarial campaigns in which individuals selected for little more than their gift of the gab trade insults with their counterparts in rival parties and attempt to deliver the political equivalent of knockout blows in ten second sound-bites, rather than debate policy sensibly and honestly.

Democracy is, of course, not a sporting event lasting minutes; it is a process for governing by popular consent, round the clock, year in, year out. What's more, our world is changing at bewildering speed as hundreds of millions of people in a host of developing nations demand a standard of living that we have taken for granted for decades. If we Brits are to survive, let alone prosper, in this challenging environment of shrinking resources, burgeoning populations and highly competitive markets, we need the very best government we can elect, and we must use elections as an opportunity to debate complex issues of the day, rather than treat them as if they were the political equivalent of the Grand National.

 

First-past-the-post is knackered!

 

To claim that First-past-the-post is fit for purpose just because it is simple to use and is easy to understand is just plain bonkers. You might as well advocate using Stephenson's Rocket to haul trains on the HS2. No captain of industry would tolerate the continued use of such an inefficient museum piece in an industrial process, nor the waste evidenced in the aforementioned statistics on a company balance sheet. Why should we tolerate it at the ballot box?

 

How NOT to improve our voting system

 

In any debate on reform of the voting system, you will hear people talk of "proportional representation" which is any voting system that awards seats to parties in proportion to the votes cast for them so that, say, if Labour won 4 out of 10 votes, they would be awarded 4 out of 10 seats. This seems logical and democratic but there are many such systems operating worldwide, and most of them are pre-occupied with proportionality for political parties, usually at the expense of independents, voter choice and representation of local communities.

 

In Israel, for example, there is no local community representation; the entire state is one massive constituency of 120 seats which are shared out among a profusion of parties contesting the election in proportion to the votes cast for them nationally. Each party publishes a list of candidates in a pre-ordained pecking order, and the seats awarded to the party are doled out to the candidates on the list, starting at the top of the list and working down. At the election in March 2015, any party polling over 3.25% of the national vote was awarded proportional representation, which explains why today’s Israeli government comprises a coalition of 5 parties!

 

Nobody proposes using such a pure "Party PR" system here, although a version operates in the UK for elections to the European Parliament using UK regions, which is almost as bad. As in Israel, the UK regional party lists are pre-ordained or "closed"; you don't get any say in the party's choice of candidates or where they are in the pecking order on the list.  Some Party PR systems allow voters to express a preference for a candidate on the list, but many voters don't use this option and in any case it is assumed that everybody will be happy for any candidate from their chosen list to be elected; words are put into voters' mouths; parties and politicians increase their power at the expense of the voters.

 

Additional Mess!

 

There is also a hybrid device known as the Additional Member System, which the last Labour Government imported from Germany for use in Scotland, Wales and London. There are several variations but basically about half of a parliament elected by this method is filled by MPs elected by First-past-the-post in larger single member constituencies, with the remaining seats used to "top up" the parliament so that party strengths reflect votes cast for the parties in the election. These "additional members" are usually drawn from party lists. Additional Member systems are popular with establishment politicians but represent the worst of both worlds for voters; the dysfunctional single member constituency is retained; there would be two types of MP, one type directly elected trying to cope with the increased workload of a larger single-member constituency and another comprising the "top-up" additional members, party hacks with no direct constituency responsibility, whose first loyalty would be to the party who determined their place on the party list, free to swan around the corridors of power, furthering their own political careers.

 

End of the road for political parties?

 

As crude as First-past-the-post is, voters do at least retain total control; when they cast their votes, they know exactly who they are supporting and that their support will not be registered elsewhere. Moreover, First-past-the-post does not discriminate between parties or independents, nor does it require registered political parties to function.

