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.


  1. Sorry James, but your assertion in point two is an outright lie. I did not write that at all. I was referring to the referendum, as you must know. Any fool knows what in FPTP elections you just need to come top to win and 50% plus 1 is irrelevant. The fact that you deliberately islead your readers about what I wrote says a lot.

    Your whole post is so full of misleading assertions and what you call ‘forktongery’ that I just haven;t got the time or inclination to rebutt any more of it. But you do yourself no favours by acting in this way.

  2. Iain, regarding point two, your exact words are:

    But what constitutes victory? 50% plus 1? How very FPTP!

    You could not have been clearer. You are right only in as much as I clearly should have quoted you directly rather than paraphrased.

    If you had the time to write the two original posts, then you should be honest with your readership and respond to the criticisms. Claiming that you haven’t got the “time or inclination” to rebut them is lame. I think we both know that’s a ploy, if not a particularly sophisticated one.

  3. Heh, as you were typing this up, I was referring to that Trimble speech on Twitter, I never did get around to fisking it.

    But yes, agree completely, which probably won’t surprise you.

  4. Ah, for some reason comments weren’t here when I commented (and now my comment isn’t displaying, I’m going to have to ask Akismet why they think Jennie and I are spammers).

    But, Iain’s right, when he says 50%+1, it’s fairly clear to me he’s talking about the winner in the referendum, which is being run under FPTP, for the simple reason that there’s only two options.

    Personally I’d rather have a preferendum, but that’s not on the table.

  5. 50%+1 would win ANY two option ballot under any system. That isn’t a characteristic of FPTP though – quite the opposite.

  6. Happy to stand corrected Stephen, but can you give me an example of a Scottish LA with 4 member wards? I thought that was one of the concessions we gave to Labour.

    Certainly 3 members would appear to be the norm, something which threw up some quite quirky results (albeit less quirky than FPTP by a country mile).

  7. James – Stephen’s right, there are a mixture of 3 and 4 member wards in all or almost all local authorities in Scotland. Three members certainly isn’t the norm. In Highland, for instance, most of our wards were four-member ones.

  8. Like I say, I stand corrected, but it seems odd that there are four member wards in sparsely populated areas like the Highlands, while only three member ones in a suburb like East Dunbartonshire. Clearly I’m getting local policy confused with

  9. There’s no pattern to the spread of 3-member and 4-member wards (e.g. rural vs suburban). The Local Government Boundary Commission decided on the number of 3-member and 4-member wards in each LA area based on the size of electorate and what they thought constituted definable communities. Edinburgh, for example, has ten 3-member wards and seven 4-member wards; Glasgow has only four 3-member wards and seventeen 4-member wards. East Dunbartonshire and Midlothian were the outliers for having all 3-member wards, though the Borders and Shetland were almost the same.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.