Opinion: STV for elections in England and Wales

In the words of the Electoral Reform Society’s current petition:
“It’s time to change the voting system for local elections in England and Wales. In 21st century democracies, election results should be determined by how people vote. Instead, Labour won 100% of seats in Manchester on 58% of the vote. The Conservatives won 62% of seats in Kingston on 35% of the vote. And the Liberal Democrats won 83% of seats in Sutton on 38% of the vote.”

Northern Ireland has used the Single Transferable Vote for local elections since 1973, Scotland since 2007. These reforms were implemented by respectively a Conservative government at Westminster and a Labour/LibDem coalition at Holyrood. Indeed, as the ERS have spelt out in some detail, proportional representation for local government has significant advantages to offer both Conservatives and Labour. Both parties would gain representation in what are now their no-go areas, which currentloy includes much of northern England for the Conservatives and of the countryside for Labour. While all the main parties would lose out in some areas they have long dominated, this loss of `one-party states’ would be a breath of fresh air for democracy.

In Scotland, the reform was introduced as a direct part of the 2003 coalition agreement with Labour, following the Lib Dem Manifesto commitment to “renew local democracy by … introducing for the next local government elections the proportional Single Transferable Vote system of election. The multi-member wards would have either 3 or 4 members, depending on local circumstances”. The ERS’s Report
“Working with STV” describes how well the reform has worked. Voters are represented more fairly by the more proportional results (previously Labour had had a majority on Edinburgh Council on a vote share of 27% while the SNP with 16% had no seats at all), and pretty much every possible pairing of parties has had to learn to work together.

Similar reforms in England and Wales would in one respect be considerably easier, because multi-member wards are already common: for their lowest level of council, 60-70 % of voters are already in 3-member wards, with the majority of the remainder in 2-member wards. So voters are already familiar with having more than one councillor – but would now be much more likely to have one they had voted for themselves. Most 3-member wards could retain the same boundaries, with 1 and 2-member wards being appropriately amalgamated into 3s and 4s.

While utilising existing boundaries as far as possible would be the easiest way to implement the change, in the long run advantage should be taken of the flexibility of allowing 3, 4 or 5-member wards (or possibly 2-member wards in sparsely-populated areas) to fit wards to natural communities.
It needs to be recognised that trying to make constituencies exactly equal in number of voters is incompatible with their having a sensible relation to natural communities – and that voters, once they understand the choice, prefer the latter. The fitting of multi-member constituencies to natural communities was the basis of the STV for Westminster proposal put forward in Parliament by the Lib Dems in February 2010.

If you are going to be in Liverpool, do come to the Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform / ERS “Rally for Reform: securing democratic changes in the next Parliament” on Saturday at 6.15 p.m. (ACC, Room 3 A) – or visit the LDER on stand 35 to discuss how STV might change your local council.

* Denis Mollison is Chair of Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform. More information can be found at lder.org.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Eddie Sammon 13th Mar '15 - 12:20pm

    All the problems with FPTP can be solved by creating a national constituency and electing the president through it.

    I don’t want to give party HQs more power, which is what would happen if people had to get on the party list before they had any chance of getting elected. My comment under the previous article goes into more detail.

  • Robin Bennett 13th Mar '15 - 12:59pm

    The result of STV in Scotland has been that there have been only six councils in which one party has had an overall majority. With the loss of so many Lib Dem councillors who were once inclined to join any of the other parties in a coalition, impossible pairings: Labour and the Conservatives together in five councils while Dumfries has an SNP/Tory coalition. Any hope The Scottish National Party and Labour have been sharing control of three councils, but all this co-operation hs not made any of the parties love each other .

  • Excellent article by Denis Mollison.

  • Robin Bennett 13th Mar '15 - 1:14pm

    Sorry, the above entry should have read:
    The result of STV in Scotland has been that there have been only six councils in which one party has had an overall majority. With the loss of so many Lib Dem councillors who were naturally inclined to join any of the other parties in a coalition, previously impossible pairings have arisen: Labour and the Conservatives together in five councils while Dumfries has an SNP/Tory coalition. This does not mean that there is sweetness and light between these parties. The SNP and Labour, who share power in three councils, have until now been sworn enemies at Holyrood and, as we can all now see, in the current Westminster election campaign.

  • David Faggiani 13th Mar '15 - 1:40pm

    Yep, fully agree with this. Really hope the policy gets a look in in the May 8th scramble.

