If Welsh Labour wants a two-member-constituency voting system, this is the one they should adopt

In the recent row over possible changes to the voting system used for elections to the Welsh Assembly, one of the alternatives proposed by the Labour Party was a system of two-member-constituency First Past the Post (see the Devolution Matters blog for an overview of the row). In other words, to expand the number of Assembly Members (AMs) to 80 from the present total of 60 (made up of 40 constituency AMs and 20 top-up regional AMs under the proportional AMS voting system), Labour was proposing having two AMs per constituency and using FPTP to elect them.

Presumably, the model of FPTP they had in mind was that voters would get two votes each, thereby ensuring that where Labour was the most popular party, it would be guaranteed to win both seats even if it were not the choice of a majority of voters. Labour is not known for its enthusiastic backing for fair voting systems, after all. FPTP wouldn’t be so bad if people had only one vote, so that the Labour vote would be split between both candidates, giving other parties more of a chance, especially if they fielded only a single candidate in constituencies where they knew they had no hope of winning both seats.

However, a fairer, more rational and more proportional electoral system for two-member constituencies would be the following, which I’m calling ‘TMPR2’: Two-Member Proportional Represenation (version two). This is a simpler and more practical version of the TMPR system I have previously discussed. TMPR2 works as follows:

  • There are two representatives (AMs, MPs, etc.) per constituency
  • Each voter has two votes. Voters are not obliged to use both votes: they can vote for just one candidate if they wish
  • The individual candidate obtaining the most votes automatically wins one of the seats
  • The individual winner may be either the representative of a party or an independent
  • In addition, if any independent candidate wins the second-highest total of individual votes, that independent candidate is elected
  • However, assuming the second-highest total of votes is not won by an independent, the winner of the second seat is decided on the basis of the share of the vote won by each party:
    • If any party wins over 50% of all votes (that is, the number of actual votes cast, which is higher than the number of voters, as people can vote for two candidates), then both of their candidates are elected (unless one of the candidates obtaining the highest or second-highest total of votes is an independent, in which case the party obtaining over 50% of the vote wins only one seat)
    • In the instance where one of the seats is in fact won by an independent, the party candidate elected is the one that has obtained more votes than the running mate from their own party
    • If, however, no party wins more than 50% of the vote, then the two parties obtaining the highest shares of the vote win one seat each (except in the case where one or more independent candidate are elected, whereby only the top-ranked party or no party respectively wins a seat)
    • In the case that two parties win one seat each, the successful candidates are those who obtained more individual votes than the running mates from their own parties

Advantages of TMPR

  • This is a reasonably proportional system
  • It encourages trans-party voting: voters could and would vote for candidates from different parties. This would equalise the parties’ share of the vote, with the established parties’ share coming down and the smaller parties’ share rising. For instance, quite a lot of right-of-centre voters, if the system were applied in England, would vote for one Conservative and one UKIP candidate; whereas many left-of-centre voters would vote for a Green candidate alongside a Labour or Lib Dem candidate. This means that the vote share parties need to win in order to be elected could be considerably lower than under FPTP. In fact, there is no lower percentage limit on eligibility for a seat. And TMPR2 encourages this pluralism by allowing voters to divide their loyalty between more than one party
  • It incorporates some of the best features of established, familiar voting systems:
    • Like FPTP, the candidate obtaining the largest number of individual votes automatically wins a seat
    • Like AV, if any party wins over 50% of the vote, it takes the whole constituency (i.e. both seats), unless an independent candidate has won either the highest or second-highest individual vote
    • It’s a crude form of PR, similar to STV in the sense that a party, as opposed to an individual candidate, needs to win more than a ‘quota’ of 50% of the vote to win both seats
  • It encourages voting for individuals – and hence, for independents – alongside parties: as voters have two votes each, they will be freer to choose candidates on their individual merits alongside their membership of a particular political party. There would be more of an incentive for independent candidates to run, such as high-profile, respected local figures taking a stand on important issues for the local community
  • It’s easy to understand and operate: there are no complicated voting or counting mechanisms involved, and the result is a clear and direct expression of voters’ preferences. There are no unexpected consequences and fewer tactical-voting constraints for voters. Voters would know that the way they voted would have a direct impact on the result: each of their two votes increases the chances of that individual candidate or party; and if voters are torn between the party / candidate they genuinely prefer and the party they feel they need to vote for in order to ensure that another party does not win (tactical voting), they can hedge their bets and vote both ways.

