How can we sell the Single Transferable Vote to the public?

The last 24 hours’ focus on voting systems – surely every Lib Dem’s dream come true? – have highlighted just how hard it will be to gain acceptance for the party’s preferred proportional voting system, the single transferable vote.

It’s no surprise that almost all MPs from the two establishment parties, Labour and the Tories, are desperate to hold onto the electoral system that secures their cosy hold on power: just five Labour/Tory MPs voted to include STV in any referendum on voting reform.

But it will also be the case that a significant portion of the country will need to be won over. A PoliticsHome poll this week suggested 42% of the public would vote to keep first-past-the-post, with 37% backing the alternative vote; though no proportional voting system was included in the poll’s questions, it’s optimistic to assume that would have convinced more people of voting reform’s merits.

Beyond MPs’ expenses

For the past nine months – since the MPs’ expenses scandal exploded onto the scene – much of the argument in favour of electoral reform has centred, understandably enough, on the potential for STV to end the ‘safe seats’ culture that has allowed some Labour/Tory MPs to grow complacent, and take the trappings of power for granted.

But is this enough to convince the public of the need for STV? Will arguing for a change in voting systems really convince the public that sch widespread abuse will be a thing of the past? I doubt it. Especially as the furore of last April/May recedes in the public consciousness.

STV: competition drives up standards

So how should the party try and sell STV in the future? Well, two related points have stuck in my mind over the past day or so. First, here’s Lib Dem MP David Howarth’s defence against the oft-repeated accusation that STV breaks the constituency link:

… it would not. It would just mean that there were more Members per constituency. It would break the one Member, one constituency link. For 17 years I was a local councillor and there were three members in my ward, but I did not feel that that meant I represented the people in my ward less. In fact, when a member of another party represented the ward for a few years, it increased competition between the parties in the ward and made us all better representatives.

It’s an important and crucial point: STV does not break the link between MPs and their constituencies. What STV does do is increase voter choice. Not only can the electorate rank parties in order of preference, but they can also mix and match – for example, voting for a Lib Dem MP who has been particularly helpful on a piece of casework, while casting their other votes for Labour/Tories in accordance with their wider political views.

It’s a modern concept turning voters into proper consumers, able to pick ‘n’ mix according to their experience, and so increasing the competition between the MPs representing their constituency to provide the best service. If Tories actually believed in the power of markets to drive up standards they would jump at STV. As it is, and as has always been their practice, they prefer to stick with a system which entrenches existing privileges.

STV: it improves the constituency link

So STV does maintain the constituency link but improves upon it by increasing competition. Which leads me to the second related point: size of constituencies and the public’s identification with them. Look at the current electoral map of the UK, and it’s a mess, in particular in densely-poulated urban areas. Wholly articifial constituency borders are inserted, often seemingly at random, by that vast unaccountable quango, the Boundary Commission, in order to ensure constituencies of roughly equal size.

It’s an absolute nonsense. Where I live, in Oxford, the electorate is too large to have one parliamentary constituency for the entire city, so a squiggly, virtual line runs through its centre bisecting the constituency of Oxford East from that of Oxford West and Abingdon. Thus you are left with the absurd situation that voters in adjoining streets in the centre of Oxford are seregated, while the market town of Abindgon (eight miles away) is lumped in with Oxford West to make the figures add up. And this is the sacred ‘constituency link’ which devotees of first-past-the-post and the alternative vote hold to be inviolable!

In fact, one of the big advantages of STV is that the constituencies become much more coherent in urban areas than is currently the case. Over at the Fabian Society’s Next Left blog, Denis Mollison has authored an illustrative new constituency map showing how STV could work in practice. To see a larger version of the map than the one shown in this post, click here.

As Lib Dem blogger James Graham has pointed out in his self-explanatorily titled article STV Is beautiful:

I really like what Mollison has done here. He hasn’t simply drawn lines on the map but created constituencies based on local authority boundaries. Ironically this would mean that people would identify with parliamentary constituencies more than the largely artificial ones we currently use (if the Tories get their way and replace the current system for drawing boundaries with a more technocratic one based on number of voters, this problem will get even worse). His model would also result in 140 fewer MPs.


