Opinion: Never Mention “STV” Again

The Liberal Democrat Conference opens today in Birmingham with perhaps the most depressing talking shop ever put on a Lib Dem Agenda. It’s the consultative session for the “May 2011 Election Review”: a big drop in the popular vote; a major setback on local councils; a disaster in Scotland; a total and utter thrashing in the AV referendum. And it’s the last that looks the most hopeless.

Is electoral reform finished for good, or at least for a generation? Instead of endlessly debating what went wrong, there’s one major change we can make right now to improve things next time: never mention “STV” again.

But I don’t mean running scared – I mean widening our appeal. Because if we’ve learned one thing, it’s that an electoral ‘reform’ campaign that only appeals to Liberal Democrats is stuffed, whether it’s this Spring’s or in a decade or two’s time.

I’m passionately committed to the system called the Single Transferable Vote. No system is perfect but, for me, it has two massive advantages. It’s broadly proportional – which means it’s fair to parties, and means that the House of Commons is broadly in line with people’s votes across the country. And it gives voters more power to choose the candidates who win – when every other system gives all the power to the parties.

But I’m a political beast, and most people aren’t. Let’s not kid ourselves: a system where you choose different candidates in order of preference was obliterated this year, and it would be easy to attack STV as complicated and weird in just the same way (as Mark Thompson’s excellent article Outline of a No2STV Campaign illustrated). If there had been an STV referendum this year, it too would have been thrashed. And no proponents of STV have come up with anything like an answer, save ‘campaign harder’. That’s necessary – but it’s not good enough.

There’s still time, if you want to, to get your answers in to the Liberal Democrats’ Campaigns and Communications Committee’s consultation on the elections and the referendum. It’s already made up its mind on four key reasons for AV’s failure:

  • Labour completely failed to deliver, being mostly part of the “No” campaign despite being the only party committed to AV in their manifesto;
  • the Tories turned out to be complete bastards willing to say and do anything, and with an endless pot of money (who knew?);
  • holding the referendum on election day seemed like a good plan – maximising turnout, when polls showed broad but unenthusiastic support – but instead it meant both that Lib Dems were unable to give time to the referendum, and that the “No” campaign could give us an extra-big kicking, particularly through appealing to Labour voters;
  • and, to contrast with the “No” campaign’s ruthless efficiency, the “Yes” campaign was basically rubbish.

But it’s really just looking mournfully at the stable door, and not wondering why the horse bolted. Similarly, the Electoral Reform Society has just elected a mostly new “Reform Slate” in reaction to the terrible result, but without making decisions on how to improve the message.

And the aftermath for the victorious other side is that opponents of any kind of electoral reform, shameless conservatives in Labour and Tories alike, are claiming this was a vote against proportional representation, despite AV being often less proportional than “First Past the Post” (making the self-styled ‘No to AV, Yes to PR’ useful idiots look stupider than ever; hard to believe, isn’t it, that David Owen could have a catastrophic failure of political judgement).

The one good thing that came out of this year’s débâcle (other than establishing a grassroots movement for electoral reform, which is now largely dispersed and demoralised) is that we can learn how not to do it next time.

You know the story. The “No” campaign was full of lies. But it was brutally effective.

They identified issues that Labour voters in particular wouldn’t like about AV – “Costly, Complicated, Clegg” – and pushed them hard. The Conservatives, always assumed to be anti-reform, as they have been for every reform in history from votes for ordinary people to votes for women, outdid themselves by at the same time using their party slogan “Working together in the national interest” to say how good it was that they were in coalition, and pouring wads of cash into vicious attacks on the Liberal Democrats for being in coalition and attacking the very idea of coalition to make AV scary. A finer example of saying one thing in one place and another elsewhere has surely never been seen.

And perhaps most importantly, they made the political weather. It didn’t matter if what they said was truth or lie – they got in first. Almost every issue was then debated on ground set by the “No” campaign. The “Yes” campaign’s wider base of grassroots campaigners was completely let down by a disastrously faltering “air war”, and was simply overwhelmed by messages that they didn’t have the people or cash to counter.

So there are two lessons to learn for ‘next time’, whenever it may come. The first is the lesson of the electoral mechanics, and that’s one for the long term: it can be planned for, but only really put into operation when the time comes. For what it’s worth, though, here are a few markers we must learn for taking the fight to “First Past the Post”:

    Explain your system, or the “No” campaign will. “Yes” decided not to explain AV; “No” sent a Freepost booklet to every single house summing up “First Past the Post” as simply and positively as possible, and AV as complicatedly and unfairly as possible. “Yes” didn’t even send any leaflet to the vast majority of houses. Idiots. Perhaps even have a Parliamentary Bill ready to show how it’ll work and counter the inevitable lies.

