Thatcher/Blair legacy

Lady Thatcher and Mr Blair each led their respective parties to three consecutive General Election victories but, each time, about six out of ten people voted against them.

Thatcher “won” the 1979, 1983 and 1987 elections with only 43.9%, 42.4% and 42.2% of the votes, while Blair “won” the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections with 43.2%, 40.7% and a mere 35.2%.

Is this democratic? Do British politicians have any right to lecture the rest of the world about democracy?

(In the absence of statistics on the ERS website, I copied these from Wikipedia.)

Jersey reform

Jersey voted in a referendum on 24 April to reform the composition of the States Assembly. Voters were given three options and used AV to make their choice. As none of the options received half the votes in the first round of counting, there was a second round. Please see
for more details.

The Jersey Electoral Commission recommended another referendum later on whether to change the voting system to STV.

Illusion of English democracy

England-only laws “need majority from English MPs”. This very brief summary of the McKay Commission’s recommendations today sounds more democratic than it actually is. The Government appointed the Commission, headed by Sir William McKay, to propose a solution to the so-called West Lothian Question – that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland MPs can vote on purely English matters although devolution prevents English MPs from voting on many Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish matters.

The Commission’s terms of reference were:

“To consider how the House of Commons might deal with legislation which affects only part of the United Kingdom, following the devolution of certain legislative powers to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales.”

The report states, “Electoral reform, including proportional representation [PR] and reduction in the number of MPs returned for seats outside England, is not realistic and fails to tackle the underlying issue” but it is not clear to us why PR is not realistic. We regard it as essential.

Although the report points out that it is only twice that the UK governing party (Labour both times) has lacked a majority in England, the fact is that it can happen so there needs to be protection against it and PR by STV (Single Transferable Vote) would be the best protection. In any case the real issue is whether a majority of English MPs represent the majority of English voters, whatever party controls the UK Government.

To push through a major constitutional change without all-party support would be asking for trouble. An incoming Government could change it after the next General Election and the party that first introduced it might be tempted to change it back again. That would not be a recipe for stability.

It is hard to conceive that the Labour Party will accept the proposals as they stand, but will it realise the importance of PR and insist on it as part of a new constitutional settlement?

Main advantages of the Single Transferable Vote (STV)

A very high degree of voter choice. A high degree of proportionality not only of parties but also of other groupings that matter to voters. Voters can vote sincerely, knowing that, if their favourite candidate is unsuccessful, they can still contribute to the election of a candidate of whom they approve.

Voting does not have to be on party lines; preferences can be made on whatever criteria the voter considers most important. STV encourages parties to put up a wide range of candidates to gain more support and this is likely to result in a more diverse Parliament; e.g. by gender, ethnicity, background etc.

There would be one marginal seat in nearly every constituency, encouraging parties to campaign vigorously everywhere. (The parties virtually ignore most constituencies under FPTP). MPs elected under STV would have a personal mandate and might be bolder in defying the party whip; they would also be more accountable to the voters. STV would reduce electoral “deserts” where parties gain significant numbers of votes but no seats.

You may visit for a brief explanation of how STV works. You may also find FAQ, at the top of this page, useful.

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Congratulations to Mike Thornton (now MP) and the Liberal Democrats for holding the seat on 28 February. It has long been difficult for a Government party to hold or gain bye-election seats and the Liberal Democrats had the additional disadvantages of Chris Huhne’s lawbreaking, the allegations against Chris Rennard and Labour’s accusation for nearly three years that they have been propping up an unpopular Conservative Government.

The Liberal Democrats lost a large share of the vote compared with their performance in 2010, so they are not out of the wood, but their victory does mean that the other parties have been rather premature in writing the them off.

If they still have a sizeable representation in the next House of Commons and no other party has an overall majority, they may be a coalition partner again and be able to influence Government policy; e.g. on bringing local government elections in England and Wales up to the standard of Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Although Labour had very little chance of winning, it failed to gain votes from either of the Government parties, which is precisely what the main Opposition party has to do to win a general election. It slipped from 3rd to 4th place.

