Haggis, Neeps and Liberalism #3

When STV isn’t actually proportional …

The Scottish Liberal Democrats very much punched above their weight during the two terms of the Labour/LibDem coalition in the Scottish Parliament – 1999-2007 – and one of the major successes of the second term was the introduction of Single Transferable Vote for Scottish Local Government elections, starting with the May 2007 election.

Coalition government does require compromise on the part of the partners and in order to gain the support of sceptical Labour backbenchers (who really did not want a change from first-past-the-post) the new STV wards were set at 3 and 4 member only, reducing their proportionality. STV local government elections elsewhere – for example, in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – have more flexibility in number of members per ward, improving proportionality, particularly in urban areas.

So, where I am a councillor – in Dundee – in 2007, the two bigger parties (SNP and Labour) ended up over represented – Labour got 29% of the vote but 35% of the seats – and the two smaller parties (LibDems and Tories) ended up under-represented – the Liberal Democrats on 11.3% of the vote got 6.9% of the seats.

OK, you may say, not entirely proportional, but a whole lot better than the wide distortions between votes and seats often seen under first-past-the-post – and you would be right. However, a recent council by-election in Dundee has highlighted what I consider a serious failing in the current arrangements, which can result in by-election results seriously distorting the proportionality of results in a multi-member ward.

The by-election I refer to took place in the Maryfield Ward on 12th March; by-elections take place under Alternative Vote (AV). In 2007 at the main STV election, the SNP won two of the three seats with 44% of the vote; Labour won the other seat with 30% of the vote. The LibDems were third on 13% (no seat) and the Tories a weak fourth. The Labour councillor resigned just after Christmas, and given that there was little change to vote share at the by-election, the SNP comfortably gained the Labour seat.

The SNP now holds all three seats, but with less than 50% of the vote. Not exactly proportional, that one, is it? The majority of voters did not vote SNP and are now not represented at all, other than by nationalist councillors.

As a result of the by-election, the knife-edge situation on the City Council has altered, prompting a series of events culminating in the Labour Lord Provost effectively switching sides, and an attempt by the SNP to wrench control from the Labour/LibDem coalition administration will take place this Monday. And, all because there was no significant shift in voter opinion since May 2007!

This is not the first time we have seen the unfortunate effects of by-elections under AV. In Cambuslang East in South Lanarkshire Council last year, Labour gained their third seat in a three member ward despite a fall of 22% in the Labour vote at the by-election.

The Scottish Parliament’s proportional system is not STV but the additional member system where the majority of members are elected under first-past-the-post and the remainder (to make up proportionality) are elected via regional lists. When list members resign or die, to maintain proportionality, there is no by-election – the next person on that party’s list simply succeeds to the seat. Of course, such a system fails to take any account of changes in voting patterns between the original election and the time of the resignation or death.

I am sure most Liberal Democrats would agree with me that STV is the better system, but the way Scotland deals with by-elections throws the whole proportionality arguments for STV into a degree of disrepute. I don’t have any easy answer but a move towards larger wards with more members in the urban areas when the next local government boundary review takes place would at least avoid the situation of by-elections resulting in a one party fiefdom on a minority vote.

* Cllr Fraser Macpherson is LibDem Group Leader on Dundee City Council, on which he has been a councillor since 2001. A former Convener of Education and Convener of Finance, he has been Council Convener of Planning & Transport since May 2007 and Chair of the Tayside and Central Scotland Transport Partnership. His blog is at www.dundeewestend.com.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Scotland.


  • This is a fair point, but I cant really say I think it’s a big deal. Compared to the huge democratic advance and improvement of STV in local government it is a very minor negative.

  • David Morton 29th Mar '09 - 11:26am

    Its an accurate point but an incredibly minor one compared to the vast crimes of first past the post. With regards to defections they stick in the craw but they swing both ways. look at what happened in Liverpool !

  • “Liberal Democrats on 11.3% of the vote got 6.9% of the seats.”

    But what is 11.3% of the vote under STV?
    You can’t must make the measure first preferences or else we would have a system which allocated based purely on those.

    We see this in NI where the media have often reported the DUP “winning” based on them getting most first preferences but as they get few transfers.

  • David Boothroyd 29th Mar '09 - 2:30pm

    You could solve the problem quite easily. Instead of electing a single member, rerun the election as though it was for all seats but start by subtracting the number of quotas for the seats which the parties hold but are not up for election.

  • Mark Wright 29th Mar '09 - 2:44pm

    Good point David.

  • zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz….

  • David Boothroyd, I’m not sure the method you propose entirely works – because it doesn’t give a fair opportunity for transfers.

    To use the by-election in the article as an example (http://www.dundeecity.gov.uk/maryfield_byelection/results09.pdf), you can see that the SNP 1550 first preferences – which would be less than two quotas. This gives the SNP a negative vote score, and almost certain exclusion from the count, which effectively prevents voters from having the opportunity to transfer their vote.

    A better way to do it might be to run the STV election again in full, but with different “winning lines” based on who won the other seats.

    So in this by-election the SNP would have had to acheive 3 quotas to win their 3rd seat (75% of the vote), whilst other parties that would not otherwise be represented would need to acheive only 1 quota (25% of the vote).

  • Frances Davison 29th Mar '09 - 7:58pm

    I think Fraser has a reasonable point although not sure the alternative suggested actually works!

  • Rob Fergusson 29th Mar '09 - 8:03pm

    Fraser’s point is valid but I am not sure there is any easy answer … a solution must be found as it is wrong that a party can have 100% of the seats on less than half of the votes.

  • I think in practice, Chris’s suggested system would simply result in by-elections fought by “Independent” candidates backed by the party that already had seats.

    In Northern Ireland most vacancies are filled by co-option which seems to be relatively uncontroversial.

  • Andrew Johnsen 30th Mar '09 - 7:55am

    Fraser’s point is valid and I appreciate there is no easy answer – the Northern Ireland practice of co-option (as alluded to by Benjamin) is the only sensible option.

  • Having been elected in 2007, I’d be really concerned about the possibility of even bigger wards than the ones we have – frankly, 10000 voters is quite enough to cover. What Fraser suggests would work in the cities, but wouldn’t work in more rural areas like Perth & Kinross or Fife, where the wards are geographically huge in some cases (worse still in the Highlands!)

    For by-elections, I do think that under STV there should be co-options rather than by-elections – but this does then give the co-opted candidate the usual problems of “not having a mandate” and also the in-built advantage of the incumbent at the next council elections.

    Personally, I’d much rather see a move to an AV plus type of system, or even the AMS system used for the Scottish Parliament – you could have one member directly elected in each ward with the rest coming from the lists. This keeps the ward link, but would allow list councillors to take a much more strategic view of policy rather than the ward based parochial view.

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