FPTP is worse than you realised

As we approach another election, it’s worth noting just how flawed First Past the Post (FPTP) voting is as a system for electing candidates in single-winner elections. David Cameron saw his career destroyed by not supporting Alternative Vote (AV), and now it appears Rishi Sunak will witness the rise of The Reform Party, potentially increasing the Tories’ losses at the election.

The biggest issue with FPTP isn’t merely that it encourages dishonest voting or that the concept of ‘most votes wins’ seems intuitive. Rather, its main flaw is that it can result in the election of the least popular candidate.

I have previously pointed out that first-past-the-post voting can indeed lead to the election of the least popular candidate. While discussing this in a forum with supporters of electoral reform, I was told, ‘That’s not true.’ It wasn’t that they insisted on this misconception; they simply assumed it couldn’t be the case until it was explained how. This isn’t an opinion, it’s a mathematically provable fact.

Unfortunately, some people, despite favouring other forms of single-winner elections, still view FPTP voting as at least an acceptable method for conducting elections.

In an election, our aim is to identify the most popular candidate, right? There’s an assumption that the FPTP winner is the most popular, while an AV winner might be more of a compromise. This narrative was propagated by the NoToAV campaign in 2011, with insufficient opposition from the Yes campaign.

In reality, the winner under AV is much more likely to be the most popular candidate. While FPTP often does elect the most popular candidate, it can also fail to do so. Although less common, AV can also fall short in this regard; however, it cannot elect the least popular candidate.

In many elections with numerous candidates, voters often have little insight into others’ preferences and who has the best chance of winning. This is a common scenario in organisational, trade union, or local council elections. For elections within organisations there can be many candidates and voters will have no idea before they vote who is likely to win, so with 9 candidates running in theory if there is a close to even split between candidates someone could win with 12% of the vote.

OK, that’s unlikely to happen, but with voters having no polling to look at, to know who is likely to win, the vote has a high chance of being highly fragmented. It wouldn’t be unusual for someone to with win with just 20% of the vote, meaning 80% voted for someone else. Also, the organisations may not even give out vote share statistics, they will simply state who won, and most people assume this is fair.

Under FPTP, it doesn’t matter how many people vote against you; what matters is how fragmented the opposition is. If the opposition is highly fragmented, someone can win with very little support, and the winner can be the candidate who would not just lose, but lose badly against most candidates, or worse, every candidate. This is how extremist can win under FPTP voting.
It’s also worth noting, that while we support STV for general elections, the ability to rank candidates makes it a more extremist proof form of PR, extremist parties tend to not get ranked highly by voters not ranking them first, so tend to underperform in terms of seats relative to their first-preference vote share.

The plurality metric for deciding a “winner” can in some cases be quite arbitrary. Still, “most votes wins” can seem so highly intuitive that it is a fair system; some people will immediately be dismissive and resort to mockery at the mere suggestion it’s not, purely out of instinct.

Perhaps the worst thing about it isn’t just that it can elect the least popular candidate, but more the fact that the system itself seems so intuitive; trying to disparage it can get that reaction.

Put simply, first-past-the-post voting can elect the candidate that would lose a two-person runoff against every other candidate; this is also known as the Condorcet loser. This is why I think it is one of the worst methods possible for elections that require a single winner where more than two candidates are running.

I also find it odd that many countries that have PR such as New Zealand and Germany still rely on this system for their single-winner constituencies.

Someone could argue that what I described is not an adequate metric for deciding who is the least popular candidate. Fair enough, if losing in a runoff to every other candidate doesn’t make you the least popular candidate, I’d like to know what does?
However, even if I accepted that to be the case, I’d like to see how it could be argued that a person who would lose so consistently this way could still be deemed to be the most popular candidate?

 

* Alex Hosking is a party member

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36 Comments

  • Peter Davies 1st May '24 - 8:31pm

    Fibre to the Premises is excellent. It’s FPTP that’s bad.

  • Martin Gray 1st May '24 - 8:53pm

    Cameron won the the Tories an outright GE – their first for 13 years..
    The average voter doesn’t give a fig about PR ..
    It’s seen a pet subject for minor parties..
    On the continent some Social Democrat parties have nearly been wiped out under pr & it’s given populist parties a voice in parliaments ..
    Fptp can be very cruel when support collapses ..It’s a system we have to fight under – it’s a question of liking it or lumping it..

