STV: the benefit nobody talks about

British democracy was created in the 19th century, like the railways. Like the railways it was, for its time, truly world-leading. However after 150 years, like the railways, it is showing its age. People, technology and society have come a long way, and a system which worked yesterday needs to be adapted and improved for the different conditions of today.

One flaw which is becoming increasingly apparent is the way it stifles minorities. Under the first-past-the-post system the winner takes all and the loser gets nothing. Democracy has to be more than that. Even in a simple two party system, 49% of the voters may have no say in how the country is run – and in a multiparty system the ruling party may have the support of well below half of the population.  In a balanced system where the pendulum of power swings to and fro this may not matter too much, but when the difference is structural a large minority is rendered permanently powerless, which in the long run invites revolution.

These arguments are well rehearsed and various schemes to improve proportionality are suggested: the party list system, as was used in the Euro elections, the additional member system, as is used in the regional assemblies, the alternative vote and the Single Transferable Vote. Pundits with spreadsheets discuss the improvements in ‘proportionality’ given by the various schemes. I want to make a point in favour of the STV scheme which has nothing to do, directly, with proportionality. It gives voters the chance to choose their MP from within party list.

Let’s take a town of 200,000 people. Under STV its voters elect three MPs.  Suppose, for simplicity, there are only two parties: Left and Right.   The town is fairly evenly balanced, and elects 2 Left and 1 Right MP in some elections and 2 Right and 1 Left in others, depending on the way the political wind is blowing. 

Now, although each party knows that the best it can hope for is 2 seats out of 3, they will put up 3 candidates. Not to fill the slate will be seen as a sign of weakness.  This happens. To take an example close to home, in the last Euro elections (2019) here in the North West region all the parties (Conservatives, Labour,  Liberal Democrats, Brexit, Change, UKIP and the Greens) all put up full slates of 8 candidates, although they knew that they were never going to win all of them. The picture was the same in other regions. Parties will put up as many candidates as there are seats to be won.

So when a voter in this hypothetical town goes into the polling booth their ballot paper has six names, and they rank them in order (and although the mechanics of counting STV votes are complicated, its use by voters is really simple).  A staunchly pro-Left voter will write 1, 2 and 3 against the Left candidates and 4,  5 and 6 against the Right candidates: a pro-Right voter will do the reverse.  In doing so they are not only expressing their allegiance to a party, they are also expressing their preference for the candidates within that party.   And that preference carries through to the result.

Let’s see how that works.  Suppose that Smith, Jones and Robinson are the candidates for the Left party, which is doing well this time, while Brown, Green and White are standing for the Right party, which is lagging. Smith (a prominent local character) is more popular than Jones (a relative newcomer of whom little is known), while Robinson (whose controversial twitter stream has annoyed many people) is least popular of the three.   As the votes are counted the popular Smith is the first to reach the quota (more than one quarter of the votes cast).  Smith is elected, and surplus votes are diverted to the Jones pile.  

Even with that boost, perhaps neither Jones nor anyone else makes quota.   For the lagging Right party, Brown is the most popular candidate, followed by Green and then White, so the unfortunate White has the smallest number of 1st preference votes and is eliminated, their votes going to Brown who now makes quota.  Robinson is eliminated next,  their votes going to Jones who narrowly beats Green.   Yes, proportionality has worked, after a fashion, in that the town has elected two Left and one Right MP,  but it has done more than that: it has chosen between the candidates within the parties.

Everybody’s vote counts. There may be cases where a ballot is not counted for the voters preferred party – because the candidate made quota or dropped off the bottom – but their 4-5-6 ranking is used to express a preference as to which candidate of their non-preferred party gets elected. And so far we’ve ignored cross-party voting, which will strengthen the effect: voters are not tied to party allegiance and may vote for a popular individual despite their party.

STV also gives a much-needed voice to the majority. There is much – valid – complaint that in a ‘safe’ seat, voters for the losing parties have no say. But voters for the winning party have no say either.  The candidate is appointed by a small selection committee, or by party headquarters.  With STV it may still be effectively built-in that a party is bound to get a seat, but which of the candidates benefits from this is in the hands of the voters. Candidates – and sitting MPs – are going to realise this. They will be aware that they are answerable to the electorate rather than the party machinery. Today a Tory MP in the shires or a Labour MP in the industrial north knows that it would take major misbehaviour on their part to make voters switch party and thereby lose their seat, but with STV they will need to fear a switch in preference within the party ticket, and will treat their voters with much more respect.

This will change the dynamic of elections. Candidates will have to appeal to the electorate not just for their party but for themselves. Bright young SPADs who work the system within the party organisation to get onto the candidate list will also have to appeal to the electors if they’re going to get elected.  It’s worth noting that this dynamic is the opposite to the ‘party list’ system. You sometimes hear people object to PR because it gives control to the party rather than the voter; this applies to the list system but for STV it’s just the opposite.

Hopefully, in 100 years time “safe seats” will have gone the way of rotten boroughs and be consigned to history. STV can make that happen, giving choice to the people rather than the party machinery. 

Published by

rogerjbarlow

After his PhD at Cambridge, he has worked on particle physics experiments at DESY (TASSO, and the discovery of the gluon, and subsequently JADE, and the measurement of the B lifetime) , CERN (OPAL doing precision studies of the Z ), and SLAC(BaBar, and the discovery of CP violation in B mesons). He is currently a member of the LHCb collaboration. After many years at Manchester, rising from lecturer to professor, he moved to Huddersfield in 2011, from where he retired in 2017 He has written a textbook on Statistics, founded the Cockcroft Institute, started the ThorEA association, and originated the National Particle Physics Masterclasses. He was the PI of the CONFORM project that led to the successful operation of EMMA, the worlds's first nsFFAG accelerator.

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