What are elections for?

Contributed by Peter Morley:

There have been several reports following Paxman’s interview with Brand, and now Clegg has added his accusation that as Paxman earns his living from politics he shouldn’t sneer at it.

Clegg says correctly that politics is about the way we decide how we pay taxes, support our hospitals and schools, whether to go to war and how to deal with climate change. That is surely too important for Brand and Paxman to discourage people from voting.
But Brand and Paxman do not seem to understand how British elections work.

We do NOT elect our Prime Minister or our Head of State, the Queen. We do not even elect which party forms the Government. We elect individuals to represent our constituencies in the House of Commons. But our voting system puts the country in the hands of the 40 or so “marginals” where the MPs elected by of a very small minority – the “swing” voters – decide which party forms the Government and thereby who becomes Prime Minister.
That is not the effect of representative democracy. It is the effect of first past the post – an out date and pernicious voting system.

Instead of abstaining and regarding elections as immaterial, Brand and Paxman would do well to learn more about the benefits of STV and then campaign for it openly on their respective programmes. Now that really WOULD switch the public on to vote.


Although the USA uses First Past The Post (“FPTP” aka Winner Takes All) for most of its elections including its national ones, there is a lot of local autonomy. Party list and hybrid systems are rarely discussed in the USA and, when FPTP is not used, the system of choice (excuse the pun!) is usually Single Transferable Vote (“STV”) known as Ranked Choice Voting in the USA.

FairVote Minnesota’s report of Ranked Choice Voting in Minneapolis, St. Paul recent municipal elections - http://fairvotemn.org/node/2309 - shows how successful the system was in those elections.

“Ranked Choice Voting is the simplest, fairest way to ensure that every voter has his or her voice heard in our elections,” said Jeanne Massey, FairVote Minnesota Executive Director. “Tuesday [5 November] was one of Ranked Choice Voting’s biggest tests yet, and it passed with flying colors.”

“RCV gave both cities positive, substantive campaigns that encouraged candidates to find common ground, build coalitions and focus on issues that matter to voters.”

If you visit http://fairvotemn.org/node/2309 to read the full report, you will also have an opportunity to vote online by choice voting for your favourite feature of RCV. You may want to recommend friends to try it so they can see how easy choice voting (STV or AV) is.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s editorial of 6 November - http://www.startribune.com/opinion/editorials/230919001.html - comments favourably on Ranked Choice Voting in the same elections. “Also put to a rigorous test Tuesday was ranked-choice voting, which was introduced in Minneapolis in 2009 and received mostly favorable marks this year”.

What Russell Brand could have said about voting

David Smith has contributed the following:

On Newsnight on Wednesday 23rd October, following the announcement that Russell Brand would guest edit an issue of the New Statesman, Jeremy Paxman challenged him on why anyone should respect his opinions if he couldn’t be bothered to vote. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YR4CseY9pk#t=15). Russell claimed that voting was useless but did not explain why. At one level the answer is obvious, governments and opposition front beaches simply do not listen to the people. The question is why not. They have many other pressures:

? Attracting party funding
? Coping with corporate led media
? Lack of access to reliable advice independent of corporate lobbyists – if you have ever worked in the Westminster bubble as I have you will understand what a strange isolated world it is. Ministers and many other MPs come to see the world as the money men see it.
? The current operation of the money markets

Set against these pressures, votes cast under first past the post system simply don’t count. Would proportional representation (PR) counter this? PR simply means fair shares for parties, and since all three major parties in parliament have been pressured and brainwashed into thinking in much the same way it is almost irrelevant.

So what about Alternative Vote where you vote for people not parties? This was of course defeated by a brilliant and misleading negative campaign on behalf of the powers that be. But it is used in Australia under the name PV (preference voting). Regrettably it does not make that much difference because parties have virtually no incentive to field more than one candidate in each constituency. The answer is preference voting in multi-member constituencies, i.e. STV. In that system parties would at least have an incentive to field more candidates than they expected to get elected. Voters could choose; MPs would have to start listening.