  • Alex Hosking 2nd May '24 - 12:17am

    David Cameron promised the EU referendum because of the rise of UKIP, he likely wouldn’t have bothered if AV had been in place, he also did it because he didn’t think he’d win an outright majority. Also if AV had been used it’s predicted the Tories would have done even better in 2015 doubling their majority from 10 to 20 seats.
    The Tories should have liked AV if they’re against PR, AV would somewhat deal with the minority rules problem of multiple single-winner elections because you can generate a two-party-prefered result that shows which of the two main parties most people prefer.

  • Andrew Tampion 2nd May '24 - 7:51am

    “Put simply, first-past-the-post voting can elect the candidate that would lose a two-person runoff against every other candidate; this is also known as the Condorcet loser.”
    Maybe. But there is no way of knowing what the outcome of a hypothetical run off with the unsuccessful candiates. It is also possible that the winner in FPTP would beat every other canidate in a run off.
    I think that Martin Gray is right that at present there is no evidence of significant disatisfaction with FPTP and if that is right not enough support for change. I think your efforts are best directed to persuading enough voters to campaign for change.
    The 2016 EU referendum is a case in point. David Cameron offered a referendum because the growth in support for UKIP demonstrated that a significant proportion of the electorate were unhappy with the EU. Based on the outcome of the referendum close to or over 50%.
    This is off point but I think the failure to hold a EU referendum would have been a diaster. The whole business could probably have been avoided if Gordon Brown had held a referendum of the EU Treaty in 2008. But UKIP got 12% of the vote in 2015: even though the Conservatives had promised a referendum. I suspect it would have been significantly higher. Eventually the pressure would have forced any Government to grant a referendum.

  • While it’s certainly true that FPTP can elect the Condorcet loser, and AV can’t, it *is* still possible for AV to elect the *second* least-popular candidate on that measure (i.e. someone who loses a direct matchup to everyone except the Condorcet loser)

    Consider the following
    20x ABCDE ; 10x BACDE ; 5x CDBEA ; 4x CBDAE ; 10x DECBA ; 20x EDCBA

    C is the Condorcet winner and goes out on the first AV round, leaving 20A, 14B, 15D, 20E
    B and D (who would both beat both of E and A in pair matchups) go out next with the vote totals going 34A, 15D, 20E and then 34A, 35E

    E then does beat A under AV, but would lose to any of B, C or D in a direct match. That’s not *much* better than FPTP, especially given the 1 vote margin of the E-A victory compared with the 39-30 win that C gets over A or E, or the 49-20 win that D gets over E.

    If electing the most popular candidate (on a Condorcet metric) is the goal, then why not advocate Condorcet to start with, rather than AV?

  • Rif Winfield 2nd May '24 - 9:03am

    I think that we are going to see some re-appraisal after the general election later this year (whenever that takes place!). Assuming that there is no significant change in the current standing of the various parties, FPTP is going to make the Conservatives end up with fewer than 100 MPs, as any referral to Electoral Calculus can demonstrate. Worse still (from their viewpoint) is that any further drift from Conservatives to the Reform Party, even by a couple of percentage points, may well result in the Conservatives having fewer seats than the Liberal Democrats. At the same time the Reform Party, who may finish with more total votes than the Liberal Democrats, will end up without a single seat while the LDs are on track for 50 seats or more (no, please don’t count your chickens yet!). This scenario is now the most likely outcome of the forthcoming general election, even though most commentators (and many politicians!) are unable to contemplate it before it happens. Of course, any thing can happen in the next few months, and even on polling day, but it will now take an earthquake to avoid something like this happening. Look back at the Canadian 1993 General Election to see how it actually happened there!

  • Matt (Bristol) 2nd May '24 - 9:36am

    I think, given a strong chance if Labour deliver a crushing victory at the next election, whilst we will see increased awareness of disproportionality in our system, PR may be practically dead for some time even if the Tories suddenly woke up to it.