There are any number of high-minded reasons to support STV: the fact that we should have a government that commands the support of a majority of people, and that pluralism makes for more mature decision-making.

But in terms of how we sell the need for STV to the public, the pitch is surely simpler. First, STV means you can shop around to choose the MPs you think work hardest from among the political parties you agree with most of the time. And, secondly, it puts an end to the ridiculous carving up of communities forced upon us by first-past-the-post, and provides a proper constituency link based on estalished geographical identities.

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  • though no proportional voting system was included in the poll’s questions, it’s optimistic to assume that would have convinced more people of voting reform’s merits.

    I agree with you here as most people do not understand STV, while PR is easy to understand, and seems a fair system.

    I think PR with less MPs, making the areas larger, and having them much more equal in the number of voters would be a easier system to sell to the public.

    I can not see the public going for STV, and if PR is not in the referendum, then PR will be lost for 25 years.

    In any referendum it must include more than FPTP, and STV.

  • Remember Brown if he was 10% ahead in the polls would never have spoken about a referendum , so there are dangers of getting into bed with him.

  • This is a very good post. I recommend you distil it down to three lines, put it on a leaflet and start sticking it through letterboxes.

    Seriously (although the above sentence was also serious), in the event of a (potential) referendum on voting reform, we will need to consider how we’re going to sell it to the public, and not just at this level. Is the Campaigns Department working on draft pro-reform leaflets? Delivering leaflets on voting reform must be a dream prospect for many of our activists.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Feb '10 - 11:51am

    AV solves one of the problems of FPTP, but it doesn’t solve several of the others. STV does solve these as well as the one AV solves.

    Why is it considered that AV needs a referendum? It seems to me to be such a minor change to the way we are governed that it’s rather silly to have one, when there are plenty of other constitutional changes which went through without a referendum. To my view, the enforcement of the cabinet system onto local government was a much bigger change, yet not only did it go through without a referendum, it went through with hardly any media discussion.

    The problem with “constitutional changes need a referendum” is that by their nature they tend to be quite technical. The general public really isn’t that interested in them, and doesn’t want to make the effort to understand them. So any referendum is llkely to be treated as a referendum on something else. That is why a referendum on anything EU related, for example, is really going to be a referendum of the topic “Do we like foreigners, or do we prefer being British in the way Mr Murdoch tells us it is to be British?” rather than on whatever technical issue it is supposed to be on.

    It seems to me the PoliticsHome poll quoted indicates that most people will treat a referendum on AV now as a referendum on Gordon Brown and not on this minor change to the voting system. So they oppose AV because Gordon Brown proposed it and they oppose Gordon Brown.

    Has anyone actually raised a serious argument against AV apart from our “it isn’t nearly enough of a reform of the electoral system”? All I’ve seen is Tories opposing it on just the grounds I mentioned above – it’s a ruse by Gordon Brown to get LibDem sympathisers to like him, so it must be wrong. Are there any Tories who are actually numerate and logical enough to be able to put a reasoned argument against it?

    The only argument I have heard from that side is a false one. It goes something like “Since ancient times we have had the system that the one with the most votes wins, so that’s how it should stay – don’t change what works”.

    This is why that argument is false – in effect we had AV up till 1872 when the secret ballot was introduced. When people voted in public at hustings, voters could see how their fellow voters were going, and so could switch their vote to a second preference if it was clear their first preference would never gain a majority. AV simply reintroduces into the paper system what was capable of being done before there was a paper system, while maintaining the secrecy of the ballot. In 1872 there were (haven’t checked, but I think this was the case) few elections with three or more candidates, so the issue wasn’t so obvious. Also the shifting of votes in response to what was going on at the hustings may have been an intuitive thing so not seen as an issue when it could no longer be done with the secret ballot.

    However, this wasn’t entirely an issue which no-one thought about at that time. The Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson did research on electoral systems around then, and published papers showing up the shortcomings of FPTP. But since the British people think innumeracy is something to be proud of, they aren’t going to listen to what some mathematician says, even if they took to the children’s fiction he wrote under another name.

  • Simon Titley 11th Feb '10 - 12:02pm

    Much as I support STV, we need to be careful about presenting proportional representation as a panacea for corruption.

