The stitch-up – our dodgy electoral system

We have to plan for success. We can’t sow our crops the day before harvest. In 2010, our demand for PR was dropped because it would appear to the general public to be a quixotic ditch in which to die – simultaneously esoteric and self-serving.

So we have to prepare the ground well in advance. To take every opportunity to discredit the stitch-up that passes for an electoral system in this country. Make no mistake about it – it is a deliberate stitch up; that’s what we’ve got to ram home. It is literally a stitch-up designed to entrench establishment parties (specifically the Conservatives), conceded in exchange for allowing poorer people to vote. That’s not spin or distortion, but historical fact.

Our current system, Single Member Plurality, was a concession eventually given to Lord Salisbury by Gladstone in 1885. Why? In exchange for allowing extension of the franchise from 2 million to 5.5 million; for the first time, a majority of adult males. Prior to that, election of MPs was more community based – most communities sent 2 MPs to Parliament, while larger communities sent 3 and smaller communities just 1. A significant amount of flexibility on population sizes of communities was the norm. It was still disproportionate, but at least it was based on something – the natural community sending a variable number of MPs to Parliament.

Lord Salisbury’s stitch-up involved moving away from natural communities with multiple MPs towards artificial districts, each with a single MP (there were a handful of exceptions which had 2 MPs, but the Labour Government of Attlee removed those, complicit in the Conservative’s stitch-up), based mainly on equalising population. The intent to try to retain some sort of natural community link was there, but has been inevitably diluted over the many redistributions since. The Conservatives calculated that it would minimise any adverse effects on them. They were right. Multimember constituencies lend themselves easily to transition to proportionality; single member constituencies do not.

Towards the tail-end of World War I, the Liberal-dominated Parliament, recognising that more voices were now needed to be heard with the rise of the Labour Party, passed legislation to take action to deal with this stitch-up: a mix of STV and AV. Despite Conservative opposition, it bounced between the Lords and Commons, being repeatedly passed by the Commons and amended by the Lords, but was lost when the next election was called. The Conservative-dominated Commons afterwards abandoned the reform.
These days, resistance to PR from both of the Big Two is endemic, due to the monopolistic lock on power it gives them: either is the only real choice to the other. It’s also hugely hypocritical, and this needs to be rammed home at every opportunity.

Labour insist they believe in fairness… except where it might cost them a lock on power. They prioritise their own power over fairness, every time.

The Conservatives insist they believe in choice and competition pushing up standards and that monopolies are bad… except where they are the ones benefiting from monopoly. They prioritise their own power over competition, every time.

We must call them on it, again and again. We need to set the narrative on the electoral system: that the current one is a stitch-up intended to exclude other voices, recognised as not fit for purpose a hundred years ago, with electoral reform passed by Parliament – but abandoned due to entrenched interests. Again and again, we need to refer to the current system as “A dodgy stitch-up”. When people challenge us on that, we get to go into detail as above; if they do not, the narrative gets accepted. As soon as multimember constituencies (which can truly be based on genuine communities) are seen as more legitimate than single member constituencies (which require artificial divisions, far more divorced from real existing communities, exacerbated by frequent redrawings), we’re 90% of the way there.

This leads to our demand for PR not being arcane and self-serving, but us saying simply to potential Coalition partners: “Are you willing to give up your stitched-up system in order to work with others?”

* Andy Cooke is an ex-RAF Engineer and analyst who joined the Lib Dems after the Coalition. He has campaigned in the Richmond Park by-election, and in OxWAb and Bath in the 2017 General Election

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  • You’ve lost me – why are multi-member constituencies better? Surely they’d either have to be larger, losing more of the already tenuous community link, or we’d have to have far more MPs.

  • Sorry, but it’s an exaggeration to say that towards the tail end of World War One Parliament was Liberal dominated.

    The Liberal Party was split in the Commons and the Lords was dominated by the Tories. The PM of the Coalition was too busy dishing out ‘coupons’ to his personal supporters in the first past the post system, selling honours for his personal war chest and busy telling everybody that he was ‘The Man Who Won the War’.

  • Ken Munn – multi-member constituencies can be genuinely based on a community. For example, you could have a constituency of “Sheffield”, which sends 5 members to Parliament, or artificially divide up Sheffield into five one-member constituencies just in order to create one-member constituencies.

    When you go for the artificially-divide-based-almost-solely-on-population, you’ll always have problems making them genuine communities (unless the UK just happens to be composed of 650 equal population communities – which it isn’t). The community link is tenuous at the moment because the communities are tenuous. For example, I campaigned in Oxford West and Abingdon. What community is “The bits of Oxford that are left over from Oxford East, plus Abingdon, plus Kidlington, plus villages to the west and north of Oxford”?
    The current community link is simply a means of finding out which MP has a geographical coincidence with yourself – some will work this harder than others.

    If we were starting from multi-member constituencies based on communities and aiming to transition to the existing scenario, it’d be very difficult to justify it:

    “Well, you see, we’ll divide up the existing communities artificially so we only get one member per constituency. We’ll re-draw these regularly as well; I know it means we’ll never have any settled communities reflected by the constituencies, but that’s a sacrifice we’ll have to make. We’ll provide a closed party list of one, so the voters have no choice – if they want that party, they have to take that candidate, like it or lump it. The big benefit is that the final result of the composition of the national Parliament gets very much disconnected from the composition of the national vote, and voices other than the most established two get isolated and minimised; in the end, we can end up with essentially a governing class split into two factions, each with a monopoly on not being the other. People will have to vote for one of them or risk getting the other, regardless of what they actually want.”

