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The Single Transferable Vote and the undercover electoral reformers

The Single Transferable Vote and the undercover electoral reformers

🕔20.Aug 2015

Getting a touch bored by the Labour leadership election? Well, here’s a topical tale of political entryism or infiltration that I promise won’t hereafter mention Jeremy Corbyn or any other feature of that leadership contest, writes Chris Game.

Indeed, in this case it is Labour Party members, among others, who are suspected of seeking to join an organisation whose ideology they oppose in order to further their own party’s interests.

The organisation is the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), at 131 years the world’s oldest pressure group for electoral reform – and, if that early stat turns you off, I’m sorry, because there are lots more to follow.

First, I should declare a personal interest. I myself am a sporadically active ERS member (as is this site’s Editor, Ed.), but I must also admit to reservations concerning the Society’s primary objective: “to secure proportional representation (PR) by the method of the Single Transferable Vote (STV)” in basically all elections to public and semi-public bodies.

My position is: PR yes; STV maybe; all elections, everywhere: maybe not. Which is at least partly the view of those ERS members who will support two linked but separate motions at next month’s AGM: to remove the explicit STV reference from the Society’s Articles of Association (p.1), and to require members to divulge their individual political affiliations.

I’ll start with PR, quite rightly described as an objective or goal, NOT a means or a particular electoral system.

We currently elect our MPs by the Single-Member Plurality or First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system. Voters have one vote and elect one winning candidate – mostly nowadays, in Birmingham and nationwide, on a minority of votes cast. In England and Wales we elect our councillors the same way.

It’s simple and collectively often decisive, but also wasteful – with half of us in this year’s general election voting for losing candidates – and wildly disproportional.

In arguably the most disproportional UK parliamentary election since 1945, as shown in the table, the Conservatives’ 11.3 million votes and 36.9% vote share gave them not 36.9% (240) of the 650 MPs, but 331 and a comfortable Commons majority, while UKIP’s 3.9 million votes and 12.6% vote share earned not 82 MPs, but one.

ERS table






There are dozens of electoral systems whose main aim is not to conjure majority governments from minority votes, but proportional representation: an elected body whose membership arithmetically reflects the electorate’s votes – democratically, you might say.

STV, as promoted by the ERS and deployed since 2007 in Scottish local elections, uses multi-member constituencies – the more members per constituency, the more proportional the overall result – with each elector able to rank all candidates in order of preference.

To be elected, candidates require not a majority, but a quota of the votes – a number determined by the numbers of votes cast and seats to be filled. As the count proceeds and candidates are either elected or eliminated, votes are transferred to remaining candidates according to the voters’ expressed preferences.

STV results are much more proportional than with FPTP, but not extremely so, which is the aim of the party list systems used by many European countries and the EU Parliament, or the mixed-member systems used for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, in which some members are elected from constituencies and some from party lists.

Perfect statistical proportionality in May, also shown in the table, would have given the Conservatives 240 seats, rather than 331, Labour 198 (232), the Liberal Democrats 51 (8), the Scottish Nationalists 31 (56), UKIP 82 (1), and the Greens 25 (1).

The Electoral Reform Society, naturally keen to show how STV would have produced a ‘fairer’ or more proportional result, commissioned a post-election survey asking voters how they would have ranked the party candidates in their constituencies, had they been able to.

Using these preference rankings, it then ‘replayed’ the election under STV by amalgamating existing constituencies into 3- or 4-seat STV constituencies – West, Central, and North-East Birmingham, for example.

Of the West Midlands region’s 59 seats, the currently unrepresented Lib Dems might have received 1 seat and UKIP 6, at the expense of the Conservatives (4) and Labour (3).

The estimated national result, in the final column of the table, would have been: Conservatives 276 (55 fewer than under FPTP), Labour 236 (+4), Lib Dems 26 (+18), UKIP 54 (+53), Greens 3 (+2), and SNP 34 (-22).

It’s clear that easily the biggest relative beneficiaries from this semi-proportional system would be the Conservatives and Labour, with respectively 36 and 38 more seats than the 240 and 198 they might have won under the more genuinely proportional party list or mixed-member systems. UKIP, the Greens and the Lib Dems would all be big relative STV losers.

For Labour, that difference could have saved it from outright, sub-200 seat humiliation. For the Conservatives it could have enabled them to form a minority government, with ad hoc support from the Ulster Unionists, UKIP and the Lib Dems.

All figures in this kind of hypothetical ‘replayed’ election, it hardly needs emphasising, are just that – hypothetical. But the general tendencies are real enough.

Even with the large systemic pro-Labour bias in recent elections having seemingly evaporated, the party would still on balance join the Conservatives in both preferring to stick with FPTP, and also, if there had to be reform, in seeing a tactical advantage in backing STV, rather than a more radically proportional system.

The Electoral Reform Society itself has always championed STV, emphasizing its additional virtues of providing greater voter choice than party list systems, and of all winning candidates being elected on the same basis, unlike in mixed-member systems.

The Society does, however, include both PR purists and paranoiacs, which explains the AGM motions first to end its long-standing exclusive advocacy of STV, and secondly to require any Conservative and Labour infiltrators – seeking to have STV retained as the prime candidate in any reform campaign – to reveal their true party colours.

I would expect both motions to be defeated, but it’s the future reform bit that particularly interests me, especially if, as seems likely, it is directed towards extending STV from Scottish local government elections to those in England.

In Scotland it is generally deemed successful, and has certainly eliminated all previously uncontested seats. Personally, though, I’d like to see STV at least having to compete with the more proportional LGAMS – the Local Government Additional Member System that the Local Government Association once favoured. But that merits a separate blog of its own.

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