Tag Archives: stv

Electoral Mythbusting 1: Spotlight on Iain Dale

I guess we’ll be doing a lot of mythbusting over the next year or so, so I might as well start now.

Iain Dale has just issued a couple of posts about the Alternative Vote and Single Transferable Vote which contains assertions that simply can’t be sustained. Let’s go through them.

1. AV “is probably even less proportional than FPTP”

First of all, neither AV nor FPTP are proportional systems and the reason for introducing AV is not to make elections more proportional. Let’s by all means have that debate, but the referendum won’t be about that. So arguing which non-proportional system is more or less proportional is the world’s most pointless exercise.

We can of course talk about whether a particular election result would have been more or less proportional, but it is a pointless exercise as it involves making huge assumptions and in particular it assumes that the election is a one-off, not part of a series. So, for example, those famous bar charts that people moan about in elections are only used as an election tactic because under FPTP people have to rely on the past pattern of voting to decide how they might vote tactically – or whether to bother voting at all. Because tactical voting has become so common and that in some constituencies it has become ingrained (I am reminded of the various Cornish Labour supporters I’ve met over the years who take it for granted that they vote Lib Dem in general elections), we can’t really know how changing the voting system will change voting behaviour.

The example that is most frequently cited is 1997, in which it is generally believed that the anti-Tory swing would have had the effect of increasing the Labour majority at the expense of the Conservatives. That is probably true, but it wouldn’t have been if the 1992 election had been held using AV, in which case the pattern would have changed. And it is also the case that big swing elections like that happen less than once every general election. 2010 doesn’t compare and while the Labour and Tory seats may have changed slightly under AV this May, the main beneficiaries would have been the Lib Dems – thus it would have been slightly more proportional.

Australian AV elections are generally more proportional than UK FPTP ones but ultimately that’s irrelevant because AV is not a proportional voting system. The reason for introducing it is to give voters more choice and more competition within each constituency.

2. The winner in a FPTP election must get 50%+1 of the vote

Yes indeed, Iain Dale did indeed write that. Just for the record (I guess most politicos know this but a lot of others don’t): under FPTP you don’t need 50% of the vote or indeed any minimum number of votes. In Scottish four way marginals – and even in ones currently regarded as ‘safe’ – the winning threshold can be very low indeed.

The example Dale cites of the 1979 Scottish Parliament referendum where the threshold was set ridiculously high was one of the most undemocratic acts of thwarting the will of the people we’ve ever seen in the UK (thanks, Labour!).

3. STV “weakens the constituency link”

I’ve argued before that the single member constituency link is one of the most pernicious aspects of UK democracy, and stand by it. I’ve never heard a coherent defence of it – it just gets invoked by people as if it means something inherently profound (ironically, often by individuals like Iain Dale who are more than partial to a bit of carpetbagging themselves). But does STV, my preferred system, actually weaken the constituency link? The short answer is, it depends.

Ask any Irishman and they’ll tell you that it certainly doesn’t. Indeed, the effect of STV is to make politics in the Republic ultra-parochial. Iain Dale ought to talk to David Trimble if he doesn’t believe me.

That said, there is no question that making constituencies larger and having multiple MPs represent them will have some effect of dilution. The constituency link between MEPs and their regions is very weak indeed, although that link would be strengthened by replacing the current list system with STV. But no-one is seriously suggesting STV constituencies for the House of Commons with more than six members maximum. In Scottish local government, all constituencies have three members, although that is generally regarded as too inflexible. Personally, I don’t think it would be sensible for constituencies to, on average, be larger than four members (I would settle for three members on average, while recognising that it would not be especially proportional).

Furthermore, the flexibility of STV is such that ultralocalist candidates will still emerge if there is a genuine (as opposed for forced) demand for them. A candidate could campaign on a platform of wanting to represent a specific town within the constituency and still win, for example. It would be up to the voter to decide how localist they wanted their MPs, not the boundary commission.

There is also the question of political representation. Whether he thinks he does or not, my MP does not represent me. He is very unlikely to ever reflect my views in Parliament and he certainly can’t represent my views and my Tory neighbour’s at the same time. So where is my constituency link? By contrast, in a multi-member constituency I would have a much better chance of having my views represented.

And finally there is the matter of competition. Where STV is used, the effect is that elected representatives are under much greater pressure to champion local issues than they are under FPTP. The effect is that a local campaign will often find it has three champions in Parliament where under a different system it would only have one.

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves if the people of Manchester (for example) are better served by 4-5 MPs representing the city as a whole and coming from across the political spectrum, or carving the city up into 4-5 artificial constituencies. I think the former, but that isn’t a debate we will be having for the foreseeable future. And it is deeply ironic that one of the things the Tories are insisting upon at the moment is to redraw the constituency map so that MPs represent larger areas and that their constituencies are based on even more artificial boundaries. If they care so much about the constituency link, they should do the exact opposite.