    The only possible hope is that some Labour technocrat would see the viability of PR or STV systems at local level (or reinstating SV or introducing AV for the mayoral systems). And its fairly faint even then. Labour’s ‘reform’ proposals look set to focus on more single-person posts and they don’t seem overly disposed to u-turn on Tory policies the public aren’t overly aware of.

    Local-government multi-winner FPTP in England is the worst form of voting in use in this country and (I think) worse than even single-winner Westminster-FPTP.

    But FPTP is persevered with because it is efficient for the two dominant parties to target their activists and spending to sway small amounts of the vote in key places in a focused way (this also applies to the Lib Dems where they are the dominant party, by the way, its just overall this disfavours the Lib Dems nationally). Its not about fairness. Transferrable voting in any form raises the theoretical possibility of dominant parties their being supplanted in their fiefdoms by challengers in a way FPTP makes less possible. Leadership in dominant parties is directly linked to being selected for safe seats, so its a self-reinforcing system.

  • Peter Martin 2nd May '24 - 10:26am

    “… our aim is to identify the most popular candidate, right? ”

    It depends who you mean by “our”. From the P.O.V. of the establishment there does need to be some sort of electoral process in operation so that whoever is elected can claim a democratic legitimacy. However, they don’t want too much change from one government to the next. Just a little trimming is OK but not too much.

    What we have now suits them perfectly well.

    Let’s put aside what everyone think should happen under PR, and look at what actually has happened. In the UK the only time UKIP/ Brexit has made any form of electoral breakthrough has been under a PR system. There was an even more stark example in pre war Germany when you-know-who used an almost perfect PR system very skilfully to his own advantage.

    We can all agree that a PR system would benefit the minor parties which is why the Lib Dems have been pushing for one. However, the Lib Dems aren’t the only minor party who would benefit. Very likely both the Labour Party and Tory Party would split into at least two minor parties, so we’d end up with at least 7 similar sized parties in England alone.

    The Establishment won’t like this at all! So there’s not much chance of PR any time soon. They want a managed democracy with stability. They don’t care for who’s the most popular or even about the fairness of the outcome.

  • It’s interesting to note that after being reduced to just two MPs in 1993 the Canadian Tories continued to support FPTP, this might seem counterintuitive but they are currently the main opposition and actually received more votes than the winning Liberals in the most recent election.

  • Alex Macfie 2nd May '24 - 3:43pm

    @Peter Martin: The moustached monorchid would probably have eventually won a clean sweep of seats in the Reichstag under FPTP (as the PVV would have done in the recent Dutch election). In India the far-right BJP won power under FPTP, usually doing better in terms of seats than it would under PR.

  • Steve Trevethan 2nd May '24 - 8:41pm

    Mr. Peter Martin seems to be pretty accurate in his observation that FPTP has been successful in promoting the perception that we have a deep form of citizen, plus their children, enhancing democracy.

  • Peter Martin 2nd May '24 - 9:36pm

    @ Alex,

    You’re overlooking the fact that PR gives minor, and possibly extremist, parties the opportunity to climb a ladder to political credibility. Once they have done this, as you say, they’d also do well under a FPTP system. However, without RP they may never have achieved a breakthrough to begin with.

    This is not to say that we shouldn’t have PR. It obviously a fairer system, but it is important to recognise that the introduction PR could have unintended consequences.

  • Alex Hosking 3rd May '24 - 12:42am

    Andrew Tampion, In electoral theory, FPTP is known to fail the Condorcet criterion, with numerous real-world examples illustrating this point. However, due to word count constraints, I did not provide specific examples.

    Cim, I mentioned that AV may not always elect the Condorcet winner, but it is generally more likely to do so. The scenario you described is theoretically possible but highly improbable; AV is much less likely than FPTP to elect an unpopular candidate. Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem asserts that no electoral system can be completely fair and immune to tactical voting. While I could advocate for more complex methods like Schulze or Ranked Pairs, they involve greater complexity.

    Peter Martin, this is why I advocate for STV as the form of proportional representation (PR) that we should adopt. STV is less likely to result in the election of extremists, and smaller parties with modest first preference votes often succeed in winning seats in Ireland

  • Andrew Tampion 3rd May '24 - 6:58am

    Alex. In that case could you please provide a link to some examples of how FPTP fails the Condorcet criterion.

