Opinion: Talk of PR makes me all of a dither

Talk of PR makes me all of a dither. It’s the political scientist in me. I can see the pros and cons of every system and I can see that whatever system is in place it is not a panacea for the nation’s ills (nor the cause of them all either).

Alternative Vote, though, would seem to be a completely redundant change. Because in effect that is the system we already have.

AV gives you lots of safe seats where the winning party gets more than 50% of the vote. So does first past the post. In the marginal seats, AV then makes the two most popular parties in a constituency compete for the second preferences of the less popular parties’ voters. And that is exactly what happens in our system now. In every election since the war, voters have plumped for the candidate nearest to their views who is most likely to win.

In the 50s and 60s, Liberal voters were often forced to do so because there was no Liberal candidate. But if you read reports of election campaigns from Torrington, Finchley, Roxburgh and Orpington from fifty years ago, Liberal candidates were trying to persuade Labour voters to support them as effectively their second choice candidate. Targeting has now become so sophisticated that all three parties spend a huge proportion of their campaign resources on attracting swing voters in swing seats. So nothing would change.

Advocates of Single Transferable Vote say it does away completely with safe seats and therefore gives maximum power to the voter. Well, up to a point Lord Copper. Because it depends on the parties themselves not manipulating the system. Under STV the biggest fear for parties is that they will leak preferences between candidates. Two candidates might get 15% of the first preferences between them in a 5 member constituency but miss out on a seat because a chunk of their second preferences disappear to other parties. So the party will try to short circuit the system but putting up only one candidate and hey presto you have one safe seat on the back of first preferences…

So, here’s a thought. There has been much talk of party primaries, too, recently. At least one country (Uruguay) has built its voting system around the idea that primaries and the general election run together at the same time. Parties run more than one candidate for office. The votes for those candidates are aggregated to determine which party wins. And the candidate from within that party who gets the most votes is elected.

What if you introduced AV in single member districts but insisted that all parties had to run two candidates? Voters would be free to express a genuine choice. You would retain the link between MP and constituency that is so important to defenders of first past the post. You would retain the ability to elect single-party majorities in parliament. And you would probably re-invigorate parties too by promoting genuine internal competition.

Think about it – its not as daft as it sounds…

Ed Maxfield was second on the list for the European Elections in the East Midlands.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Another Mark 12th Jun '09 - 5:40pm

    I would prefer the Danish system to STV, and I don’t know why it’s never been considered in the UK.

    It’s rather complicated from the point of view of calculating the results, but very easy for the voters, who choose to use their one vote for either an open party list or a single candidate in each multi-member constituency.

    Compensatory seats are then allocated, first nationally, then regionally, then at constituency level.

    All seats are allocated using the modified Sainte-Laguë method.

    The Danes are very proud of their system, as they think it’s the fairest in the world, and it produces an almost exact parliamentary correlation between votes cast and seats awarded while also keeping the consituency link.

  • Malcolm Todd 12th Jun '09 - 8:06pm

    I don’t believe these numbers either. But it doesn’t matter, because AV is rubbish anyway. There are very good arguments in Lord Alexander’s ‘Note of Reservation’ to the Jenkins Report.

    The question that has to be asked is: Why do we believe there should be a change to the voting system?
    Ignoring the unworthy answer ‘Because we’ll win more seats that way’ (surely LibDems are above such partisanship?), I think the following principles are what lie behind the objection to FPTP and should guide our response to any alternative:

    1. Every vote choice should count.

    2. The strength of parties in parliament should be proportionate to their support in the country.

    3. Party machines should not be able to dictate to the electorate: voters should be able to vote for individuals, not just parties.

    The funny thing is, AV does nothing to improve on FPTP in any of these respects. Ed Maxfield’s interesting idea would meet point (3); but points (1) and (2) can only be met through either multi-seat constituencies or some sort of additional member system.

    For what it’s worth, I would favour 3-to-6-member constituencies (as for STV), with an open-list system (as I am deeply sceptical of preferential voting), and the possibility for those who wish it of voting for an individual candidate without having to endorse their party colleagues. (It sounds like this may be something like the Danish system, but I can’t find a detailed explanation of it.) As a second-best compromise, I would be happy with the Alexander version of Jenkins (i.e. a limited additional member system, but without AV), provided that parties were forced to put at least three candidates on their lists so that there is always a choice within parties.