So what Russell Brand could have said is, “Maybe if we had STV there would be some point in voting, but sure as heck THEY would rather risk a revolution rather than allow that.”

STV to stay in Ireland

There was a lot of talk about Ireland changing its voting system, a constitutional convention was set up and in August it come to the following conclusion:

“The Convention decided decisively in favour of keeping the current PRSTV electoral system
but in a modified form, in particular by increasing the size of constituencies and changing
from the alphabetical order of candidates on the ballot paper. Members also recommended
a series of measures to improve voter turnout at elections, from the establishment of an
Electoral Commission to the an enhanced education programme in schools. I believe these
results give a very clear message of the regard in which the current PR-STV electoral system
is held but equally of a strong demand for changes to it, as part of a more substantial
agenda of political reform.”

This is excellent news and I think that getting rid of the 3 member seats will greatly improve the system, as many of them were foregone conclusions, often with only one of the parties giving any choice of candidate.

The commission overwhelmingly rejected moving to the greatly flawed MMP system(mixed member proportional), which failed to work in Albania and Italy, by 79% to 20%.

The government is expected to respond before the end of the year.

The full text of the convention report is in the link below


Keith Underhill

Two practical steps to advance STV

The Reform Groups Network site is well worth a visit. We found two blogs of particular interest.

First, John Greenwood has suggested, under “A Cunning Plan to demonstrate a better voting system” of 8 October, running demonstration PR elections alongside next May’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) local elections. Afterwards, the voters – and, indeed, the public generally – could be asked various questions about the outcomes of the PR and FPTP elections, such as which they thought was fairer.

Of course, this has been done many times before. The late Enid Lakeman was very enthusiastic about this kind of activity and local groups have often done it. Readers can see Miss Lakeman’s own account of one of her demonstration elections at http://fairlocalvotes.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/lakeman.pdf.

Nevertheless, reformers could repeat the exercise, especially now that there are so many local groups and, even more, if the ERS and UD will take the lead and assume a co-ordinating role. The ERS ought to be able to train local groups to design ballot papers and count by the chosen method. UD seems good at motivating local activists and managing publicity. They should be able to do a good job if they collaborate with each other on the exercise.

The Society passed eight resolutions at its 2011 and 2012 AGMs calling for STV for local elections in England and Wales to be a priority. One of the 2012 resolutions was a special resolution which was legally binding on the Society’s Council and, indeed the Council has decided that this should be the Society’s priority. So John Greenwood’s project would be ideal and timely for the ERS.

John Greenwood has suggested that the votes would be counted by “the system favoured by UD”. A very early decision would be needed on this, as it would affect the design of the ballot papers and how the system would be explained to voters and the news media.

However, that would not be difficult. It is inconceivable that the ERS would campaign for any system other than STV, which is its core object as confirmed at its last four General Meetings.

In any case, any system other than STV would create insuperable problems for the ERS and UD. For example, if a party list system was used, they would have to decide on the order of each party’s list. If a mixed system was used, they would also have to decide which candidates should be list candidates and which should be ward candidates. This would be arbitrary and artificial. Normally, of course, each party would make its own decisions.

That would not be a problem with STV. A number (say, five) of neighbouring wards would be grouped together to create one multi-member ward and all the candidates for the individual wards would simply be on the ballot paper for the multi-member ward.

If this is to be done, it must be done properly, thoroughly and efficiently. It will take organization; there are fewer than seven months now to the local elections in May and the Christmas and New Year breaks will intervene, so there is no time to lose if the project is to proceed. We urge the ERS, UD and local groups to clear the decks and concentrate on this.

The other blog, which we found of particular interest, was David Smith’s “Preparing for 2015” of 29 September. We should mention that he is an Officer of STV Action, but he wrote his blog in his personal capacity.

David refers to the eight ERS AGM resolutions for STV in local government, mentioned above. Although quite critical of the ERS, he also makes two practical suggestions on how the ERS could further the campaign now.

