Independent View: Time for Lib Dems to ditch STV

With the loss of the AV referendum, electoral reformers across Britain are now looking at what went wrong and what changes they can make for the future to ensure it doesn’t happen again. We need our political parties to do the same, and that means a re-evaluating their electoral reform policies.

As absurd as it is, the perceived complexity of AV was a significant factor in its rejection by the public. The whole concept of preferential voting has now been tainted for a generation as overly complicated. If we are to engage the public interest in the future we need to learn this lesson.

It means ditching STV.

STV is a more complicated version of AV. The same applies to AV+. Trying to push such systems on to the public now will be flogging a dead horse.

A harsh lesson from the referendum is that the anti-reformers are very good at exploiting every weakness, and STV is riddled with them. Firstly, STV is not a properly proportional system; it is at best semi-PR. The level of proportionality under STV is directly linked to the number of MPs for each constituency. The larger the constituencies, the more proportional it is, but the less direct link there is to the public. Conversely, smaller constituencies mean less proportionality.

Either way, do we really want to replicate the situation we have with the EU elections where hardly anyone can name a local MEP? The media would tear it to shreds.

Another exploitable weakness is that Lib Dem support for STV looks like blatant self-interest to anyone outside the party. Even the Electoral Reform Society’s own analysis of STV shows that it will do nothing for the smaller parties (UKIP, Greens), and will benefit only the third placed party… the Lib Dems. In fact the ERS concluded that it would actually over-compensate the Lib Dems, giving them a disproportionately large number of MPs while penalising the more popular Labour and Conservative parties.

Many people like the idea of a local MP and the removal of the single constituency MP will be presented as a major weakness of STV in any future national debate. It also rules out any party list based systems, such as those used for the EU elections.

Of course it’s not just the Lib Dems who need to revisit their policy. UKIP currently favours AV+, while the Greens want a two vote Additional Member System as they have in Scotland, London and Wales.

Is it any wonder that we struggled to win the referendum proposing a system than none of the parties or reform groups actually supported?

The future requires a unified approach. We need the Lib Dems, UKIP, Greens, ERS and every other organisation involved to settle on a single electoral system that we will all present to the public.

Once agreement has been reached, we need a long term campaign of public education and preparation. We mustn’t blunder in to the next referendum (if we are lucky enough to have one) still trying to explain what the system is or why we need it.

As for the choice of system to promote, it has to be simple – the simpler the better. It has to retain the single member constituency link. It has to be a form of proportional representation. This leaves us with the Additional Member System or the simpler top-up systems such as Total Representation or Regional Top-Up. It’s time for everyone in the reform movement to take a long look at these systems and see which one they would be happiest with, and which one will be the easiest to sell to the public.

Anthony Butcher is an independent campaigner for electoral reform. His website is www.regionaltopup.co.uk

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52 Comments

  • Anthony Butcher Caron Lindsay 21st May '11 - 6:18pm

    Not keen on that at all – the reason we are pro STV is because it gives more power to the voter. List systems give too much power to a few people within political parties.

  • I agree. The AV referendum was a major blow to electoral reform and quite honestly, after the referendum, the party needs to reestablish itself as not the ‘protest’ party or the ‘STV’ party, but a party of liberalism (in whichever form it takes) and how we approach issues that affect people who don’t particularly care about the electoral system. Education would be a particularly potent thing to choose IMO.

  • So let’s be clear, you’re advocating a system where MPs who lose there constituencies will rise from the political dead as list MPs? I can see that one going down really well. Plus people will have to vote for a party with no idea who is going to be towards the top of the list and so, who they’re voting for. I support STV because I think people should be able to vote for/against individual candidates, regardless of party.

  • Joe Donnelly 21st May '11 - 8:09pm

    Liberalism is a rational ideology. We think we are right about STV, as painful and unpopular as it is to make this statement in public, the general populace were WRONG about voting no to AV. Just because the general public has a vote on something and disagrees with us does not mean we should change our opinion, we should fight even harder to win the argument.

    This type of thinking comes from Blairite style government where suddenly if people don’t like one of your key political beliefs you pretend it was never a belief (i.e. Blairs strong belief in God as important in politics).

  • It’s simply not going to happen. Short of a political earthquake there isn’t going to be another referendum on any kind of electoral reform for a generation – let alone on proportional representation. Don’t waste your time debating the merits of competing impossibilities.

  • “Another exploitable weakness is that Lib Dem support for STV looks like blatant self-interest to anyone outside the party. Even the Electoral Reform Society’s own analysis of STV shows that it will do nothing for the smaller parties (UKIP, Greens), and will benefit only the third placed party… the Lib Dems.”