  • Keith Sharp 6th Jul '17 - 10:33am

    Multi member constituencies (as under the single transferable vote) are the best way of a) enhancing local constituency links between electors and elected, while b) assuring a proportionate result — ie representative of people’s preferences as well as parties.

    Expanding on pt a), Currently, the majority of us are represented by an MP we did not for. If you have four or five member constituencies (the right number of members for a nationwide proportionate result) you have the same number of MP’s per constituent, but the constituent has a choice of which MP in her/his constituency to approach. This is nothing new; we already have multi-councillor wards and, during my time as a councillor, I found it worked perfectly well — from the perspective of the constituent as much as the elected representative. There is nothing magic about a single MP/councillor for the ‘MP constituency link’ to work optimally. Multi member constituencies give more choice to the constituents and make it much more likely that they will have access to an MP they actually voted for.

  • Richard Underhill 6th Jul '17 - 10:34am

    The Public Relations of Proportional Representation are poor because opponents oppose party list at length and end their arguments there with a negative conclusion.
    OR they say it was decided in the AV referendum,
    OR they say STV is complicated, which is untrue for electorate.
    We should not claim that STV abolishes tactical voting, the voter can do whatever s/he likes, and may therefore get whatever s/he voted for.
    In 1992 the Conservatives had three leadership candidates, Major, Hurd and Heseltine and had STV in their system, but did not reach the third round because Hurd and Heseltine withdrew in favour of Major after the second round. They trusted their MPs with STV, describing them as a “sophisticated electorate”, which implied distrust of the tory membership and of the general electorate.

  • Richard Underhill – a very good point, and it’s meant playing the game as our opponents wish it to be played. Rather than justifying an unjustifiable system (SMP), they attack the legitimacy of the proposed replacement (usually inaccurately or unfairly), but while they’re on the attack, they don’t need to defend.

    I think we should turn the tables and always attack the SMP system – created as a concession to Lord Salisbury to promote Conservative power when the poorer were allowed to vote by creating artificial single-member divisions where none really exist, just to exclude other voices and choices and stitch things up for the established parties.

  • Keith Sharp 6th Jul '17 - 10:43am

    Could I also flag up our internal party AO for electoral reform — Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform (LDER) — — and ask members to join and get involved? Our job is to try to keep electoral reform high on the party’s policy priorities; and to start and support debates such as this one within the party.

    Please join us — we are only as effective as our party activists.

    (I am current LDER Vice Chair.)

  • David Raw,
    You have a point; I should have said “Liberal-led Parliament”, as that’s more justifiable. The key point is that the Liberals had the Prime Minister and were one of the Big Two Parties at the time – which smashes the “self-interest” argument. It’s something Liberals have been pushing back to when they were part of the Big Two, not something that has become of interest in order to get back into power.

  • David Pocock 6th Jul '17 - 10:55am

    I guess the real question is how do we get millions of voters turned on to this. I know all the arguments but then I’m a political geek, how do we get the narrative to the general public through a labour or Tory media.

  • David Pocock – that’s the crucial challenge. If our MPs and other representatives casually refer to the system as a dodgy stitch up, it becomes part of discourse. If you repeat something often enough, it cuts through.
    Even if it becomes “Well, the Lib Dems would say that, wouldn’t they?” it opens the discussion on the grounds of legitimacy of the current system, putting the onus on the Big Two to defend it. Which is somewhere we have a lot of ammunition.
    They either have to challenge it (opening the discussion on grounds we’d prefer) or let it go, and letting it go gives legitimacy to it.

  • OK – can see it in the case of Sheffield, but what would you propose for:

    a) Single-member towns and cities – let’s say Eastbourne for example
    b) Rural(ish) areas without major population centres – East Hampshire, perhaps

    I take it there’s a general reluctance to increase the overall number of MPs?
    And would you stick with the existing MP:pop ration of approx 1:70,000?

  • ken munn,
    This is down for discussion and best suggestion. My personal preference is to base it on existing counties and unitary divisions, with an aim of keeping between 3 and 12 MPs per community. We retain the current number of MPs (if we eventually decide to change the number, let’s do one change at a time!)
    For example, “Oxfordshire” is a community that all inhabitants of Oxfordshire readily recognise and would justify 6 MPs. We’d end up with, in a proportional system, 3 Conservatives, 2 Labour, 1 Lib Dem – IF people voted the same way (they probably would vote more honestly). People would usually end up with a local MP of the party they voted for.
    (In 2015, Oxfordshire would have given 4 Con, 1 Lab, 1 Lib Dem – assuming Layla Moran was our top candidate in Oxfordshire, she’d already have been an MP for 2 years).
    All existing constituencies fall readily into one of those counties or authorities, most of which are easily recognisable to inhabitants.
    We would have to (in my personally preferred system; I hasten to add that it’s just my preference at the moment and wiser minds would look at it) divide up larger counties according to a real rather than artificial division (eg Kent along the Medway, Essex as North Essex and South Essex (I’m an Essex man by heritage and know that’s a real difference), and so on).

  • David Pocock 6th Jul '17 - 11:29am

    Hi Andy thanks for the reply.

    I agree with you, I would say that is more or less the status quo at the moment however and progress is very slow. That said if I had an answer to how lib dems can break through the media then we would be in a much better situation everywhere.

    I guess if we proceed as you suggest then there might be a critical mass in the public discourse eventually, just not sure that satisfies me.