His first suggestion, like John Greenwood’s is to hold demonstration STV elections. They would educate the public, show how STV works, how fair and accurate it is and how easy it is for voters. David seems to envisage holding “street” elections at any time with, perhaps, fictitious candidates, whereas John has specifically suggested holding our demonstrations elections outside polling stations at the time of the official local elections next May; i.e. exit polls.

These two suggestions are not mutually exclusive. There is no reason why we could not take up both of them. Local groups could hold David’s “street” elections week after week, each branch starting as and when it feels able, leading up to the local elections in May and then, in May, hold John’s exit polls in many parts of the country by STV and compare their results with the official first-past-the-post elections. The publicity material for the “street” elections could also announce our intention to hold the exit poll, thus building up to it.

David’s second suggestion is entirely different but equally valid and is something that STV Action has advocated for several years.

Many people are members of voluntary organizations, such as sports clubs, professional institutes, social clubs, trades unions, special interest clubs (stamp collecting, embroidery, model making etc), learned societies, charities and many more. They all elect governing committees or councils.

Some of them already use STV for their internal elections. A determined and well-run campaign to persuade the others to use STV would, at the very least and even if some chose not to change, bring STV to the attention of many people who know nothing about it. Those organizations that changed would benefit from a more representative governing body and their members would become used to using STV. Using STV for Parliamentary and other official elections would then seem less strange to them.

As mentioned above, STV Action has supported this for some time as can be seen at http://stvaction.org.uk/STVorgs which gives practical advice for introducing STV to voluntary organizations and lists some that already use it although the list is not up-to-date, so readers should not rely on it.

If electoral reformers concentrated on STV instead of spreading their resources thinly over a variety of “reforms”, it would not be difficult to conduct both these campaigns – demonstration STV elections and working to reform voluntary organizations – at the same time, but it would seem sensible to give priority to demonstration STV elections until the local elections next May.

Please click on http://reformgroups.net/ers/ to read John Greenwood’s and David Smith’s blogs.

Australian and German elections

The Proportional Representation Society of Australia (PRSA) has issued very interesting reports – the best we have seen – on the recent general elections in Australia and Germany.

Like Fair Vote in the USA, PRSA campaigns only for preferential voting – specifically Single Transferable Vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies – and sets an example to those electoral reform organizations that dilute the message and spread their resources thinly over peripheral reforms even though STV remains legally their core object.

As Australia uses a version of STV, one might think that there was little for PRSA to do, but Australia uses a perverted and artificial version of STV, distorted by politicians to suit politicians, especially the major parties, instead of voters.

First, voters have to express a full range of preferences. If they stop after the first three or four because they do not like any of the other candidates and do not want to express a preference for any of them, their vote is invalid; i.e. even their first three or four preferences are not allowed to count. This encourages the so-called “donkey” vote when, because they have to express preferences, voters just endorse the order on the ballot paper.

Next, ostensibly to make it easier for voters to cast valid votes, Australians can vote “above the line”; i.e. vote for the order determined by a political party. Because of the difficulty in choosing each preference individually, many do that which, of course, gives tremendous power to the parties, thus substantially reducing one of the most important advantages of STV over all other voting systems.

Whereas reformers in the UK and USA campaign for STV (ranked choice voting) to be used, Australian reformers campaign for a simpler and purer version of STV, which would benefit voters and produce results closer to voters’ wishes.

Some critics of the Australian system would like to tinker with the existing system by, for example, introducing artificial thresholds but, as PRSA points out, “Proposals to impose an exclusionary threshold usually betray either misunderstanding of how the single transferable vote works, or seem aimed at propping up the failed system of party boxes, without recognizing the potential for unstable or distorted results to arise whenever arbitrary interventions are made.”

Germany uses a mixed voting system. Voters elect single-member constituency representatives by first past the post like the UK and they have a second vote to top up the parties proportionately. In other words, it is reasonably fair to, and representative of the parties, but less fair to, and representative of, voters than STV is. However, parties that fail to secure the threshold of 5% of the national vote are denied top-up seats, so there is a bias towards the larger parties.