 

Is this important? It might be. Perhaps political parties as we know them may be approaching extinction, having been no more than a passing phase in our political development, Victorian museum pieces from the steam age of politics when simplistic Christmas hampers of policies were required for a badly educated population which had just been given the vote.  After all, philosophies fuel political parties but the battles of the "isms" were decided a long time ago and today's British politics is now a fusion of philosophies, a liberal democracy with a social welfare programme resourced by a capitalist economy.

 

As the membership of political parties nosedives and they seem incapable of surviving without support from big business or the unions, perhaps we are on the cusp of an exciting new era in our politics; perhaps political parties as we know them are on their way out, to be replaced over time by blended politics or "football teams" of individuals which people vote for on the basis of their competence, vision, experience and costed programme, rather than just the colour of their ridiculous dinner-plate sized rosettes. So the last thing we want to be doing at this stage is to introduce a “Party-PR” voting system which requires the continued existence of these antiquated monoliths, when a more sophisticated voting public was hoping to consign them to history.
 
So, how can the present voting system be reformed to better utilise wasted votes and yield a more representative result without losing its beneficial features, such as its constituency base, its neutrality and its ability to operate without political parties? Two components will transform the efficiency of our Victorian apparatus - Multi Member Constituencies and Preference Voting, together known as the Single Transferable Vote or STV.


STV: Proportional Representation, British-style!

 

The Single Transferable Vote was first suggested in the UK by mathematician Thomas Wright Hill and the idea was further refined by barrister and Conservative Party member Thomas Hare in a pamphlet published in 1857. STV is the British system of proportional representation, used for elections in the Irish Republic, Malta, Tasmania, for elections to the Australian Senate, indirect elections to the Indian Upper House, certain city elections in the USA and for certain local elections in New Zealand. In the UK, a large number of professional bodies and trades unions use STV for their internal elections and Conservative & Labour Governments have supported its use in Northern Ireland for local council, Assembly and European elections over a 40 year period. Various commissions have proposed that STV be used for local and Assembly elections in Wales and for European elections in Scotland. STV has been successfully used for Scottish Local Elections since 2007.

 

The Return of Multi Member Constituencies

 

To begin with, we need to re-introduce multi-member constituencies for Parliamentary representation. Far from being the alien concept those MPs who wish to retain the autocracy of single member constituencies would have you believe them to be, multi-member constituencies are as British as Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding. Multi-member representation is in widespread use in local government and was part and parcel of the very first Parliaments.

 

These multi-member constituencies were not phased out completely until 1950. We need to phase them back in again because a 21st century constituency containing educated people of different sexes, ages and cultures with different attitudes, beliefs and aspirations is far better represented by several people than by one person. In her autobiography "Fighting all the way", the late Barbara Castle attributed her successful nomination as a female Labour candidate for Blackburn in 1945 to the fact that Blackburn was at that time a multi-member borough returning 2 Members of Parliament, enabling the local Labour Party selection panel to depart from the stereotypical male candidacy.

 

In any case, there is nothing quite so ridiculous as the pious claim of an MP in sole charge of a single member constituency that he/she represents all his/her constituents whatever their political persuasion. David Cameron no more represents the 10,000 Labour voters in Witney in his pursuit of Conservative objectives than Jeremy Corbyn represents the 8,400 Conservative voters in Islington North when he opposes those objectives. The abolition of the single member constituency is crucial to reform of the voting system.

 

To take the Albion City model used earlier, the three single member constituencies would be merged into one "multi-member" constituency for the whole city returning 3 members. Since there are three seats up for grabs, the REDS and BLUES could be expected to put up 3 candidates apiece. Voters would therefore find six names on the ballot paper and this brings us to the second reform required to ensure that Albion is democratically represented.

 

Doing away with the mark of illiteracy

 

When the right to vote was progressively extended across the adult population, an "X" was all many people were able to write on their ballot paper. Today's better-educated and more politically sophisticated electorate ought to be given greater freedom of expression than is currently afforded by the mark of illiteracy.