  • Andy, I’m liking it, but would Eastbourne become part of, say, East Sussex, in which case you have to bear in mind substantially different major communities on the coast vs smaller towns and villages inland, each with little in common with the other.

    Similarly if East Hampshire became part of Hampshire it would be dominated by Portsmouth and Southampton, unless you split it further with – say – ‘Solent-side’ and ‘the rest’. Even in ‘the rest’ there’s not much single community feeling, except for which cricket team they support.

  • Kay Kirkham 6th Jul '17 - 11:43am

    In this discussion, don’t forget local government where the same problem exists. To move the process forward, we need a number of STV pilot schemes in a variety of local government areas ( mets, counties, districts, parishes ) to promote the concept. Parishes might be a particularly promising start because many are are not warded and elect a group of councillors for the whole parish. Also, many are not openly political so no party could be accused of feathering it’s own nest.

    After the AV debacle, a softly-softly approach might work rather than a big bang approach.

  • Denis Mollison 6th Jul '17 - 11:50am

    @ken munn, Andy Cooke

    You might like to see the scheme based on local government areas that I did for the party in 2009, and which actually got voted on in Parliament in Feb 2010, as a Lib Dem amendment to Gordon Brown’s feeble “Constitutional Reform Bill”. It was of course voted down by the united force of Labour and Tories , but supported by SNP, PC, SDLP and Green MPs.
    It’s at
    In this scheme the number of MPs was to be reduced by about 20%, in line with party policy at that time.
    Even with that reduction, Kent and Essex were each entitled to 14 MPs, so divided into 3 constituencies each. The groupings of LGAs within each county were just my best guess – if the scheme had got implemented I imagine the Boundary Commission would have improved that level of detail.]

  • Jane Ann Liston 6th Jul '17 - 11:58am

    Kay, we’ve had STV for local government in Scotland for 10 years, so you can see how it works. Note that LibDems obtained this as part of our partnership agreement with Labour in the first term of the Scottish Parliament, even although we knew we would at best gain about 3 extra council seats in the whole of Scotland, and it would be the SNP and Tories who would benefit most.

  • @ken munn,
    It’s a valid concern, and one that the MPs for East Sussex (in that scenario) would need to bear in mind. To be fair, under our current stitched-up system, many individual MPs go to heroic efforts to represent the communities within their artificial divisions (Lib Dem MPs are often among the best of these – this isn’t me being biased, but down to the amount of work Lib Dem candidates have to do to win and retain seats).
    If East Sussex had 7 MPs, they should be usually geographically distributed just by sheer random factors. Constituents could choose to contact an MP based on geographical distance, political distance, specific expertise (if one MP is a particular expert on social housing and that’s your question, you may prefer them for this issue), even social proximity, while today they have to do by geographical distance based on artificial division only.
    Amusingly, when I brought this up with a Tory acquaintance, his criticism wasn’t on PR (as I’d assumed) but in saying that they should be based on traditional counties.
    (I was minded to agree a compromise: traditional counties for his side, PR for my side, everyone’s reasonably content…)

    @Kay Kirkham – with 20/20 hindsight, agreeing STV for local elections rather than an AV referendum would certainly have been a better compromise in 2010 – habituating the public to PR and isolating Westminster elections as standout unfairness.

    @Denis Mollison – very interesting; I’ll have a good read 🙂

  • “You might like to see the scheme based on local government areas that I did for the party in 2009”

    Thanks, Dennis, will take a look.

  • We should make electoral reform a non negotiable point for ever entering a coalition again. As we at least should have done for local government in 2010 ..( which I am sure we could have got in 2010) if our leadership really understood the fact that under our current system we will always get smashed in the election after a coalition

    We should have a clear Party policy on the system and preferred system we want and say its non negotiable (not up for a referendum!)

    However we delude ourselves if we think Electoral Reform is going to persuade many voters to vote for us…in fact the way we go on about it will put them off. We just need to put it under the heading of the need to change the way we are governed.

    Before 1979 Margaret Thatcher didn’t go round discussing at length with the ordinary voter the ways of controlling Money Supply. When she got power she just did it.

    We need to start showing that we to understand how you really bring about change. Decide what you want to do and do it when you get the chance.

  • Paul Pettinger 6th Jul '17 - 12:39pm

    Electoral Reform (ensuring equal votes) should be presented as a human rights and equality issue, because that it was it is. Advancing it this way – focusing on the rights of individual voters, rather than complaints of disenfranchised parties – also makes it harder for our opponents to argue against us.

  • Very good point, Paul – I can feel a coherent message beginning to form. But it has to be made sexy enough to appeal to those with little/no interest in matters political.

  • Denis Mollison 6th Jul '17 - 1:14pm

    @Andy Cooke “… based on traditional counties” – I thought that feature of my scheme ought to appeal to Tories!

    I agree that it is likely to be easier to get reform at local government level first. Northern Ireland and Scotland both already use STV, and Wales has just consulted on local goverment reforms including STV. Also, much of England already has 3-member wards, which would make immediate implementation easy, though that’s less than ideal as regards fitting natural communities. For a good fit, you need a range of ward sizes (e.g. 3, 4 or 5 – member), and need to allow `deviations from parity’ of up to about 15% (because a natural community with entitlement of 3.5 councillors needs to be given either 3 or 4).
    Scotland also has a consultation currently on its Islands Bill, which would permit 2-member or possibly even 1-member wards for sparse or island communities; less than ideal for proportionality but acceptable in a limited number of special cases. [I made the same allowance for, e.g., the Isle of Wight (2) and the Western Isles (1) inthe 2009 scheme.]