    For example, the Republic of Ireland uses STV in multi-member constiutuencies, yet that didn’t prevent Charlie Haughey, one of the most corrupt politicians in post-war Western Europe. Israel uses pure PR yet many of its leading politicians (e.g. Netanyahu, Olmert) are mired in allegations of financial corruption.

    Cleansing politics is best achieved through transparency and the rule of law, irrespective of the voting system.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Feb '10 - 12:17pm

    I have concluded from my experience of Conservatives arguing against electoral reform, that they really do lack the brain power to understand it. It’s not that they have thought about it and rejected it, one can see from their body language it’s “Huh, I don’t understand this stuff, but it’s bad for me, so I’m against it”. If they actually understood it, they could come come up with more sophisticated arguments against it than the ones they do come up with. It really is frightening that people so thick look likely to be governing us shortly, but then we can see also how that thickness led the to be taken in by the simplistic economics which led them not to see how what they started putting in place in 1979 has led to the mess this country is in now.

    Being thick, they really do not realise that STV is completely different from party list systems. It’s a tricky one, because arguing one electoral system against another leads to the line put to the general public “this is all incomprehensible mathematics, so it must be bad” being a good campaign line against us. As we have seen in the US, when there is a culture where being stupid is considered something to take pride in, people will actually support a stupid person on the grounds that she’s stupid so she must be like them, so she’s who they’d like to govern them. On these grounds, when our party supported the party list system for Euro-elections and didn’t quibble about the fact that it was PR but just about the worst possible system of PR one could have, it was an understandable position to take. However, it has added weight to the argument that will be thrown against us – that in supporting PR we support a system with centrally determined party lists and no voting for individuals. That argument can be backed up with “Look – you’ve seen it in the Euro-elections”. When we try to argue back “No, that’s a completely different systems, the one we want is …” we won’t get any further than that as we will be drowned out by “lah lah lah, we’re not listening, that’s all complicated mathematics, people of Britain, you don’t like mathematics do you? So vote against those pointy headed people who like that sort of stuff”. It will be like a vote on who’s the best teacher in school. The Maths teacher isn’t going to win it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Feb '10 - 12:35pm

    FPTP serves the two big political parties well, because the party labels act as a rallying point. The danger of “splitting the vote” means that voters have to think tactically and go for whoever they think their fellow voters will go for. In practice that means you can be pretty sure many of your fellow voters will go for the big-party label candidate, so that’s the safe option to avoid splitting the vote.

    So, if we are to campaign against it, we must base that campaign on opposition to the big political parties. We must in effect turn the question in the referendum to “Do you support the big political parties sharing power as they do?” – vote “Yes” if you don’t (this isn’t nice – the question needs to be one where it’s “vote yes if you do”, but I can’t quite think of the best way to express it that way right now).

    Remember, AV is being rejected because it’s seen as a referendum on Gordon Brown. So we don’t want a referendum on STV to be in effect a referendum on Nick Clegg, do we? So, actually, it shouldn’t be “How do WE sell STV?” because it shouldn’t be seen as us who’s selling it. Get it sold by people who aren’t obviously political.

    A front-man man or woman with a nice soft southern Irish accent would do wonders. Celtic accents are cool and class free, see how they liked C.Kennedy’s. Explaining that this is what they use in Ireland, and showing stereotypical Irish types carefully pondering the 1,2,3 choice between candidates different parties and independents would do wonders. Fill it with “top of the morning” and boiled-bacon-and-cabbage stuff. Sotto voce have the message “If the Irish – who are the butt of those jokes we aren’t allowed to say any more – can manage it, so can you”.

  • The point that needs to be addressed first is people’s experience of PR has been the Eurporean elections, this is not a good starting point (I know it works in council elections but due to the confusion people suffer about local politics they won’t remember that).

    Before trying to jump straight in to the refurendum (which the tories will kill either before or after an election) we should sort out the european elections. William Hague made speaches and asked questions at PMQ’s about how it should be an open not closed list system when he was the Tory leader. If we could use that to get the european elections system sorted and working, then we would be near to getting in the starting blocks for a PR refurendum for westminster.

    As it stands we are not even thinking about warming up, so how can we expect to win the race?

  • Stephen the answer to your qustion is in the bottom lines on here. BECAUSE 40% want PR, 20% want STV, and 29% want FPTP.
    The only way is to stick at having PR put into the referendum, and while you talk about STV it will not happen.

