Opinion: Go for STV!

I liked it when a woman asked Gordon Brown in a radio phone-in whether he would support the Tories or Lib Dems if no party had an overall majority and Labour came third. However, to be realistic, the chances are with our ridiculous voting system that Labour will come at least second in seats even if it is third in votes. So, if no party has an overall majority, the Lib Dems are more likely than any other to hold the balance. How would they use it? Could they achieve PR by STV with it? Should they?

If one party is only a handful of seats short of an overall majority, it will probably form a minority government, make a few concessions here and there to the smaller parties (perhaps including a nod to electoral reform) and limp along for a few months until either it is defeated or opinion polls indicate it might win an overall majority in another election. That’s what Labour and Conservative politicians like to call a “hung parliament” and, although electoral reform would certainly be discussed in those circumstances, our chances of achieving it would not be high.

Suppose, however, that one or both of the largest two parties are about 50 seats short of an overall majority and the Lib Dems have about 100 seats. In that case, it would be unrealistic for any party to form a minority administration. Any two of the largest three parties should be able to form quite a stable coalition. We would then have, for the first time since 1945, a government elected by a majority of voters. I would call that a “balanced” – not “hung” parliament. In that situation, there should be good opportunities to advance the cause not only of electoral reform but also STV in particular if Lib Dems refuse to be embarrassed and hold their nerve.

Some Lib Dems seem too embarrassed to support electoral reform in public, perhaps because Labour and Tory politicians accuse them of supporting reform only to improve Lib Dem representation, so let’s kill that myth:
If Lib Dems wanted reform only for partisan reasons, they would settle easily for any old PR system, but they campaign for STV, which would be best for voters and not necessarily best in gaining seats for the Lib Dem Party.

STV is best for voters for many reasons, including:

  • Only STV can make MPs really and directly accountable to voters on their expenses claims and local issues, major decisions on war and peace, the environment and the economy – indeed all issues.
  • It allows them to choose the particular candidates they believe best represent their individual views (not just on party support but also on policy matters, topical issues and preferences on moral and gender grounds) which other types of PR and First Past the Post do not;
  • It provides People – rather than Party – Representation, unlike all other PR systems, which give Parties more influence on who is elected through list systems.
  • Most voters will have an MP they have helped to elect and with whom they can identify, unlike Labour voters in safe Tory constituencies and Tories in safe Labour ones with First Past The Post.

With a few honourable exceptions, Tory and Labour politicians support First Past The Post because it has given them more than their fair share of seats, especially if they are “safe”, and they hope it will continue to do so. Accordingly, they are hardly in a position to accuse Lib Dems of supporting reform for party reasons.
Compromising by accepting a voting system inferior to STV would destroy Lib Dems’ moral authority of campaigning not to benefit their party but to benefit voters.

Lib Dems should not be at all embarrassed to campaign for such an excellent voting system as STV to benefit voters and the nation.

If a minority Labour party wants Lib Dem support to form a government, it will probably say it has already promised a referendum on AV+ and offer concessions towards other Lib Dem policies, but refuse at first to offer more on electoral reform. Some leading Labour MPs have shown clearly they want to give parties more power by espousing a PR system using party lists.

On the other hand, the Conservatives are said to favour STV if PR is to be adopted as it meets two of David Cameron’s espoused principles – more power to the voters and less influence for Parties through party lists. Moreover, the freedom to choose MPs by STV fits well with Conservative rhetoric about freedom of choice. A minority Conservative party’s starting point may be no electoral reform at all but bigger concessions towards other Lib Dem policies. Some of these other concessions may be very tempting to Lib Dems after so long in opposition.

However, this is the best opportunity in my lifetime to make Britain a real democracy and it may be the only opportunity for the rest of this century, so I urge the party leadership to make STV – or a referendum on it – non-negotiable. It would be worth putting up with some second-rate Labour or Tory policies for four or five years to gain a permanent improvement in democracy. At least the policies of subsequent governments should represent the wishes of the majority of voters

We should also consider the longer term effects of entering into a coalition with (a) First Past The Post or AV or (b) STV for the subsequent election. If the Government becomes unpopular as is very likely in view of the hard economic decisions it will have to make, it will probably lose votes in the subsequent election. The distortion effect of First Past The Post means that the Government parties will probably lose a larger share of seats than of votes. Moreover, the junior Coalition party will probably lose an even greater share of seats. In contrast, if the subsequent election uses PR by STV, Lib Dems could still lose votes but, because they would get their fair share of seats for the first time, they could gain seats.

But would it be feasible for Lib Dems holding the balance of power to hold out for PR by STV? It depends on the exact arithmetic of the election, how hungry the Labour and Tory leaderships are for power and how determined Lib Dems are to achieve PR by STV.