    But surely that was because in the 2010 FPTP General Election the 4th and 5th parties were so far behind the 3rd party. Under some forms of PR, UKIP has done very well indeed.

    Under STV many voters will vote differently to the tactical way they are forced to vote under FPTP, and quite right too.

  • What a stupid article! Lets drop the most liberal voting system possible, to be more liberal… does anyone else see the problem here? AMS still has many of the problems of FPTP

    Furthurmore, AV failed because Rupert Murdoch and News International… sorry, I mean the public, don’t like Clegg much, and the No campaign was significantly better funded, using cowardly scare tactics.

    Real Liberals shouldn’t block STV. It is BY FAR the best system. The Irish people seem to really like it too

  • Andrew Suffield 21st May '11 - 9:33pm

    do we really want to replicate the situation we have with the EU elections where hardly anyone can name a local MEP?

    Like that has got anything to do with the voting system. Nobody can name their MEPs because the media never, ever reports on MEPs. People don’t know what they do, why should people know who they are?

  • richard heathcote 21st May '11 - 10:38pm

    my personal opinion is you are wasting your time with a change to the voting system. what ever system is decided upon will meet the same objections from the 2 main parties. I think for a very long time electoral reform is dead in the water after the referendum loss.

  • Joe Donnelly 21st May '11 - 11:10pm

    @ Anthony Butcher

    Ah, sorry I had missed the ‘independent view’ part of the article title 😛

    That changes my point somewhat, however, it does annoy me when you meet members of the general population who suddenly think electoral reform or STV should be dropped from our agenda just because we lost a vote on it…our policies shouldn’t be formed by what is popular.

    However, as a lover of different voting systems I can’t be against the opening of a debate over which electoral system should be adopted. I would like if we could involve the whole of progressive Britain in this debate and by progressive I mean those on the intellectual side of the labour party and not conservative and even UKIP, Green and people in the tory party like douglas carswell. We need to make the AV referendum a case of ‘the genie being out of the bottle’ not electoral reform being over for generations.

    How do you counter allegations of the systems you propose creating two tiers of MPs?

  • Andrew Suffield 22nd May '11 - 1:33am

    The reason that no one can name their MEPs is because there have half a dozen or more per region, and the regions are so large that people never hear from them.

    So if I understand you correctly, your claim is that if people had only one MEP covering a smaller area, then the complete lack of media reporting would not stop people from finding out the name of their MEP? Or that if the media did report on what MEPs were doing, people would ignore the reports because there are too many MEPs?

    I think you’re going to have to justify that one. (I don’t really see how you can)

  • Peter Davies 22nd May '11 - 1:54am

    The author is right to believe that many people voted against AV is because it would give the Lib Dems more MPs. Obviously the solution is to back a system that gives us no MPs. Right now you could probably get a majority for that.

  • Colin Hawthorne 22nd May '11 - 9:56am

    Andrew Hickey
    A small matter but could you please retract your unpleasant smear regarding UKIP being racist. I thought the entire populace, save for some Lib-Dem commentators it seems, had advanced beyond characterising those who are concerned about untrammelled immigration as racists. This was a now generally discredited tactic of New Labour, disowned by its current leadership. Indeed if recent reports are accurate even the signatories to Schengen appear to have belatedly recognised the dangers of unassimilated dissonant groups not prepared to embrace the mores of the host nation. That you are comfortable labelling people whose policies are probably more resonant with the vast majority of the poulation than your own “progressive” views with such a contemptible insult probably explains why you have lost favour and trust more than all the pontification on this site.

  • Must say I live in Scotland and have warmed to the idea of STV over the past few years but I’m not sure preferential voting is popular in England from the AV referendum and would be an easy sell there.

    The main advantage is that it would get rid of parachutes, the disadvantage is it’s not necessarily as proportional as a list system.

    AMS might be harder to implement on a larger scale for Westminster than for the devoloved institutions.

    Personally I wouldn’t have a problem with 3-5 member constituencies.

  • Preferential voting without proportionality is never going to be easier to sell. STV can be an improvement on purely PR systems, but perhaps it is an argument too far to win in one step.

    Perhaps an additional member system as a start, followed by allowing voters to decide on which “top up” members are elected as a second stage would be easier to sell ?

    Somehow, the eventual makeup of the democratically elected chamber must represent the way in which the country voted…

  • No. Reform of the Commons should be on the backburner and the LDs should focus on policies that resonate more and, in a more low key way, in reform of local government, Lords and maybe EU elections. I do believe that the author has come to the wrong conclusion about what went wrong. The campaign was poorly run, we were running for a compromise position that enthused very few people and the no campaign lied out of their teeth from day one.