  • Joseph Bourke 6th Jul '17 - 2:09pm


    how much difference would it make to voter representation at local level where you already have 3 member wards and considerably less motivation for tactical voting?

  • Andrew McCaig 6th Jul '17 - 2:27pm

    I have been a member of the Electoral Reform Society all my adult life, and I am a big fan of STV. However realistically we can get much more support for an additional member system such as Holyrood, and personally I would be happy to see that as our policy for Westminster.

    However STV is perfect for local government with certain caveats. I would force any political party to put up at least two candidates per seat. This is very rare in Scotland, and removes the chance to vote for the most active or effective candidates. Second, combining wards into 6 member units gives more choice and much better proportionality; 3 is really too small for STV to work in the way it should.. The other thing that needs addressing in all multimember elections is the alphabet effect, which can really only be addressed by electronic voting with a randomised ballot…
    In these days of electronic communication larger geographical areas are much easier to deal with, and I agree very much that getting an MP who represents your views is much more important than the often mythical “constituency link”

  • Andrew McCaig 6th Jul '17 - 2:31pm

    Joseph Bourke,

    A huge difference. The vast majority of 3 member wards in England are represented by only one Party and I don’t know where you get the idea that there is little motivation for tactical voting??

  • Andrew McCaig 6th Jul '17 - 2:38pm

    It is certainly true that since our unfortunate demise, most metropolitan wards elect three Labour councillors with 65% plus. This gives very little motivation for any voting, tactical or otherwise, no campaigning in or out of elections, and promotes councillors who are either lazy or intent on pursuing some “bigger” agenda than the needs of residents..

    Apart from that of course, FPTP is just fine!

  • David Evans 6th Jul '17 - 3:41pm

    Andy Cooke – You are right to say ‘ with 20/20 hindsight, agreeing STV for local elections rather than an AV referendum would certainly have been a better compromise in 2010,’ but for quite a number of Lib Dems it didn’t take hindsight. They were saying it at the time. Sadly the powers that be thought they knew so much better.

  • Frances Alexander 6th Jul '17 - 4:04pm

    “Well Philip, what is Proportional Representation?” asked his teacher on being given a leaflet. She told me he put his hands in his pockets and thought and said “Buckinghamshire has 5 conservative Members of Parliament. If we had proportional representation, we would have three Conservative, one Liberal and one Labour and everyone would be represented.”
    Now if an 8 year old can grasp that I think most people can. Twice in my life I have voted for someone who was elected to our District Council (thank you, Trevor Snaith) I have felt much more affinity to Liberal / Liberal Democrat MPs than I have to the local Conservatives that have represented my area.

  • nvelope2003 6th Jul '17 - 4:08pm

    PR may be the fairest electoral system but First Past The Post did not stop Labour from achieving power in 1924 or Sinn Fein from winning the majority of seats in Ireland in 1918.
    If the Liberal Democrats could put forward policies that appealed to a majority of the electorate they would win but they do not and will not because they believe in things which only a minority of voters support and they have no intention of changing that. It is time for a revolution in this moribund party or the formation of a new party.

  • nvelope2003 – oh man, in another thread, you denounced many of Corbyn’s popular policies which I and Dave believe that Libdem should have copied like renationalization of utilities or abolishing tuition fees as Cuba and Venezuela (when they are common in Continental Europe).

    I have to tell you that beating Corbyn in the race of offering “free stuff” (or the race to the left) is actually feasible. Once Labour is forced to attack us from the right, they are dead ducks. Justin Trudeau was successful because he put his party to the left of NDP. In several elections (like under Lloyd George or Kennedy) that Liberal actually experienced a big surge, they campaigned from the left of Labour.

    Not to mention that according to BBC, a new report have found that Saudi Arabia is heavily involved in the financing of radicalized Islamic in the UK. If this sufficiently worries the electorate, then banging on imposing sanctions on Saudi will be very popular.

  • nvelope2003 6th Jul '17 - 6:30pm

    Thomas: Please get your facts straight. I did not denounce Corbyn’s policies but asked whether they were affordable. “Free Stuff” is a myth as someone has to pay for it. So workers with modest incomes will pay for middle class students from better paid families to have free tuition and for well paid commuters to have cheaper rail fares. Why are you so impressed with countries like Cuba and Venezuela where in the latter there are riots every day because of the shortages created by the sort of misguided policies you support. Just imagine if food was free – the waste would be colossal and shortages would be everday occurrences. In Russia people bought cheap subsidised bread to feed pigs because pig food was not subsidised so huge quantities of bread was made and baked for pigs using expensive fuel and machinery. I expect you are a keen environmentalist !

    Lloyd George did not beat Labour, he lost in 1923 and even more in 1929. The last time the Liberal Party won an election was in 1906 under Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman when the Labour Party scarcely existed. By 1910 it just scraped in by relying on a handful of Labour MPs and Irish Nationalists in return for granting Irish Home Rule

    Kennedy was not very successful in implementing his plans although Johnson did have some success because of his ruthless political techniques and Trudeau has failed to do so in some respects, for instance the promise to introduce PR was dropped recently.

    In Continental Europe and other parts of the UK admission to universities is restricted because of the cost of free tuition fees.

