The 200-year quest for fairer voting

The first use of the Single Transferable Vote was on 17th December 1819, so the bicentenary will fall on the day when our new parliament assembles.

It couldn’t really be more ironic, with a Prime Minister claiming a “powerful new mandate” on 43.6% of the vote, and where a majority of votes were cast for parties opposing the Brexit deal that was the key policy on which he fought the election.

A meeting tomorrow at the Royal Statistical Society will celebrate the anniversary, and give an opportunity to discuss the prospects for electoral reform. Klina Jordan of Make Votes Matter will speak on their cross-party campaigning for agreement on the principles of good voting systems. While the Conservatives remain steadfastly attached to the disproportional system that has served them so well, there is increasing support for change elsewhere – from the Green Party to Nigel Farage’s latest proposed Reform Party.

Ian Simpson of the Electoral Reform Society will be speaking on the contrast between English local government elections and those in Scotland, where STV has been used since 2007. Might the Conservatives be persuaded to support reform at this level, as a way of getting representation in local government in the `red wall’ areas where they now have MPs?

Finally, I will be speaking on the principles and history of STV, and on what an STV system for the UK Parliament might look like.

Liberal Democrats have supported elections by STV since our inception, believing it to be the door to better politics. If you want to be involved in ongoing discussions of how best to promote it, please sign up to the e-newsletter of Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform.

* Denis Mollison is Chair of Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform. More information can be found at

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  • The party has got to stop banging on about electoral reform. It’s not going to happen. It’s a waste of time. Policies that matter to voters should be priority not yet more conversations about electoral reform.

    Just think back to 2011. A coalition government with a decent joint majority. What was the priority? Cutting the deficit and electoral reform. Such a wasted opportunity. The party should have fought hard to implement lasting and popular policies. Instead, pointless debates and arguments about AV.

    Wrong priorities yet again.

  • Electoral – in fact, constitutional – Reform is so essential. The party has barely mentioned it of late and yet it opens the way for people who aren’t liberals to support us. It should have been the price for coalition (introduction, not a weasly Referendum in AV). Yes, it seems a fringe issue now but surely so did leaving our nearest trading bloc when the quitters got going. And it has the benefit of being obviously fair, deep down the British like that sort of thing.

  • Rodney Watts 16th Dec '19 - 7:31pm

    @David Blake links are now working.
    @Tom Jones: “Policies that matter to voters should be priority not yet more conversations about electoral reform.” Well, this voter is extremely interested in electoral reform, as are all those other voters who belong to the ERS, Make Votes Matter or other groups like Unlock Democracy. I note you have put the threadbare point about AV, often used by Tories, to say that PR has already been voted on and rejected. Of course AV is neither PR or the particular variant mentioned by Denis, STV.

    Whilst, Tom, one might agree that as a single party issue PR should not top the list of priorities, nevertheless, along with a wholesale examination of our Constitution (unwritten at present) it ranks exceedingly high in what is needed for true democracy.

  • Innocent Bystander 16th Dec '19 - 7:33pm

    I’m not sure the policy is such a waste of time. Our son voted as a constitutional chore but as his is a safe seat he said his vote was entirely wasted. He and those in a similar position will be sympathetic.
    The policy has to stand, though, within a national reform agenda dealing with the nation’s performance as an international trader. I note that ‘radical’ is code for a severe shift to the social liberal agenda but I don’t see that exciting the public imagination, even if they generally approve.

  • Don’t bang on about it, but have the correct policies for if anyone asks. Take it in baby steps.

    In the short term start with STV for local councils.
    – Already exists in Scotland.
    – We already have multi-member wards in England.
    – Coalitions are the norm in councils anyway.
    – Very rarely can any party can honestly find 3 good candidates from the same ward, so much better if they win one seat in each of 3 wards so they can draw councillors from their whole membership.

    If people are happy with that, you move onto STV for parliament (or the Lords?) a bit later. Not before they’re happy with it though.

  • Andrew Daer 17th Dec '19 - 8:40am

    Tom Jones: you say electoral reform isn’t important because “it’s not going to happen”. It would flatter you to describe your following argument as thin, but to be fair, your dexterity in the use of circular logic would be thought admirable, by some people. I’m afraid using the deliberately insulting phrase “banging on about” it when you decide to go public with your views exposes you to rejoinders like this one, in which the effort to take your contribution seriously has been a struggle. Electoral reform is long overdue, and most countries gave up the primitive first past the post system years ago. The absurd ability of 14 million Tory voters (30% of the electorate) to describe their achievement as “a landslide” is something you ought to ponder.

  • Jonathan Greenhow 17th Dec '19 - 10:12am

    Electoral reform should be a high priority.
    The Labour Party has been an an obstacle to achieving it but as they lick their wounds this could be the time to persuade their members that STV is essential.

  • Oh dear… It is very well talking about reform and it may be overdue etc., however the party does need to get better at actually using the opportunities presented. The most recent opportunity was in the last Parliament, where instead of holding their nerve and using the 18 months remaining under the fixed term Parliament act, they threw their hand in and agreed to a General Election (seduced by thoughts that the LibDems might get 200+ MPs?). Now it is highly unlikely that even the baby steps Richard S suggests will get any take up in the next 10 years…

  • Peter Hirst 17th Dec '19 - 2:33pm

    Electoral reform will probably only happen when the people demand it. So we need to be more supportive of organisations like The Electoral Reform Society, Make Votes Matter and Unlock Democracy that are doing their best to harness that support. Whether it is easier achieved as part of a wider constitutional settlement is a mute point.

  • Peter Martin 17th Dec '19 - 4:03pm

    I’m not saying the present system is ideal but you do need to beware of unintended consquences when making changes to a system which has stood the test of time. You couldn’t devise a more perfect system of PR than was used in Weimar Germany. Parties getting 0.2% of the total vote were awarded a seat in the Bundestag. 1% got you 4 seats.

    And we all know who did well under that system!

  • Nonconformistradical 17th Dec '19 - 6:48pm

    @Peter Martin

    The current electoral system in Germany, involving regional lists, has a 5% threshold. The system in Israel has a lower threshold and it seems results in minor parties having influence out of all proportion to their strength in the parliament.

    But the STV system (favoured by the LibDems and the Electoral Reform Society) with constituencies returning say 3 to 5 members per constituency as in Ireland does not suffer from this problem. A candidate getting a tiny percentage of first preference votes is extremely unlikely to reach the quota for election when subsequent preferences are taken into account.

    The problem for those parties which flourish under FPTP is that under STV since voters can express their preferences across candidates from different parties (plus independents) those parties lose a lot of the control they have today.

    STV does away with safe seats – another feature loved by parties which flourish under FPTP. Nearly all voters in an STV election have some chance of seeing someone elected in their multi-member constituency to whom they have given at least some degree of support even if not their first preference vote. Whereas under FPTP large numbers of voters have not the slightest chance of being represented by someone of whose views they approve.

    Yes – it removes the individual link between an MP and their constituency. So what? Got a problem which you want your MP to take up for you? Under FPTP you have to take it to the local MP who might not have the slightest understanding of (or sympathy with) your plight. Under STV just take it to the one in your multi-member constituency most likely to understand your plight.

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