Just a quick question before I start on the meat of this post - could a defender of the First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system explain why they don't propose redrawing local council wards so there's only one councillor for each ward? After all, if having more than one representative for an area is a bad thing, why don't you make the structure universal? (Special bonus prize for the first respondent to use 'ah, but that's different' or a variant in their response)
Anyway, electoral systems have been in the news again recently following Peter Hain mentioning the Alternative Vote in a recent speech and, rather than get into a snarky argument in Tom Watson's comments
again, I thought I'd do something positive and outline some of the reasons why I support the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system instead.
First off, I'd like to state that I don't believe STV is a perfect electoral system, but I don't believe that any electoral system I've encountered is perfect. Indeed I doubt that, given the various requirements of an electoral system in a modern democracy, it's possible to come up with a 'perfect' system. Any electoral system requires the trading off of one thing for another and it comes down to a question of what the individual and society believe are the most important requirements and what can, or should, be done to achieve that. I think STV does have weaknesses, but I'll explain later why I think the benefits of the system outweigh, and to some extent mitigate, those weaknesses. Of course, some of the features I see as strengths others may see as weaknesses, and vice versa.
For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to assume that you understand how STV works. For an overview of the system see here
or the Electoral Reform Society
's web site.
My main reason for preferring STV is that it shifts the balance of power in elections towards the individual voter and away from the political parties. In FPTP and party list systems, voters are presented with a stark choice between the different parties and the candidates they have selected. Some may say that FPTP makes voters choose between candidates, rather than parties, but the individual voter has no power to choose the candidate of their preferred party - if you wish to support a particular party, you have to take the candidate you're given regardless of what strand of opinion they represent within that party.
The benefit of STV, in my view, is that it means candidates can't hide behind their party - there won't be the situation that you get now in some constituencies where, as it's said, a donkey would get elected as long as it wore the right colour rosette. Assuming that parties stand more than one candidate - and it would be irrational for them not to do so - each voter has the opportunity to choose between the candidates of that party for the one they prefer. This encourages candidates to stress their personal characteristics and strengthens the sense of the representatives elected as individuals rather than party representatives.
STV also tends to be a more proportional system than FPTP - it doesn't guarantee the same degree of proportionality as party lists do, but it tends to produce results more in line with voter preference than FPTP. Of course, the important thing to remember is that within STV voters are casting their votes for individuals as much as they are for parties. However, if one assumes that voters keep their early preferences amongst the candidates of their preferred party then results tend to be proportional between those parties who receive enough votes to break quota. It's worth noting for those concerned about PR systems giving representation to extreme parties that, assuming a constituency electing five representatives, any party or individual would have to get the support of at least 16% of the electorate to be elected.
For me, though, proportionality isn't the most important reason for supporting STV, though it's an added bonus of the system. I would argue in fact that proportionality isn't as important under STV as it is under other systems as the vote is for the individual rather than the party and thus it's hard to determine what the proportion of votes for any single party may be.
There's also the fact that STV limits the number of 'wasted' votes, or votes that don't result in the election of the voter's preferred candidate. There's no need for voters to cast their votes tactically as the system ensures that the vast majority of votes cast will, at some point in the election, go towards electing a candidate - in a five member constituency, for instance, 83% of voters will see at least one candidate for whom they have expressed a preference elected. Voters don't have to worry about wasting their vote for a candidate with no chance of being elected, or in simply piling up a huge majority for a very popular candidate as those votes will then go their next preference. I believe that this would encourage increased turnout in elections because people would know that their vote has more chance of having an effect in the election than it does now under FPTP.
The one criticism that's often made of systems other than FPTP is that they don't deliver 'strong government'. I've discussed this issue before, but it's important to remember that none of the electoral systems seriously suggested for the UK automatically guarantee that any one party will receive an overall majority. It's the way the votes are cast, not the system of voting that determines the result of the election. While FPTP has delivered governments with absolute majorities, there's nothing inherent in the system that ensures that will be the case in all elections. If the voters wish to have a government with a majority then they will cast their votes that way.
The one major perceived weakness of STV is that it requires multiple-member constituencies. One can use preference voting in single constituencies - Alternative Vote (AV) - but the studies I've seen indicate that it could well be less proportional than FPTP in the current situation and it doesn't promote the power of the voter to anything like the extent of STV. Obviously in some situations - Mayoral elections spring to mind - there's no other option than AV, but in most situations STV is much more preferable.
Yes, STV does break the connection between a single representative and a single constituency and I'm not going to pretend otherwise. However, as I mentioned at the start, the single representative isn't the sole model within the UK - the majority of local council wards have more than one councillor and I'm not aware of any movement to break them up. Indeed, in the past, parliamentary constituencies often elected more than one member. Multiple representatives mean that the electorate has a choice as to which of their representatives they approach when they have a problem, allowing them to choose whichever one they believe will deal with their case the most appropriately. STV does also mean that representatives have to be more aware of their constituency's needs as they would have to rely on their personal standing and reputation to get re-elected.
This is an advantage for STV over the mixed systems currently used in Scotland and Wales in that each member has the same level of responsibility. There does seem to be a confusion as to who's responsible for what in mixed systems with constituency members often seeming to have more work than the 'top up' list representatives - under STV, each member would represent a constituency.
Finally, there's the issue of whether STV is too complex a system. To which I can only respond that yes, it is more complex than FPTP, but if complexity is a concern for you then a nice dictatorship takes away all the complexity of having to determine who to vote for.
On a less flippant note, introducing STV would no doubt require some level of education and promotion to ensure people are aware of the new system and how it works, but I think the cost of that is a price worth paying for a better system. Counting the votes and discovering the results would take longer than under the current system but, for me, that's not a relevant concern. As long as the results can be determined in a reasonable amount of time - and from what I recall, Ireland's STV system usually has all the results available within a day or so of the election - I see no reason to be concerned. More automation of the counting process (subject to the necessary safeguards, of course) could always be introduced if there is an overwhelming desire for a speedy result.
So, that's my case for STV. I know there are lots more arguments for and against, and I could have looked at some of the points I've made in greater depth but this entry's already gone on for too long and I'd like to open it up for debate, if anyone's interested.