    First, most of the powerful people opposed to AV will be opposed to any change. The system being preferential or not really doesn’t play into it, the lines may change but it’s not as if a referendum on AMS is going to have vastly different people on the no side compared to a referendum on STV.

    Second, AV was rejected partially because plenty of young people didn’t vote for it because it was too minor a change, not because of its preferential aspect. I’ve only known one person who objected to the preferential voting side of things – and even then by their phrasing they seemed to object to how it works in AV and AV+ specifically.

    Third, what were the “No” stories that resonated most? Scare stories about President Clegg or permanent coalitions – these are stories we’ll have to tackle regardless of what system is proposed. The whole “multiple votes” lie came into it, of course, but if a system called the “SINGLE transferrable vote” is proposed it’ll be harder to levy that accusation.

    Fourthly, AV was labelled as complex and obscure. With STV you could rightly say that if the Northern Irish and Scottish can figure it out then the English and Welsh can too. If the Lords reforms pass in their current form everyone in the UK would have used it by the time the next shot to change the HoC voting system comes round. Even though it is more complex, it is, paradoxically, less vulnerable to claims of complexity, as there are more obvious counters to the argument.

    Fifth, the media ignores 99% of MEPs. That’s why nobody knows them – not the system used. In Northern Ireland everyone knows their MLAs, elected by STV, as the media there focuses on them. In fact, they are more liable to know them even than their MPs.

    Also, did anyone know their MEPs back when they were elected by FPTP? I doubt it.

    Sixth, the ERS makes their projections using FPTP voting figures. More people would vote, say, Green, under a proportional system than under FPTP so these projections always by their very nature involve some unavoidable inaccuracies. I highly doubt that STV wouldn’t benefit some smaller parties as well as the LDs.

    Seventh, you suggest that any list based systems are impossible sells but you include AMS as a preferred option. Which, to state the obvious, includes a party list.

    Eighth, STV is “semi-PR” yet you support AMS? AMS would be an acceptable silver medal but it’s (also?) a semi-proportional system. Your other proposed systems look like they’d probably be similar, especially RTU (which is definitely more complex than AMS or STV).

    Finally, you’re proposing that everyone settles on one system and yet you are proposing more systems? The Greens support AMS but would take STV – I’d imagine UKIP would too. STV is most likely to be the system settled on if all the pro-reformers just pick one system and run with it. In practice, I think that the aim next time will be to get a NZ style referendum so that the pro-reform side can just focus on pointing out the flaws in FPTP as their first priority.

    I appreciate the effort that went into this article but I think that you’ve in some cases been working from the wrong information and have made wrong assumptions. So I find little to agree with here and I certainly don’t consider the systems you propose to be particularly sellable to the general public. Nevertheless, thank you for your time in writing up this post, even though I disagree with it.

  • The partial problem with a change in the electoral system to AV is that the majority of those voting understood that even the people proposing it did not really like it. That is not a good position for proposing change.

    Proportional Representation is not dead, it will need a different set of circumstances with a more positive radical mood and be clearly explained with a minimum representation figure to prevent far right extremists getting an easy foothold.

    The German mix seems to be pretty good, expresses the need for proportionality and manages to put safeguards in to prevent far right parties gaining traction.

  • @Anthony Butcher

    I apologise if I didn’t make myself clear, it’s pretty obvious that not many people were enthused about it and that those who opposed it were as opposed as they would have been if it were PR. I feel that you made some large factual errors and some false assumptions, I simply find a lot wrong with your post, even though it’s clear you put a lot of time and effort into it. Hence why I found nine things to bring up; four of which are just factual errors, incorrect assumptions or logical inconsistencies on your part.

    Of course, feel free to just dismiss these points and my entire post as just reassurances, and to just state your opinion again rather than actually addressing the vast majority of what I said. The public rejected AV. They were not voting on preferential voting as a concept or on STV (a different system), they were voting on AV. So unless you can pull out some detailed polling on the matter post-referendum then claiming a rejection of AV is anything more significant than just a rejection of AV is just restating your opinion without backing it up.

    I’m not sure of the reasoning behind the Greens and UKIP supporting their own particular preferences, presumably at their vote share they would want some list component, but I doubt they would oppose STV if it was that or FPTP – especially given they both supported AV (which would be far less likely to give them seats than STV). I even seem to recall Lucas co-writing an amendment to hold a NZ style referendum earlier this year, which included STV on the options, so I’m guessing she could live with STV.

