STV: System for The Voter

Only STV can make MPs really accountable to voters on their expenses claims and local issues, or major decisions on war and peace, the environment and the economy – indeed all issues. Only STV offers voters a genuine choice of candidates from the same and different parties, which must be essential for anyone who believes in freedom, choice and freedom of choice.

The current scandal of MPs’ expenses and allowances has triggered a popular demand for reform and some people think that proportional representation (PR) should be an important part of a reform package. PR has many advantages; it would for example:

  • Produce a House of Commons that broadly mirrored the political views of voters
  • Make it much harder for one party to have a majority in the House despite only a minority in the country
  • Eliminate what are called “electoral deserts” of safe seats where the result is known before the election, parties do not bother to campaign properly and voters’ views are ignored – that is if they vote at all.

By forcing the parties to campaign throughout the country instead of only in marginal constituencies, PR may encourage MPs to be honest and careful with their expenses claims, but I am not convinced that PR in itself would have much effect on MPs’ expenses claims. Preliminary research has suggested there is a link between the safety of seats and the size of expenses claims, but most PR systems would not abolish safe seats.

STV, however, would have a very direct effect. Unlike other PR systems, STV would give voters real choices and abolish safe seats as it did in the 2007 Scottish Local Elections; all candidates would have to compete for election with rivals from other parties and their own. If voters felt that Joe Bloggs MP had exploited the expenses system, they could replace him with another candidate from the same party without any risk of splitting the party vote, or possibly from another party or with an independent. In practice, after using STV in several elections, voters may not need to replace sitting MPs because they would know they were going to have to compete for their own seats – and that would probably make them much more careful with their expenses in the first place. Of course, for STV to have this effect, voters would need legitimate access to MPs’ expenses claims so there would have to be complete transparency; they would have to be published in detail fairly soon after being made.

STV would also protect MPs from their party machines. By strengthening their accountability to their voters, it would encourage them to give their first loyalty to constituents and more give them more freedom from party whips if they wanted to vote against the party line.

Perhaps you already supported STV or, if you did not, I have (I hope) persuaded you to support it now, but what are you going to do about it? For a start and without even moving from your computer where you are reading this, please visit http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/voterchoice/ now and sign the petition to the PM. Next, please ask all your political acquaintances (who are probably sympathetic towards electoral reform) to sign the petition as well and then ask all your friends and relations to sign. Next I suggest you visit one or more of the sites listed in my short biography. You can join and/or obtain ideas for more campaigning. Finally, I invite you to visit www.stvaction.org.uk/stvnews and subscribe free of charge to STV News.

A former Liberal activist, Anthony Tuffin has been independent of party politics since 1988 to devote his political energy to electoral reform. He is now:

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9 Comments

  • The thing that skews electoral results isn’t a lack of proportional representation, it’s a lack of preferential voting. Most voters in an election are forced to vote tactically between the top two parties for whichever they dislike least.

    We can see this from the EU elections, where the anti-BNP vote was split between several parties, leading to the BNP narrowly gaining MEPs despite their vote going down. If voters had been able to express a preference for several other parties in order, then votes wouldn’t have been wasted.

    This is why I support AV – it maintains the constituency link for an MP, and gets rid of tactical voting. STV is unnecessarily complex and solves the wrong problem.

  • NoOffenceAlan 10th Sep '09 - 9:45pm

    Of course, STV is the most practical form of PR to deliver a fair voting system, but please don’t over-egg the pudding by making spurious claims for it.
    Iain, above, is spot on with his comment, for example.
    The aim of PR is to maximise (subject to a sensible length of ballot paper) the number of voters who get their preferred representative elected. End Of.
    And that is a more-than-sufficient reason for supporting STV in itself.
    (Under Scottish council elections with FPTP, about 50% of voters got their preferred candidate elected. With 3/4 member STV wards, that figure is now about 75%).
    ‘Safe seats’ aren’t the problem with FPTP – the people of Bootle are on the whole very happy to have a Labour MP.
    The problem is seats like Watford where the majority of people don’t get the MP they wanted.