  • Keith Sharp 3rd May '24 - 7:53am

    The rise of the far-right is not primarily about electoral systems; it’s about; what on earth makes people want to vote far-right in the first place? And we duck the issue if we try to make it a ‘which is the best system for suppressing that support’, rather than getting to and addressing its root causes.

    What we have seen is that if extremist views are denied at the ballot box, they all too effectively infiltrate the established right wing party (Trump taking over the Republicans; UKIP/Brexit the Tories) flying under a flag of convenience/respectability instead of being exposed to discrete scrutiny.

    And it’s correct that FPTP allows extremists in as much as, if not more than, any other system. The Electoral Reform Society did a very good analysis of how the BNP won Council seats in Burnley in the noughties (only needing a minority of votes – some 30-35% – to ‘win’ was a key factor).

    And in General Elections, we’ve seen Blair/Labour win a big majority on 36% or so of the vote (2005) and similarly Cameron in 2015. That’s the vote share Wilders got in the recent Netherlands elections and he was unable to form a government. Under FPTP, that vote could well have been propelled him into absolute power.

  • Alex Macfie 3rd May '24 - 8:42am

    @Peter Martin: The BJP managed it in India. It’s a matter of picking a ward and winning it, and then a few more. The BJP vote tends to be concentrated in the right places and the party often wins more seats on fewer votes than its main opponent the Congress Party. I suspect that the NSDAP vote would also have started off locally concentrated and it would not have had much difficulty breaking through on that basis under FPTP.

  • Alex Macfie 3rd May '24 - 8:48am

    @Ambighter: the present Conservative Party of Canada was formed from a merger between the old Progressive Conservatives and Reform, although in reality it was more a case of Reform taking over the old PC party machine (perhaps a portent for what could happen in UK politics should the Conservative & Unionist Party have a Canada 1993 disaster).
    Probably the PC Party still saw itself as a future party of government so did not have a sudden conversion to electoral reform. Reform did support electoral reform (even though it benefitted from FPTP) but seems to have forgotten about that once becoming (via reverse takeover) one of the two main parties of government.

  • Peter Martin 3rd May '24 - 10:26am

    The Lib Dem position seems to be, if I understand it correctly, that you’d like the electoral system to be fairer but not so fair that it allows in “the extremists”. You’d like it to strengthen the political centre which is essentially what the ” the Condorcet criterion” is getting at. The idea is that the extremes should cancel each other out and the winner will naturally more centrist than might otherwise be the case.

    I’m not sure just what the average voter will make of this criteria let alone Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem, Schulze and Ranked Pairs. Don’t forget it’s the average voter you’ll need to convince to secure any meaningful change.

    The Weimar Republic, for all its faults, did have an almost perfect system of PR. The Saxon Peasants Party presumably would have considered it perfectly fair that their 0.42% of the vote, in the 1928 elections, should translate into 2 seats in the Reichstag.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1928_German_federal_election

  • Alex Hosking 3rd May '24 - 12:39pm

    Andrew Tampion, I think you mean Condorcet loser.
    It’s likely not that uncommon of an occurrence when there are only 3 candidates running.
    You only have to look at the 2002 French presidential election to show just how close an extremist can come to winning a plurality of votes only to be crushed in a run-off.

    Keith Sharp, you’re right, I’m reminded of the Johnathan Pie video after Trump won in 2016.
    I was frustrated by the attitude of some MPs in the party after the Brexit referendum, dismissing a lot of Leave voters as thick or racist. I was one of the people suggesting that the EU is not a perfect institution, it’s increasingly becoming too authoritarian and then there’s the second seat in Strasbourg.

  • Alex Hosking 3rd May '24 - 12:59pm

    Peter Martin, STV isn’t rigged to keep out extremists, or even to favour centrist, it’s just that extremist parties do not tend to gain preference votes from those not ranking them first.

    The result is fair, it’s just that no longer can extremist parties take advantage of people who vote for other smaller parties wasting their votes.
    Look at the 2009 European election in North West England, the BNP won a seat with 8% of the vote, had STV been used the Droop quota would have been 11.1%.

    What’s worse is under D’Hondt if everyone who had voted for Socialist Labour had voted Green, the Greens would have won, or everyone who voted Green had voted for Labour, Labour would have won that 8th seat.
    People, just by voting honestly for the party they wanted essentially helped elect the BNP candidate the one they likely most disagree with, there’s nothing fair about that.