  • Malcolm Todd 12th Jun '09 - 8:10pm

    Obviously, the remark about not believing the numbers only makes sense in the comments on Harry Hayfield’s post. Which is where I was when I started, but not when I submitted. God knows what I ended up voting on…

  • I think to try and combine PR with directly elected constituency MPs is a bit of a fudge. Just have one House voted with pure PR and the other with first past the post. You could even do away with the Lords and have an English Parliament.

    The decision then is which way round you have the authority. Do you want the main power in the PR or the FPTP, I’d suggest the PR as it’s more representative. Policy would then be handed to the Lower House or regional Parliaments to be sold to theirconstituents. I should be able to lobby ‘my party’ in parliament instead of being forced to go through a constituency MP who may be in opposition and/or represent a party I don’t like. All these mental muddles are a waste of time and only exist because the Commons doesn’t want to lose authority and because the Lords is full of paid up party cronies. Keep it simple and get ready to have to work much harder on getting legislation through.

  • “Two candidates might get 15% of the first preferences between them in a 5 member constituency but miss out on a seat because a chunk of their second preferences disappear to other parties. So the party will try to short circuit the system but putting up only one candidate and hey presto you have one safe seat on the back of first preferences…”

    All that tells you is that the “less big” parties in a region would only put up one candidate. But for bigger parties, it would be advantageous to put up 2+ candidates, because they are capable of winning more than one seat.

    And any way, your example makes little sense. So you have two candidates from the same party, one getting say 7%, the other 8% of 1st preferences, but the 2nd preferences of those voters aren’t going to the other one. So how would only putting up one candidate help that party then? If the party only put up the candidate who got 8% of 1st preferences, then those 7% who have to vote for a different 1st preference, aren’t going to vote for this one, since they didn’t put him down as their second preference.

    “Just have one House voted with pure PR and the other with first past the post.”

    The reason most people here oppose FPTP, is because it is grossly unfair. The reason most people want an elected Lords, is because currently, the Lords system is grossly unfair, and undemocratic. Why replace one unfair system with another unfair system, particularly when we oppose that system where it’s already used?

    “You could even do away with the Lords”

    Getting rid of bicameralism would be silly. Either you have the two chambers elected at different times, with the same length terms, so that they provide checks on each other, or you have on chamber have longer terms, and have staggered elections in that chamber, so that you have one chamber with less susceptibility towards “career politicians”.

    “and have an English Parliament.”

    England is too big and populous compared to Wales, Scotland and Northern Island to have its own Parliament. Having federalism at a 4 “state” level would have England dominating the other 3. No, power should be devolved to areas smaller than that, like for instance, the regions we use for the EU.

  • Erlend Watson 15th Jun '09 - 2:01pm

    Actually I understood that in sizeable areas the SNP undernominated and had large surpluses which transferred to other parties who won. I Glasgow they put up 1 candidate in every seat bar 1 (with 2) and missed out on several seat there by and possibly that is why Lab still have overall control of Glasgow.

  • Sorry Ed, alternative vote is most definately not the system we have. While a lot of effort is put into squeezing the vote of other parties
    (usually with each party using a dodgy bar chart that reinforces their squeeze message)
    it is not the same as having a transferable vote.

    With AV, someone can vote green or ukip and than transfer to a another party of their choice.

    In many seats it is impossible to judge who is the main challenger to party X – especially if the vote was close last time.

    Do you go on the general elections, the euro or the local election vote?

    Often seats these days have 3 or more parties “in the running”.

    Other seats have one party on 18,000 and the other two on 12,000 and 11,000. Under AV the transfers might change the result, under FPTP a squeeze message won’t.

    Yes STV has limits. Chosing between candidates of the same party is the weakest aspect to it. However, the essentail truth is that it is up to the voters. In a strongly Tory or Labour part of the country, where they might expect to win 3 out of 5 seats in an STV constituency, people will be able to distingish between the candidates with the expenses scandal and the other ones.

    Some people seem unable to grasp the consequences of different policies. For example, STV and a reduction of the number of MPs will mean constituencies made up of 6 or more existing seats. That will lead to very different demands on MPs and local parties.

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