STV: Proportional Representation of Voters, not just Parties!


The Single Transferable Vote is British-style PR! It 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. It has been exported for use in the Irish Republic, Malta, Tasmania, for elections to the Australian Senate and to some Australian local councils, indirect elections to the Indian Upper House and for certain local elections in New Zealand. In the UK, the Church of England, 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 National Assembly elections in Wales and 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.


Westminster’s 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 put up one male and one female to widen their party’s appeal.


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. Boris Johnson no more represents the 18,141 Labour voters in Uxbridge & South Ruislip in his pursuit of Conservative objectives than Keir Starmer represents the 8,878 Conservative voters in Holborn & St Pancras when he opposes those objectives.


To take the Albion City model used on an earlier web page, the three single member constituencies would be merged into one "multi-member" constituency for the whole city, returning 3 members. There would henceforth be no need for regular reviews to adjust boundaries; Albion’s population changes could be accommodated simply by increasing or decreasing the number of members to be elected. Opportunities for gerrymandering boundaries would thereby be minimised.  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 to choose from and this brings us to the second reform required to ensure that Albion City 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 candidates of 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.


Simply put 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 then 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".




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© David Green