Tuesday, 1 April 2008

14 reasons why only STV will do

I don't want anyone to think I am some sort of lackey of Johann Hari, though I tend to agree with him at least 50% of the time. It just happens that he has written two very interesting and pertinent articles on two consecutive days.

I've already noted his piece about gay voters and the London mayoral election, in which he points out that, while Paddick is "One of Us", it is the straight but very pro-gay Livingstone who has the policies and the track record on gay issues.

Hari now turns his attention to electoral systems for Westminster, in an article entitled Don't fall for Jack Straw's electoral trap, the trap being the Alternative Vote system (AV). He explains why the present first-past-the-post (FPTP) system is completely unacceptable, and notes that AV, far from being a PR system, can be even less proportional than FPTP.

So far, so good. Sadly he then plumps for the hybrid "AV Plus" top-up system which David Lipsey cobbled together on the back of an envelope for the Roy Jenkins commission in 1998.

I bow to no-one in my admiration for Roy Jenkins, as a brave, reforming 1960s Home Secretary, a powerful and clever political thinker, and an urbane, witty and elegant writer. But unfortunately "AV Plus", while at first glance offering a quick and dirty way out of the mess, becomes less and less satisfactory the more you look into it.

For one thing, it isn't even particularly proportional. For another, you would have to completely redraw every single boundary across the land, because to achieve a House of Commons of about the present size you have to reduce the number of constituencies to about 500. This alone would take several years.

"AV Plus" has never been tried anywhere. It could produce quite perverse results, because of the way the county (top-up) seats are to be allocated to the parties most disadvantaged by the share of constituency seats, i.e. those with the highest ratio of votes to seats. This just was not properly thought through by Lipsey, and nobody else on the commission had any technical expertise in the matter.

If we really must have a hybrid top-up system -- and I would much rather not, for all the familiar reasons about creating two classes of members, but also because it still leaves too much power in the hands of the party machines -- we would probably be better off with AMS, the German system, now being used for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the GLA.

But there is a far superior solution, the single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies (STV). Among its many advantages:

(1) It is tried and tested, in Ireland, Australia and elsewhere.

(2) It is a British system which arises organically out of the British constitutional tradition (whereby we elect people, not parties per se), not an artificial "continental" concoction.

(3) As a preferential system (i.e. the voter puts candidates in order of preference) it allows the voter a much more nuanced and sophisticated expression of opinion, on whatever issues he or she rates as important.

(4) There is no need for tactical voting: the voter does not have to try and guess what other voters are doing.

(5) As with most proportional systems, there are few "wasted votes" and no "safe seats".

(6) There is no need to redraw the boundaries. The multi-member constituencies will be created by joining together existing single-member seats in groups of (ideally) about five.

(7) Boundaries would cease to be in a constant state of flux as under FPTP. When the population of an area rises or falls significantly, you just add or subtract a seat from the multi-member constituency.

(8) STV greatly reduces the power of party patronage. It takes power out of the hands of the party machine and puts it where it belongs, in the hands of the elector.

(9) There are no party lists. Anybody can stand, with or without a party label. If a "maverick" falls out with his party and is "deselected", he can still stand, and let the voters decide.

(10) Primary elections become quite unnecessary. The system incorporates its own "primary" by allowing voters to choose between different candidates of the same party, if they so wish.

(11) The great majority of electors will end up with at least one MP in their multi-member constituency with whom they will feel some affinity (party affinity, if they have a party allegiance, or affinity of views on various issues, if not) and this will be the MP they will want to contact on constituency business. So far from destroying the constituency link between elector and elected, this actually makes it more meaningful.

(12) Unlike some PR systems, STV has no inherent tendency towards party splintering. If anything, probably the opposite. Ireland, with STV, still has the same two main parties it has had for 70 years: the system has not particularly favoured breakaway parties (the PDs who broke away from FF have not prospered in the long run).

(13) STV encourages the election of women, ethnic or religious minorities, gays, etc. to the extent that significant numbers of voters want this -- but not if they don't. There is absolutely no need for parties to invent artificial quotas for women, or black people, or anyone else, for their candidate selection shortlists. Just the fact that the selection will no longer be for just one candidate, but for several, will force parties to put forward a diverse slate.

(14) It becomes much less likely that one party could have a monopoly of a whole region's representation in Parliament. At present the electoral map would lead you believe that there are no Tories in Manchester and no Labour supporters in Surrey. This is not in fact true. STV would allow those people to be represented.

Does STV have any disadvantages? None that I can think of. The Jenkins commission conceded its "unique practical contribution to voter choice", but rejected it as follows:

STV would be too big a leap from that to which we have become used, and it would be a leap in a confusingly different direction from the other electoral changes which are currently being made in Britain.
In my view this is quite wrong. In terms of constituencies, it is much less of a leap than AV Plus. From the voter's point of view, the only change is that there are more candidates to choose from, and you mark them 1, 2, 3 in order of preference instead of just writing a crude X against one of them. If this is a "big leap", it is surely one which most voters will welcome as giving them a lot more power.