    Perhaps the biggest reason why the “No” campaign won this year is that they had an enemy. The “Yes” campaign didn’t. And in politics, attack is much easier and more effective than defence; once you’re defending yourself, you’re already publicising your opponent’s ground.

    So find an enemy. The simplest, biggest change would be to attack “First Past the Post” ruthlessly, and get our attacks in first. This was where this Spring’s “Yes” campaign was not just timid, but hamstrung: AV is in fact such a small change from “First Past the Post” that almost all of the same problems apply, so it was very difficult to make a case for change. With a fight between “First Past the Post” and “Proportional Representation”, you can take the gloves off and batter the current system.

    Under “First Past the Post”, most people vote against the “winning” party – but the system gives them all the power anyway. Why should any party be able to do whatever the hell it likes when most people are against it? Say that “First Past the Post” means that the loser wins. Every party since the War has lost the vote – then been able to do what it likes.

    In Labour areas, stick up big pictures of Margaret Thatcher: you never voted for her, but “First Past the Post” let her give you the poll tax. Add that in 1951, Labour got the most votes – but “First Past the Post” is so crooked that the Tories won anyway.

    In Tory areas, stick up big pictures of Tony Blair: you never voted for him, but “First Past the Post” let him invade Iraq. Add that in 1974, the Tories got the most votes – but “First Past the Post” is so crooked that Labour won anyway. Then throw in the Winter of Discontent.

    And when this year’s “No” campaign’s most breathtaking bit of chutzpah was in saying that AV would increase influence for the BNP – when it’s a fact that, of all electoral systems ever invented, AV most hurts the BNP – attack “First Past the Post” for how time and time again it’s let the BNP in when most people have voted against them. There have been dozens of BNP councillors elected – only one has ever had the majority of the vote. In the USA, they call it “swiftboating”, making your enemy’s strength into a weakness: next time, the “Yes” campaign should do it first, and ruthlessly. Show how “First Past the Post” helps the BNP and leave “No” gasping for air.

But the biggest lesson can – and must – be implemented as soon as possible, and it’s not about campaign mechanics, but about principles. If you’re involved in policymaking with the Liberal Democrats or with the Electoral Reform Society, here’s what you can do today, rather than in ten years’ time: never mention “STV” again.

Who, other than a political junkie, is going to get enthused about a set of initials? And when you expand it into the Single Transferable Vote and explain about transfers, people’s eyes are no less likely to glaze over. Yes, we’ll have to find a clearer, simpler way to explain how it works – but the name we use for it just makes it seem all about the mechanics. And that’s always going to be a loser.

We’ve feebly addressed that by talking about “Fair Votes” – but that doesn’t appear on the ballot paper (you might say it’s a loaded term; when calling the current system “First Past the Post” is such a lie that it literally has no winning post, loaded terms are hardly new!), and we all saw how trying to refer to AV as the even feebler “Fairer Votes” failed.

The next campaign must be between “First Past the Post” and “British Proportional Representation”.

    The system now called STV was invented in Britain and used to be called “British Proportional Representation”. It’s used today throughout the British Isles – in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (do the “No” campaign want to say the English and Welsh are stupider?), and was even used for some of the House of Commons until 1950. When the “No” campaign smeared AV as weird and un-British, with British Proportional Representation we can fight back. Or we can keep an academic-sounding name, and leave it just an academic talking-point.

    To win the next fight, electoral reformers must win the battle of values, and that can’t be done overnight. With full-blooded proportional representation to fight for, attack “First Past the Post” as rigged and unfair, and make our system the one for “Fairness” – and do it first. But that’s not the only value we should appeal to. If fairness is a good one to reach out to Labour voters, Tory voters might respond better to patriotism and tradition. And if you can bed a change into British tradition, it’s much more likely to succeed.

    So change the name in the Lib Dem Manifesto; change the articles of the Electoral Reform Society; and change the name of the system from one that will only ever appeal to policy wonks to one that appeals across the board. And after a few years, no-one will ever use the term “STV” ever again.

    British Proportional Representation is about fairness, and it’s about British traditions. Look at how “First Past the Post” slices up traditional communities. Is it right to have MPs crossing county boundaries, or chopping neighbourhoods in half? Throw out this gerrymandering!