Disadvantage of TMPR2

TMPR is probably not as proportional as the existing system – AMS – used for elections to the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament. In fact, in an Electoral Reform Society analysis of the 2011 Welsh Assembly election had it been conducted using AMS with 30 constituency seats and 30 regional top-up seats (instead of the present 40/20 ratio) compared with an 80-seat Assembly elected using STV, AMS emerges as the more proportional system. It would be interesting to see the outcome if they ran the same analysis on TMPR2.

However, pure proportionality is not everything; and TMPR does preserve the close links between individual AMs / MPs and relatively small constituencies. By comparison, AMS gives more power to the parties, as top-up AMs / MPs are predominantly elected because of their party affiliation rather than their individual merit or on the basis of local issues. In addition, TMPR is much simpler to understand and operate than either STV or AMS.

Real-world prospects for TMPR2

In reality, TMPR2 has very little chance of ever being implemented, at least not for the Welsh Assembly. As the ‘inventor’ of TMPR2, I don’t exactly have a lot of influence. But as the possibility of two-seat constituencies was being mooted, it seemed timely to bring forward TMPR2 as another alternative: as a possible compromise between FPTP and proportionality. The Labour Party wouldn’t like it, because it’s too fair and proportional. The experts at the Electoral Reform Society probably wouldn’t like it because it’s not proportional enough. But maybe the people would like it if they were offered the choice, precisely because it is fairer than FPTP but less complex and fussy than STV and AMS, with a more transparent link between how people vote in each constituency and the winners.

Anyway, I’m just throwing it out there to see if there are any takers.

English parliament


All that’s needed is 25% support for Scottish independence to be carried

It’s a huge irony of last week’s various elections that, as the UK opted not to replace the First Past the Post voting system with the Alternative Vote, the SNP was being elected into power in Scotland using a voting system designed to prevent the disproportional parliamentary majorities that FPTP tends to produce. Had FPTP been used for the Holyrood elections, the SNP’s 45.4% share of the constituency vote would have given it a massive landslide: the Nats won 53 out of the 73 constituency seats, or 73%.

It’s a safe bet that the Conservative and Labour Parties were glad of the existence of the regional poll, alongside the constituency vote, that is designed to counterbalance the disproportionality of FPTP. This system helped to ensure that the SNP won only 53.5% of the total seats, and it gave the Tories no fewer than 12 regional MSPs alongside their meagre three successful constituency candidates, while Labour gained an extra 22 seats compared with their pitiful showing of only 15 constituency MSPs.

All the same, the SNP ended up with an overall majority despite falling 5% short of a majority of votes; and it’s the FPTP system that is responsible for this disproportionality. A similar analysis can be applied to Wales, where Labour won 70% of the constituency MPs on 42.3% of the vote but failed to secure an overall majority thanks to the regional poll, where they won only 10% of the seats. I’m sure the Conservatives were just as glad that FPTP was not used without the counterbalancing regional system in Wales, too!

All of which totally gives the lie to the claims of the No2AV campaign that FPTP is a ‘fair’ system that has served Britain well and ensured ‘strong’ government. Well, it might have served ‘Britain’ well, in the sense that it’s been a key means for the two main unionist parties to monopolise – or should that be ‘duopolise’ – power for nearly 100 years and impose their various ideological blueprints on England and the rest of the UK without requiring, and hardly ever obtaining, the support of a majority of voters. But it’s not fair by any stretch of the imagination, as the howls of Conservative indignation at SNP and Labour landslides, and Tory obliteration, in Scotland and Wales would have demonstrated had the elections in those countries been held using FPTP alone.

But what’s good enough for Scotland and Wales is, apparently, too good for England, which is too great a prize for the Conservative and Labour Parties to give up by conceding the principle that parliamentary elections in England should be conducted fairly. All the same, AV, which was the only change to the voting system in England that the Westminster establishment was prepared to countenance, is not AMS (the system used in Scotland and Wales): not even close. Indeed, AV would have been liable to bring about even greater landslides in UK general elections than FPTP. So really, the AV referendum was a win-win situation for the Westminster elite: either system would ensure that disproportional single-party rule remained a distinct possibility in future UK elections.