4. The Jenkins proposal of AV+ is proportional

The Jenkins proposal included just a 17% top up of MPs elected proportionately. While that would mitigate the most extreme effects of using unproportional systems, its impact would be strictly limited. You could describe it as semi-proportional, but not proportional.

5. Under STV, the party has even more power and influence over candidate selection

This is the exact opposite of the truth. When it comes to candidate selection, there are two basic types of electoral system: there are ones in which the party chooses the candidates (however democratically) and there are ones in which the party chooses a shortlist of candidates from which the electorate chooses. Single Transferable Vote and open list systems do the latter. Closed list systems, of which first past the post is one, is in the former category.

It really is one of the most monstrous lies of the Tories to condemn proportional systems for using closed lists when that is a different issue to whether the system is proportional or not, and that they endorse closed lists themselves.

STV gives the party dramatically less control over candidates. Indeed, the candidates of each party effectively compete with one another, and that can cause tensions. That’s why people like John Prescott fought tooth and nail against it being introduced for the European Elections in 1998. That’s one of the reasons why politicians are wary of it in Ireland – and why the voters in Ireland like it so much. There is an issue that parties have the option of only fielding one candidate if they want to, but that is no worse than under first past the post, and it is more likely in small constituencies – which is what Iain Dale endorses.

We’re going to see a lot more of this forked tongue bufoonery over the coming months – especially since the debate on which electoral system we should use for the House of Lords will be sparking off soon. It is going to really try my patience.

STV is beautiful

uk09stv_smallDenis Mollison has an article on Next Left about how STV would work in practice. He also shows off a map of how the UK could be divided up into multi-member constituencies.

I really like what Mollison has done here. He hasn’t simply drawn lines on the map but created constituencies based on local authority boundaries. Ironically this would mean that people would identify with parliamentary constituencies more than the largely artificial ones we currently use (if the Tories get their way and replace the current system for drawing boundaries with a more technocratic one based on number of voters, this problem will get even worse). His model would also result in 140 fewer MPs.

I’m sure there are decisions here and there that you could poke holes in; the London boundaries in particular are likely to prove controversial. But this is valuable work as it instantly changes the debate around STV from a very abstract one to one of practicalities.

And, fundamentally, it makes a pretty picture. Any chance of a hi-res version to put up on my wall?

Is UK politics institutionally racist?

Trevor Phillips thinks it is:

The public in this country would, he believes, embrace a black leader but the system would prevent it happening. “Here, the problem is not the electorate, the problem is the machine.” It was no coincidence that there were only 15 ethnic-minority MPs, he said. “The parties and the unions and the think-tanks are all very happy to sign up to the general idea of advancing the cause of minorities but in practice they would like somebody else to do the business. It’s institutional racism.”

I actually disagree with Trevor Phillips in as much as I don’t accept that the UK political system is any more institutionally racist than the US system. The House of Representatives does relatively better than the House of Commons, but the Senate does far worse than either the Commons or the Lords: Obama was the only black senator and he’s now out of the door. Meanwhile, in terms of gender balance, we do significantly better. But Adam Afriye does have a good point when he says:

“In the US a fresh face like Obama can make it in one electoral cycle. In Britain it’s generally a gradual process of service and promotion over many years, and often decades, before leading a political party.”

If we had a presidential system, it is certainly true that we would create within our own system a similar opportunity for an anti-establishment candidate such as Obama to come out of nowhere. But would we want a presidential system? I can see strong arguments either way, although my mind opposition to directly elected mayors has hardened over the past two years after seeing London’s gradual shift towards post-Livingstone politics. The same system that would prevent the meteoric rise of a “British Obama” also prevents the meteoric rise of a “British Palin.”

But we should also be mindful of the fact that neither Obama or Palin did, in fact, come from nowhere. Obama had been a state senator for eight years before entering the US Senate in 2005. Palin also made it in local and state politics first. The difference between these levels of government and their UK equivalents is that they wield far more influence and power. In the UK, even the Scottish Parliament has very few tax-raising powers; in that respect it is no different from a local authority which can only control how it allocates the cash not make strategic decisions about the level of that cash and how it should be raised. As Mayor of Wasilla (pop. 10,000), Palin had powers that Alex Salmond would hanker for. If we don’t have proving grounds such as these, how can we expect our stars to rise (indeed, I made this point about the London Assembly last year)? Currently the only real avenue is the House of Commons, and that is where there is also the most party control.