  • ‘The current scandal of MPs’ expenses and allowances has triggered a popular demand for reform and some people think that proportional representation (PR) should be an important part of a reform package. PR has many advantages;’

    Can you please indicate where there is evidence of ‘popular demand for reform’ and which of the regular national polls YouGov,ICM,Comres et al reflect this ‘popular demand’ in terms of key voter issues?

    I must have missed them as I can’t recall this even registering on the richter scale of voter concerns.

  • Dave, STV does (contrary to popular myth) maintain the link with a constituency – it’s just that the constituency is substantially larger than under FPTP. For example, my own STV ward was covered previously by four wards (two wards also covered bits of a neighbouring town.) It now has three councillors elected by STV, each with a first preference vote in excess of 1000, who are linked with the area. You still have the same arguments, the same debates of “we need this development here” or “this road needs resurfaced”, it’s just that you are representing a much larger area.

    Crucially, though, moving to STV would allow us to reduce the number of MPs whilst maintaining a proportional link – to simply cut the number of MPs as the Tories would do will only distort further an already discredited system.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Sep '09 - 10:12am

    How STV works with regard to choice between candidates of the same party depends on how the parties choose to play it. I suspect initially they would put up as many candidates as seats, as happens with the Euro-elections, being reluctant to advertise their weakness, and also this fitting in with what people expect from multi-member ward local elections. Possibly if they found this led to a loss of votes through transfers out, they’d change it. They might try and manage it by strongly pushing a preferred order. My feeling is that with the English political culture it would probably be best in any case for the candidates to be grouped under party label, and if so for the party to be free to choose the order under that label. Most people do think of their vote as being for the party, making it easy for them to do what they want I feel would help get the system accepted. Having to pick through a long ballot paper to find the candidates of your party would be an annoyance most people with little interest in politics would prefer to avoid.

    We probably need to accept that English political culture means the parties won’t be giving anything away in terms of political differences between same-party candidates. The only factors that will appear in party literature will be bland biographical information. But there will be elements of reputation that affect choice. This is what we see in multi-member local elections in England now – there is often a fair amount of splitting of votes between parties even though they never give anything in the literature to encourage it. A well-known incumbent councillor generally picks up quite a bit more than a first-time candidate on the same party label. There is often a race and gender effect.

    STV makes it difficult for a party to throw out a popular maverick, as s/he can stand as an independent without fear of splitting the vote. An incumbent standing under some disgrace, such as an MP with a bad expenses record, would be vulnerable to preferential voting, either people preferring to drop that one and go to another party, or put him/her last in preferences, or an independent challenger could be put forward if the party tried to solve it by limiting the number of candidates. So I feel STV does offer a solution to some of the concerns raised by the expenses scandal, though it may be only in exceptional cases where what it can offer in terms of choice between same-party candidates becomes a big factor. This should not be seen as a reason to discount it – like many constitutional things it is important it is there when people feel the need to use it even if it is not commonly used.

    Note I am writing “English” here because there are now sufficient differences in the other UK nations that it makes sense to do so. Experience with STV in Scottish local elections may be of some help in working out what might happen, and also indicates some problems that need to be overcome for the system to gain acceptance.

    John Zims asks for evidence of popular demand for reform. There is plenty of evidence that people are very unhappy about electoral politics. But most people are not political experts and so are not aware of the extent to which a change to STV would give them more power in voting. If you don’t know about it, how can you know you want it? There is almost no coverage of this issue in the press, with most commentators who chose to mention proportional representation either showing ignorance or deliberately deceiving by making out it inevitably means a fixed list system as used for the MPE elections. It does not help when the Liberal Democrat party leader having been given the opportunity to explain the benefits of STV flunks it and instead advocates an inferior system and makes false claims about it. Nor did it help when the earlier party leadership said “Hallelujah, this is the PR we have always wanted” when the list system was brought in for Euro-election rather than “OK, it’s PR but just about the worst possible form of it”. Accepted, quibbling about the details of electoral systems is a big turn off for most voters, but “we want a system which gives you a choice between candidates of the same party” seems to me to be a good selling point, and if we stick to saying that I think we will get a sympathetic hearing.