 

The Single Transferable Vote, in which candidates are numbered in order of individual preference, allows voters that freedom and gives Returning Officers the additional information they need to recycle "unspent" voting power. The Albion voters will have complete freedom of choice to number all 6 in order of preference, or restrict their preferences to their chosen party, or individuals in different parties, or even to plump for just one candidate. The numbers entered by the voter are not points to be counted up. They simply represent instructions to the Returning Officer, as follows: "Give my vote to my first preference. If (s)he has so many votes that mine is not needed to achieve election, or if (s)he has so few mine will not make any difference, give my vote to my second preference" and so on, until the vote is fully used or all stated preferences are exhausted.

 

Counting single transferable votes

 

The unique benefits of preferential voting are revealed at the count, although the manual counting of single transferable votes is a lengthier exercise than with First-past-the-post.

 

Using the Albion example, the STV count is best imagined as comprising a long trestle table with 6 piles of votes on it, one pile per candidate, sorted according to voters' first preferences. Unpopular candidates are eliminated from the contest and their small piles are sorted according to the further individual preferences of the voters, while the surplus votes of popular candidates are also recycled to ensure that all votes on the table are utilised as fully as possible. In this way, the six piles of votes of varying quantities are whittled down until 3 large piles stand testimony to the end of the count and the 3 victors.

 

STV: Proportional Representation of voters, not just parties

 

Since all the votes are utilised as fully as possible and are accorded equal status, the combination of the two reforms described above ensures that the victors will reflect the community's corporate political will. In other words, if 2 out of 3 voters in a community elect to have representatives of a certain party or a certain ethnic background, their votes will cascade from one candidate's pile to another, according to declared preferences, until this corporate decision emerges as 2 out of 3 piles of votes cast for winning candidates of those voters' persuasion. STV treats all candidates as equals.

 

In the case of Albion, 2 MPs representing the REDS and 1 MP for the BLUES would be elected. Moreover, the voters will have decided which 2 of the 3 RED candidates and which 1 of the 3 BLUE candidates will be their representatives in the way they express their preferences. To this extent, "party proportionality" is achieved but it is one of many facets of our two reforms, a mere by-product rather than a pre-occupation. Simply to describe this reform package as "proportional representation" does not do it justice. Some commentators have, justifiably, described STV as "the Supervote".

 

The Supervote; who benefits?

 

In the Albion model, the importance of reform was demonstrated in a two party context by stripping out any involvement of third parties and the Britannia model showed how the intervention of third parties had the potential to further distort constituency representation. So, how would political parties, both large and small, fare under STV? 

 

Nobody knows for sure. There is undoubtedly latent support for parties which does not manifest itself under the existing arrangements, as many people vote tactically rather than for their preferred candidate. Many more, realising their vote will be wasted, do not vote at all; despite all the excitement generated by the polls and the media, turnout for the 2015 election was still only 66%. An improvement in turnout could reasonably be expected after voting reform. 

 

But who benefits? It is erroneously supposed by many people that electoral reform is just a third party charity, not least among supporters of third parties! While this might be so with a party list system, STV works quite differently.

 

To begin with, third parties have benefited from the use of tactical voting with First-past-the-post. For example, Liberal Democrats in rural areas have been able to supplement their vote by calling on Labour voters to vote tactically for them, in order to "keep the Tory out".

 

However, if STV is introduced, there will be no need to use the Liberal Democrats "as a bucket to spit in", as Labour's Austin Mitchell once described it; Labour voters will be able to express a first preference for a Labour candidate in the knowledge that a Labour MP can be elected and that, even if their favoured candidate fails to attract sufficient support to achieve representation, their votes can then be counted according to further preferences. The need to vote tactically disappears with STV.

 

Moreover, with STV, voters can register their displeasure with an administration without deserting their favoured party; old lags guilty of incompetence can be overlooked in favour of new faces who belong to the same party, but are unsullied by stale thinking or past mistakes.