    You overlook the issue of the sort of tax increases and shortages which would arise from your policies which would probably cause many people to vote Conservative. Whatever they say people do not like paying for other people to have “Free Stuff” and most people do not spend much time in hospitals or use trains as they have their own cars. If you want to be really popular you would have to abolish VED and fuel tax and reduce income tax and VAT, all impossible for a party that wished to give everyone Free Stuff

  • Denis Mollison 6th Jul '17 - 7:03pm

    Andrew McCaig 6th Jul ’17 – 2:27pm
    “However realistically we can get much more support for an additional member system such as Holyrood” –

    I don’t think we should give up on STV for Parliament yet. Both Scotland and Wales have had reviews of their AMS systems, and in both cases (Buchanan in Scotland, Richards in Wales) the reviews have recommended replacing it with STV. Those were both over 10 years ago, but there has been recent advocacy again this year. Yes, AMS attracted Blair’s Labour government that created the devolved parliament and assembly, but its many drawbacks have been noticed: it is reasonably proportional, but in other respects combines most of the bad features of both FPTP and list systems.

    “combining wards into 6 member units gives more choice and much better proportionality; 3 is really too small for STV to work in the way it should” –
    3-member wards have produced surprisingly proportional results in Scotland. It’s perhaps not generally appreciated that under STV a party tends to be fairly represented in wards where it gets more than half a quota in first preferences, which is only 12.5% in a 3-member ward, 10% in a 4-member one. Perhaps using 4-7 rather than 3-5 is appropriate for densely populated areas, but in sparse rural areas even 3-4 brings complaints – as the Scottish Parliamanet’s draft Islands Bill demonstrates.

    “The other thing that needs addressing in all multimember elections is the alphabet effect” –

    Agreed, and it’s clear this will be a major topic for any review of the Scottish system – where we already have electronic counting so that implementation of randomised ballot order should be easy.

  • I suppose our current system gives the Conservatives a monopoly of Right-wing MPs, and Labour a near-monopoly of Left-wing ones. Perhaps supporters of voting reform could do worse than asking people if they have a high opinion of those monopolists.

  • Be a lot of happier parties with PR or STV; at the moment first past the post means people who really don’t like or agree with each other band together because it’s the only way they can be elected.

  • Going back to the original notion of a stich-up (when I was young people still used the phrase Buggins’ Turn) we have to remember that Labour and the Conservatives support it with different expectations. The Conservatives need it so that they get power most of the time, Labour stick with it so they get their turn occasionally. Blair, of course, managed a couple of extensions by being Not Quite Labour. Clearly Corbyn’s Labour Party has more of an appetite for changing things but on the electoral system they still prefer the chance of getting their turn than to dealing with the way in which they get defeated more often than the Tories.

  • Andrew McCaig 6th Jul '17 - 9:08pm

    The real point about STV for me is the opportunity it gives for choice within parties. At the moment MPs are chosen by the Party, not the electorate, and in 3 member STV wards it is no better, because most Parties will only put up one candidate.
    I have always believed that STV in 6 member seats cemented the peace process in N Ireland. The likes of Ian Paisley realised that if they did not moderate their position they might get displaced by more peaceful candidates of their own party. Councillors should have the same sort of worries about how well they represent their constituents..

    I suspect the reality is that in large rural areas people would tend to vote rather regionally especially in cross party transfers, and might well end up with someone from their locality. The beauty of STV is that if they want that they can get it, but I regard 3 member wards as a stunted version of the system. On a more parochial level I am sure 6 member wards would give the Lib Dems representation in far more places in Scotland…

  • Andrew McCaig 6th Jul '17 - 9:19pm

    Again we should not ignore the fact that there was a proper commission that recommended AV+ Also that we need to defend the London Assembly from the Tories.

    I would have one house elected by AV+ or AM and the other by STV, personally. I can see advantages in having some MSPs with a regional and some with a local focus, so I like both systems for different reasons, and both are so much better than FPTP (or AV)

  • Andy, reverting to the Sheffield example, currently five constituencies. Under your Greater Sheffield proposal presumably every party would want to contest every place, so would put up five candidates. Con, Lab, LD, Green would account for 20 candidates. Chuck in a Kipper or two, a Raving Loony, and few independents and there could easily be 25 or more names on the ballot paper. Pity the poor voter.

    Have I understood that properly?

  • Nonconformistradical 6th Jul '17 - 9:39pm

    “The real point about STV for me is the opportunity it gives for choice within parties. At the moment MPs are chosen by the Party, not the electorate…….”

    STV doesn’t only give choice within a party – it gives choice ACROSS parties. There is nothing in STV which forces a voter to use all their preferences for candidates of just one party. If for example a voter was generally of a labour-voting disposition but thought that Joe Bloggs of the LibDems, their overall political disposition notwithstanding, would be a good person to have in Parliament – perhaps because of their campaigning work in a particular field, they could give Joe Bloggs a relatively high preference – ahead of some of their their less favoured labour candidates.

    Donkeys years ago, had I had the opportunity to vote in the Stoke area in a STV Parliamentary election, despite being a dyed-in-the-wool Liberal, I could imagine giving a relatively high preference to the late Jack Ashley – because of his campaigning work for disabled people.

    STV allows the voters to create their own candidate lists – the parties don’t make lists for you in the order they’d like to see their candidates elected.

    STV takes power away from parties and gives it to the voters instead. Wonder why tories and labour don’t want it….?

