The Independent View: How Lib Dems can achieve STV for local government

STVactionMay’s elections changed the political landscape to a four-party one and, if the old two-party First Past The Post (Winner takes All) voting system looked wobbly in a three-party system, it now looks totally discredited in a four-party system.

The recent election results gave credibility to the prediction of the recent New Statesman article that the result of the 2015 general election will be similar to that of February 1974 –  most votes for the Conservative Party but most MPs for the Labour Party. The crucial difference between 1974 and 2015 is that Labour will probably not even have the slim overall majority in 2015 that it had in 1974, hence another balanced parliament.

How would Liberal Democrats react? Recently Nick Clegg said “no” to another coalition at any cost. So what are the Lib Dem conditions?

The first might be to take a principled approach again to decide with which party to hold initial discussions. If each of the largest two parties lacks an overall majority in 2015 but has enough MPs to form a stable coalition with the Liberal Democrats and they both invite the Liberal Democrats to coalition talks, Liberal Democrats have a moral duty to voters to talk first to whichever of the other parties has the more votes even if it has fewer MPs.

That would be the most democratic course. If Liberal Democrats believe in fairer representation of voters’ wishes, they should try first to form a coalition with the party that would probably have had the most seats if the election had been by a more representative system.

The second would be to insist on electoral reform, which is one of the party’s top two priorities.

The New Statesman article suggests that, if one party wins the most votes but not the most seats, there will be a revived interest in electoral reform, especially within the major party with the fewer MPs; i.e. the one that was robbed by the voting system. That happened in 1974 when the Conservatives won most votes but Labour won most seats. Unfortunately, it is probably too soon after the disastrously-run AV referendum to insist realistically on reform for the Commons.

However, post-election negotiations could be the route for electoral reform for local government, as it was in Scotland.

FPTP produces even more unrepresentative results locally than nationally. The major partner in any coalition based on agreeing to that reform would not be risking a loss of power nationally and all parties have much more experience of formal working relationships in local government anyway.

If another coalition is needed in 2015, the bottom line for Liberal Democrats must be STV for all subsequent local government elections in England and Wales.

That would be fair enough, especially if the senior coalition partner’s claim to office relied on the number of its votes instead of the number of its MPs; i.e., it should have been the largest party in the Commons and would have been the largest party in a more representative election.

Would the Liberal Democrats hold out for this crucial, long-term improvement to UK democracy whatever else they were offered instead?  Also, would they accept, not just any old PR that provided Party Representation but PR-STV, which alone provides Personal Representation and maximizes voters’ choices?

If the Conservative Party is persuaded to support PR at all for local government or any other elections, it is likely to want STV. This is because Conservatives pride themselves on valuing individualism and encouraging freedom of choice, so STV should be their natural system of choice.

If Liberal Democrats are invited by Labour to discuss a coalition, they should make the same demand.

Many Labour supporters have shown interest in electoral reform recently, so Labour may be quite receptive to the idea in principle although its centralist tendencies may make it reluctant to support STV. However, Liberal Democrats must insist on STV, which alone maximizes voters’ choices and provides proportional representation not only of parties but of any other divisions that matter to voters.

Furthermore, as Scotland and Northern Ireland already have STV for local government elections, it would be perverse to introduce a different PR system for the rest of the country. It would be particularly easy to legislate for STV for elections in London Boroughs because almost all wards there are multi-member.

On whatever else Liberal Democrats feel obliged to compromise in any coalition negotiations in 2015, they should not compromise on STV. STV, at least for local government, must be absolutely non-negotiable.

Note: STVis Liberal Democrat policy, but readers not familiar with the system can find information about it by visiting www.stvAction.org.uk.

* Anthony Tuffin is a former Liberal Party activist, independent of party politics since 1988 to devote his political energy to electoral reform. He is Chair of Make Votes Count In West Sussex, editor of STV Action and publisher of “STV News”

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13 Comments

  • Alisdair McGregor 17th Jun '14 - 3:54pm

    While PR for local elections is undoubtedly a worthy aim, so a PR replacement for the Lords. Which one should be a red line, and which simply a worthy aim, is a subject of much discussion.

  • I agree First Past Post is a odd way to decide number in parliament often means nation wide the larger vote as a % do not ultimately form a government and those who voted for other parties have their vote discarded proportional representation is the answer. A sec best is STV but still better. This is why I voted Lib dem last time shame that and many other things not get done.

  • The problem with Lords reform is the vested interests in the Commons doesn’t want to change and doesn’t want to gift more legitimacy to the Lords. Therefore is a proportional and representative electoral system, preferably of the Single Transferable Vote in local elections the pragmatic goal of realpolitik? However under the shadow of the Scottish Referendum dare we be more ambitious? Campaigning for national electoral reform and therefore charging a higher price in 2015 if we are to again quaff, from what has been electorally to date, the poisoned chalice of government?

  • PR of any sort is off the Agenda for the next 10 years at least – ref AV botched referendum saw to that….funny that everyone these days I meet claims to have voted for it . The People have spoken…….and now they live with the results …..tough.
    The Lib Dems should leave it alone if in Coalition again……..it will be a distraction & will again be sunk by vested interests ( and by Labour & Tories)………they don’t want it especially with a rising 4th Party vote.