  • I have yet to hear of a better electoral system for the UK than STV(RTU sounds awful as it spectacullarly fails the test of being able to vote out people if they lost their consituency election only to win a ‘top up’ seat) and until I do I will continue to support STV.

  • Kevin Colwill 22nd May '11 - 8:04pm

    At last someone is making the obvious point that the principle of preference voting was rejected in the AV referendum.

    Preference voting means nothing to me. I get to make some academic point that I’d prefer this party or that candidate before making my selection amongst the candidates that have a chance of actually winning. It merely enshrines the thought processes of tactical voting.

    I want my vote to have a reasonable chance of affecting the result. That means I want it to matter if I’m supporting a minority party whose support is significant but spread too thinly to make an impact under FFTP. It also means I want my vote to count if I’m adding to an overwhelming majority for my party of choice.

    STV is more proportional than AV but doesn’t address the points above. Forget that AV or STV favours a third party and have the courage to campaign for a proportional system where all votes really count rather than a system of meaningless rank ordering of preferences. Let’s show fair votes, real PR, is a genuine conviction issue of fairness and not some academic debate among nerds.

  • Old Codger Chris 23rd May '11 - 12:10am

    PREFERENCE VOTING
    Second choices? Maybe. Third, Fourth etc choices? No! That’s why I voted No to AV. Since any reasonably proportional system gives voters a realistic chance of electing their first choice candidate, STV makes even less sense than AV!
    STV also forces voters to rank their choices in order – meaningless for many voters who simply favour a particular party. And the counting method is more inscruitable than a meeting of the Chinese politburo – I seriously question the legitimacy of some STV results.

    TOP-UP SYSTEMS
    Much better than STV provided voters are allowed 2 votes (AMS is far better than Total Representation or Regional Top-Up) and provided the list ballot-paper gives voters the chance of overriding the ranking order favoured by their party – no CLOSED Lists please. But all top-up systems result in 2 classes of MP – a serious flaw.

    FULLY OR SEMI PROPORTIONAL?
    God save us from full proportionality! Democracy and good government would not benefit from a proliferation of tiny parties blackmailing everyone else.

    LIST SYSTEMS
    A truly “free” list system would allow voters to cast as many votes as there are seats (eg 4 votes in a four-seat constituency). There would be no compulsion to cast all one’s votes for candidates on the same party list, but voters who did opt for 2 or more candidates on the same list could optionally insert their own order of preference – overriding the party’s preferred order.

    Seats would be allocated between parties (and independents if they polled well enough) by the d’Hondt method. As for which candidate(s) on a party’s list were rewarded with a seat, this could be determined by the stated order of preference using a simple method such as Borda count.

  • What the writer, and most of the responders are missing is that the argument at present is not over which electoral system is best — it’s over whether the electoral system should be changed at all.

    AV has been defeated. That does not, as some think, mean that STV would have won, or RTU, or any other alphabet-soup system. What it does mean is that a major overhaul of the electoral system is dead for the next 10 years. If you want a meaningful debate over the best electoral system, the time to have it is after 2015 elections — not today.

    What’s left? Is there nothing to be done? Not at all. It’s just that whatever changes can be made in the next decade are going to have to be small-scale, in the realm of tweaks to FPTP, not replacing it.

    For instance, it might be possible to put through an electoral law under which, if no candidate in a constituency wins more than 50% of the vote, a run-off is held (about two weeks later) between the top two vote-getters — or, better yet, the top vote-getters whose votes, totaled together, equal more than half the total vote. That would not be proportional, or even particularly fair, but it would ensure that candidates representing only an unpopular minority would not win seats simply because of a split in the opposition. It’s a tiny step, an incremental reform, not a revolutionary overhaul of the system — but better than no reform at all.

  • Andrew Wimble 23rd May '11 - 9:59am

    Personally I think that after the huge margin for FPTP in the last referendum any change to the voting system will have to go on the back burner for some reason. Rightly or wrongly, the referendum result is widely viewed as a decisive rejection of a change to FPTP so any attempt to force another referendum on voting change in the near future would be doomed to failure. As far as what voting system we should have I do not think I could support any system which results in my vote being allocated to a party rather than an individual. On that basis I have to support STV as it seems to be the only system that is both reasonably simple and not reliant on a party list system.

    For now I think we should concentate on reforming the House of Lords using an improved voting system. Maybe after the public have had a chance to see how it works a move to introduce a better system to the commons will be better received.

  • Old Codger Chris 23rd May '11 - 11:02am

    I agree that any meaningful reform of the voting system is a non-starter for the next few years. Lib Dems must now concentrate on other matters (I do wonder whether a less disastrous tuition fees policy could have been negotiated in return for dropping the AV referendum).