    On support for the referendum itself:
    20% support the referendum in its current form; 29% think there should be no referendum at all; 40% believe that the referendum should have a wider range of options.

    New PoliticsHome research suggests that the public are divided on whether introducing an alternative vote electoral system would be a good idea, with about a fifth of voters currently undecided on the issue.

    There is a slight tendency to oppose the system recently backed by Gordon Brown (by a margin of 53 per cent to 47 per cent, among those who said would vote and expressed a definite view) but the relatively large proportion of people (nineteen per cent) who are currently unsure means that this is stil very much a live issue with no consensus yet emerging.

    In other results from the poll:

    On the question of why Gordon Brown changed his mind on electoral reform:

    70% of people think that Brown changed his mind through political calculation; 8% believe he is genuinely convinced of the merits of electoral reform

    On the importance of electoral reform as a national issue:
    20% see electoral reform as one of the more important issues facing the country, 74% see electoral reform as one of the less important issues facing the country

    On support for the referendum itself:
    20% support the referendum in its current form; 29% think there should be no referendum at all; 40% believe that the referendum should have a wider range of options.

    Before answering the questions, respondents were given this explanation of the AV system:

  • Cllr Patrick Smith 11th Feb '10 - 4:34pm

    Brian Paddick told us on BBC R4 `Any Questions’ 5/2 `AV is not a proportionate form of voting and is a death bed conversion by Gordon Brown that nobody in the Country believes, as he was the one who blocked the Jenkins Commision recommended AV Plus in 1999. So why now,all of a sudden, 11 years later?

    I believe that there should a Refendum held by the next Parliament but that it should be on a choice of AV Plus (recommended by Jenkins 1999) or STV : that is the best form of PR we have available.It must be put to the Electorate as a possible electoral voting reform for campaign and consultation.

    But why does GB want a Referendum on AV but voted against a Referendum on the Lisbon Treaty?

    Sauce for the Goose,I think, that has started to crackle.

    STV is fairer for many reasons but chiefly,it gives a voice to minority groups in the community, both at national and local government levels of administration.

    The present Labour Government was voted in on 36.2 % in 2005 of the total votes cast and this is manifestly undemocratic under FPTP.

    Had STV been used in the UK General Election in 2005 the composition of this `Lame duck’ Parliament would have included proportionately all Minority Parties and a better representation of women and ethnic minorities.

    There is merit in placing a 5% bar to obstruct extreme parties such as the BNP.

    The 22% of L/D voters should have secured 100-130 Seats instead of 63, that represents much less proportionality in the important relationship with total votes cast and total Seats won in Parliament.

    J.S Mill supported STV as a friend of Thomas Hare accredited with inventing STV in mid 19thC who said,

    `STV make the exercise of suffrage a step in the elevating the individual charcater,whether to be found in the minority of the majority’.

    Hare was looking for a closer personal reward and more connected human link between voter and the candidate. This best occurs with STV and does n`t happen at all, under AV.

    Ireland has used STV since 1918 and Local Elections in Scotland use STV and the East European new EU Democracies use a form of PR as does the Upper House in India and the majority of EU Member States’ also have a good PR component.

    There is precious little democratic gain in opting for AV, as it is a busted flush.

    When compared to the aforementioned examples of P the UK compares less favourably as the the deputed `Mother of Parliamnets’ whose bi-cameral 2 House revising Parliamentary model of government ,replicated and adapted worldwide, since the time of Simon de Montfort, in the 15th C but has uniquely failed to provide its voters with the fairest PR form of casting votes : namely STV.

    I support a Referendum on 2 forms of Voiting reform, one of which must be STV for all Elections, in the UK.

    The more votes cast in 2010 for L/D Candidates the greater the chances of moving forward on a closer democratic choice on voting in future Elections.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 11th Feb '10 - 6:18pm

    Of course, the biggest hurdle will be to get either of the other parties to agree to a referendum on STV in the first place. Compared with that, persuading the public would be a cakewalk …

  • I think the main obstacle to selling STV is the fact that very few people know it even exists as an option. It is up to Lib Dem members to talk about it and explain its merits at every single opportunity in the hope that this situation can be changed. Most of the electorate probably think STV is something you pick up if you sleep around.