 

Furthermore, STV concerns itself merely with the casting of votes within a multi-member constituency at a local level; no votes are exported to bolster support for a party outside that locality. Accordingly, parties require a far greater degree of support to achieve success under STV than would be required by some party list systems which are contrived to enable support for minority parties to accumulate at a regional or national level, so as to ensure representation for the smallest faction.

 

To return to the Albion example, it might be supposed that one third of the vote will be required to achieve election in a three member constituency. In fact, a finer formula is used and the figure is closer to 25%, but this still represents a formidable obstacle to smaller parties shorn of tactical support from protest voters.

 

So, STV benefits the supporters of all parties, rather that the parties themselves, whose candidates may be eliminated due to lack of adequate support, but whose supporters are able to have their votes recycled and counted for further preferences. It is the recycling element of STV that is overlooked by both advocates and opponents of reform who see the debate simply in terms of seats shared out in proportion to votes totted up for parties at a national or regional level. Invariably, the debate turns to Continental practice, which is concerned primarily with party proportionality. In the UK, party proportionality is not the only consideration.

 

In this text, we have used the 3-member "Albion" and "Britannia" models to highlight what can go wrong in the most straightforward of circumstances. The Electoral Reform Society recommends the use of slightly larger multi-member constituencies returning between 4 and 6 members, to enhance proportionality.    

 

Wobbly Government and other fallacies

 

We have considered the deficiencies of our existing voting system, what system should be introduced to improve matters, and what systems are to be avoided. We conclude with a summary of arguments used by those who oppose reform and how they can be countered.

 

Fallacy 1: "In the 2011 referendum, voters decided not to reform our voting system"

 

No they didn't. In the 2011referendum, voters were asked: “At present the UK uses the First-past-the-post system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the Alternative Vote system be used instead?”  The electorate was not asked anything else. AV was a Coalition compromise, little known and, above all, not proportional. It was hardly surprising that it did not find favour and the voters’ verdict represented a clear rejection of AV, rather than a ringing endorsement of First-past-the-post. In any event, the undemocratic result of the 2015 election has concentrated minds and an opinion poll conducted by ORB last May found that 61% of voters supported voting reform. Clearly, as the current precarious political situation in Scotland has demonstrated, the result of a referendum, however recent, can be rendered irrelevant by subsequent developments. Nowadays, shifts in political attitudes take place with bewildering speed and governments must keep up.

 

Fallacy 2:- STV is far too complicated for voters to understand"

 

It's a brave politician who dares to suggest that British voters are too stupid to number candidates in order of preference! In fact this argument commands far less clout than it used to, due to the number of different voting systems that the electorate has been called upon to use, thanks to various constitutional changes introduced since 1997. As for STV itself, when it was first used in a public election in the British Isles for elections to the Sligo Town Council in 1919, there was a 73% turnout and only 1% of the ballot papers were completed incorrectly, quite an achievement in view of the complete lack of TV and radio and very rudimentary public information. STV was subsequently introduced for all elections in Eire. Since that time, Irish voters have appreciated the empowerment that STV affords and, over the decades, they have repulsed attempts by politicians to take it off them!

 

Fallacy 3: "The counting of an STV election takes longer and is too complicated"

 

Opponents of reform criticise the complication of STV counting but Returning Officers in Northern Ireland experienced no difficulty when STV was introduced there for local and Assembly elections in the 1970s. The methodology for manual counting is concise and the accuracy of the count can be checked for all to see at the end of each stage. While a manual STV count does indeed take several hours longer, elections and eliminations take place during the counting process, stage by stage, so the political drama unfolds as the votes are being counted; there is no having to wait until the end before winners start to emerge. In any case, the extra time required for the counting of an STV ballot is surely a small price to pay to achieve a more democratic election, which, after all, takes place only once every 4 or 5 years.

 

Fallacy 4: "Multi member constituencies will destroy the personal link between an MP and his/her constituents."