In the event, though, neither FPTP nor AV won last week’s referendum, as my previous analysis showed. The majority of English and UK voters didn’t express a view (i.e. didn’t vote) or, if they did express an opinion by writing out their demand for an English parliament or a referendum on the EU on their ballot paper, those views were not recorded. The turn-out was so low that the headline 67.9% No vote across the UK as a whole was in reality the settled view of only 28.5% of registered voters. Therefore, there was no real mandate for FPTP, particularly as the referendum didn’t ask people whether they thought FPTP was the best voting system for UK-parliamentary elections but only whether they thought AV should be used instead. Indeed, you might even say this was a fitting FPTP victory: winner takes all on a pitifully small base of real support.

A bit like the Scottish elections in fact: not only did the SNP in fact poll only a minority of the vote, but turn-out for the Holyrood elections was also low: around 51%. This means that, in reality, only 23.2% of registered Scottish voters voted for the SNP in the constituency ballot: somewhat fewer than voted against AV across the UK as a whole. If you look at it this way, the real level of support for the SNP at the election was not in fact that different from the polling figures that are generally bandied about regarding support for independence among Scottish voters. In other words, it might actually only take around 25% of Scottish voters to support independence for independence to be carried in a referendum – so long as turn-out was as low as it was for the AV referendum and the Scottish election.

Surely, such a low level of support would mean independence had no mandate. Not if you accept the ‘mandate’ in favour of FPTP that last week’s referendum is said to have conferred – nor indeed the ‘mandate’ that FPTP elections are supposed to provide, such as Labour’s 2005 victory based on around 22% of real support from the electorate. Just as the SNP can claim a mandate to govern Scotland based on the active support of 23.2% of Scottish voters, they could rightly claim a mandate for independence on just a little more.

It would be utmost hypocrisy on the part of the established unionist parties if they tried to rig a Scottish-independence referendum by imposing a turn-out threshold. If FPTP ballots are ‘good’ enough for England, then FPTP should be good enough in a straight choice between independence or continued membership of the Union for Scotland, regardless of how many people turn out to vote.

Scotland could, and should be allowed, to gain its independence on the expressed will of only a quarter of its adult citizens!

AV referendum: for the sake of England, don’t vote!

Do you think the First Past the Post voting system used for electing UK MPs should be changed to the Alternative Vote? Do you even care?

Firstly, should anyone who supports the idea of an English parliament give a monkeys about the voting system used to elect the UK parliament? On one level, no: the fact that this AV referendum is being held on the same day as the elections for the Scottish parliament, and Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies, but that the English have never been consulted about a parliament of their own; and the fact that we’re being offered only the disproportional AV system, whereas those very devolved elections use a different, proportional system, is a downright insult. So not only is there no representation for England as a nation on offer, but there is to be no proportional representation for England even within the UK parliament. So I know where I’d tell them to stick their AV.

On the other hand, a ‘better’ electoral system for electing English MPs would surely be a gain for the nation even while we’re being governed by an unrepresentative UK executive and parliament. Does AV constitute such a gain? Well, in my view, AV is marginally – very marginally – better than FPTP. It does ensure that parliamentary candidates have to secure the explicit support of a larger proportion of their local electorate in order to win – though it doesn’t guarantee that MPs must obtain the support of a majority of voters: that depends on how many voters don’t express a preference for either / any of the candidates remaining after the less popular candidates have been eliminated.

However, in reality, this greater share of the vote MPs have to win, which includes the second and subsequent preferences of voters whose first-choice candidates have been unsuccessful, already exists in latent form under the FPTP system. The only difference that AV makes is that it allows voters to explicitly express that support with their preference votes, so that – for example – a winning plurality of, say, 40% is turned into a winning ‘majority’ of 52%. That extra 12% of voters who are broadly content for a candidate to win on 40% of the vote are still there under FPTP; so AV in a sense just legitimises what happens under FPTP: the election to parliament of MPs who fail to be the first choice of a majority of voters.

AV is, therefore, mainly a means to secure buy-in to an unfair system that has ill-served England. That’s what FPTP has been: over the past few decades, it’s given us Tory and Labour governments that have never commanded the support of a majority of English men and women. It gave us the divisive, confrontational and egomaniacal Thatcher regime; and it was responsible for Blair’s New Labour, with its legacy of asymmetric devolution, British-establishment Anglophobia, public-spending discrimination against England, and the overseas follies of Iraq and Afghanistan, with so many brave young English people exploited as cannon fodder in unwinnable, unjustifiable wars.