The UK Parliament and the system we use to elect its members institutionally favours candidates who are capable of running their own campaigns and working extremely long hours for years before polling day. Inevitably, this tends to favour rich people, successful entrepreneurs and lawyers, who tend to be (but are not exclusively) white, middle class and male. The Labour Party has an additional category of standard candidate background – the trade unionist – but these days these too tend to be white, middle class and male. For every Dawn Butler there are dozens of Tom Watsons and Sion Simons. Labour these days may be unlikely to foster an Obama, but it is unlikely to foster a Keir Hardie either.

Getting elected to the UK Parliament is, currently, an extreme sport. You have to be ever-so-slightly insane to want to put yourself through it. The serious question is whether this is actually healthy? Scrutiny certainly is, but in most parts of the country where we have safe seats, we have patronage in place of that. Fundamentally, we have a system that puts parties, not the public, in control.

Some have argued that the solution to all this is to have primaries, but for reasons I have already rehearsed, I don’t think that will work (nor do I think it works well in the US outside of presidential candidate selections). No, if we are serious about putting the people in control, we need a system like STV which combines a fairer electoral system with a more open system for selecting party candidates. If the Equality and Human Rights Commission are serious about exposing institutional racism (and sexism and all other forms of discrimination for that matter), then they should come out in support of electoral reform.

Apolitics poisons everything

I’ve been reading the Rothermere Press’ reasonable, balanced interview with the reasonable, balanced BNP parish council by-election candidate Donna Bailey. If liberty ever dies in this country, it will go out not with a bang, but a whimper; a death by a thousand cuts. And it will be nice, ordinary people like Donna Bailey who will be wielding the knife.

The thing about this article which most struck me was this section:

Simon Birnstingl believes that real disenchantment with Westminster politics has brought the village to this point.

He says many locals are so far removed from the political process – and Westminster politicians so illinformed about what is actually happening in places like this – that parties like the BNP are being allowed to make themselves acceptable.

“There are real issues that are not being addressed, and people are just switching off. I think it is horrific that a lot of people just shrug when you say BNP. They honestly don’t care.”

It’s not that I would take issue with any of that; I’ve said as much myself before. But there is another dimension which doesn’t get talked about anything like as much as it should. That is, that the decline of politics is not simply a Westminster-versus-the-rest-of-us phenomenon but is happening in every town, village and suburb in the country.

Upper Beeding has apparently not had an election since 1974; I believe this. A couple of months ago I did a very nerdy thing and calculated how many candidates stood for the all-out parish council elections in East Sussex last year. I don’t have the figures in front of me but the average number of candidates for each vacancy came to less than 1.1, despite a number of parishes where it was quite competitive. In Wiltshire last year, a BNP candidate was elected unopposed.

Why do so few people stand for parish and community councils? There are lots of factors, but the main ones in my experience are an unholy alliance between a profoundly undemocratic electoral system and a profoundly undemocratic culture that regards elections as vulgar. Villages have a tendency to be ruled over by hegemonies. Political parties in all but name, they dominate by perpetuating the myth that they are above such things. The worst examples of nepotism and venality can be found but somehow this gets justified as a natural feature of village life. It works because the passive majority simply cannot imagine anything else.

It also works because the electoral system makes it almost impossible to break hegemonic power. Anyone who has ever fought an election in a multi-member ward understands this: if you’re serious about winning you have to field a full slate. Otherewise, for example if you field one candidate in a three member ward, for every single vote you get you are guaranteed two votes against you. You might succeed in splitting the vote (the Green Party did this trick in Barnet in 2006 and handed the Tories at least one councillor on a plate), but you make it more difficult to get elected yourself. While this may be a problem in three member primary council wards, many parish councils elect blocs of 10 or even 20. So long as the hegemony enjoys the plurality, its place is secured (I can only laugh hollowly when I read the Tory democratic reform ginger group Direct Democracy support FPTP multi-member constituencies as a way of promoting “choice” and “competition”). In most cases people just don’t bother.

The other side of the coin is that where the hegemony for whatever reason doesn’t manage to get a full slate (they have to die some time…), virtually anyone can slip through the net. That is what Donna Bailey tried to do and Michael Simpkins achieved.

A system like STV which works against hegemonies whether they call themselves political parties, residents associations or even just colleagues would not stop the BNP from gaining elected representatives; far from it. Whether we like it or not, the minority that support the BNP have a right to representation as much as the rest of us (so long as they accept that both they and their political leaders are pariahs). What it would do however is stop them from sneaking into office by the backdoor. It would stop them from being able to acquire hegemonies of their own. And it would stop them from being able to bleat on about how they are discriminated against and instead put the focus on delivery. It is at that point that the BNP invariably fail.

What applies to the BNP applies to everyone else too. The dead weight being carried by parish and community councils across the country is palpable. The clear white light of competition could only do them good.