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; over 3 out of 10 of those registered to vote in the 2017 General Election did not do so. 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 under 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; British individualism demands Voter PR, rather than Party PR.

 

Other benefits will accrue from the use of STV; multi-member seats offer parties the opportunity to offer a “broad church” of candidates to attract the widest level of support; the safe single member seats of First-past-the-post will be a distant memory as every vote cast will be crucial, so candidates will strain every sinew to win as many votes as possible for themselves and for party colleagues who would benefit from their vote transfers. The teamwork this engenders has the capacity to spawn co-operation between parties representing the same ward/constituency after the election, which in turn offers the prospect of a more consensual approach to governance at the centre.  

 

But how would STV change things on the ground? We can get some idea by looking at Scottish local government which has used STV in multi-member wards since 2007. In the south-east of Edinburgh, for example, the old single member wards of Alnwickhill, Gilmerton, Kaimes and Moredun habitually returned Labour councillors to Edinburgh’s City Chambers. The last First-past-the-post ballots in that area in 2003 were rock solid for Labour but the effective vote was only 24% across the 4 wards. In 2007, STV was introduced and these 4 wards were in large part merged into one 4-member ward by the name of Liberton & Gilmorton. In the 2017 round of local elections there, the effective vote was 80% under STV, returning 1 Labour, 1 Conservative and 2 Scottish Nationalist councillors, with the Liberal Democrat and Green candidates eliminated and their votes transferred according to each voter’s expressed preferences.

 

So, who benefits from the use of STV? Clearly, while the fortunes of parties ebb and flow, it is the voter who is the main beneficiary.

 

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 long-established Electoral Reform Society recommends the use of slightly larger multi-member constituencies returning between 4 and 6 members, to enhance proportionality.    

 

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© David Green