FPTP has failed England. AV is only a very slightly mitigated version of FPTP. Both will lead to more disproportional, unrepresentative UK parliaments that will continue to ignore not only the just demands for an English parliament but England’s very existence. Under the present UK political settlement, England as such is completely discounted and passed over in silence. The pro-AV campaign says that, under AV, your vote really counts. But England will still count for nothing, whether we have AV or FPTP.

So make your vote really count this Thursday in the AV referendum by greeting it with the silent contempt with which the political establishment treats England. England’s voice is not being consulted; so respond with sullen, stern silence in your turn. Don’t vote for a system – the UK parliament itself – that disenfranchises you. And let the result – whether a win for AV or FPTP – be rendered as meaningless as it really is through a derisory turn-out across England.

England will have its say one day in a meaningful referendum: on an English parliament. And I bet neither AV nor FPTP will be on offer as the voting system for a parliament that truly represents the English people.

Why the Yes camp is in danger of losing the referendum

According to the latest opinion poll, there’s a serious danger that AV will be rejected by the UK electorate on 5 May. Why do voters just not ‘get’ AV; or if they get it, why do they appear not to like it?

Well, contrary to the Yes camp’s claims that AV is a fairer voting system, it seems to many people to violate a basic principle of ‘British [English, really] fair play’: once you’ve lost, you’ve lost – accept it, give the victor your sporting congratulations, and move on. By contrast, AV seems like a trick to steal a win on the part of people who just won’t accept they’ve lost: ‘hey, you bully’, they say, ‘you can’t win till more than half of us have voted for you’ – and then they give lots of extra chances to people whose favourite candidates for the job have performed especially badly.

OK, that’s a gross simplification; but that’s how it seems to a lot of people, particularly hardened Tory voters, who can see that they are likely to be especially penalised as left-of-centre majorities gang up to overthrow plurality victories for their candidates. Shouldn’t the candidate winning most votes – whether a majority or not – be accepted as the winner, pure and simple?

Clearly, it’s not as simple as that, otherwise we wouldn’t be having the argument: FPTP is grossly unfair at an aggregate level and can just as easily hand a massive, disproportional parliamentary majority to Labour as it can to the Conservatives. But the AV cause hasn’t been helped by the Yes camp’s failure to put across what is in fact the central idea behind AV: that it is intended to function as an ‘Instant Run-Off Voting’ (IRV) mechanism, which is in fact what it’s called in the US, where it’s used for some local elections. (Contrary to what the No camp says, AV is extensively used in the US and also for Irish by-elections, not just in Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.) In other words, AV is like having a series of rounds of voting to pick a winner that eventually enjoys majority support. The process whereby AV eliminates the last-placed candidate and transfers the second preferences of people who voted for them to other candidates is supposed to be like an actual second ballot where the loser is eliminated and voters try again to find a winner. So it’s meant to be like the system in France and many other countries, where there is an actual second round of voting, except AV eliminates only one candidate at each round, and as many rounds are held as are necessary to eventually arrive at a majority.

I think that, seen in this way, AV would come across as fairer to most British people; but I can hardly recall any piece of campaign material from the Yes camp that has tried to explain AV in these terms. It would help this purpose if AV itself wasn’t so convoluted. For example, I think most people would get and perhaps like the idea of AV as a run-off if it indeed worked more like an actual second round between the two leading candidates from the first round, i.e. if you eliminated all but the top-two candidates. This is done for London mayor elections, and it’s called the ‘Supplementary Vote’ (SV). SV is a bit unfair in that you only get to choose one alternative candidate for the second round, and if your candidate isn’t one of the final two, your vote drops out. But you could adapt SV to be more like AV by allowing voters to pick as many alternative candidates as they want, so that their highest-ranking candidate still in the race is the one that gets their vote. Even if you didn’t go as far as this in adapting AV, you can hugely reduce the number of rounds by eliminating all the candidates that have no mathematical chance of winning after the first round, as I suggested in my previous post. This would make the second and subsequent rounds of counting much more obviously like an actual run-off.

Alternatively, I think that a simple system of first and second preferences only, with the totals of second preferences being added to those of first preferences in the absence of an outright majority in the ‘first round’, would do what AV does much more simply and fairly, in that everyone’s second preferences would be given equal weight.

