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Select Committee told STV could improve voter engagement

The electoral reform movement owes a great deal to the 21 witnesses who gave written evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee that the Single Transferable Vote (STV) could help to improve voter engagement.

The Electoral Reform Society’s first and main object is “To secure the adoption of ... STV ...” but, sadly, the Society was not one of the witnesses who recommended STV. It made only a fleeting reference to electoral reform and did not mention STV at all.

One of the questions of the Select Committee’s enquiry into voter engagement was “To what extent could electoral reform ... improve public engagement and voter turnout?” All 39 witnesses who addressed this question recommended electoral reform. Twenty-one (54%) of them recommended STV, one suggested AMS and the remaining 17 did not advocate any particular system.

STV Action gave supplementary evidence to draw the Committee’s attention to the large amount of evidence in favour of STV.

The roll of honour contains the following 17, who made the introduction of STV their sole or main recommendation:

• Michael Meadowcroft
• Brian Wichmann
• A E L Davis
• Canon Michael Hodge
• Colin Buchanan
• Arthur James
• Keith Underhill
• STV Action
• Make Votes Count In West Sussex
• Anthony Tuffin
• Dr. David Hill
• Tim Ivorson
• Richard Lung
• Ian Sheppard
• Thomas Gray
• Malcolm Morrison
• David Smith

The following 3 advocated STV among other measures:

• John Strafford (paragraph 1.1.7)
• Keith Best (especially paragraph 5)
• David Green (his 9th proposal)

The prestigious British Academy mentioned PR favourably and suggested STV should be considered.

A common view was that, although STV alone might not improve voter engagement, nothing else was likely to help without it.

As Keith Underhill wrote, “Changing the voting system will not immediately mean that we will jump to European levels of turnout, there are other reasons for low turnout like the perception that politicians are all the same, but it would be a step forward and would give us all a say, not just the ones in marginal seats!”

Colin Buchanan commented, “Giving it [a fair voting system] priority also enables the quest to set aside as largely irrelevant the large number of red herrings dragged across the path. They are not only no substitute for addressing the justice issue, but by posing as real answers they greatly hinder attention to this prime question.”

Dr David Hill had an interesting and constructive perspective, “.. a start should be made on local government (possibly allowing STV as an option..). That would be a worthwhile change in its own right, as well as a suitable experiment to give evidence that could be taken into account in future enquiries into turn-out.”

A E L Davis agreed with David Hill on that and also recommended the Committee to consider the experience of STV in civil society.

We shall have to wait and see what the Committee makes of the evidence. It is difficult to see how any fair-minded body of people could ignore the weight and quality of the evidence in favour of STV but, at least, that evidence is now all in the public domain. Journalists and the public will be able to judge for themselves how fairly the Committee treats the evidence.

The written evidence is available at http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-sele....

More working class MPs?

Someone remarked on BBC Radio 4 this morning that there were very few working class MPs and there should be more so that Parliament would be more representative. The Labour Party, which used to select working class candidates from trades unions, now selects mainly from graduates and very few have ever been manual workers.

He did not say, although he could have said, that there should be more Liberal Democrat and Green MPs and some UKIP MPs so that Parliament would be more representative.

The easiest way to produce more working class MPs would be for parties to select more working class candidates for safe seats. Similarly, parties could produce more black, female and Muslim MPs by selecting black, female and Muslim candidates for safe seats.

But why should parties foist working class, black, female and Muslim MPs on constituencies any more than they now foist middle class, white, male and Christian MPs on constituencies?

Voters themselves should be able to choose their own MPs, which they cannot effectively do with the present First Past The Post (winner takes all) voting system. Nor would they be able to choose their own MPs under most proportional systems, but there is one exception.

The Single Transferable Vote (STV) system would encourage parties to nominate a broad range of candidates to widen the party’s appeal and maximize its votes. From that broad range, voters would be able to decide for themselves whether they wanted a working or middle class MP, a black or white MP etc.

STV alone would reduce party power and increase voters' power to choose the MPs that THEY want.