PRSA reports that nearly 16% of the votes were wasted in the German general election this year. This is partly because of the 5% national threshold. “While two parties obtained more than 5% of the party list vote in respectively six and seven of the sixteen states in the German elections held on 22 September 2013, they just failed to do so nationally, and therefore did not qualify for the apportionment of seats to the Bundestag…. Had the threshold been set instead at 4%, both the Free Democrats and Alternative for Germany would have emerged with more than thirty party list seats”.

This shows the distortion that artificial devices, such as thresholds, can produce. It also shows what a large difference a small change in the arbitrary choice of threshold can make to an election result and it shows that the German system is less fair to parties, especially small ones, than it could be.

Although opponents of STV may say that STV has a threshold, it is natural and not artificial. Moreover, it applies at constituency level – not national – so a strong local or regional party can win representation despite being weak nationally. Most important with STV, a vote that does not help to elect a candidate from the party of the voter’s first choice may nevertheless help to elect another candidate whom the voter likes. For example, if the Green Party is not strong enough in a particular constituency to win a seat, Green voters may help, with their later preferences, to elect other ecologically minded candidates.

You can read the PRSA reports at http://www.prsa.org.au/qn/2013c_.html#section1 and http://www.prsa.org.au/qn/2013c_.html#section2.

First past the post helped cause USA shut-down

Rob Richie, Executive Director of Fair Vote (in the USA), and his colleague, Devin McCarthy, have written excellent articles in Washington Post and Huffington Post and we recommend you to read them. Fair Vote is an excellent electoral reform organization that concentrates on its core objective of promoting ranked choice voting (Single Transferable Vote or STV to UK readers).

Rob and Devin explain how first past the post (winner takes all) elections encourage confrontational politics in which politicians are motivated to serve their core voters more than the national interest and this exacerbated the recent political deadlock in the USA, which closed many functions of the US Government, made the USA something of a joke abroad and threatened the world economy. They then explain how ranked choice voting can reduce the problem.

Although there is not a precise parallel in the UK to the US Government’s shut-down, the lesson is universal. Voting systems matter. Voting systems affect political attitudes, election results and political decisions.

One of Rob and Devin’s points is that the Democrats won more votes but the Republicans won more seats in the House of Representatives. This gave the Republicans more power than the voters wanted to give them and more power than a fair and democratic voting system should have given them. It created the incorrect impression that the Republicans had a mandate from voters to oppose Obamacare at all costs. Of course, we have seen examples similar to this in the UK and in other countries that still use first-past-the-post voting.

Fair Vote sets an example to other electoral reform organizations. It does not campaign for proportional representation generically but specifically for ranked choice voting (STV):

“We are not proposing the party-list forms of proportional representation used in many parliamentary democracies. Although highly successful in Germany and Holland, party lists would clash with U.S. political culture. Americans want Congress to reflect our differences, avoid groupthink and have more members with an electoral incentive to reach across party lines to find policy solutions.”

Party lists would also clash with UK political culture. UK reformers also want Parliament to “have more members with an electoral incentive to reach across party lines to find policy solutions.”

To read the articles and comments on them, please see:




Do Lib Dems have the nerve to win STV for local government?

What do you think will be the most important political document in the UK for the next couple of years? The Liberal Democrats’ manifesto for the 2015General Election?

Well, that was the view of the BBC’s Political Editor, Nick Robinson, in the “Today” programme on Radio 4 today (16 September 2013). The present signs are that neither the Conservative nor the Labour Party is likely to secure an overall majority in 2015 and one of them will need Liberal Democrat support to form a Government.

The Liberal Democrats could negotiate, or even hold out for all sorts of policies. A problem with most is that a policy that might attract Labour support would probably alienate the Conservatives and vice versa.

Neither of them might like the idea of changing the way we elect local Councillors but we see no strong reason for either of them to refuse it if they really want power, which they will.