I think that British voters would actually like a run-off-type voting system, where you get a second chance to pick a majority winner if one isn’t found in the first round. But AV as currently constituted isn’t the system for the job: it’s unnecessarily convoluted and involves too many superfluous rounds of voting. The reason why the reformers have gone for AV and not some other more obvious run-off method is that they’re hoping that once AV is accepted, people will more easily accept the proportional Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, which also uses vote transfers.

It might help AV’s cause if the Yes camp explained it as an instant run-off system. However, the British, and English, people would more easily be won over to a more ‘sporting’ system of two rounds – winner takes all.

AV 2.0: revision to the AV counting method

Further on the question of the counting method for AV elections, it occurs to me that there is a simple revision to the AV counting method that would remedy some of the main concerns about its fairness and complexity. For the still non-initiated, AV elections are conducted as follows:

  1. Voters list candidates in order of preference
  2. If a majority indicates one candidate as their first preference, that candidate is automatically elected
  3. If not, the candidate with the least first preferences is eliminated, and the second preferences of those who voted for him / her are redistributed to the remaining candidates
  4. If there is still no majority for any candidate, this process is repeated until one candidate does have a majority of the votes remaining in play, which may not be an absolute majority of all votes cast, as some voters will not indicate an exhaustive list of preferences, so their vote drops out.

One of the main problems with this procedure is that some voters – those who voted for candidates obtaining only a small total of first preferences – can in theory express multiple preferences as their vote is transferred from one candidate to another; while other voters’ second preferences – to say nothing of their subsequent preferences – aren’t counted at all because their first-preference candidate remains in the race. There are two problems with this:

  1. The result is determined by an inconsistent set of preferences: first preferences of a large number of voters, second preferences of a smaller set, third preferences of another set, and so on
  2. And it’s possible a ‘losing’ candidate may have a larger combined total of first and subsequent preferences than the ‘winner’, for the very reason that the second preferences of the two leading candidates (which could be for that losing candidate) aren’t counted. This works against parties at the centre of the political spectrum to the extent that the candidates eliminated early from the race are likely to be to the right and left of the Conservatives and Labour, so most of their votes are ultimately likely to be transferred to the Tories and Labour; whereas many of the second preferences of Conservative and Labour voters (not counted) will be for the Lib Dems.

The way you could remedy this would be as follows:

  1. If there is no majority of first preferences, eliminate all candidates that have no chance of winning, i.e. could not overtake the leading candidate under any conceivable preference-transfer scenario. This is easy to work out (see further below). In most English seats, this would leave only two candidates in the race, occasionally three and even more rarely four.
  2. Add to the totals of the remaining candidates any second preferences for them of voters whose first preference was one of the eliminated candidates. Ignore for the time being any third or subsequent preferences that are for the remaining candidates.
  3. If no candidate has yet obtained a majority, add to the total(s) of the other remaining candidate(s) the second preferences only (but not the subsequent preferences) of voters whose first preference was for the lowest-placed candidate still in the race. In other words, if there are three candidates left at this stage, the second preferences of voters whose first preference was the candidate in third position should be added as appropriate to the totals for the other two candidates left running. (If there are only two candidates left, the same applies: if any first-preference voter for the second-placed candidate has indicated the candidate in the lead as their second preference, that second preference should be added to the leading candidate’s total.)
  4. If this procedure still fails to produce a majority, then it should be repeated as many times as necessary. E.g. in a three-horse race, the next step would be to allocate the second preferences of voters for the second-placed candidate to the first- and third-ranked candidates as applies; or in a two-horse race, the next step is to allocate the second preferences of those whose first preference was the leading candidate to the candidate in second position (assuming any voters for the leading candidate did indicate the second-placed candidate as their second preference). You would also allocate the second preferences of voters for the leading candidate to the two other candidates in a three-horse race if redistributing the second preferences of voters for the third- and second-placed candidates had failed to produce a majority.
  5. If all of these steps continue not to break the deadlock, the process is repeated using third preferences; except this time, every single third-preference vote that was for any of the remaining candidates is added in a single step to their totals. If there is still no majority, the same procedure is carried out using fourth preferences, and so on until a majority is reached or there are no more preferences left to redistribute, in which case the candidate with the highest share of the vote (a plurality) wins.