Lib Dems must demand STV at least for local government

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

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

If each of the largest two parties lacks an overall majority in 2015 but has enough MPs to form a stable coalition with the Liberal Democrats and they both invite the Liberal Democrats to coalition talks, Liberal Democrats have a moral duty to voters to talk first to whichever of the other parties has the more votes even if it has fewer MPs.

If the Conservative Party is persuaded to support PR at all for local government or any other elections, it is likely to want STV. If Liberal Democrats are in talks with Labour about a possible coalition, they should make the same demand. There should be no compromise on this.

This is a summary of an article, “How Lib Dems can achieve STV for local government” in Lib Dem Voice on 17 June 2014: http://www.libdemvoice.org/the-independent-view-how-lib-dems-can-achieve...

Lib Dems steal local elections!

Last Thursday’s local election results in England contain many examples of the unrepresentative nature of the First Past The Post (Winner takes all) voting system. Rather than confuse you with too many of them, we have selected just two. In both of them, the Liberal Democrats are grossly over-represented while the Conservatives are under-represented and other parties are not represented at all despite the number of votes they received.

For our first example, Liberal Democrats gained two seats in the London Borough of Sutton. They now have 45 Councillors (83%) to the Conservatives’ nine (17%), but the votes tell a very different story.

According to the Council’s website, the seats and percentage votes were:

Lib Dems, 45, 43%
Conservative, 9, 30%
Labour, 0, 15%
UKIP, 0, 8%
Green, 0, 3%
Others, 0, 1%

We show below how approximately how many seats each party would have won if the seats had been in proportion to the votes and, in brackets, the number of seats they actually won:

Lib Dems: 23 (45)
Conservative 16 (9)
Labour 8 (0)
UKIP 5 (0)
Green 2 (0)
Others 0 (0)

The exact result would depend on what kind of proportional representation was used and how people would have voted. They might have voted differently from the way they did with First Past The Post, but this illustrates how unrepresentative First Past The Post is.

It is clear that, although the Liberal Democrats were by far the most popular party, the voters collectively did not want them to have the overwhelming majority that they do have. Indeed, the voters did not give them a majority at all. The voting system gave it to them. Most people voted against the Liberal Democrats.

Our second example comes from Eastleigh, Hampshire where UKIP came second to the Liberal Democrats in a parliamentary bye-election fifteen months ago and came second again in votes on Thursday but only third in seats. Indeed they got no seats.

There, the Liberal Democrats took 13 seats (87%) for only 43% of the votes while the Conservatives took two seats (13%) for 21 % of the votes and UKIP (26%) and Labour (10%) won no seats at all.

To rephrase that, the Liberal Democrats won more than twice the number of seats than their votes merited and retained their overwhelming majority on the council although nearly six out of ten voters voted against them. The party with the second largest support was UKIP with more than one vote in four, but it got no seats. Labour also got no seats for one tenth of the votes. Compared with UKIP, the Conservatives were lucky; despite having fewer votes than UKIP, the Conservatives won two seats to UKIP’s none. However, overall and compared with the Liberal Democrats, the system treated the Conservatives badly. For about half the Liberal Democrats’ number of votes, they won less than one sixth the number of seats.

Although any Proportional Representation (PR) system would produce fairer results than these in terms of Party Representation, only Single Transferable Vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies would maximize voters’ choices, improve Councillors’ accountability to voters and provide Personal Representation in proportion to any factors (party or not), which voters regarded as important.

BJP landslide in India, or not?

It was widely reported that the BJP (Hindu nationalist party) won a landslide victory in this month’s Indian general election.

It was certainly a landslide in seats. The NDA (BJP and allies) won 337 (62%) out of 543 seats.

But the news media did not report that the BJP achieved only 31.1% (less than a third) of the votes. Even with its alliance parties, it still had only 38.66% (fewer than four out of ten) of the votes!

Frankly, this is ridiculous but not surprising. UK parties have also won elections, sometimes with large majorities, on only about 40% of the votes.

India is often described as the largest democracy in the world, but is that democratic? It is certainly not representative.