  • STV has two disadvantages, firstly parliamentary constituencies would be very large. Secondly the large number of candidates means that many voters scroll down the list putting 1, 2, 3 etc. against the candidates of their preferred party, so Mr Black gets more first preferences than Mrs White for alphabetical reasons. Alternative vote has neither of these problems whilst still disadvantaging “extremist” or non mainstream (to put it less subjectively) candidates. There you are problem solved!

  • Although they pay lip service to it, the sad fact is that neither Labour nor the Conservatives want electoral reform, especially not PR. I am in my 40’s I fully expect FPTP to be in post for Westminster elections for the rest of my life (assuming I make it to my 80s!)

  • Alex Macfie 5th May '24 - 6:11pm

    @Ambighter: AV isn’t proportional though. The alleged “disadvantages” of multi-member STV aren’t really serious problems. Larger constituencies? It’s not clear to me how a 3-member constituency of ~180,000 voters is any more difficult to represent than a 1-member constituency of ~60,000. Having several representatives looking after the constituency enables each to take their share of the constituency work and it should naturally iron out to each one doing roughly the same amount of work. Also larger constituencies can often be much more easily drawn up to represent natural communities. Which arrangement is more likely to be representive of the community in Dudsbury and Didsbury?
    1) 5 single-member constituencies: Dudsbury West, Dudsbury East, Dudsbury South & Didsbury South-West, Didsbury North, Didsbury South-East
    2) a single 5-member constituency covering both towns

    The “donkey vote” problem (insofar as it is one) can be resolved through different ballot designs. There is no particular reason why they all have to be in a single-column list in alphabetical order. They could be in columns; they could be randomized or ordered by lot drawing or party affiliation.

  • Alex Hosking 6th May '24 - 12:14am

    I think the problem of “donkey voting” is only an issue in Australia where you have to fill the list in for all bar 1 of the candidate, where ranking is optional it’s less of a problem.

  • David Symonds 6th May '24 - 9:51am

    AV isn’t proportional and indeed can deliver even worst results than FPTP, leading to more distortions, its only aim is to ensure 50% in a single member constituency. The Party List system (d’Hondt) removes the link with constituencies by having pure PR but puts power in the hands of the party to decide the order its candidates can be elected (closed list) as used in London, Wales and Scotland for the regional top up. STV may have its faults but it keeps the constituency link (3-4 members) and every vote is utilised and equal, look at the stability it provides to the Irish Republic where it has been used for 100 years very effectively It also allows electors to choose between parties and independents and different strands of opinion which the other systems do not.

  • Alex Hosking 6th May '24 - 12:06pm

    I think AV was expected to often produce a slightly more proportional result, but not always the case. Tory MPs will often allude to the 2011 referendum as if it were a referendum on PR.
    As for STV it’s for these reasons I would like to see it used for elections partially because it’s not so proportional it leads to the sort of results that opponents of PR often allude to.

  • Rafael James 6th May '24 - 2:36pm

    I generally support STV over Party List or AMS(and of course over FPTP), mainly on the grounds that people should always be entitled to vote for people rather than parties, amongst other reasons. However my issue with STV is when the constituencies are not that big, say three member per constituency, there can still be significant electoral stasis(where a seat will never change – like a safe seat in FPTP) and disproportionality, in term of first preference votes to seats. To me that is unfair. You should still be represented even if your favourite candidate/party is on something like 10% in your area. That is the case for a lot of people, and indeed for many Lib Dem voters. We must strive to truly abolish safe seats, because they limit the power and freedom of voters. In Australia they elect their senate with STV and most constituencies elect 12 senators each, and the ballots are not overly large and still neat because of above and below the line voting. Why could we not have something like that?

  • Nonconformistradical 6th May '24 - 4:40pm

    @Rafael James
    “In Australia they elect their senate with STV and most constituencies elect 12 senators each”
    From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Senate
    “There are a total of 76 senators: 12 are elected from each of the six Australian states regardless of population and 2 from each of the two self-governing internal Australian territories (the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory).”
    So if I have undestood correctly, from
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/States_and_territories_of_Australia
    which shows the relative populations of the states in a pie chart – 2 states, New South Wales and Victoria, contian a little more than half the whole country’s population. But they each only get 12 senators, as does e.g. Western Australia which only has around 10% of the country’s population.
    How can that be fair representation?