    By the way, whose idea was it to vote with Labour on AV? They should be taken outside for a good talking to. How stupid to muddy the water and make us look like their sidekicks.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th Feb '10 - 1:15pm

    By the way, whose idea was it to vote with Labour on AV? They should be taken outside for a good talking to. How stupid to muddy the water and make us look like their sidekicks.

    But this is the problem. AV isn’t being talked about in terms of its own merits, but only in terms of tactics. The argument against has been put more in terms of an argument against Gordon Brown than an argument on what AV actually means. AV isn’t PR, it’s only a minor modification on FPTP, but as such it solve one of the problems of FPTP, just not most of the others.

    So, to tackle the Tories on this, we should tell then to grow up and stop playing silly political games. “I oppose X because N supports it” is a silly political game. Sensible grown-up people would only take the line “I oppose X because …” and then give some arguments which are actually against X.

    So, if the Tories are sensible grown-up people and oppose AV for non-childish reasons, let them demonstrate that by giving us their non-childish arguments against.

    Right, so let’s put it simply. Tom and Dick are standing for election as MP for Blogtown. The electors prefer Tom. If the election were to take place, let us say Tom would win with 55% of the vote to 45% for Dick. Now, let us suppose just before nominations close, along comes Harry to stand as another candidate. When that happens, one in five of Tom’s supporter decide they prefer Harry. So the final vote is Dick 45%, Tom 44%, Harry 11%.

    What are the rational arguments for saying in that case Dick should be MP for Blogtown? Recall, nothing has changed with Tom, Tom is the same person he was when he would have become MP for Blogtown, neither has Tom done anything to stop his election. Tom’s not becoming MP is entirely down to someone else turning up. There is a very simple mechanism which discounts this effect which was nothing to do with Tom. Why should we not want to employ this mechanism?

    That is all. There is no need whatsoever in arguing about AV to talk about Mr Brown. Those who do so only expose themselves as people who can’t be trusted because they won’t vote for or against something purely on its merits.

  • A brief glance at Denis Mollison’s map makes me think three things (a) neat idea, (b) it looks like there’s a dearth of Scottish constituencies compared to high density English regions; I remind you that under the treaty of Union our right to inflated representation is protected: this isn’t a ‘fairness’ thing, it’s a guarantor of the right of Scots not to be completely politically overwhelmed by the numerically superior English and (c) Clackmannanshire is and always was a crazy name. Couldn’t we have Perthshire or something instead?

  • Andrew Suffield 13th Feb '10 - 12:53am

    I believe that there should a Refendum held by the next Parliament but that it should be on a choice of AV Plus (recommended by Jenkins 1999) or STV : that is the best form of PR we have available.

    A minor point: we do in fact have significantly better systems than STV (including several proportional-Condorcet systems), but they are normally discounted because “it’s too complex for the public to understand”. Notably, we have systems which are a lot more resistant to tactical voting and similar attempts to pervert the system.

    (It’s not possible to have a voting system that completely eliminates tactical voting, but we can make it prohibitively difficult)

    “AV”, is simply Preferential Voting (PV) – with-a Single Transferable Vote (STV) in existing Single member constituencies (STVS)

    You made those names up to confuse the issue. AV’s real name is Instant Runoff Voting (which everybody but the UK government uses). It is similar, but not identical, to a specific form of STV (which is itself a family of voting systems, not a specific one).

    It would:-
    – end safe seats
    – enable us to vote out rotten MPs
    – make every vote count
    -mean that every MP would need 50% of preference votes

    Where did you get this idea? IRV doesn’t do any of those things.

    No MP would want to abolish their constituencies in order to create multi-member constituencies.

    Except of course for all the ones who do. You know, the ones who just voted for it. Just because they didn’t win doesn’t make them magically stop existing.

    Going on pushing for that will just delay reform, as it has for years.

    That is precisely the reason why Liberals are unimpressed by IRV. Proportional representation is the important reform; IRV fixes almost none of the issues with FPTP, but would delay reform.

  • STV in existing single constituencies will be fairer than first past the post; and if that is all we can get for now, we should go for it.

    However, I do not see why we cannot have a hybrid system, where large conurbations have multimember constituencies and the more sparsely occupied areas have single member constituencies.