If both other parties want power enough, they may start bidding for Lib Dem support first by making more concessions other than electoral reform and then including electoral reform if the Lib Dems are firm enough. If each of the other major parties is too small in the Commons to form even a minority government and the smaller parties do not hold enough seats to make up the difference, the only alternative to an alliance of some sort between either one of the largest two parties and the Lib Dems would be an alliance between both of them – a so-called “Grand Coalition” – to keep Lib Dems out of power.

Lib Dems need not fear that. First, the other two parties are unlikely to come to an arrangement with each other. Secondly, if they did, voters would become even more cynical towards them after all they have said about each other in the election. Thirdly, Nick Clegg, as Leader of the Opposition, would probably be in a much stronger position to become Prime Minister after the subsequent election, even under First Past The Post, than he would as a Minister in a government led by Brown or Cameron.

So Lib Dem negotiators should hold out for PR by STV.

* A former Liberal activist, Anthony Tuffin has been independent of party politics since 1988 to devote his political energy to electoral reform. He is now: Hon. Treasurer of the Electoral Reform Society, Editor of STV Action, Chairman of Make Votes Count In West Sussex, Publisher of “STV News” – but he has written this article in a personal capacity.

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  • Firstly, for some bizarre reason the Lib Dems have a policy not of introducing STV, but of having a referendum on STV. I not sure why a fair voting system can be referendumed away, but there you go. So any referendum could be lost, I’m sure the pro- budget £50, will easily be outspent by the
    Conservative No campaign.

    Secondly, if Cameron forms a minority Government, it is unlikely Labour will be in a hurry to vote it down and force another election. Bankrupt and leaderless it will want some time to recover. Meanwhile Cameron will be forcing through a smaller parliament and a boundary review, where yet again for some bizarre reason the Lib Dems want to have even fewer MPs and will look a bit silly if they oppose it. All those new MPs having to fight new seats – not a very clever course of action !

    Thirdly, Labour do not yet support STV, but as I have argued for many years, a change to AV would introduce preferential voting. It may be possible for a bill in favour of AV to get past a minority Conservative Government.

    Imagine if this or indeed the next election was fought on AV. Suddenly we are in a whole new ball game re possible Lib Dem wins. Suddenly, knocking the Lib Dems won’t look so smart when you want their second preference. Suddenly, Tactical voting will be out the window. In Labour/Con marginals around 12% of people will vote for a party that doesn’t most represent their views.

    Imagine the horror on the face of Lord Ashcroft, as the number of marginal seats goes from 100 to 500.

    Imagine the trouble Cameron would have being the “odd man out” as most other parties agree to AV for the next election.

    Only once a biger bloc of Lib Dems is established under AV, is STV likely to be achievable.

    Lastly, I agree, with the unspoken assumption that AV+ would be awful. It’s not a good system, it
    was the product of particular circumstances, it has no logic, it is fall of flaws and contradictions.
    For example, you have the problem of all these dual MP systems of a party gaining a constituency seat
    only to lose a top-up or list seat

  • Bill Miller 4th May '10 - 12:44pm

    STV would provide a system that is both fairer than FPTP and yet retains local accountability to the electorate.

    Now is not the moment when the country would look favourably on any system involving party lists, which give more power to political elites and not to the voting public. And yet this is also a moment when the unfairness of FPTP is becoming more and more obvious to the electorate.

    Let us not miss our moment to press for STV.

  • Paul McKeown 4th May '10 - 1:12pm

    Multi-member constituencies would certainly be my ideal choice, too. If you don’t like one of your MP’s, you can always go to another one, for instance. It also keeps a check on really freakish or unpleasant minorities, which you otherwise would have to correct with a threshold percentage in fully proportional systems. Pure proportional systems have their problems, including an enormous strengthening of the party whips and the loss of independent minded MP’s. But AV+ is what the Liberal Democrats propose, it is currently the best compromise between fairness and the constituency link. Best not to confuse the message…

  • Andrew Suffield 4th May '10 - 2:15pm

    AV+ is what the Liberal Democrats propose

    No it isn’t.

    Only STV can …

    A minor point – STV is not the only good voting system around, there’s also some variations on the theme that satisfy forms of the Condorcet criterion. But STV is the oldest, simplest, and most widely understood one, and in large population elections is strong enough to get the job done (it breaks down when used with numbers around 10 voters or less).

  • Paul McKeown 4th May '10 - 2:28pm

    >>>AV+ is what the Liberal Democrats propose
    >>>No it isn’t.

