Opinion: To STV, and beyond …

Like many Lib Dems, the prospect of bringing in a fairer voting system makes me all a-flutter. We know that first-past-the-post is unrepresentative, and the recent impetus towards reform (if I may put it so tacitly) has opened the door to the overhaul of our electoral system.

However, it appears as though the door has been partially blocked by the baby gate of Alternative Vote Plus, the brainchild of the Jenkins Commission. Akin to a less proportional version of the Additional Member System used in Scotland, Wales and in London Assembly elections, AV+ would make our voting system slightly more representative – but not to the point where it would frighten Labour and Conservative MPs raised on a diet* of safe seats.

Since this appears to be the best offer on the table, our Take Back Power campaign has endorsed it, with the disclaimer that we’d really rather have STV.

However, what we’re not doing at present – and I would claim we need to do – is directly challenging the findings of the Jenkins Commission that led to them rejecting STV as a possibility in the first place.

The Commission considered STV as it works in Ireland, with large multi-member constituencies aimed at ensuring that there is at least one Teachta Dála for every 25,512 people. Given the comparative population of Britain and Ireland , the Commission claims that the expansion in parliamentary numbers required to facilitate this would be unacceptable to the public, and instead considers STV in the context of constituencies containing on average 350,000 people. This is one MP per 87,500 people, assuming a similar number of parliamentarians to at present. The Commission claims the length of the ballot paper needed to serve such large constituencies to provide ‘a degree of choice which might be deemed oppressive rather than liberating’ – which anyone who voted in the recent European elections will, of course, know to be true, and in no way an unproven assertion by a parliamentary commission. I myself found my 3-foot ballot paper so oppressive that I voluntarily surrendered my freedom of speech for the entirety of polling day.

Aside from a few more niggles around complexity and suitability (look out for the part where the Commission comes close to asserting that the views of politicians are more important than the public when it comes to voting reform), the meat of the Commission’s objections to STV came in the form of the political realities into which it will be placed.

The Commission argued that STV constituencies on the Irish model would work well in big cities, but in the countryside would cover huge geographic areas to incorporate the approximately 350,000 people necessary. If 3-member constituencies were reduced in size in the countryside, this would give the Conservatives a massive inbuilt advantage, owing to their rural base. A hybrid STV/AV system, with STV constituencies in the cities and AV in the countryside would disadvantage Labour – the Tories would get seats in the cities, while Labour would be unable to similarly capitalise in the countryside.

This is a serious objection – some of the Highland constituencies are already enormous, and this would lead to a single constituency covering much of Scotland . Attempts to hybridise the system on the lines that Jenkins proposes would reduce the very proportionality that STV is meant to achieve.

So how can we counter this? I would argue that to do so we need to think bigger than simply voting reform – we need to reconsider the way in which our parliament functions in its entirety. It would involve a rather unprecedented change, but one which modern technology (namely calculators) would make plausible.

We break the connection between population and constituency boundaries, and instead allow boundaries to be set depending on appropriate geographic/social factors, so that constituencies can be a variety of different sizes in both geographic and population terms, to be determined by the Electoral Commission. This is similar to the unhybridised system Jenkins initially considers, but with smaller rural constituencies. This would seemingly give the Tories an inbuilt advantage, but that’s without considering another change that would overcome this objection.

I propose we end the system whereby every MP has a single vote in the House of Commons and instead institute a system whereby they have a number of votes given by the number they received at their election. Since it’s under the STV system, every single person in each constituency has the chance to lend their authority to an MP of their choosing – in a much more real way than at present. If you vote for a candidate under this system, you aren’t just picking them to win – you’re actually increasing their relative power to act on your behalf.

Maintaining parity in constituency populations is no longer as important under this system, as the power of a political party is no longer given by the territory it controls, but by the number of people who vote for it.

A potential objection to this proposal is that like AV+ it produces multiple classes of MPs – or rather every MP is now in a class by themself. I don’t necessarily see this as a problem. Certainly, while it means that some MPs will have more influence than others (reducing the scope for a potential ‘awkward squad’ of rebel MPs from minor constituencies to upset their party), it’s much more important to ensure that the power of an MP is given in a very real way by the support they have in the country.

I appreciate that this is a little radical, but the purpose of this posting is to stimulate discussion around overcoming the sorts of arguments put forward by the Commission against STV, and to provide a suggestion as to how we might do that. Right now, the way in which Parliament functions is rather feudal, with votes tied to land rather than to people. As a liberal, I believe this is something which needs to change.


* Adam Bell is a Lib Dem member in Islington.

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  • keep it simple is a moto i use a lot

    ranking candidates by preference, 1,2,3 etc is simple. Its what happens after that with the votes that causes issue.