  • Denis Mollison 17th Jun '14 - 6:15pm

    The Scottish Liberal Democrats achieved this for Scottish local elections through their 2003 coalition negotiations with Labour. There have now been two elections with this system and it’s generally working out well – see the Electoral Reform Society’s 2012 report: http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/downloadfile.php?PublicationFile=272
    The ERS have also produced shorter publications describing the advantages of STV for English local elections from each of the main parties’ perspectives.

    Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform (http://www.libdems.org.uk/lder) believe that this is the reform issue we should be pushing, ideally as a “red line”, in the 2015 election.

  • Daniel Henry 17th Jun '14 - 11:59pm

    So far Clegg’s given a fair number of signals that STV for local elections would be our constitutional priority if we were to enter coalition again.

  • peter tyzack 18th Jun '14 - 9:46am

    it was different last time, the Party’s focus HAD to be on the economy, and the economic needs of the country. This time there will a situation where each party should feel sore about the system which doesn’t deliver the seats they should have got. So the first negotiation conversation MUST include PR.. with an expectation that agreement will be forthcoming.
    IF anyone says (Greenfield) that the botched AV referendum has put it off the agenda, then one simply needs to point to the stitch-up of the process and the glee with which our media repeated the lies of the with vested interest in the status-quo. ie, our second red-line should be about honesty in political reporting and outlawing partisanship in any publication purporting to report ‘news’.

  • There are sound reasons for insisting on STV for local government in our manifesto and in the event of any coalition negotiations. Apart from the principle, we can point to the practical, positive experience of Scotland, now two elections into local government under STV; and the fact that, even after last month’s elections, there are still local Councils where Liberal Democrats are disproportionately over-represented, thus mitigating the self-interest accusation.

    So we should push hard for this.

    Though I wouldn’t stop there — yes, Lords reform should remain on our agenda — and we should use as our starting point the Cook, Tyler, Clarke cross-party recommendation of PR/STV , although the lessons of 2011/12 are that we need to articulate far better WHY a democratic Lords would benefit our society. And, while I reluctantly agree with Anthony Tuffin that the AV referendum has made Commons reform highly unlikely, we should not shy away from having PR/STV for the Commons in our manifesto, even if not as a principal post-election negotiating policy.

    This is because the real issue is power — it’s not even party proportionality, desirable though that is. It’s re-distributing power to the voter and away from the institutions and party machines that is the key deliverable of STV. That’s a Liberal principle and why we support STV and not just any old PR system.

    (Keith Sharp is also a Council member of the Electoral Reform Society)

  • 95 of the 96 councillors in Manchester are Labour, elected under FPTP. What a perversion of democracy that is! Who will scrutinise the behavoir of the Leadership? I predict bad decisions and corruption will follow, not because this ‘one-party state’ happens to be Labour contolled, but where the light of effective scrutiny by an effective opposition is lacking, it is sadly inevitable. The total domination of Eastleigh by the Lib Dems on the basis of votes cast is, in principle, no more acceptable. STV for local elections in England and Wales must be the next step towards a PR system for Westminster and MUST our number one bottom line in any future coalition negotiations.

  • Keith Sharp: Could you please explain why a House of Lords, democratically elected or otherwise, would benefit our society ? Are the members of the House of Commons really too busy to do their job properly and do we need any more politicians ? There are almost 1650 members of Parliament. That is far too many when we also have devolved Parliaments and Assemblies. The US with 5 or 6 times the population manages with just over 500 .

  • We should always have gone for electoral reform for local government first. But central diktat is not the way forward. Ian is right – go for some pilot schemes in a variety of types and sizes of councils. There are lots of un-warded parish councils which have elections for the whole council from one list. STV instead of umpteen crosses would be ideal for them for example.

  • Keith Sharp 19th Jun '14 - 8:28am

    nvelope2003:

    I do favour two tiers of legislature (you imply we should scrap the Lords). In the UK, the executive is part of the legislature (unlike the US which you cite); ie government ministers, aspirant government ministers, shadow ministers and those who hope to be minsters/shadow ministers are all part of the Commons. And of course, the size of Government is growing all the time and so a sizeable proportion of our MPs are inevitably compromised in their role as legislators because of their executive responsibilities or ambitions. A second chamber, with members’ roles quite separate and independent from the Government/Executive and dedicated to legislative scrutiny should be better placed to bring about better laws.

    This would also (to another point you make) enable us to reduce our number of politicians. The appalling sight of parties (including the Liberal Democrats) stuffing the Lords with more and more appointees bloats that chamber to its present huge size. A reformed Lords would have significantly less members and a fixed number (there is no upper limit currently that I’m aware of). Then, if you have an effective second chamber, you can look at the optimum size of the Commons itself. I think party policy is still to reduce the number of Commons MPs, though that should be in the context of the size of the Government/Executive and some settlement of the ‘English Parliament’ (not to mention the West Lothian) question.

    But I agree these arguments need to be carefully articulated, in a way which identifies the benefits to all of us. This was the failure of the Coalition Lords Reform effort — the starting assumption was that an elected Lords is a good thing in its own right and the evidence is that this simply isn’t automatically accepted by the electorate at large.

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