    Sorry, you are right, the manifesto proposes STV. I suppose AV+ has been mentioned as a compromise between Labour’s preferred AV and a proportional system. Apologies. Is the proposal STV in single member constituencies, as used, for instance in various elections in Northern Ireland?

  • George Kendall 4th May '10 - 2:58pm

    I prefer STV, but some Labour politicians think STV gives an advantage to the Tories

    In large urban areas, which traditionally vote Labour, it would be easy to create five member constituencies. In these, the Tories, with only say 16% of the vote, would have a reasonable chance of an MP.

    In rural, traditional Tory, areas, a five member constituency would have to be vast, covering hundreds of miles. Some Labour politicians claim that, where STV is used in other countries, in order to prevent such large constituencies, the rural/Tory seats tend to have fewer MPs, maybe three. If this happens, if the Labour vote is only 16%, all the MPs for such a seat would be Tory or LibDem. As a result, Labour would be proportionately under-represented.

    While this may be true, I think it would be balanced by another factor which helps Labour: That turn-out is lower in Labour areas, and so it takes fewer actual votes (as opposed to constituents) to elect a Labour MP. But, fair or not, this factor is why Labour will oppose STV, and prefer an additional member system, such as AV+.

    I think we have to be willing to compromise with whoever is willing to make an agreement to implement some form of PR.

    That one PR system favours Labour, and the other the Tories, may be helpful in a balanced parliament, because it gives the Tories a reason to engage with the issue. They’ll know that if STV is introduced, it’ll probably be the system with have for the forseeable future.

    I prefer STV, but achieving any form of PR will be fiendishly difficult to achieve. If the result of the following election gives us a chance to replace our present election system with a better one, even if it isn’t STV, we should seize it.

  • Paul McKeown 4th May '10 - 3:53pm

    For me, one disadvantage with STV applied to single member constituencies is its tendency to favour the “least objectionable” candidate as much, if not more, than the “most favoured candidate”. Perhaps good for the Lib Dems, but is it fair to the Conservatives or Labour, never mind fourth parties, such as the Greens, UKIP, etc? I could also see it disadvantaging the SNP when, perhaps a majority in Scotland might have a distaste for their non-unionist stance. Hence another reason to prefer multi-member constituencies.

    Example: 33% in a single member constituency rank Labour as their preferred choice, 30% Conservatives, 27% the Lib Dems, 10% others. The others drop out giving the Lib Dems the bulk of the second preference votes, as the least objectionable alternative. The Conservatives drop out, giving the Lib Dems the bulk of their preference votes. The Lib Dems win, despite being 3rd after 1st preference votes were counted. Perhaps an unrealistic example, and I’m sure that the Lib Dem’s proposed system is much more subtle than I’ve just portrayed, but, I’m sure you can follow what I mean.

    Any thoughts?

  • George Kendall 4th May '10 - 4:33pm

    Paul, you’re describing AV, not STV.
    Have a look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voting_system
    But your criticism of AV is shared by a fair few. It’s the main reason why the Jenkins Commission went for AV+, rather than AV.

  • Paul McKeown 4th May '10 - 4:45pm

    okay, thanks for the education, I’ll go look and learn.

    perhaps I just find it easier to understand multi-member constituencies (elect 2 of 1, 1 each of the other 2, and perhaps a fourth party if they do well – even the uneducated like myself can work that out without a D. Phil. in electoral systems!)

  • Paul McKeown 4th May '10 - 4:52pm

    Look is there a paper that I can read which specifies exactly what it is that the LD’s are proposing, rather than some fake academic wikipedia article? Preferably with examples. Reading the STV article on wp indicates that it is applied to multi-member constituencies, but reading the thread above, I don’t get that feeling.

    Whatever is put to the electorate at a referendum has to be instantly comprehensible, otherwise it will be rejected, no matter how many boffins come forward explaining that the square root of epsilon – 1 + i times beta equals everyone’s happy.

  • Andrew Suffield 4th May '10 - 5:38pm

    Look is there a paper that I can read which specifies exactly what it is that the LD’s are proposing, rather than some fake academic wikipedia article?

    STV is from the 19th century, so you’re not likely to find the original papers now. There’s plenty of modern research about it, but it all assumes you are familiar with the current state of voting systems research, so it’s not a “pick up and read” thing. I haven’t yet seen a decent introductory text on the subject, probably because it’s not usually taught to undergrads.