This sounds complicated, and in some ways it is, as AV is an inherently complicated, convoluted system. However, in practice, this involves fewer redundant stages in the counting process than the present AV rules; and if you follow it step by step, it is logical and easily understood.

For a start, the number of counting stages is instantly reduced by eliminating all candidates that can’t win in one go in the event that no candidate has a majority of first preferences. The candidates who can’t win can easily be worked out. The last-placed candidate is automatically eliminated. If there are then, say, six candidates left, then if the combined first-preference total of the candidate in sixth position and the eliminated candidate is no greater than the fifth-placed candidate’s first preferences (i.e. if every single voter for the eliminated party gave the party in sixth their second preference), then that candidate is also eliminated. If, however, the sixth-placed candidate did overtake the candidate in fifth in this way, then you add the first-preference votes for the originally fifth-ranked candidate to their total; but if this in turn is no greater than the total of first preferences won by the fourth-placed candidate, then the originally sixth- and fifth-ranked candidates are eliminated. And so on up the chain.

Again, this sounds complicated, but in practice, in most seats, it could be worked out very quickly, simply by adding the first-preference totals for the third- to last-placed candidates, and seeing if this is greater than the total won by the candidate in second place. If so, then the third-placed candidate goes into the final race, and possibly the fourth-placed candidate does as well, depending on whether the total number of first preferences for the fourth- to last-placed candidates is greater than the number of first preferences won by the third-placed candidate alone. As I said, in most English seats, even the candidate in third position on first preferences would usually not overtake the second-placed candidate if you added the totals for all the lower-ranked candidates to their vote.

Thereafter, there is a logical sequence to the vote transfers: first, add the second preferences of voters for the eliminated candidates; then the second preferences of the lowest-ranked remaining candidate (giving the leading candidate(s) on first preferences a better chance of securing a strong majority); followed by the second preferences of the next-ranked and top-ranked candidates respectively; and then all the third preferences; and so on.

Some voting-system geeks (something I am proud to call myself!) would object that counting the second preferences of voters whose first-preference candidates are still in contention violates the ‘later no harm’ rule. This states that by indicating a lesser preference, voters shouldn’t be able to harm their higher-preference candidates’ chances. However, it depends how you look at it. On the First Past the Post view of the world, if a candidate, say, is in second place on first preferences, they have already lost. Therefore, if you allow the second preferences of that candidate’s voters to be added as appropriate to the total of the candidate in the lead, that’s not really ‘harming’ the second-placed candidate, since (s)he’s already lost. On the contrary, this is giving to voters whose candidate hasn’t won the chance to help determine the eventual winner via their second preferences: something which AV as currently constituted denies those voters but does allow voters for less successful candidates to do. If those second preferences still do not produce a majority for the leading candidate, then the second-placed candidate can benefit from the second preferences of voters for the leading candidate.

So in fact, by allowing vote transfers from candidates still in the race, my amendment to AV can actually improve the prospects of some lower-ranked candidates as well as ‘harming’ them, so long as there is no majority of first and second preferences across the whole electorate for the candidate who won the most first-preference votes, who would be the clear and deserving winner. What you’d have to do is explain to voters that by indicating second and subsequent preferences, they might help those candidates to win ahead of their first-preference candidates in some circumstances. But if they still indicated second preferences for candidates with a strong prospect of beating their first choice, then they can’t reasonably complain if that’s the eventual outcome.

My revision to the AV rules addresses both of the main deficiencies of the AV counting method listed above:

  1. The result is determined by a consistent set of preferences: if not on first preferences alone, then on the first preferences of potential winners + the second preferences of losing candidates – whether those candidates are definitely out of the race or have ‘lost’ according to FPTP principles (as discussed above). And if that’s not decisive, the third preferences of all voters are added, then the fourth preferences of all voters, and so on.
  2. It’s unlikely that the winner, in my version of AV, could gain fewer first + preference votes than one of the losers; and if they did so, it would still constitute a stronger majority in that it would be based on more first and second preferences, and fewer lower preferences, than AV majorities.

Of course, it’s unlikely that this revision to AV will ever be adopted, whether next month’s referendum results in a victory for AV or not. But that doesn’t mean rational thought shouldn’t be directed towards making a bad system a little better, whether politicians and voters are interested or not. Up to my readers to decide whether my version is better.