  • Graham Evans 6th Jul '17 - 9:58pm

    While the county councils are useful starting point for looking at multi-member constituencies, their boundaries have often not kept up with changes on the ground. For instance Poole is in Dorset and Bournemouth in Hampshire but the two boroughs merge into one continuous conurbation. Similarly parts of west Kent have strong links to parts of East Sussex. Also some urban areas in Surrey, Kent, and Essex really ought to be included in Greater London. Ironically, dividing up London could also be a headache, because a single constituency would be too big, but any combination of London Boroughs would be arbitrary, as the existing GLA wards demonstrate.

  • Denis Mollison 6th Jul '17 - 10:07pm

    @Andrew Craig – ‘we should not ignore the fact that there was a proper commission that recommended AV+ ‘
    Actually, I think that example demonstrates why we should not accept a compromise.
    Roy Jenkins settled for recommending AV+ because Tony Blair said he would not accept STV.
    But then Tony Blair refused to act even on that, and one reason he got away with it is that AV+ was another miserable compromise which it would be difficult to get voters enthused with. Jenkins should have stiuck to his guns and recommended STV; as it is, all he left us with was muddied waters.

  • Denis Mollison 6th Jul '17 - 10:14pm

    @Graham Evans
    You may well be right about some county councils. But if you want a joined-up system, the answer is to work bottom-up: first redraw the council boundaries, and then use them as a basis for parliamentary multi-member constituencies.

  • Denis Mollison 7th Jul '17 - 9:21am

    @ken munn 6th Jul ’17 – 9:24pm – “there could easily be 25 or more names on the ballot paper”
    Experience in Northern Ireland and Scotland is that under STV there are usually around twice as many candidates as seats to be filled. For full data and illustrated results for all wards in the recent Scottish Council elections, see

  • Keith Sharp 7th Jul '17 - 9:37am

    Andrew: it is true that under STV, parties are likely to put up only so many candidates as the number of seats they think they can win in any ward. But even allowing for that, the evidence in Scotland, where STV has been used in local elections since 2007, is that there has been a marked increase in the numbers of candidates fielded since STV was introduced. The number of uncontested wards has dropped and this all means that voter choice has increased. Denis M has some data (previous post) and the Electoral Reform Society also has comparative data on pre-and post- STV elections in Scottish local government.

  • Be careful what you wish for….Over the last few years PR would have seen a major UKIP presence and, at around 7%, the only liberals in Westminster would be those running naked or eating hats…

  • Graham: ” Ironically, dividing up London could also be a headache, because a single constituency would be too big, but any combination of London Boroughs would be arbitrary, as the existing GLA wards demonstrate.”

    By postal area? W, WC, EC, SW, W, NW, N, NE, E, SE gives 10 super-constituencies. Areas outside of the central postal areas could be relatively easily coped with – outside W, outside SW, etc.

  • ken munn,

    Yes, there could be a lot of choice – but choice is a good thing in this. There’s research strongly suggesting that proportional systems tend to have greater participation and satisfaction with democracy, something we very much need here.

    Separately – I haven’t looked into it in depth yet, but your suggestion of Central London being split by postcode looks inspired to me – everyone automatically knows what constituency they’re in and there are discernible community differences around them. I love it!

    expats: yes, there would be. That’s democracy, and arguably it would never have got to the point where UKIP had so much support in the first place had a more responsive Parliament (with better voter satisfaction with democracy) been in place. Nevertheless, democracy means listening to the voters, whether they are “right” or “wrong” by our lights. Liberalism is freedom, and freedom has to include the right to make the wrong choice, else it is no freedom at all (and the right to take the consequences). While overruling the people “for their own good” may be benevolent (at least in intent), it would still be tyranny.

  • @ken Munn – a quick look indicates that EC should probably be added to E, and WC to W (populations are very low for each of them), but taking that into account, the “W” constituency would have 500,000 people and justify 5 MPs – a perfect size.
    For Greater London, you could have N, outside N (EN1-5), NE, E (incl EC), Outer E (IG and DA postcodes inside of London), SE, Outer SE (BR postcodes inside of London plus IN14 and IN16), Greater South (CR and SM postcodes inside of Greater London), SW, Outer SW (TW and KT postcodes inside of London), W (including WC), Outer W (UB postcodes), NW, Outer NW (HA postcodes).
    Average number of members would be 5.2 (probably varying between 4 and 8)

  • Andy Cooke 7th Jul ’17 – 10:11am……expats: Nevertheless, democracy means listening to the voters, whether they are “right” or “wrong” by our lights. Liberalism is freedom, and freedom has to include the right to make the wrong choice, else it is no freedom at all (and the right to take the consequences). While overruling the people “for their own good” may be benevolent (at least in intent), it would still be tyranny…….

    Hmmmm? You mean like our stance on the referendum vote?

  • Dave Orbison 7th Jul '17 - 11:53am

    I am not sure electoral reform rates that highly in comparison to many other issues in voters minds. If asked a simple question about the support for PR it may have support granted, but it is always likely to be squeezed out by other concerns.

    I think it’s a bit daft to blame Tories and Labour for this. In any event I think it is counterproductive to the LibDems being taken seriously. It just strikes some people as self-serving in putting emphasis on this ahead of other concerns they have. On top of this the one shot that the LibDems had in the Coalition was lost partly through poor negotiations by LibDems and the Tories and due to a pretty dreadful campaign. Yes, yes I know that wasn’t true PR that was on offer but in the real world try asking anyone on the doorstep what they remember or care about this issue.

    Surely the main focus for LibDems is that only 7% of the electorate are voting LibDem and that this is continuing to fall. Unless and until the LibDems decide on a clear direction, message and consistent set of policies they will be reduced to nothing more than a debating society chatting about PR, EU etc.