    2 or 3 member constituencies elected by STV is my preference, with fewer MPs to start with. Having a seat of that size isn’t any more a problem than we have at the mo where outside the big cities there is a long distances between settlements represented by a single MP

    Simple AV (not the mayoral top two only) and single seats would be OK as well. It allows preference voting rather so more people can all feel they have a part in chosing the winner.

  • “I propose we end the system whereby every MP has a single vote in the House of Commons and instead institute a system whereby they have a number of votes given by the number they received at their election. Since it’s under the STV system…”

    This misunderstands STV. Under STV every person who gets elected finishes with the same amount of votes (actually one quota each which isn’t quite the same for each but bear with me). The “extra votes” that they didn’t need to get elected get transferred to other candidates.

    What you seem to be suggesting is that first preferences provide a weighting. So in a Northern Ireland seat for example you could end up with a Sinn Fein MP having much greater voting power in Parliament than an Alliance MP (Sinn Fein traditionally get high numbers of first preferences but few transfers).

  • The proposals in the post are simply too complex. You could easily end up with endless litigation on who voted for who.

    Every voting system has its advantages and disadvantages. The trick is not to find one perfect system, but to use a range to achieve a balance.

    Reforms to the voting system need to go hand in hand with reforms to the lords, local authorties, EU elections and the commons. This could be combined with changes in the national assemblies, including an English one.

    Power could then be spread through a number of institutions that represent the people though different voting methods.

    Eg the lords could a direct PR system with no consitutuancies and the commons could be constituancy based.

  • “He doesn’t need to worry about what the ethnic minorities or working class in his constituency think.”

    On that theory Nigel Evans wouldn’t worry about the working class or Jack Straw the Tories in the posh bits of his constituency out towards Darwen.

    I don’t think it would be true to say of either of them that this was the case.

    It would be even less so under STV as that might help secure transfers for future elections

    “4) Increase in extremist representation by default.”

    It’s not by default – it would be because people vote for them

  • Huw that sounds like STV spread out over several days! or MTV (multiple transferable vote). lol

    seriously, the way STV is counted sounds simular to what you say but it all happens on one ballot paper.

  • Although I agree with much of what you have to say, I find myself at odds with the statement:

    ‘I propose we end the system whereby every MP has a single vote in the House of Commons and instead institute a system whereby they have a number of votes given by the number they received at their election’

    Regardless of who I or anybody else in a constituency may vote for (be it Westminster or Council), I want MY representatives to be able to represent the needs and wants of the local area on the same level as others MPs may be able to do. Which, at the end of the day is what the MP is there to do (whether they do it is another matter).

    I would also ask why ‘Dave’ Cameron constantly claims the HoC needs to be reduced in size (I imagine its in a bid for more power)? My belief is that any larger and constituencies become more unmanageable, the MP becomes increasingly isolated from those that they represent and this is a BAD thing…. Caseloads increase, the pressure increases, being a good constituency MP is difficult enough as it is- why make it harder? I actually believe there is a good argument for a larger parliament (one without the Lords), one where MPs can really be at one with their communities, I don’t believe the present system allows for this!

  • We could have an AMS style version of STV in which you would have an STV electoral region with single seat constituencies. I can think of two ways of doing this:

    You could divide say, a six seat region into two constituencies and after then six candidates have been elected you look at the results from each constituency and choose one of the successful candidates to represent each constituensy using AV. If somone wins in both constituencies then let them choose and then start again with their 2nd preferanes transfered.

    The other way would be to have two ballots, one for the constituancy using FPTP or AV and one for the region using STV. The number votes (or 1st preferanses) cast against the winning candidate in a constituency is subtracted from the 1st preferances of their parties regional candidates starting with the one with the lowest number. After this negative the regional result is calculated usin STV.

    The advantage of the former would be that it is simpler to vote in.

    The adventage of the latter is the ability to have smaller and more constituensies, that it is easier to understand how a constituensy MP is elected and the regional to constituensy seat ratio is more flexible in case we need to resort to a semi proportional compromise.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Jul '09 - 10:05am

    Huw Dawson

    Critical flaws with multi-member constituencies:

    1) MPs cease to have to worry about all the members of their constituency and instead get to rely on the support of a minority. You’d barely need to campaign in some constituencies – if 25% or so will always vote Tory no matter what, the Tory MP has nothing to fear. He doesn’t need to worry about what the ethnic minorities or working class in his constituency think.

    No, that’s a fault with single member constituencies, not multi-member constituencies which elect by a proportional scheme.

    In a single-member constituency, if a majority will always vote Tory, then the Tory MP need not bother at all trying to attract support from the minority. It was just this reason, coming of age in a Labour-voting ward in what was then a Tory safe Parliamentary seat in a county where every MP was a Tory, which led me to become convinced of the necessity of proportional representation and multiple-member seats.