    But the party needs to have some idea of what it actually wants, rather than the “anything’s better than FPTP” mindset which led to the decision to back AV. Yes I know the party’s always favoured STV, but let’s start with a clean sheet of paper instead of parotting the line pedalled by the Electoral Reform Society – whose sudden conversion to the “AV is Wonderful” argument was unconvincing.

    A party list system isn’t so bad provided voters are free to cast their votes for individuals and (if they wish) for more than one party. It would certainly offer voters more choice than the current dilemma which arises if I dislike my party’s candidate, or admire the candidate standing for a rival party.

    As for STV being simple, yes it’s simple for voters but there’s nothing simple about the counting process. This matters because all that transferring of preferences from candidates who were unsuccessful and – wierdly – from candidates who were very successful (elected by a larger margin than they needed) produces results which are not demonstrably linked to votes.

  • Colin Hawthorne 23rd May '11 - 11:41am

    Andrew Hickey
    No retraction but having visited your site it was a forlorn hope. I see in response to what I and many others would regard as robust but fair comment you responded thusly:
    Andrew Hickey, on June 8, 2009 at 9:04 am said:
    Every single thing in this comment is completely, utterly, wrong. Go away and read an actual newspaper, rather than the Express, and then try to learn at least the basics of economics, before you talk about stuff you know less than nothing about. Any further comments from you on this subject, unless and until they show evidence that you have done so, shall be taken as evidence that you’re a racist c*** rather than just the pig-ignorant imbecile you currently appear.

    Andrew Hickey, on June 8, 2009 at 3:57 pm said:
    I told you what you had to do to get further comments approved. You refused to do so, so your comments are now marked as spam. F***off.
    (I blanked your more fruity phraseology)

    Such a wonderful dismissal of the legitimate concerns of most of the country as evidenced by numerous surveys, and an attitude which has hardened against your opinion in the last 2 years . No point in dialogue with a “racist c***” like me I suppose. What brand of liberalism do you espouse exactly? I don’t want to seem tiresome so I will leave you and this site to your onanistic preoccupation with STV/AV/whatever as your MP’s show themselves to be exemplars of integrity and consitency and your party marches from strength to strength.

  • Hove Howard 23rd May '11 - 2:29pm

    @ Andrew Hickey
    “Well the Lib Dems and the ERS are both agreed that STV is the best system by far.”

    I’m afraid this calls to mind Tony Benn’s reaction to the 1983 election result – ‘eight million votes for socialism’. Preferential voting has just been delivered a killer blow by the electorate and it is time to recognise that.

    Thought the original article was excellent. Sceptics may like to look at how PR was introduced via referendum in New Zealand, and note which system was chosen – AMS by an overwhelming margin.

  • Cllr Steve Radford 23rd May '11 - 9:52pm

    During the local elections we in The Liberal Party handed out leaflets for the Vite Yes to Av Campaign and canvassed support for a Yes Vote. Without doubt much of the hostility to vote yes was its association with the “Clegg Sell out” as voters put it. However loosing a Vote is no reason for any party to drop the right policy. the Welsh devolution vote was lost first tie but we in the Liberal party never stop arguing the case for it. STV is the only system to transfer power from party machine to voters. In a City like Liverpool 4 or 5 seats by STV is more meaningful than endless boundary reviews!!!

    The case for PR has had a setback but the case for it is as true as ever. It is a gross shame the Lib Dems compromised by voting against STV in the Commons and voted for Party Lists fro the EU Elections, it makes their ability to now argue for STV less effective. Dirung the AV we as Liberal made it clear we did not like AV and still wanted STV and that it was only a modest improvement than FPTP

  • Gareth Hartwell 2nd Jun '11 - 1:30pm

    I think it’s probably true the electoral reform needs to be put on the back burner. However, I wonder if there might be a possibility of running some sort of trial or pilot – after all the referendum campaign turned into slanging matches about operational aspects of running the counting process.

    In the same way that several different methods were trialled to increase turnout several years ago (different polling stations, 100% postal votes etc) even though this clearly could have affected the result, wouldnt it be possible to trial a different electoral systems in a few areas of the country. This would be much less contraversial and arguments on confusion and cost could be tested rather than speculated upon. If we cant get this done for a General Election, what about a by-election or a local authority – e.g. there is a very strong argument that FPTP is a bizarre system for electing 3 candidates to 3 positions in a multi-member election which is all up.

    Gareth

    P.S. I agree in most of the arguments for (a) transferable votes and (b) the constituency link which is why my preferred system isnt STV but AV!!!

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