Forget the pedantry and distortions: the reason the big parties oppose AV is that it will erode their support

Readers of this blog will know by now that I dislike the Alternative Vote (AV) voting system but like First Past the Post (FPTP) even less. But cutting through all the crud and the crap about those systems’ respective merits and demerits, the one big reason why Labour and Tory dinosaurs such as Margaret Beckett and William Hague respectively oppose AV is that it will erode support for their parties.

It will do so in two ways:

1) It will reduce the percentage of first-preference votes each party receives compared with what they win under FPTP, because the FPTP totals are inflated by tactical voting. Under AV, people who’ve tended to vote for Labour or the Tories merely to prevent the other party from winning can now vote for their actual favourite party or candidate first, and only then switch their vote to one of the bigger parties. Suddenly, people will realise that the parties that have dominated post-war British politics are not that popular really, and that they can be defeated if enough people reject them; and as their reputation diminishes, more people will be emboldened not to vote for them as their first preference in subsequent elections.

2) It means that, instead of having only one choice at elections, voters are encouraged by the actual voting system to look at a range of parties and to vote for multiple parties. This loosens the hold that Labour and the Conservatives have over voters, bolstered by the FPTP voting system, which means anything other than a vote for them in most constituencies is a wasted vote. Under AV, voters can in theory express a wider range of political opinion (although, in reality, a lot of those preference votes will be disregarded in the AV counting process), and they can vent their displeasure with Labour and the Conservatives by voting for other parties first before switching their vote back to them in their final preferences.

On the other hand, if AV is introduced and either Labour or the Tories win an outright majority in parliament, they will try to counter my first point by saying their majority is a ‘majority of majorities’: a reflection of majority support in a majority of constituencies. I’ve demonstrated the fallacious nature of this assertion here. But that won’t stop the parties from saying it, and it’s a major reason for rejecting AV: don’t give the mainstream parties a chance to claim a majority mandate when, in fact, they’ll have won an even lower share of first-preference votes than the share of the vote they would have won under FPTP.

All the same, the potential for AV to undermine support for the Conservatives and Labour is a really good reason – perhaps the only good reason – to vote for AV; although I accept that this will provide a good reason to vote against it for many others.

How am I tempted to vote now? I’m still backing the idea of not voting at all in the referendum, preferably by spoiling one’s ballot paper by scrawling ‘English parliament now!’ – or another pet demand – all over it. In any case, the non-vote camp is definitely going to be the winner – at least, in England – as I can’t see the turn-out being more than 50%. I would be surprised if many more people go out to vote in the referendum than would have turned up to vote in the English local elections being held on the same day; and turn-out for local elections is usually around 30% or so. That’s one of the reasons I’ve soft-pedalled my ‘campaign‘ to encourage people to spoil their ballots in the referendum: the more you bring the matter to their attention, the more likely they are to actually vote!

So whatever happens, the result won’t have much credibility, not only because the turn-out in England will be so pitiful, but because the turn-out in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be significantly higher because of the elections to their national parliament / assemblies that are taking place on the same day. It will be clear that people in England have bothered to vote in the referendum only because a ballot paper was pressed into their hands when they came to vote in the local elections, not because there is any groundswell of opinion in favour of either of the options on offer. If the establishment were really serious about proposing AV as a constitutional innovation of major importance to the UK, they should have made it compulsory to vote – and you could still have rejected both options by not marking anything on the paper or by allowing a third option such as ‘neither of the above’.

Having said all that, if it looks from opinion polls as though the No camp are going to swing it, I would now seriously consider voting Yes, if only for the reasons set out here: to give the major parties a well-deserved smack in the teeth and to offer the hope that their support would be undermined by AV.

First Past the Post Majority Top-up (FMT): the perfect compromise between FPTP and AV

We English are famed for our ability to reach pragmatic compromises. Our First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system is totally compromised; and the Alternative Vote (AV) is a compromise between FPTP and PR.