If all this is too technical and anorakish, the overarching thing to bear in mind is this: most debate about PR takes it as read that we are talking about proportionality in purely party terms. Johann Hari, like nearly every other commentator, falls into this trap. STV is not absolutely arithmetically proportional to two decimal places in that narrow party sense. Uniquely, it offers broad proportionality of opinion in a manner that transcends party. The voter with no strong party allegiance (which is probably most voters these days) can express his or her preferences as between all the candidates, irrespective of party, according to their views on the issues that the voter him- or herself thinks are important.

1 comment:

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

Since you've set the challenge, allow me to suggest a few problems where I suspect STV will not deliver what you hope for:

4). Tactical voting exists in all systems. In STV the main tactic is to try to balance the vote for a particular party (or other combination but parties are the main ones to try this) so that all your candidates will survive elimination and you can get the most out of transfers. Here's an example from the last Northern Ireland Assembly elections, in West Tyrone, electing six members:

Barry McElduff (SF) 6971 (16.8%)
Pat Doherty MP (SF) 6709 (16.2%)
Claire McGill (SF) 4757 (11.5%)
Thomas Buchanan (DUP) 4625 (11.2%)
Allan Bresland (DUP) 4244 (10.2%)
Kieran Deeny (Independent) 3776 (9.1%)
Derek Hussey (UUP) 3686 (8.9%)
Josephine Deehan (SDLP) 2689 (6.5%)
Eugene McMenamin (SDLP) 2272 (5.5%)
Seamus Shields (SDLP) 1057 (2.5%)
Joseph O'Neill (RSF) 448 (1.1%)
Robert McCartney (UKUP) 220 (0.5%)

Including the fringe UKUP candidate, there were 12,775 votes for Unionists, or two full quotas. With three serious candidates it's clear that the two winners would be determined by whoever came third on the crucial elimination stage. If just 800 of Bresland's first preference votes had instead gone to his DUP running mate Buchanan then it would have been Bresland who was eliminated and the outcome would have been 1 DUP, 1 UUP member. Instead the DUP vote balanced so well that it was the UUP's Hussey who went out, with his transfers electing the other two.

To get this kind of effect requires strategic campaigning that ensures a party's votes are in the most effective place. Having candidates openly disagreeing with each other on policy isn't a good idea, so usually the main differences in the campaign will be that each candidate has a different geographic focus within the constituency. Even this is risky - in Belfast both Gerry Adams and Peter Robinson have such huge profiles that their parties have sometimes seen seats slip through their grasp because too many votes are behind the lead figure.

Some parties will openly campaign for tactical votes, urging voters to maximise the result this way.

5). All political systems with a large degree of voter loyalty have "safe seats" for particular parties, and campaiging will inevitably be most focused on the areas where the smallest vote turnover has the largest seat change. In terms of "safe seats" for individual politicians, this depends heavily upon whether or not they have sufficient rivals on their own slate to take votes away from them.

There is no compulsion for a party to run any particular number of candidates and some will run only the number that can reasonably be expected. So short of a meltdown in the party's core vote, there would still be safe seats.

6). & 7). I wouldn't really make this a selling point. There are many problems with many of the current boundaries (for instance borough and district council boundaries being crossed or arbitary wards hacked off their natural home to make up the numbers), plus in the medium term some constituencies will get too small to have a reasonable number of MPs without the boundaries being redrawn. I'd use the primary local authorities as the starting block rather than boundaries drawn up for single member seats.

8). & 10). Simply not. Leaving aside the campaign resources needed, something that most candidates with a chance can only get through party machines, party nominations will still to a large extent determine who gets in. Most parties thinking rationally are likely to only nominate the number of candidates who would all win in good circumstances, because they wouldn't want to risk vote leakage by running too many candidates. Indeed in the West Tyrone example above the SDLP put up three candidates to defend their single seat and have a crack at winning back a second from the independent Dr Deeny, and the result of the infighting that both produced this mess and was sustained by it was that the SDLP won no seats at all there as their internal transfers dribbled away.

The only cases of STV I can think of where parties regularly "over nominate" candidates are Malta, where party loyalty is so incredibly strong that hardly any leakage takes place at all, and the Australian Senate, where 95% of votes are cast for their vote to be cast "above the line" in accordance with a pre-lodged party tickets with a predetermined set of preferences (plus the voter who has to vote "below the line" has to preference all candidates so no votes can be lost through not transferring). I think the UK experience will be much closer to both Irelands, with parties still preselecting candidates and voters not getting that great a choice.

13). Similarly I don't agree that parties would totally ignore quotas - if a party is only fielding one or two candidates in a constituency (and in five member constituencies there will usually be at least one party that only has a reasonable shot at a single seat) then the "need" for quotas will still exist.

Now much of this does, I admit, stem more from the parties than from the system itself. But STV is only a mechanism and it is ultimately the parties and independents who provide the only options of choice to the voters. They will rarely provide the level of choice that your points assume.