    We could also have a small top up list based on first preference votes cast for each party. ie. we work out how many seats each party should have, how many they actually got, and therefore how many top up seats they should get.

    The other thing, we need to consider is the botched reform of the Second Chamber, which still needs to be sorted out. Apart from the 90 odd hereditary peers, the remainder (excluding bishops and judges) are party hacks ie. appointed from central party lists. So selecting them by PR and giving them power to block legislation until the next general election would be an easy change to implement. I would suggest an 8 year term with elections not concurrent with 4 year fixed term Commons elections.

    PS. Politicians like to think we vote FOR them. Actually we want to vote AGAINST the ones we really dislike, so we get ones that are just about acceptable – preference voting enables us to do that.

  • Cllr Patrick Smith 13th Feb '10 - 8:28pm

    Roy Jenkins said on June 9th 1980,

    `The politics of the left and centre of this Country are frozen in an out of date mould which is bad for the political and economic health of Britain and increasingly inhibiting for those who live within the mould.Can it be broken?’

    Lord Jenkins was not only referring to the FPTP outmoded and arcane method of electing the greater number of out political representatives in the UK.

    My own vote is for STV multi.member Constituencies with 2-5 parliamentary candidates, as the fairest on offer and Ireland and Scotland are ahead of England and Wales in its adoption.

  • Lucien Saumur 14th Feb '10 - 6:14pm

    STV is not a system of proportional representation. It is a system of “equal representation.” PR means that every elected individual represent all those who have voted for him or her. In other words, that he or she has a weighted vote in parliament proportional to the support obtained at election-time. True PR could elect a dictator (if every voter give his or her support to the same candidate).

  • Lucien Saumur 14th Feb '10 - 11:22pm

    STV is an attempt to achieve proportionality while retaining some semblance of local representation. It is a failure at both tasks. With the STV system, every elected candidate in a riding represent an equal number of voters. Candidates who receive more than the allocated quota must surrender some of their votes to other candidates. True proportionality would require that the whole country be one constituency where the voters indicate their first preference only, as they do with FPTP. Elected candidates should receive a weighted voice in parliament. The voice should be proportional to their popular support at election-time. I do not favour proportionality. Rather, I advocate that the preferential ballot be used to identify the preferred candidate in every constituency. The AV system misuse the preferential ballot in its tallying phase. It should not proceed by eliminating the candidates who have obtained the least first preference since such candidates may be the preferred candidates.

  • Lucien Saumur 15th Feb '10 - 3:46pm

    I am assuming that the purpose of an electoral system is to identify the candidates who are preferred to all others by the majority of the voters. These candidates are logically the first preferences of the majority of the voters when there are only two candidates in the running. However, they are not necessarily the first preferences of the majority of the voters when there are more than two candidates in the running. It is easy to understand that they may be the seceond preferences of the majority. Hence, the need for the preferential ballot. In order to identify these preferred candidates at the tallying stage, it is necessary to view the election as a set of two-candidate sub-elections where the candidates who are preferred to all others in every sub-election in which they are a parties are seen as the preferred candidates.

  • Lucien Saumur 17th Feb '10 - 4:39pm

    The technology is available that could produce the preferential ballot with bar code and that could tally it easily.

  • Lucien Saumur 17th Feb '10 - 8:42pm

    I have developed a rudimentary demonstration for the preferential ballot voting system (as well as a tally system) that uses ordinary PCs. The preferential ballot, which I consider the basis for the only truly democratic electoral system, is correctly used nowhere in the world presently.

  • An interesting Blog. I am not entirely convinced that ‘safe’ seats would be completely destroyed but STV would go about as far as it is possible to managing that.

    What strikes me is that there is a real lack of understanding regarding not only PR, STV, and AV, but also the Lib Dem’s policy regarding electoral reform. It is actually quite hard to find on their website that they do envisage multi-seat constituencies and many still assume that the form STV would take would in essence be AV (which if there was only one person per constituency elected it would). See for a decent example of how many people are confused by the Lib Dem stance. They shouldn’t be, but they are.

    In my opinion, this Blog/article is perhaps one of the clearest articulations of what the Lib Dems believe regarding electoral reform and why they are right

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