UKIP did exceptionally well and might even have won the seat if its high profile leader, Nigel Farage, had had the courage to stand, but they garnered the protest vote. At the next General Election, they may gain votes compared with 2010, but it is still extremely unlikely that they will win any seats. They may just take enough votes off the Conservatives to help Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

In comparative terms, it was the Conservative Party that did the worst of the three – or perhaps four – major parties by falling from 2nd to 3rd place behind UKIP. Although gaining a bye-election seat would normally be hard for a Government party, they should not have fallen to 3rd place behind what is still a fringe party in national terms. They do not look like obvious winners of the next General Election.

Although no-one can know what the political situation will be in two years’ time and it is hazardous to extrapolate from a single bye-election to a General Election, it rather looks as though the Conservatives will lose it and Labour will win it by default and without much enthusiasm by voters.

Indeed, it is quite possible that the voters will move to the right (e.g. from Conservative to UKIP) and the Government will move to the left from a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition to either a Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition or an outright Labour Government. Such is the way of the UK’s rather curious and inefficient 19th century First Past The Post voting system.

Despite the Liberal Democrats’ undoubted achievement, let us not forget that no candidate including the winner achieved even one third of the votes, so the new MP’s mandate is severely limited.

Not knowing how people would have voted with a different voting system, we cannot be sure what the result would have been in Eastleigh if voting had been by Alternative Vote (AV). It would have depended on how the 2nd choices of Conservative voters split between the Liberal Democrats and UKIP. However, whichever of them had won would have had a mandate from over half the voters in the final round of counting.

In a General Election in which UKIP is unlikely to be close to winning any seats, AV in single-member constituencies would protect the Conservative Party from votes being wasted on another right-of-centre party that cannot win any seats. What a pity for Conservatives that they succeeded in their opposition to AV in the 2011 referendum!

Of course, for real reform, we need the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies to maximize voter choice, provide fair representation of voters’ views and be fair to all parties.

STV would help Italy and the UK

Is, as supporters of First Past The Post (FPTP) claim, the chaotic political situation in Italy evidence that all PR is bad? No, it is merely evidence that Italy’s particular kind of PR is bad and, perhaps, that they have other problems arising from their political culture.

Electoral reformers in the UK are as critical of the Italian list voting system as we are of the UK’s First Past The Post system in single-member constituencies.

For both countries, the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies would be an improvement. It would introduce PR to the UK’s House of Commons. It would probably reduce the number of parties in Italy and make the country more stable. In both countries, it would improve voters’ freedom of choice and make MPs more accountable to their constituents. It would also enable voters to indicate, through their later choices, which kind of coalition they would like.

Readers may like to visit
to read more about this.

Reform in Israel? - STV & Citizens' Assembly

Israel debates electoral reform from time to time but, just as UK MPs are reluctant to change the First Past The Post system by which they were elected, so members of the Israeli Knesset are reluctant to change the national list PR voting system by which they were elected.

David Newman wrote in the “Jerusalem Post” today, “The introduction of constituencies to ensure regional representation, a mixed system based on constituencies and national party lists, the raising of the lower threshold to five and even 10 percent, as is common in many countries, direct elections of prime minister – these ideas have been researched and proposed ad nauseam, but have never been taken up seriously by the Knesset.”

He is certainly right to question the national list system currently used in Israel but, from our experience in the UK, we would caution against constituency or mixed systems using First Past The Post (FPTP) for the constituencies.

A “pure” FPTP constituency system would not be proportional. It would be unrepresentative and we cannot believe that that would be acceptable in a country that, for all the faults in its present voting system, has at least always enjoyed proportional representation for all its parties.

Mixed systems are neither one thing nor the other. They take the faulty FPTP constituency system and tinker with it to reduce some of its faults.

The Single Transferable Vote (STV) system in multi-member constituencies combines the best of list systems (party proportionality and fair representation) with the best of constituency systems (direct, personal, links between representatives and voters and direct accountability of representatives to voters).

STV also has other advantages, not enjoyed by either list systems or other constituency systems:

• It provides more choice to voters than any other known system.
• It can provide proportionality, not only between political parties but also between any other groupings (e.g. religious or gender) that matter to voters.
• It actually provides a closer link between representatives and voters and more accountability of representatives to voters than any other system.
• Unlike most systems, it increases voters’ power.

Unfortunately, the very great advantage for people, democracy and nations that it increases voters’ power is the very reason that it is unpopular with many politicians. More power for voters means less power for political parties and it is usually political parties that decide which voting system to use. All round the world, they usually choose systems that suit themselves.