  • expats – I’m uncomfortable about the push to ignore the referendum result. I’m content that a referendum on the deal is compatible with being Liberal; a straight second referendum or just ignoring the result for being the “wrong” result would not be.

    Dave Orbison – The lack of concern over PR and the perception of being self-serving are the key focus of the article – while these remain as they are, we’re not getting PR (especially as it is against Labour and Conservative self-interests, in defiance of each of their professed ideologies). Getting PR is a necessary but not sufficient step; not getting it renders both the work to get policies over to the public hugely difficult (“Why should I pay attention or vote for you? It’s about who will govern us, and that won’t be you”), and if we ever do get into a position to go into Government again (with someone else, because a leap to majority is incredibly unlikely), without PR, it’s suicide.
    So without PR, we either never go into Government again (in which case, what’s the point? Elections are over who governs, and if we always go into them saying “won’t be us,” then we’re on a hiding to nothing), or we do and get smashed again.
    A wider point is that PR systems are found to be more representative of public opinion, encourage participation, and are associated with higher satisfaction in democracy (and represent all voices rather than the approved two), so is an actual good.
    Basically, the choice is between DR and PR.
    (DR – Disproportional Representation; PR – Proportional Representation). Those who are benefiting from DR don’t want it to change; that’s the point we have to hammer home. We just don’t want the game to continue being rigged.

  • > Andy Cooke writes:
    > Basically, the choice is between DR and PR… (DR –
    > Disproportional Representation; PR – Proportional
    > Representation).

    Andy Cooke, since you are approaching this as an exercise in problem solving and exploring ideas, I wonder if you could be more specific about where you see the dividing line between proportionality and disproportionality?

    It is an interesting exercise to try to set out quantified criteria.

  • What about one of those systems some countries have where you have PR, but whichever party gets most seats gets loads of bonus seats so that it can actually form a government?

    I think that’s how they do it in Greece?

  • nvelope2003 7th Jul '17 - 3:35pm

    Perhaps it would be simpler if we adopted the system favoured by President Maduro of Venezuela where he appoints the Constitutional Convention when the majority of the electorate votes for the opposition.

    It is very unlikely that PR will ever be introduced in the UK. When the Liberals won in Canada recently they did not introduce it as they said they would, because they claimed the conclusions of the committee set up to review the system were inconclusive and too many options had been put forward. The leader of the Green Party there was reduced to tears as she had trusted Mr Trudeau to do what he had promised. Did anyone say free tution fees ? If you make promises you have to keep them. If the Liberal Democrats had done so they might not be needing PR now – might even be the Government. Have a nice weekend.

  • Adrian PR – Oh, that’s the sort of question that can get me rabitting on for hours about methods to compare disproportionality (eg, while the Gallagher Index is preferred, I prefer the Sainte-Lague Index), but that’s probably less than useful.
    A proportional system is one where the aim of proportionality is extant and many of the problems that plague disproportional ones (ie majoritarian ones) are avoided.
    Fortunately a lot of work is already done on this and pretty much all who have studied it conclude that the major non-proportional ones are SMP (which we have), bloc vote, SV, runoff systems, and AV.
    The major proportional ones used are STV, AMS, and Party List.
    The smaller (in terms of number of members) the seat, the more disproportional, and then arger, the more proportional. Below 3 members is usually very difficult to get proportional. (So Single Member seats are almost always worst for this).

  • Dav – I can see the line of thinking, but my instinctive response when the established party politicians complain about the need for compromise is to think of the adage: “Politics is the art of compromise”.
    Whilst I know that the current DR system punishes parties that compromise, a PR system would not be nearly as savage, allowing them to get on with doing their job.
    Who knows – maybe allowing choice and competition in politics would push up standards.

  • Neil Sandison 7th Jul '17 - 6:19pm

    First secure it in all local government elections .with all out elections on a four yearly cycle .Then get the public used to counting up to 3 at elections .
    Then go after parliamentary elections , incremental change is more likely to gain cross party support and weaken the case for FPTP .

  • Yeovil Yokel 7th Jul '17 - 8:13pm

    Congratulations everybody on a fascinating and most enlightening thread. Many thanks in particular to Andy Cooke for initiating it and adding detailed and well-reasoned clarifying comments – with your campaigning work as well it sounds as if you’ve become a real asset to the party, well done.

  • While I recognise that STV is party policy, I was a supporter but now I am not convinced it gives the benefits claimed for it. It also seems to me that we are not very successful in PR elections and this is because we don’t have a core vote.

    There are currently too many electors for each MP which makes people see their MP as disconnected from their community. STV will increase this. The Euro regions are a good example of this.

    @ Andy Cooke

    Your preferred scheme is problematic. There is no good reason why Southampton and Portsmouth should both have two MPs each and the rest of Hampshire have 16 MP’s. Berkshire has 6 unitary authorities and 7 MPs and so doesn’t fit your preferred solution. It would be better to use unitary and district council areas (see map produced by Denis Mollison).

    You didn’t say that multi-member constituencies under First Past The Past are even worse that single member ones. This is because each voter gets the same number of votes as the number of people being elected.

    Is there any evidence that voter turnout has increased in Scottish local elections and that the people think their councils are better run?

  • Nonconformistradical 8th Jul '17 - 8:24am

    “If you make promises you have to keep them. If the Liberal Democrats had done so they might not be needing PR now – might even be the Government.”