 

As stated earlier on, single member constituencies are a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of our Parliament and the personal link which MPs like to think exists with an electorate in a single member constituency is in most cases non-existent; in a Hansard Society Survey of 2013, only 22% of voters could name their MP. Of course, your average party hack will prefer a constituency all to himself, without having to work with other MPs representing the same patch, some of whom may, horror of horrors, belong to other parties! If we wanted a voting system designed to suit party politicians, then of course we would insist on retaining single member constituencies. But we do not. We want a voting system for the benefit of voters and, as previously observed, it surely stands to reason that a 21st century constituency containing educated people of different sexes, ages and cultures with different attitudes, beliefs and aspirations will be far better represented by several people than by one person. In any case, Parliament has since 1997 approved the adoption of numerous voting systems which require the use of multi-member constituencies. If Westminster Parliamentarians are quite prepared to saddle their colleagues in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Europe and local government with multi-member seats, why are they so unwilling to adopt them for the House of Commons?

 

Fallacy 5: "STV will aid the election of extremists."

 

Some commentators believe that, because STV is classified as a system of proportional representation, it will deliver seats to minority parties with tiny percentages of the vote. As previously stated, while some party list systems of proportional representation are contrived to accommodate the smallest faction by taking into account votes cast at a regional or even national level, the mechanics of STV are designed simply to deliver proportionality of views within a local community, to be represented by just several individuals. This creates a very high 'de facto' threshold. In the Albion example, a candidate needed 25% of the vote to achieve election under STV. This constitutes a formidable challenge for third parties like the Liberal Democrats, never mind fringe candidates, but if they do achieve it, any democracy should ensure that such candidates - however extreme or odious- should be elected. In any case, the attributes of STV mentioned earlier will afford most voters sufficient freedom of expression to register their displeasure with incumbents without having to "go to extremes".  
 

 

Fallacy 6 " Equalising single member constituencies will set things right."

 

Conservative supporters of First-past-the-post will claim that a spat within the 2010 Coalition scuppered legislation to equalise single member constituencies by re-drawing the boundaries to ensure that each MP represented the same number of voters, which, it is claimed, would have made the existing voting system fairer. Similar legislation will doubtless be brought before Parliament by the newly-elected Conservative government but it is mere sticking plaster and does not address the crucial flaws inherent in First-past-the-post. If the constituencies had been equalised in time for the 2015 general election, the mismatch between seats and votes would have been even more pronounced. In any case, as the Albion and Britannia models demonstrated earlier, a party with the most votes can still lose a First-past-the-post election, even with exactly the same number of voters in each constituency. 

 

Fallacy 7 "STV will mean endless coalitions and wobbly government"

 

The 2010 General Election result, the hung Parliament, and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition it spawned have rather diminished the force of this argument but champions of First-past-the-post discount the 2010 result as a one-off aberration and hold firmly to the view that systems of proportional representation habitually deliver legislatures requiring coalitions of parties to form governments which are perceived to be weak and are contrasted with the Westminster experience whereby our existing First-past-the-post voting system has been in the habit of delivering single-party governments which are claimed to be strong and stable.

 

Advocates of the status quo tend to overlook the fact that British post-war history is littered with de-stabilising crises presided over by such so-called stable single party governments. In any case, coalitions have worked in times of war, were the norm in Westminster before WW2 and now operate as a matter of routine in local government. Council officers are reported as actually preferring hung councils to single party administrations. It seems that the quality of decision-making tends to improve because proposals do not go through on the nod and are subject to scrutiny by more people with different ideas.

 

Besides, we now have had recent experience of a two-party coalition at Westminster, which, for all the highly publicised bad temper and disagreements, survived a full 5 year Parliament, with Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs putting aside their differences and working together to confront the debilitating deficit and to oversee recovery from the recession. It has to be said that this would be unremarkable in most other walks of life, where ordinary folk are in the habit of working as a team with other colleagues - even those they don't like - but in Westminster politics, the 2010 Coalition was a singular achievement.