We believe the most important and obtainable policy concession from either of the other two parties is electoral reform for local government in England and Wales and the reform has to be in the form of the Single Transferable Vote (STV).

It is important for local government, democracy and the public. Liberal Democrats should not be embarrassed by the fact that it could also be good for their party. Unfortunately, some of them feel too embarrassed to campaign for electoral reform. Others would simply settle with any electoral reform that would give their party more Councillors. Both are wrong.

The point about STV is that, unlike all other voting systems, it offers voters a genuine choice of candidates not only from different parties but even within parties. It can provide proportionality, not only of political parties but of any other political views that matter to voters. For example, if a local party is split between supporting and opposing a town bypass, STV allows voters to elect Councillors in proportion to their own views on the subject. If voters want, say, more women Councillors, STV uniquely allows them to elect more women.

In some ways, electoral reform for local government is even more important than it is for the Commons. Unlike the Commons, some local authorities have been controlled by the same party for years, decades and even generations; one-party local states! If local voters had really been supporting the dominant local party for all that time, it might be acceptable but the party has often retained power even though most local voters have voted against it.

But why should either the Labour or Conservative Party accept STV for local government? Don’t they both oppose electoral reform? Well, yes, but they oppose many Liberal Democrat policies and yet one of the two biggest parties will probably have to accept some Liberal Democrat policies in order to form a Government in 2015, so why not this one as part of a larger package?

Some Conservative and Labour MPs may oppose electoral reform for the Commons mainly because they worry about losing their own seats under a different voting system. That would not apply to changing the system for local government. Also, there must be many Labour politicians who would like to see more Labour Councillors in the South of England and many Conservatives who would welcome more Conservative Councillors in the North of England.

We have little doubt that, if the Liberal Democrats hold out hard enough, they will be able to improve the way we elect Councillors in England and Wales.

But it is not enough merely to hold out for Proportional Representation (PR) and then accept whatever kind of PR one of the other parties concedes. Liberal Democrats must demand STV or nothing. This opportunity may will not occur again for at least another five years and may not come again for several generations.

PR for parties (Party Representation) is not good enough. We need PR for people (People Representation) and only STV can provide it.

Do Lib Dems have the nerve to win STV for local government?

Triumph for democracy

No doubt, some of us will agree and some will disagree with the House of Commons’ decision on 29 August not to authorize force against Syria but surely we can all agree that it was a wonderful day for parliamentary democracy. The legislature controlled the executive instead of vice versa.

Not only that, but we also seem to have set an example to our transatlantic cousins. Although they have long prided themselves on the constitutional separation of powers, in practice the President has executive power to authorize the use of military force. This time however, the President decided, after the House of Commons’ decision, to seek Congress’s agreement.

The Commons would almost certainly not have defeated the Government if the General Election of 2010 had not resulted in a balanced House. Balanced Houses happen only by chance with our 19th century First Past The Post (FPTP) voting system.

One of the arguments often put against STV us that it would often create a balanced House of Commons, which our opponents see as undesirable, but there are two points:

With STV, people get a balanced Commons if they collectively vote for it rather than by chance as with FPTP.

Last Thursday’s vote shows how a balanced House of Commons can control the Government more effectively than one in which a single party has a working majority over all the other parties.

Reducing the Commons' subordination to government

According to a BBC report of 18 July, The chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has said the House of Commons remains "acquiescent in its subordination to government", despite recent reforms.

The Committee has proposed various reforms in its report, but we recommend electing MPs by STV in multi-member constituencies. Although this may not be the complete solution, it should help considerably to reduce the Commons' subordination to government.

STV, more than any other voting system, increases voters’ powers and makes representatives more dependent on their voters and less dependent on the leadership of their parties. This would reduce party patronage and make it easier for back-benchers to call the Government to account. Being more accountable to their voters could also encourage them to call the Government more to account.

Also, because STV makes it easier for a popular but deselected MP to be re-elected, it reduces the power of the leadership to end an independently minded MP’s career.

STV is a proportional system of election that has many unique advantages in addition to being proportionate and this is one of them.

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