    Bring in British Proportional Representation to strengthen the link from MPs to Britain’s historic towns and counties, with boundaries everyone can understand. Make “First Past the Post” the complicated and weird one – make “No” explain why they want such bizarre and unnatural constituency boundaries.

    Bring in British Proportional Representation to get common sense, based on British values of fairness and Britishness.

Say no to the emulsified high-fat offal tube – call a sausage a sausage, and call our favourite system British Proportional Representation.

* Alex Wilcock blogs at Love and Liberty.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • STV does give power to political parties. Look at Australia where parties hand out slips saying the order in which people should vote. How are independent candidates, and the rebels within parties going to compete with a system that favours the party machine?

    Something else I take issue with is the way you assess the Conservatives as “complete bastards”. The campaigning got dirty on both sides, but the dirtiest campaigning came from Labour. It’s no point complaining that the Conservatives funded it, the compromise was the price they had to pay for inter-party co-operation, something the Lib Dems are quick to argue excuses them from their university fee pledges. After describing them as bastards you then say it was wrong to hold the referendum the same day as the local election because it turned out to disadvantage the Yes campaign when it was thought it would advantage it, which is quite a bastardly thing itself.

  • Another Mark 17th Sep '11 - 4:02pm

    Open-list PR does allow you to vote for a particular candidate rather than a party list, although it doesn’t give you any say over candidates from other parties.

    I’ve never supported STV. It’s unnecessarily complicated and STILL disadvantages small parties. What use is a 20% constituency threshold to a party with 10% national support? Because of this, although it’s obviously more proportional than FPTP, STV doesn’t produce a very proportional result nationally, and I think it would be highly misleading and dishonest to call it “British Proportional Representation”, unless “British” is a euphemism for “half-arsed”.

  • Given that the No campaign successfully protrayed AV as too complicated, how on earth would STV fare in similar circumstances?

    I’m afraid that re-branding isn’t going to do much in this case – you can’t polish a turd.

    Go for an all-systems referendum as happened in New Zealand. They ended up with a PR system.

    PS Wasn’t the additional members system a ‘British’ invention too?

  • paul barker 17th Sep '11 - 4:12pm

    There 2 lessons from The AV campaign
    1st dont ask Voters about subjects they dont think are important or they will answer some other Question; in this case “do you like Cuts, The State of The Economy, Politicians” ?
    2nd, dont ask about details, only principles. A question like ” Should our Voting System be more Proportional” ? That would never have got through The HoC of course.

    For the Future we should avoid Referenda if possible & concentrate on HoL reform.

  • I’m going to state that an STV referendum held hypothetically in a few years time would fare better than AV did.

    Firstly, the younger generation were more likely to be against FPTP but viewed AV as largely a cosmetic change and some rhetoric from the no side did help them – a lot of otherwise smart people bought the “helps the BNP” rhetoric. A bigger proposed change (a PR system) will enthuse more people who want change and enrage the same number of people who dislike change.
    Secondly, the AV referendum was an exercise in how not to run a referendum campaign. Next time whatever organisation fills the role of YTFV will know to, for instance, run a lot of mock ballots, demonstrate cross party support (UKIP are inexplicably not toxic like the BNP, so they should be made a big deal of if they’d support an STV campaign as they target voters who would be unreachable by LD, Labour and Green efforts – VERY important)

    Nevertheless, I think the way forward is to introduce it for local elections, the Lords and if possible EU elections before giving it another crack. Electoral reform is not dead for a generation after AV but it is wounded, losing a Commons STV referendum probably would kill it at this stage.

    I personally find the rebranded name personally silly (though historically accurate) but I think it would resonate well with the public, so why not? There’d be a few extra votes in it at least. It’s probably also fruitful to try and rebrand FPTP as plurality voting, a more subtle rebrand but one that would probably put people off FPTP if they get it.

    It’s not too hard to describe broadly describe STV incidentally:

    1) You have multiple MPs per seat.
    2) If there are five MPs each needs a fifth of the vote, if there are four each needs a quarter etc.
    3) After an MP is elected any new votes for them are redistributed to the voters’ second choices.
    4) [optional] Requiring second choice votes means that extremist parties have less chance of getting elected.

    Obviously it cuts out a few details and simplifies the arithmetic actually used but it’s perfectly possible to describe the broad thrust reasonably concisely.

  • STV without a referendum should be a manifesto commitment.

  • Daniel Henry 17th Sep '11 - 5:08pm

    Yep. Fully agreed.
    I still think that the ERS should use the name STV but “British Proportional Representation” is much better for campaigning.