    Under STV, if there’s enough votes in a minority to get a quota, someone will come seeking for those votes. What I liked about STV was the idea that someone who wanted to represent the poor in a true-blue Tory county could say “my constituency is the council estates scattered across this county” and go about campaigning in them, there’d be enough to gain a quota and get elected and thus give a voice to the voiceless, to make visible the invisible poor of the supposedly all Tory south.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Jul '09 - 10:08am

    Huw Dawson

    2) Harder to campaign – instead of being able to focus on current constituencies which tend to be small, you’d have to have a push everywhere in a large constituency, hence richer parties do better.

    No again, look at what I wrote above. To get elected under STV it is necessary to gain a quota. There is no necessity for that quota to come from votes evenly distributed across the entire multi-member constituency. It would make a great deal of sense to target your campaign in the constituency to those parts which you think will be most receptive to your message.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Jul '09 - 10:19am

    Huw Dawson

    Everybody votes for the MP in their local constituency on Monday. At the end of the day, all the votes are collated and the percentages worked out. The maximum number of seats a party can have is dictated by their overall voting share.

    I have suggested that a similar mechanism could be used to give nominal single-member constituencies to MPs elected under STV if people really think single-member constituencies are needed. I experimented with how it might work, and it sort of worked out ok though there were some strange results as the last MP got slotted into the last constituency.

    However, a problem with your system is that it relies on proportional representation of parties alone, and that is wrong. Under STV, people can choose their own lists, they aren’t confined to the lists the parties give them. A proportional list system is just STV where the politicians say “Sorry, you can only choose certain combinations which we will give you”. Why impose such a restriction? If people want their 1,2,3 to be the 1,2,3 suggested by a party, fine. But why say it has to be that way? If the parties want to run the system as AV, then fine also – let them all nominate candidates for different districts of the multi-member constituency and say to their voters “don’t give your second preference to our candidate from another district, give it to another party’s candidate for your district”.

    So really, STV gives everyone what they want. They are free to use it in a way that matches what their favourite system is. So let’s have STV and say “if you don’t like it, use the system to turn it into the electoral system you like”.

  • Surely someone in the party could send a week putitng togther a model for STV in practice ?

    The problem with Jenkins is it’s was designed to appeal to Tony Blair at a particular time. As an electoral system, it’s pretty dire.

    Take Oxfordsshire as an example – currently it has 6 MPs, 4 Con, 1 Lab, 1 Lib Dem.
    Under Jenkins it would have 5 AV MPs and one top up MP.

    Most likely the Lib Dem seat would be carved up in the boundry changes, making 4 Con and 1 Lab with one Lib Dem top up MP.

    Parties doing better in the constituencies risk losing the easier top up MP.

    The problems is the top-up is so small, it unlkley to make the result proportional and the bias of AV in the consituencies can make the distortion from proportionality worse.

    Given also that both Lib Dems and Conseravtives are signed up to cut the number of MPs, the constituencies under STV or Jenkins will have to be considerably bigger than now.

    Oxfordshire might have 5 MPs under STV or 4 AV MPs under Jenkins and 1 top up MP.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Jul '09 - 11:33am

    Weighted votes for MPs in Parliament do not work because Parliament is not a mere electoral college. MPs do other things than vote.

    I have considered mechanisms under which the full Hare system, of which STV is a variant in which constituencies are used for practicality, could be implemented. The basic idea is that there’s one MP for every 100,000 electors (keep to that nice round figure). So anyone who can get 100,000 people to sign up to say “That’s my MP” becomes an MP.

    One would need to find a way in which this can be presented in a simplified form so that people who aren’t too interested in politics can in effect sign up to the local candidate of their favourite party, while opening a fuller range of choice to anyone who wants it.

    I can see how this could be done using computer technology, but I’m unhappy about that. I’ve not yet thought of a way in which it can be done in a fully paper form which maintains confidentiality and security of the vote.

  • Joe Otten said:

    >There was a commission, consultation, a process and a proposal, and then it was sat on. If you want any progress any time soon, unsit on it, don’t start the discussion again.

    Why should we trust politicians to choose the system? We should have a referendum to see if we want to change the system, and if we do, have another one to decide which system to use. It’s what they did in New Zealand:

    “In 1992, a non-binding poll was held on whether or not FPP should be replaced by a new, more proportional voting system. Voters were asked two questions: whether or not to replace FPP with a new voting system; and which system should be adopted instead. A second, binding, referendum was to be held the following year, in which voters would choose between FPP and the new system chosen to replace it.”

    from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electoral_reform_in_New_Zealand#1992_electoral_system_referendum

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