    I grew up in Manchester, and a significant part of why I started identifying as a Lib Dem was the stifling Labour hegemony there.

    I am also slowly coming round to forms of PR/STV for Westminster Elections, after being a ‘conservative’ on that issue all my life. The likely outcome of this election in terms of seat/vote discrepancy is just going to be ludicrous.

  • Denis Mollison 13th Mar '15 - 5:53pm

    Eddie – STV does NOT have party lists!

  • Eddie Sammon 13th Mar '15 - 5:57pm

    Alright Denis, but it still requires bigger constituencies or more political funding. 🙂

  • PR-STV in multi member constituencies is the way to go: it keeps the connection between MPs and an area; constituency parties choose candidates and the two major changes are intra party competition and a chance that you will have voted for an MP of your own choosing. It is the way to go.

  • Denis Mollison 14th Mar '15 - 9:15am

    Con – agreed!
    Have you seen the scheme based on natural communities, i.e. local government areas, that Lib Dems proposed in February 2010 as an amendment to Gordon Brown’s grandiosely titled Constituional Reform bill – voted down by Con/Lab of course.

  • Eddie Sammon 13th Mar ’15 – 5:57pm
    “……more political funding. ”

    Really, Eddie? What evidence have you to suggest that STV elections require “more political funding”?

    Do political parties in Scotalnd have “more political funding” since STV was introduced at local level?

    Are STV General Elections in The Republic of Ireland requiring “more political funding” than FPTP General Elections in the UK ?

    My guess is that you might be wrong.

  • Eddie Sammon 14th Mar '15 - 11:27am

    John Tilley, rather than nit-pick can you tell me how we can elect people based on a “quota” of votes without more funding if we don’t have bigger constituencies? You would need more politicians. The only way this would be possible would be if we slashed salaries for politicians, or something.

    All the arguments against FPTP come down to “it doesn’t represent national vote share”, but it represents local vote share and that is why I fail to see the importance in changing it. I think there are more important democratic reforms to be done.


  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 14th Mar '15 - 3:16pm

    As a believer in democracy I cannot understand why a majority of voters wouldn’t want to place their votes in numerical order. We have had education for long enough to do that, haven’t we? Barring us from having an orderly electoral system down-plays the abilities of the English and Welsh voters – as the Scots and N. Irish have managed to vote this way for years.

    Despite trying to out-guess other people in England and Wales and cast a vote tactically to rid us all of the perceived worst tribal party, the FPTP strategy has not worked for decades and the two large parties battle on to keep the archaic FPTP of land-owners versus workers. Why? English and Welsh voters don’t exist for land-owners nor unions. Maintaining that sort of historical arrangement doesn’t focus on modern life and democracy suffers immensely. The old parties should be dumped into history right now but they have found ways of maintaining their dinosaurian nature via unwritten agreements between the two and telling us we wouldn’t like real democracy. Give the English and Welsh voters the same respect that you gave to other countries in the Union. Just try us, and you might even like the result..

  • Denis Mollison 14th Mar '15 - 4:02pm

    Eddie – FPTP doesn’t represent local vote share! It allows parties to win almost all the seats on a Council on less than 50% of the vote. Introducing STV in 2007 changed my local town from 6 Labour councillors to 2, with 2 SNP, 1 Lib Dem and 1 Independent; and all that without a major change in vote shares.

    As to costs, I take it as a given that the number of councillors would be kept much the same.
    Where, as in Scotland, we previously had single-member wards, yes they do have to be 3 or 4 times as large for STV, but there are several compensations in addition to the much greater fairness: wards can be fitted better to natural communities (this would be even easier if allowed the flexibility of 5 or occasionally 2 member wards), the great majority of voters have a councillor of their party of first preference, and constituents have a choice of councillor to go to over any issue – this is particularly useful for issues where it makes sense to go specifically to a councillor in government or one in opposition.

    In England and Wales it would be less of a change as 60-70% of voters are already in a 3-member ward, and many pf the remainder in 2-member wards.

  • Peter Galton 14th Mar '15 - 7:38pm

    Under STV, at least I would have some say who my MP or Councillors would be. At the coming elections we will see some MP’s elected with winning percentage of the vote in the 20’s, 30’s.

  • Leekliberal 15th Mar '15 - 1:16pm

    As a pensioner I have never voted for the winning candidate at a local or general election under FPTP. Another coalition with either of the ugly sisters will be a further kicking for us. So I say that PR, preferably by STV and implemented without a referendum, MUST be a red line issue for us.

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