    We will always need PR. Any system such as we have at present for parliamentary elections which (a) does not represent fairly the views of the electorate, (b) in which large numbers of voters never have any hope of their individual votes contributing directly towards the election of someone representing their political outlook and (c) allows the dominant political party in a particular area to put up a candidate pretty well guaranteed election (irrespective of their individual merits other perhaps than their willingness to toe the party line?) is no more than a form of dictatorship – supported and kept in place by those who crave power irrespective of the will of the people.

    The Late Lord Hailsham (formerly known as Quintin Hogg) publicised the phrase ‘elective dictatorship’ to describe the situation in which the government of the day can get its legislation through parliament through the nature of the FPTP voting system.

  • @Michael BG,
    The main thrust is for multi-member constituencies, aligned to natural communities, elected by a form of PR. Anything beyond that is beyond the scope of the argument and up for discussion – Denis Mollison’s map fits the parameters well, for example. ken munn’s suggestion for Inner London is inspired (and came about during this thread).

    Multi-member constituencies using bloc voting are indeed bad, but once we move from single to multi-member constituencies, we have far more opportunity for PR – multi-member constituencies lend themselves to proportionality far more easily than single member constituencies. In fact, I can’t see a way to make single member constituencies proportional at all, while most multi-member system are proportional (only bloc vote is not, off the top of my head).
    Whether or not we, ourselves, do better out of PR does not mean whether or not we should push for it – it is a good in and of itself. We shouldn’t do it for self-interest (else we’re as bad and hypocritical as Labour or the Conservatives), but because it promotes responsiveness of the Government to the governed, increases democratic choice, lowers barriers to entry for new parties, and usually increases satisfaction with democracy.

  • Proportional representation only works when parties are in favour of coalitions, at the last election the Lib Dems said they would not join any coalition. Try explaining that on the doorstep.

  • Martin – it’s due to the reverse – coalitions don’t work unless we have PR.
    So we can say if we had PR (rather than DR), we’d be willing to go into coalition (for which see my last article), but under the disproportional system we have, we won’t.

  • coalitions don’t work unless we have PR

    I suggest, given human nature, coalitions only work when it is highly unlikely that any one party can entertain the possibility of holding an election and getting an outright majority. Thus I suggest a good second step(*) towards co-operative and consensual politics is to limit the number of candidates any single party can field…

    (*) The fixed term parliament act was a good first step as it made it harder for any single party to call an election as and when it chose and formalised the negotiations process that could result in a government being formed by minority parties.

  • Dav. By using top up seats the Greek system is no longer proportional which sums up the dilemma. PR is a good way of ensuring fair representation but a bad way of ensuring effective government.

  • Nonconformistradical 8th Jul '17 - 10:46am

    “PR is a good way of ensuring fair representation but a bad way of ensuring effective government.”

    If you mean by ‘effective government’ one in which the government operates based on the support of a minority of the electorate, possibly taking little or no account of the views of those who don’t support them – that’s a dictatorship in my book.

  • Christopher Curtis 8th Jul '17 - 10:51am

    Very interesting comment thread.
    I’m not sure that detailed discussions of the make-up of constituencies or the mechanics of voting are going to win any arguments.
    Surely, the key message we should be bring to the electorate is that our politics is unfair and that with their support, we will work to make it fairer. UK politics is unfair on lots of levels, reflecting a deeply unfair society. Lots of people feel that their vote is worthless, and their opinion and wishes even less so and, above all, that politics does not work for them because it does not address or improve the things that most affect them.
    The Labour surge is at least partly about that. However realistic or truthful (or not!) you had a party leader suddenly talking about doing away with huge and unavoidable debt for thousands of younger people, of ending the misery of being ruthlessly exploited every day by privatised monopolies or private landlords, of putting jobs first instead of shareholders and CEOs. I understand why the message was attractive.
    We need to have our critique of unfair and unfree Britain and how we see it changing. Part of that critique has to be a deep critique of our dysfunctional government and our dysfunctional politics and how to fix it. PR is a necessary part of that, but not all of it.

  • Peter Hirst 8th Jul '17 - 2:40pm

    It’s the imbalance between votes cast and seats won that concerns me. Also tactical voting is destroying our democracy and perhaps even our nation. Let’s stick to a few simple messages that incorporate basic principles like fairness and authenticity.

  • John Littler 8th Jul '17 - 2:54pm

    Single party government especially with big majorities get arrogant and highly ideological, pushing unpopular policies through in the knowledge that they can get re-elected with an unfair electoral system or a few years later when this has been forgotten.

    Coalitions are the norm across Europe. None are usually anything like as far right as the Tories and they are generally better governed, at least across northern Europe. Certainly the Eurozone is outgrowing the UK now.

  • This thread reminds me of a sketch on “Week Ending ” on Radio Four in the seventies between a supposed interviewer and a Liberal MP. Why do we need proportional representation? So we can have more Liberal MPs. Why do we need more Liberal MPs? So we can get proportional representation.

  • Christopher Curtis 8th Jul '17 - 4:35pm

    I remember that sketch!
    The real, and very simple, message is:
    Q: Why do we need PR?
    A: Because it is right. It is fair and democratic. People should be represented by the representatives they choose and the makeup of Parliament should fairly reflect votes. There should not be a “natural party of government” as we have now, because that is a rigged system. We do not get the Parliament we voted for and it is vital that we should.

  • Not since Paddy stood down have I received any lib lit or seen one campaigning in my home town. Since the election I have spoken to lab, con and ukip in the street, all of whom spent a good 15 minutes listening to me, libdem zilch, I even offered to help the local party… Zilch. There’s your problem.

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