    Personally, I think STV can be explained, but not all in one go.
    The first step would be to explain the basics:
    • The constituencies now have multiple winners meaning each section of the community gets their candidate rather than the current system where about 40% choose the single MP for everyone.
    • Parties are likely to run more than one candidate in a constituency and voters will be able to number their preferences to pick which candidates of their party they’d rather have.

    This is enough for people to get the gist of it and understand the attacks on FPTP, e.g. disproportionality, safe seats and marginal seats, voter power control and choice etc.

    And then for those who wanted more information we could fill the gaps with quotas and transfers.

  • Another Mark 17th Sep '11 - 5:37pm

    Thanks for your reply to my first point, Alex. What about my second point?

  • The reason the AV referendum failed is quite simple: Nick Clegg is a bit of a fool.

    Firstly, even at the best of times, no one really wanted AV. It’s hard to persuade other people to vote for something that you yourself openly see as inferior to what you really want. Many people who hated the liberal democrats managed to convince themselves that voting for AV was nothing more than a perpetual compromise and that it would possibly make PR even less likely. When someone is disgusted with you, the worst thing you can do is give them a good excuse to express their disgust… the compromise of AV (Clegg’s own words) was just that.

    Secondly, the referendum was never going to be won whilst they were in a coalition with the Conservatives. The conservatives are regressive by nature, conservative voters would never be persuaded to vote for AV.

    The people the lib dems needed to convince to vote for electoral reform were Labour voters. Hence, being in a coalition with the conservatives was the worst possible time to have the referendum, whilst being in a coalition with Labour would have been the best possible time.

    Using these self-evident truiths, I actually predicted what would happen before the coalition was even formed… but it appears the negotiating team wasn’t bright enough to do the same. If he they had an ounce of nous about him they would have given up electoral reform for big concessions on other policy areas such as the NHS and free schools.

  • Allan Heron 17th Sep '11 - 6:44pm

    Are we really still peddling the myth that we thought having the AV referendum on the same day as other elections was a good idea? It never was a good idea from the minute it was suggested through to the minute that it became clear that the referendum was lost. It was a horrendous error (and only one amongst many made by the Liberal Democrat leaderhsip). Indeed, it increased the likelihood that it would be lost rather than the opposite.

    The timing was also daft – why have a referendum at a time when it was acknowledged by all and sundry that the government would be unpopular.

    And the other myth being peddled is that the AV campaign was simply over-complicated in the messages it was attempting to deliver. That was certainly the case but the claims being made for AV were just as much lies as anything put forward by the “No” campaign. It was a marginal change (and not necessarily an improvement) to FPTP which would have brought about 50-60 seats into play as marginals. No more, no less and, to be blunt, nothing to get over-excited about.

    No referendum would have been better than a referendum on AV. It might be our holy grail but this whole escapade was entered without any clear strategic or tactical thinking.

  • Looking for Honesty 18th Sep '11 - 2:18pm

    Could it be that the public were unimpressed by a shameless opportunism in championing a system which would produce you with more MPs at future elections? Remember we have a system that when the Tories are defeated, they are heavily penalised – take 1997 when they lost 171 – 52% of their parliamentary party on a loss of 12% of their vote. Despite all this, they still support FPTP as an electoral system.

    That I like many others had many Lib Dems urging me to vote YES to AV to ensure a ‘perpetual Liberal Democrat influence on government’ most certainly put me off. No electoral system should provide you with the chance to always spend your time in government. It doesnt allow a true democratic decision to be made. – You should earn a nations trust (and when you do earn it, you should NEVER abuse it)

  • NoOffenceAlan 18th Sep '11 - 3:32pm

    I think SNTV (Single Non-Transferable Vote) should now be considered as a serious option.
    Multi-member wards – one vote per person – if the ward has X seats, then the X candidates receiving the most votes get elected.
    It completely kills the “winner doesn’t win” argument used against AV and STV.
    It also maximises the number of voters who get their preferred candidate elected – even more than STV does.

  • Malcolm Todd 18th Sep '11 - 4:19pm

    The trouble with SNTV is that it’s effects are highly arbitrary – a party might win 50% of the vote in a 4-member seat but get only one of those seats, for example, just because one of its candidates is much better known than the others, or because it miscalculated the exact level and distribution of its support and so failed to organise its vote in the most efficient way. It’s a system that could make sense for relatively small-scale elections where party is more or less irrelevant and voters are genuinely choosing between individuals. Given that for most voters in a political election, the party label is the single most important piece of information on which they choose which candidate(s) to support, this system would simply fail to reflect people’s real views and intentions.