In this spirit of compromise – a spirit which is increasingly absent from the debate on electoral reform running up to May’s referendum – I’d like to propose another voting system that is a ‘perfect’ (if that’s the right word) compromise between FPTP and AV. I’m opposed to both systems because of their manifold failings. But equally, they both have their merits. FPTP is simple and straightforward, which commends it to your average Englishman and -woman: you just stick a cross in a box, and the winner is the candidate that gets the most crosses. The trouble is this produces rule by the minority, which then becomes a British stick to beat us English folk. AV is fairer but fiddly: you list candidates in order of preference (which presupposes that you regard any of them as acceptable, let alone several), and then if there’s no majority for anyone, the bottom-ranked candidates are eliminated and the preference votes of their supporters redistributed among the remaining candidates until one of them has a majority of the votes remaining in play. Yes, even to describe it involves a proliferation of polysyllabic Latin words! But once you get the hang of it, it’s not all that complicated, but it is inconsistent: not all the preference votes are counted, which can lead to questionable results.

My system – First Past the Post Majority Top-up (FMT) – is the best of the dodgy worlds of FPTP and AV. And it’s even easy to describe:

  • There are two columns of boxes next to the candidates’ names – let’s call them column A and column B
  • In column A, you put a cross next to the name of your preferred candidate, just like in an FPTP election
  • In column B, you put a cross, or more than one cross, next to the name(s) of any other candidate(s) you would like to be elected if your preferred candidate doesn’t win an outright majority of the votes recorded in column A
  • Any candidate winning more than 50% of the column-A votes wins automatically
  • If no candidate wins such a majority, then the votes recorded in column B are added to the totals of all the candidates
  • This could produce one or more candidate with more than 50% of the vote
  • If there’s only one such majority winner, that candidate wins the election
  • If there are more than one, the winner is not the candidate with the highest share of column-A + column-B votes, but the candidate who obtained the highest share of column-A votes only – even if their share of column-A + column-B votes is less than that of another candidate
  • If there is still no candidate with the support of the majority of voters, the winner is then the candidate with the highest share of column-A + column-B votes.

Got it? This system basically preserves the merits of FPTP: it gives greater weight to the first preferences of voters, and the ‘top-up’ system of preference votes in column B is designed merely to discover whether any candidate enjoys the support of a majority of voters if no majority is produced in the primary vote. So, if a candidate has won most of the first-preference votes but not a majority, all they need do to win is get enough preference votes to constitute a majority, and they can win even if another candidate has more combined first- and second-preference votes than them.

However, if no candidate enjoys a majority even after the preference votes are counted, then the winner is the one commanding the broadest overall base of support, i.e. first- and second-preference votes combined. This is more like AV, except – unlike AV – all the preference votes of all voters are counted and treated equally. So with my system, FMT, there can be no latent majority for a candidate that is bigger than the majority or plurality of the winning candidate. It’s possible for some candidates to get more first- and second-preference votes than the winner – but only if that winner a) came ahead of the other candidate in the column-A vote, and b) if both the winner and the other candidate won a majority of A + B votes.

And this is a lot simpler than AV. If there’s no majority winner of first preferences, you just add up all the second preferences in one go, and that’s it. And the rules for who’s won are very clear and simple.

And finally, the technical bit (but I’ll keep it short). FTM doesn’t pass the ‘later no harm’ criterion for voting systems. This means that voting for a candidate as your second preference can harm the chances of your first-preference candidate by, for instance, contributing to a majority or plurality for your second-preference candidate that is higher than the plurality obtained by your first preference. So voters would have to be advised on the ballot paper along these lines: ‘Any candidates you vote for in column B could defeat the candidate you vote for in column A. You should therefore carefully weigh up your choices for each column. However, you are not obliged to vote for any candidate in column B – so if you are in any doubt, leave this column blank.’

This warning applies only to candidates that have a realistic chance of being elected: you can harm the prospects of your favourite candidate by voting for other candidates in column B only if your favourite candidate has any hope of winning in the first place. So this system would lead to a degree of tactical voting along the lines of FPTP, with Lib Dem and Labour voters typically switching their support in column A to whichever candidate was more likely to beat the Conservative. But then, if no candidate wins an overall majority, you can still vote for your actual favourite candidate in column B. And your favourite could still catch up the candidate you voted for tactically, so that you wouldn’t mind about the ‘later no harm’ rule in this instance: you’d actually want your second-preference candidate to win if possible. So it cuts both ways.

As for any prospect of this system actually being adopted – well, I haven’t seen too many flying pigs recently. Nonetheless, I think it’s a ‘good’ compromise. And, you never know, if the result of the referendum is itself compromised by a low turn-out – as I hope – I might try to put it on the table. Or should that be the trough?