In most advanced nations, politicians have made laws and regulations to control the activities of various professions, such as medical practitioners, lawyers, police officers etc. but who controls the politicians? In theory in so-called democracies, it is the voters at election time, but the voters are allowed only to vote by the system that the politicians have chosen so, in practice, voters often have little or no control.

The solution to this problem is to remove the choice of voting system from the control of politicians. For example, a Citizens’ Assembly could take evidence from fellow citizens, experts and abroad and then recommend a system for voters to choose in a referendum.

Failure of PCC elections

The ERS published an excellent report (“How not to run an election”) yesterday on last November’s elections for Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales and the appallingly low turn-out (15.1%; i.e. fewer than one in six) in the elections. Unfortunately, its summary (which is probably all that most journalists will read) omits the reasons people gave for not voting and the ERS’s highly pertinent criticisms of the voting system that the Government imposed.

According to the ERS, 19% (nearly a fifth) of non-voters gave their reason for not voting as “I don’t agree with electing police officials this way.” This is a very fundamental reason. These people do not sound apathetic or likely to be persuaded to vote in future at a better time of the year or with more information about the candidates. They sound like politically aware citizens who have taken conscious decisions not to vote because they totally disagree with electing police chiefs and/or the voting system used to elect them. It is not so much an abstention as a boycott.

The ERS rightly explains that the Supplementary Vote (SV) system used for these elections is an attempt to remedy some of the defects of First Past The Post elections, but depends entirely on voters’ ability to guess who the leading two candidates will be in the first round of counting. Many successful candidates were not elected by a majority of even the few votes that were cast. The Alternative Vote (AV) system would have been easier for voters to understand and use and would have produced fairer and more representative results.

Although proportionality cannot be a prerequisite for any election of single representatives, at least a preferential system like AV in single-member constituencies maximizes voter choice, minimizes wasted votes and empowers voters rather than political parties.

When a body, such as a Parliament or Council is being elected, the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system in multi-representative constituencies achieves the same as AV but more so plus proportionality.

South African reform?

South African, Eusebius McKaiser, queries in whether South Africa should replace its party list PR system of voting with a constituency based system.

In brief, he says the list system should be replaced, but goes on to warn against some of the disadvantages of First Past The Post (FPTP) constituency elections, except that it does not seem to have occurred to him that constituency elections do not have to be FPTP. Consequently, he mistakenly ascribes all the disadvantages of FPTP to constituencies.

He points out the power the parties have with list voting and the advantage voters would have if they could directly elect their MPs, but he also warns against gerrymandering and other disadvantages that he perceives in constituency based systems including, “the sometimes anti-democratic influence party leadership wield in England [sic], for example, where constituency based elections happen”.

The disadvantages he sees in constituency based elections are mainly to be found in FPTP single-member constituencies and not in STV multi-member constituencies as I have pointed out in my comment on his blog.

He likes the idea of a hybrid voting system, but I suspect he has not considered STV; perhaps had not heard of it when he wrote his blog.

Gay marriage

The Conservative Party is divided in the country and the Commons on same sex (i.e. gay) marriage and it seems likely that there are similar divisions in the other parties although they may be less obvious.

Does the Commons represent the views of the country on this issue and do individual MPs represent their constituents on it? No-one really knows partly because it was not an issue at the last General Election and partly because, even if it had been, most people would have voted for their usual party even if they had to clench their teeth because they did not share the candidate’s views on same sex marriage.

Take the Surrey Heath constituency for example. The Conservative MP, Michael Gove, supports same sex marriage but the Chairman of the Conservative Association, Geoffrey Vero, opposes it. Who can tell which speaks for the local party, let alone the constituency as a whole, on the subject?

The Single Transferable Vote (STV) lets voters express their views on such non-party matters without voting against their party.

Suppose Surrey Heath had merged with neighbouring constituencies and the enlarged constituency had elected five MPs by STV. The Conservative Party could have nominated four or five candidates. As Surrey is very Conservative, three of them could have been elected but the voters would have decided which.

If the candidates’ views on same sex marriage were important to Conservative voters, those views would have influenced how they voted. Then they might have elected two who supported same sex marriage and one who opposed it or vice versa. Indeed, they might have elected three who opposed or three who supported. Whatever the result, the successful candidates would have represented their voters’ views on this controversial issue.

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