  • Paul McKeown 18th Sep '11 - 5:00pm

    “British Proportional Representation”

    Oh come of it, this article started off hopefully, identifying some of the causes of the AV referendum disaster, but ends up proposing a retro-rebranding exercise for STV, which is just the sort of wonkishness that the author of this article himself castigates.

    a) If a party with a manifesto commitment to a changed electoral system achieves government, why is a referendum necessary? Remove reference to a referendum in future LD manifestos.
    b) A proportional system in the soon to be elected second chamber of Parliament will help familiarise English voters (in particular) with the idea that alternatives to FPTP are not the devil’s work.
    c) Most democratic institutions in England (in particular) are still stuck with FPTP; address those first. Start with council elections.
    d) Don’t get hung up on a particular electoral system. Would LD’s really want to go back to FPTP if the HoC was elected by AMS rather than STV? AMS is likely to receive a warmer welcome than STV amongst plausible fourth parties (e.g. Greens, UKIP) and nationalist parties (e.g. SNP, PC) and would be hard for Labour to argue against as it is the system that Labour instituted for the Scottish Parliament.
    e) Campaign for a proportional electoral system, not an acronym.
    f) Seek cross party support. That includes amongst the Conservatives, whatever the Guardian might say not all Conservatives are irrational, unthinking dinosaurs. If you insist on alienating the supporters of one of the only two political parties that have formed governments for all our the lifetimes, how on earth will you ever get support that is broad enough to carry the argument? And anyone who puts forward the idea that PR will guarantee that we never have a centre-right government deserves a kicking; to wish for such a result is to spit at democratic choice and it is bound to be wrong in the long run, anyway, as all political tides turn.
    g) Accept the fact that there are many MPs with seats for life; they will campaign tooth and nail against change, spreading whatever muck they can dream up to support their cause. Have ammunition ready and don’t run away from dirty, personal politics, in fact get your low blows in first. The No campaign ran a very personal anti-Clegg campaign. If you insist on running another lofty, academic campaign, all that will happen is that you will get another bloody nose.

    But “British Proportional Representation” as a rebranding for STV is just the silly sort of rubbish that will annoy ordinary voters.

  • Malcolm Todd 18th Sep '11 - 6:40pm

    @ColinW, Paul McK, stephen J
    No need to take a commitment to a referendum out of the manifesto – it wasn’t in the last one. We pledged to bring in a “fairer, more proportional” system (STV being specifically mentioned as the Lib Dem’s “preferred” system). There was no mention of a referendum – that was a compromise forced on the party by the coalition negotiations. (Whether we should have signed up to it is another matter.)

    @stephen J – if my recollection of your (?) previous attempts at pushing “DPR Voting” on this site are correct (quick Google check – yep, they are) it’s not the answer to anything. STV is not a panacea, though it’s got much to recommend it; AMS or open party list in smallish constituencies would be perfectly acceptable as far as I’m concerned.

  • Paul McKeown 18th Sep '11 - 11:10pm

    @Malcolm Todd

    Thanks for the correction.

    @Alex Willcock

    As I stated, I disagree with your idea of rebranding STV, but your idea that we should combat any idea that PR is un-British, un-English, or the like, is, naturally, important. I think introducing more people to STV (or another form of PR) in elections to the second chamber will help persuade voters of this, without turning to history.

  • Jim Woodward-Nutt 19th Sep '11 - 9:08am

    Some years ago the well-known academic, supporter of STV, Joe Rogaly suggested that henceforth STV be known as the ‘Supervote’.
    I have presonally always liked this title, although it has up to now had little support – however may be now is the time to revisit this proposal?

  • Simple:

    Picture of hated Tory/Labour politician in Labour/Tory area, with strap line “They don’t want this change – so it must be right”

  • Kevin Colwill 22nd Sep '11 - 9:39pm

    I’d been a PR fan since my teens basing this on my perception of “fairness” (and part of that “fairness” was about keeping the Tories out—irony or what!)
    Not being a political geek the AV vote and its aftermath was the first time I had really address the issue of PR. My conclusion…I still like PR but I really dislike preference voting.
    Open party lists in large consistencies are my favoured way forward but me picking the 6 lotto numbers are also my favoured way forward and that ain’t happening either.
    Any discussion of electoral reform looks an increasingly pointless and self indulgent.

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