As well as the unrepresentative national result, there were also many unrepresentative local results. In 343 out of 543 constituencies, the winner obtained fewer than half the valid votes. 109 winners received fewer than 40% of the votes.

The worst individual result was in Jammu & Kashmir – Ladakh, where the BJP winner received only 26.4% of the votes; i.e. nearly three out of four voters voted against the winner!

Needless to say, India inherited, and suffers from, the UK’s discredited First Past The Post (Winner takes All) voting system.

By the way, one key difference between the UK and Indian systems is that “None of the above” is an option in India, but the bizarre results reported above show that “None of the above”, which some advocate for the UK, does not solve problems. The voting system itself needs to be changed.

Single Transferable Vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies would be even more beneficial in India than it would in the UK. One of STV’s many advantages is that it can reconcile different cultural, ethnic and religious groups, of which there are many in India.

Source: Keith Underhill, former ERS Council member.

A route to STV

If the Liberal Democrats take part in any coalition discussions in 2015, they must insist on Single Transferable Vote (STV) for local government elections.

A recent New Statesman article - http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/05/2015-election-could-revive-... - reports that opinions polls predict that the Conservatives may win most votes but Labour may win most seats in next year’s general election.

The article suggests that this may revive interest in electoral reform, especially among Conservatives. This seems very likely. It certainly happened in 1974 when the Conservatives won most votes but Labour won most seats. Not surprisingly, Conservatives felt robbed even though it was their party’s fault for not introducing a more representative voting system when it could have done.

Of course, the irony is that, just when a fairer voting system coincides with Conservative interests, the party may be in opposition and unable to legislate for reform. At the same time, the Labour Party, which has been showing some half-hearted interest in reform while in opposition, may be in government and unwilling to change the system that brought it to power.

But there may be a way to implement a fairer system in 2015, foreshadowed by negotiations between the Liberal Democrats and Labour in Scotland which successfully brought in reform of the voting system used for Scottish local government for 2007 and since. The possible results of the next general election may portend a change in local government elections in England and Wales. (Northern Ireland, like Scotland, already uses the fairer voting system.)

In 2010, the Liberal Democrats had no realistic option other than to form a coalition with the Conservatives; the Conservative Party had won the most votes and the most seats while Labour did not have enough seats to form a stable coalition with the Liberal Democrats. At that time, the Liberal Democrats secured agreement to the referendum on AV for general elections but there was not enough public support to secure a change.

Suppose that, in 2015, again no party has an overall majority but both the Labour and Conservative Parties have enough seats for either of them to form a stable coalition with the Liberal Democrats. But suppose also that New Statesman is right and Labour has more seats but the Conservatives have more votes. What should the Liberal Democrats do then if the largest two parties both invite them to coalition talks?

Although many Liberal Democrats might prefer an agreement with Labour, wouldn’t they have a moral duty to voters to try first to reach an agreement (if they are invited) with the Conservative Party, the party for which most people had voted? Liberal Democrats believe in STV so shouldn’t they try to form a coalition with the party that would probably have had the most seats if the election had been by a more representative system? Wouldn’t that be the most democratic way to proceed?

Of course, there would have to be conditions with some give and take on both sides, as there was in 2010. The bottom line for Liberal Democrats would have to be STV for all subsequent local government elections.

That would be fair enough. After all, if the Conservative Party was only the second largest in the Commons, its only claim to open discussions to be the senior coalition partner would be that it had the most votes; i.e. it should have been the largest party in the Commons and would have been the largest party in a more representative election. Indeed, in that situation, it should support PR for general elections, but the reality is that it would not do so quite so soon after the 2011 referendum.

The big question is whether the Liberal Democrats would have the nerve to hold out for this crucial, long-term improvement to UK democracy even if they were offered other short-term concessions on other policies instead. Also, would the Liberal Democrats hold out, not just for any old PR that provided Party Representation but for PR-STV, which alone provides Personal Representation and maximizes voters’ choices?