    STV only delivers proportional representation when used with reasonably large numbers of seats being elected to each constituency – and it delivers more accurate representation the more seats you have. So, the more MPs you have per constituency, the closer Parliament’s composition will be to the popular vote. For the current arrangement of UK politics, you need around 5-6 MPs per constituency to get all the notable parties into Parliament in proportions which match their current support. This “how many MPs per constituency?” question is one which all constituency-based proportional representation systems share, and STV makes do with about as few as any system can. The other option is a party-list-based system where the popular vote is used to pick some “top up” MPs who have no geographical association. Nobody really likes that idea.

    In the degenerate form where you have only one seat to be filled, and picking one particular counting method, you get “Instant Runoff Voting”, or IRV. For no particularly good reason, the UK government likes to call this AV instead; you’ll find it as IRV in all the research papers. IRV does not deliver any kind of proportional representation. It’s a pretty awful way to elect a parliament, although it is a good way to elect a leader or chairman (who is indeed supposed to be a “least objectionable” candidate who can command popular support, and not a fair representation of the population).

  • Andrew Suffield 4th May '10 - 5:46pm

    Whatever is put to the electorate at a referendum has to be instantly comprehensible

    This one’s bogus. You almost certainly don’t understand your car, microwave, television, computer, mortgage, credit cards, or economy. You probably don’t even understand how FPTP works – you know how it’s counted, but not how that translates into 40% popular support for the Tories, or 32% popular support for Labour, being the requirement for forming a government – let alone why these numbers are different.

    Why would you reject a voting system that you don’t understand, when you understand so little of the other things in your life?

    What will eventually happen is we’ll get a referendum, and the Tories will go around telling everybody that they’re stupid and can’t understand, while the Liberals go around telling everybody that it will make things better. We’ll see how that works out.

  • Paul McKeown 4th May '10 - 9:14pm


    I hope so.

  • George Kendall 4th May '10 - 11:14pm

    Paul said: “is there a paper that I can read which specifies exactly what it is that the LD’s are proposing, rather than some fake academic wikipedia article? Preferably with examples”

    Paul, how about the following?


    By the way, the preferred system of the electoral reform society is STV (single transferable vote).

    Paul said: “Reading the STV article on wp (wikipedia) indicates that it is applied to multi-member constituencies, but reading the thread above, I don’t get that feeling”

    If that’s your impression, you’re being given the wrong impression. STV always has multi-member constituencies. STV in a single member constituency is not STV, its AV (alternative vote), in that case it would simply be AV.

    If you’re confused by the names of the systems, that’s understandable, they are confusing. But we’re stuck with them.

    Paul said: “Whatever is put to the electorate at a referendum has to be instantly comprehensible”

    You’re right. The complexity of STV may be a problem in a referendum. Might be a good argument for only giving the electorate a choice between only two systems, in which case it’ll be a choice between the existing system and proportional representation.

  • Paul, further to previous comments, in Northern Ireland we have multi-member constituencies for our STV elections because (as some have already pointed out) if we didn’t they would be AV elections.

    More generally, I believe that STV ticks all (or nearly all) the boxes so far as a voting system is concerned. Voting using STV is very easy, it is proportional, it gives the ultimate say to the people and not the parties, and it means that no seat is ever really safe.

    Of course, if people are happy to be told to vote for candidates in a specific order (as they are in Northern Ireland) seats become safer, but that is a feature unique to NI. Anywhere else a party telling you to vote 1Smith 2Bloggs 3Other would be considered very presumptuous and arrogant.

    If we can’t have STV, and I still believe it to be the best electoral system that I have come across, I would settle for AV+ as a compromise. Holding out for STV if we are offered AV+ and completely missing the chance for reform would be a mistake which we can not risk making.

  • Andrew Suffield 5th May '10 - 7:38pm

    Of course, if people are happy to be told to vote for candidates in a specific order (as they are in Northern Ireland) seats become safer, but that is a feature unique to NI.

    This is mostly a myth. While it is true that voting manipulation strategies like these exist for STV, computing the correct instructions to give people is extremely difficult, and in general, incorrect dishonest instructions will tend to backfire if the party does not command a majority of the population (dishonest instructions are those where people are told to vote in an order that is not the desired outcome, such as ranking a popular candidate lower; honest instructions are obviously not a problem, and a party with majority support for electoral abuse can simply vote themselves dictator for life so you can’t win in that case). For those with a computer science background: the problem is NP-hard for elections with 4 or more candidates. As far as I know, the Irish elections have never been successfully manipulated, they just deliver the same results as if nothing had happened. (If anybody knows of a case where they were, I’d love to see it)

    If you want a really robust system, Schulze STV is significantly more complex but resists most attempts at vote management directly, rather than just making them computationally difficult to execute.

  • Sorry Andrew, I meant safer relative to an STV election where people aren’t told to do this. Reading it now it does come across as if I meant safer than FPTP and I really didn’t mean that.

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