  • Peter Hirst 7th May '24 - 2:48pm

    One further advantage of PR is that you cannot win without over 50% of the voters voting for you. This means at least half of those voting have indicated support. This improves engagement, credibility and representation.

  • Rafael James 7th May '24 - 5:41pm

    @nonconformistradical I was not saying that I like that element of Australia’s electoral system where each state elects the same number of senators regardless of population. I was slightly horrified by that when I first realised it in fact. I was just making the point that STV has been used with fairly large constituencies that elect more than just the three to six or so members that most people such as the Electoral Reform Society propose with STV. Since this makes it more proportional (or would in Australia if they did not allocate senators to states regardless of population) I believe we should have STV but with large constituencies, say ten to twelve members. I feel STV is too similar to FPTP otherwise. I do not think that we should give each region the same number of MPs regardless of population Australian-style; that would be undemocratic.

  • Nonconformistradical 8th May '24 - 8:13am

    @Rafael James
    “I do not think that we should give each region the same number of MPs regardless of population Australian-style; that would be undemocratic.”
    Exactly – which is why I do not understand why you felt it appropriate to promote the Australian system at all.

    How many MPs should we have in the UK in relation to our population (somewhere around 68 million and quite unevenly distributed)?

  • Alex Hosking 9th May '24 - 2:24am

    Peter Hirst, Under STV once a single party gets over 40% of the vote it’s going to be close to an overall majority, this can also be the case under mixed member systems due to wasted votes for parties not making the threshold, however under STV most of those votes are still not wasted. Also, this is less troubling under STV because, to achieve a majority with under 50% of the vote, you would also need to be ranked highly by those not ranking you first.

  • Rafael James 13th May '24 - 4:30pm

    @Nonconformistradical I am not idealising the Australian system, nor saying we should totally emulate it. I just think that we should have STV with large constituencies of around ten to twelve MPs each, because this makes it more proportional than STV with say, three to five-member seats, as they have in Ireland. I was pointing to the Australian Senate as an example of this, not endorsing its system as a perfect model.
    In answer to your question, I think the current 650 is fairly okay. What do you think? Considering MPs seem to have a lot of casework and be very busy maybe more would be nice but I do not know how more would fit in the physical building of the House of Commons. If we kept the current number 650 MPs we would have about 55-60 constituencies with my idea, and the boundaries of these would be drawn to ensure each had roughly equal population, as the single-member seats we have now are drawn.

  • Nonconformistradical 13th May '24 - 7:45pm

    @Rafael James
    “I think the current 650 is fairly okay. What do you think?”
    I’m OK with that

    “Considering MPs seem to have a lot of casework and be very busy ”
    If there were only 55-60 constituences instead of the present …. from https://en.wikipedia.or/wiki/Constituencies_of_the_Parliament_of_the_United_Kingdom there are 533 constituencies in England, 40 in Wales, 59 in Scotland and 18 in Northern Ireland – before the forthcoming boundary changes.
    So presumably you want 1 of your multi-member constituencies to cover the whole of Scotland? What would you do about Wales and Northern Ireland?
    In England you’d end up with over 600,000 voters per constituency.

    Having say, 5 MPs per multi-member STV constituency doesn’t give perfect proportionality. But it’s a load better than what we have now and the system would remain reasonably manageable.

  • Alex Hosking 17th May '24 - 1:16am

    I think STV with 10 to 12 members would likely lead to huge ballot papers. One of the reasons I prefer STV with 3-5 member constituencies is that it’s not so rigidly proportional across the country; it does not lead to the sort of result that opponents of PR allude to. In the Netherlands, they still haven’t come to a deal, but really, the Dutch have to look deeply at what is allowing the PVV to get so much support.

    It’s fair to assume that with only 3-5 members, this would make it difficult for small parties to gain representation; however, this doesn’t seem to be the case in practice in Ireland. It does make it harder for extremists to win seats or they’re more likely to underperform relative to their first preference vote share.

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