STV Action is quite optimistic that, if the Conservative Party is persuaded to support PR at all for local government or any other elections, it will choose STV as the system. This is because Conservatives pride themselves on valuing individualism and encouraging freedom of choice, so STV should be their natural system of choice. David Cameron made this very clear when he explained what improvements to the voting system would mean to him – shifting power to decide who should be elected as MPs from the political parties to the voters, and specifically not party list systems.

If the Conservatives refused to offer a firm guarantee of STV for all subsequent local government elections, we hope the Liberal Democrats would make the same demand of the Labour Party, again if they were invited to talks.
Although Labour’s centralist tendencies may make it reluctant to support STV for the Commons, it may be willing to promise PR of some sort for local government in order to secure Liberal Democrat support and lead the next government, but that would not be good enough. Liberal Democrats must hold out for STV, which alone maximizes voters’ choices and provides proportional representation not only of parties but of any other divisions that matter to voters.

Anyway, as Scotland and Northern Ireland already have STV for local government elections, it would be perverse to introduce a different PR system for the rest of the country.

STV, if only for local government, must be absolutely non-negotiable. If there has to be compromise, it should be on other areas of policy. On whatever else Liberal Democrats feel obliged to compromise in any coalition negotiations in 2015, they should not compromise on STV.

“Every Labour vote will count everywhere”

How eagerly I read every word of every Euro-election leaflet to discover the parties’ policies for Europe!

Then I read in the Labour leaflet, “Every vote counts, everywhere in South East England”. And, just in case voters failed to get the message the first time, there was “Every Labour vote will count everywhere”.

So, does Labour now recognize the merits of electoral reform? Does it want Labour votes to count everywhere in general elections and local elections? Is Labour going to campaign for electoral reform now, like it used to do before it became one of the two largest parties? I almost became excited.

I think I’ll ask Mr Miliband, but I’m not holding my breath!

“PR produces coalition governments”

So runs a frequent argument against PR and it was deployed in the recent New Statesman debate on http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/05/2015-election-could-revive-... but it is spurious for two reasons:

• It assumes that coalition government is bad but it is bad only for a party that wants to govern, unchecked, on its own like a collective dictatorship. It works well in most of Europe and it works for voters by imposing a check on the largest party that might otherwise govern on its own even though it represents only a minority of voters.

• First Past The Post can also produce coalition governments. We have had one since the 2010 general election and opinion polls suggest that we shall probably have another from 2015. The difference is that, with PR and especially STV, the coalition is more likely to represent most voters.

STV encourages civility

Recent research funded by the American FairVote (courtesy of the Democracy Fund) suggests that preferential voting (i.e. STV or AV), known as ranked choice voting (RCV) in the USA, is gaining favour among voters and candidates alike, who see it as a means of reducing divisive politics and fostering more positive, inclusive, and informative campaigns.

Two surveys, conducted by The Eagleton Poll at Rutgers University in collaboration with FairVote and Professors Caroline Tolbert (University of Iowa) and Todd Donovan (Western Washington University), polled 2,400 likely voters and over 200 candidates in three cities with RCV and seven control cities in November. Early analysis of this new data reaffirms RCV’s positive impact on voting and democracy.

Balanced Parliaments are good

According to Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (which is not usually a friend of electoral reform) on 1 May 2014, Sir Robert Rogers, Clerk of the Commons, wrote a letter to the Speaker announcing his departure. “The letter spoke of how Parliament is today better at scrutinising the Executive than it used to be. Indeed it is. That is partly because it is a hung [i.e. balanced] Parliament.......”

One of the objections often voiced against STV and other proportional voting systems is that they encourage so-called hung parliaments, which are portrayed as bad and undesirable.

In fact, balanced parliaments, as we prefer to call them, can occur with any voting system (except the North Korean and similar!) and the UK has one now with First Past The Post. However, with a proportional system and especially with STV, Parliament is representative of voters so there is a balanced parliament when voters are balanced.

Far from being bad and undesirable, balanced parliaments are good and desirable because, as Sir Robert has remarked, they enhance Parliament’s ability to scrutinize the Executive, which is meant to be one of its key functions.
So, far from being an argument against STV, the possibility of a balanced parliament is an argument for STV; it makes governments more accountable.

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