    The mechanics of STV are complex, but so are the mechanics of FPTP in delivering the overall result. If you think not, try explaining to people how FPTP means just because a party has over half the seats in Parliament doesn’t mean it has over half the vote, it doesn’t even mean it has more votes than any other party. FPTP presents you with the complex tactical decision over the fear of the “wasted vote”, explaining this to people in order for them to best exercise their choice is not at all simple.

    Dave Page says STV “solves the wrong problem”. Well, it solves the problem of the splitting the vote dilemma, as does AV, so what is this “wrong problem” and why is it wrong? I personally think disproportional representation is a very big problem, so perhaps Dave can say why he thinks it is a “wrong problem”. AV does nothing at all to solve the problem of local minorities going without representation, which I think is a pretty big issue, leading to the knock-on effect of a party majority in Parliament where there isn’t one in the country, and the party in Parliament having a geographically skewed representation. The fact that the Conservative governments of 1979-97 lacked a Parliamentary input from the industrial north and inner cities (apart from the west London wealth-belt) was a serious issue – it wasn’t because they had no votes in those places. Similarly Labour was very much damaged because its millions of southern and rural and outer suburban votes had almost no representation in its Parliamentary party.

    Dave mentions the constituency link. I don’t myself feel that being represented by an MP whose politics I dislike is so wonderful a thing that I’d prefer to keep it for the pride of being able to say “that’s MY MP” against the alternative of having several MPs for a wider area, one of whom is more likely to be closer to my politics. But, as I’ve said before, any party which really values the constituency link so much as Labour and the Conservatives claim they do can operate STV in that way. Let them draw up divisions in the multi-member STV constituency, and let them say each of their candidates is for one of those divisions. And then both Labour and Conservative should say to their voters “Give your first preference vote to the candidate from our party for your division. And give your second preference vote to the candidate from THE OTHER party for your division – do NOT transfer to a candidate of our party for another division”. If they believe what they say about the constituency link, they will do that. And if they will not do that, well then, it shows they are hypocrites.

  • ‘John Zims asks for evidence of popular demand for reform. There is plenty of evidence that people are very unhappy about electoral politics. But most people are not political experts and so are not aware of the extent to which a change to STV would give them more power in voting. If you don’t know about it, ‘

    So in plain English no ‘popular demand’ as evidenced every month in the national opinion polls.

    Be honest if the Lib Dems hadn’t been in opposition for the past 90 years they wouldn’t care about it either and of course could have changed the voting system when they were in government but didn’t bother.Likewise if Labour weren’t looking at a massive electoral defeat next year there wouldn’t be the sudden interest.Fortunately people can see through this sham.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Sep '09 - 11:58pm

    sanbikinoraion

    What point are you trying to make? Where did I argue for a closed list? I am arguing for STV which means voters can make up their own list. Despite the fact that I crticised those who make out that PR is only fixed-list syustems, you seem to be making that same point yourself.

    John Zims, you say “no popular demand”, but where is your evidence of no popular opposition? Sometimes it is the job of politicians to lead by suggesting something people haven’t thought of. As for your point about Liberal Democrats supposedly wanting it just for power reasons, what a weird and stupid point. Firstly, I don’t think there are that many people left on the party who were members 90 years ago. Secondly, many of us, myself included, supported PR first and came to join the Liberal Party afterwards because that party supported it. Thirdly, if we were just the sort of unprincipled people you suggest pretending we support something just to get power, surely it would be a very stupid thing to join a small party that looked unikely to get power and then work like mad to try and get an electoral reform just to try and get power – we would have joined Labour or Conservative if we were what you hold us to be here. Fourthly, now we have had a few PR elections, it looks like theLiberal Democrats tend to do rather badly in them. As I have carefully pointed out serious flaws in FPTP and you have given no answer to the points I made, I suggest you have no answer, I have stumped you and you are reduce to “nah nah nah nah nah” childishness.

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