Opinion: Forget open primaries, and go for STV instead

During the debate on MPs’ expenses at the Lib Dem conference recently, one of the speakers, Michael Meadowcroft, suggested that instead of having open primaries as a way of restoring trust in the political process, why not use the Single Transferable Vote (STV) instead?

STV has been the preferred voting system of the Liberal party and Liberal Democrats for many decades, and was championed by the greatest liberal of all, John Stuart Mill, in the nineteenth century. This week Gordon Brown announced that Labour, if re-elected, would propose a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system, in which instead of marking your ballot paper with an X, you write down your preferences by rank, 1, 2, 3, etc …

The problem with AV is that you are still only electing one person per constituency. Without going into the maths, this means that the results can be even more disproportionate than our current system. STV gets round this because the constituencies are larger and are ‘multi-member’. This greatly improves the proportionality of the electoral system, but there is another, more important, reason to support it.

Take Salford. Salford is a safe Labour seat and has been for a very long time. Put a red rosette on a back end of a donkey and it will get elected. Only on this occasion the Labour candidate is Hazel Blears.

And Hazel Blears of course is now widely loathed after the expenses farce.

Under STV, the people of Salford can happily vote for a back end of a donkey with a red rosette knowing that they are voting for Labour without having to vote for Hazel Blears. The point, of course, is that they can choose, not only between parties, but who is good at representing them at the same time.

The choice of candidate is what the system of primaries addresses in the US. However there is no way that the Lib Dems can afford to have a primary similar to the one the Tories had in Totness, which is estimated to have cost around £40,000. So maybe instead we should seize the moment and argue for STV instead?

* Geoff Payne is an activist from Hackney.

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  • In the wake of Totnes a number of people on LibDem Voice’s discussion about the principal of open primaries seemed to think that they were a good idea, so it is worth re-stating the argument against: all they do is give people who may or may not support a party a say in the selection of a candidate who they may or may not vote for at a general election and who may or may not become their MP. STV gives the vast majority of electors a direct stake in selecting an MP. One is lipstick on the pig; the other is democracy.

  • David Heigham 4th Oct '09 - 11:48am

    Open Primaries appeal to the Tory leadership because they are afraid of the cndidates their membership would select. The Labour leadership might like them on the same grounds, but plotting to get a Union (or Party) official to whom you owe a favour, e friend or a relative into a Labour safe seat is a deeply ingrained Labour Party custom. We don’t need them because we trust our local parties. However, if ever a local LibDem party were to have a windfall of money and reckon that an open primary could give them the boost they need to win; they should commission one.

    But STV does what British politics need. Open primaries for all would be an expensive, messed up half measure.

  • If you look at the effect Open Primaries has had on the American political system, it has largely been to make party membership meaningless, encourage more big money politics and reinforce the two party system. The way i see it, the Tories want us to become more like America in a number of respects, one of which is the American style of politics. Those on the left or centre-left should be pulling more in the European direction – proper parliamentary government with a multi-party system.

    There’s a lot of research that demonstrates the latter kind of government is not only not weaker (in the way many Tories claim ours would be if we had PR and coalitions), but is actually better at tackling inflation, industrial disputes and a variety of social ills. If anyone finds the idea that the form of government we take actually impacts hugely on where the centre ground is situated incredible, i suggest they read a book called “Patterns of Democracy: Government Performance in 36 countries” by a renowned political scientist called Arend Lijphart – he proves it conclusively, to me.

  • So under STV, which of my five MPs for Manchester do I write to when I have a problem? Which of them represents me, and how much?

    And how big will the ballot forms be for an STV election? Will Salford Labour be obliged to let people stand as candidates if they don’t like Hazel, or will they just say “Hazel’s the candidate and that’s it”?

    Given the fuss over the size of the Euro ballot, and the general lack of political understanding among people who vote about how their vote matters, I feel that AV, which obviates tactical voting and maintains the constituency link, is a far better idea than leaping headlong into a massively complicated system which has some vague theoretical advantages.

    I think we as Lib Dems get too caught up in the technical process of democracy without looking at the wider picture – STV will not increase public political engagement because it’s monstrously complicated. AV will fix the need for tactical voting, which is the biggest cause of disengagement.

  • Dave – STV is as easy as 1-2-3!

  • Paul Griffiths 4th Oct '09 - 3:31pm

    AV does not obviate tactical voting. It institutionalises tactical voting.

  • “So under STV, which of my five MPs for Manchester do I write to when I have a problem? Which of them represents me, and how much?”

    Maybe the same way you decide which of your three councillors or which of your 10 MEPs you contact or how people decided which MP to contact in multi member seats up to 1950.

  • Edinburgh Voter 5th Oct '09 - 12:48am
  • How is STV a more complicated voting system than AV? There would just be more candidates to vote for and more MPs elected per constituency that is all.

    As for which MP you would write to well, i’d say which ever one from your constituency you liked. I for example would probably wirte to a Lib Dem MP.

  • Edinburgh Voter 5th Oct '09 - 11:24am

    Ewan Hoyle:
    The chances of any party nominating more than one candidate for a single-seat constituency under AV are NIL.

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Oct '09 - 12:03pm

    Anyone who thinks the current First Past the Post system is simple should be set the task of explaining to people how it is that a party which has a majority of seats in Parliament may not have (none has in recent years) a majority of votes in the election, may not even have had the most votes in the election. The mechanics may be simple, how it works to deliver the overall result is not.

    The primary system is essentially a way of making politics even more about wealth and celebrity and making it even harder for ordinary people to get a look in. It appears to be impossible to get this point of view across in the national media, it’s like directly elected mayors, a gee-whizz it must be good because the Americans have it idea that sloppy and lazy commentators will always bring up if they need to fill in some column inches when they have a deadline to meet.

    The AV+ system is interesting. It was sold by our Dear Leader as a way to change politics because we could use it to throw out disreputable MPs. This is how it would work, I guess. As there’s only one constituency vote, it can’t actually be used to vote for someone else of the same party. So, let’s say there’s a dodgy Tory MP, you won’t get another Tory to vote for instead, but maybe some rich celebrity will come along and stand as an Independent and you can vote for that person safely knowing AV means the vote won’t be split. If you’re still really a Tory, you’ll vote for the Tory list – still no choice because it’s in fixed order. If the celebrity wins the AV vote, that’s one less Tory overall, so one more Tory top-up MP to make up the full number required by the list vote proportion. So that’s one less top-up seat for someone else, probably a small party like the Greens which can just about scrape together enough votes to get one top-up seat in good circumstances. And the dodgy Tory MP still get back, because he was on the top-up list as well.

    It does not seem possible to get elementary reasoning of this sort to show why AV+ is a rotten and stupid system published anywhere, perhaps because it requires a little bit of mathematical reasoning, and how many of our commentators have any maths/science background where they might be capable of doing that?

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