 

The pre-occupation with single party government seems to be a concern limited to those who have simply become accustomed to the post-war political scene in Westminster. In any case, there is nothing in the First-past-the-post rulebook which guarantees a single party administration with a working majority, witness the 2010 General Election result and the dozens of hung councils nation-wide elected under Fast-past-the-post. Moreover, as demographic changes eat into the traditional strongholds of the main political parties, perhaps First-past-the-post is about to deliver a series of hung Westminster Parliaments and multi-party governments, just as it did in before WW2 and in 2010.  

 

Indeed, it could be argued that the electorate has consistently voted for coalitions since the war because no party has won over 50% of the vote since 1935, not even in so-called "landslide" elections. If this pattern of voting were to continue, the introduction of STV might be expected to result in multi-party coalitions. The consequences are a matter for conjecture. Coalitions can work to the Nation's benefit. But even if they resulted in enfeebled administrations, as opponents of reform claim would happen, a majority of the electorate would surely then resolve to abandon the concept of coalition government and instead give absolute power to one party in the following election.

 

The point is, unlike First-past-the-post, whose outcome is about as certain as that from a throw of dice, STV would guarantee that the will of the electorate would be accurately reflected, whether this was manifested as single party, multi-party or no-party government.
  

"A big improvement and absolutely fair"

 

There will never be arithmetical perfection when 46 million voters elect 650 Members of Parliament from among thousands of candidates belonging to a host of political parties to represent local constituencies. At the end of the day, all that can be asked of a voting system is that it should be neutral, that all votes should have an equal value, that voters retain absolute control over their votes, that the result broadly reflects the wishes of the electorate, whether this is expressed in a party political context or not, and that as many of the electorate as possible are able to identify with a successful candidate whom they helped to elect and whom they consider to be their elected representative.

 

The Single Transferable Vote in Multi Member Constituencies is the only system which meets all the above requirements, and the reasons why it has earned the "Supervote" sobriquet are to be found in a press comment in the Sligo Champion, reporting on the first use of STV in Ireland in January 1919:

 

"The system has justified its adoption. We saw it work; we saw its simplicity; we saw its unerring honesty to the voter all through; we saw the result in the final count; and we join in the general expression of those who followed it with an intelligent interest - it is as easy as the old way; it is a big improvement and it is absolutely fair."

 

Don’t just sit there!

 

If you support what this site has to say, pass on the address – www.knackered.org.uk

 

Write to your newly-elected MP, either in your own words or using the following draft

 

Dear Sir/Madam,

 

Can you please tell me what your party’s policy is on reforming the voting system, in the light of the 2015 General Election Result. In particular, I would be grateful for your own views on the content of the website www.knackered.org.uk

 

Yours faithfully

 

If you are interested in the campaign for reform of our electoral system, then visit www.stvaction.org.uk  which is dedicated solely to campaigning for STV. On the site there is access to campaigning tools which enable STV supporters to communicate with each other, to debate and to share ideas and campaign resources. Then there is the Electoral Reform Society, whose principal aim is to campaign for the introduction of the Single Transferable Vote. It is currently campaigning across a wide variety of election-related issues, as can be seen from the content of the Society’s website at www.electoral-reform.org.uk

 

Above all, just don’t sit there. The Conservatives are clearly going to be quite satisfied with the voting system that gifted them absolute power with just 37% of the vote and the Conservative Manifesto contained nothing but a commitment to equalise single member constituencies, which will achieve nothing.

 

But at least the Conservatives mentioned the voting system, which is a lot more than can be said for the Labour Party Manifesto which did not mention electoral reform at all!

 

Clearly, nothing is going to happen unless voters agitate for something to be done, so that the issue starts to appear on the national radar.

 

It’s over to you!

 

Published by David Green 33 Hartwood Road, Southport PR9 9AN on 17th May 2015 and updated on 21st September 2015

 

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