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

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England sends A V-sign to Westminster – which sees it as a V for victory!

So the results are in: 4,824,357 (or 30.93%) say Yes to AV; 10,774,735 (or 69.07%) say No to AV. For clarity, that’s the result in England. Across the UK as a whole, it was 32.1% in favour of AV and 67.9% against. So England appears to have rejected AV even more decisively than the whole UK.

But hang on a minute. Turn-out in England was a mere 40.95%. Across the UK as a whole, turn-out wasn’t significantly higher (42.22%), despite fears that holding the referendum on the same day as national elections in the other countries of the UK would skew the result – although turn-out was quite a bit higher in Scotland (50.43%) and Northern Ireland (55.20%).

So adjusted for turn-out, only 28.12% of English voters rejected AV, while a pitiful 12.59% supported it. That leaves a further 0.25% of English voters (or 0.61% of those who bothered to turn out) who spoiled their ballot papers. Accounting for this 0.61%, the proportion of those who came out to vote that supported AV was actually 30.74%, while 68.65% opposed it.

OK, then; so the real totals in England are:

Yes        12.59%

No        28.12%

Spoiled        0.25%

Didn’t vote    59.05%

Who are the real winners and losers here? While it’s certainly a massive rejection of AV, this is no endorsement of the First Past the Post voting system used for Westminster elections. In fact, it’s pretty much a rejection not only of any actual voting system used for the Westminster parliament but of the whole Westminster parliament: a clear majority either rejected the non-choice that was being offered to them, thought Westminster-parliament elections weren’t worth bothering to vote about, or didn’t think about it at all, including those who didn’t even know a referendum was taking place.

So for me, the AV referendum provides categorical evidence of the disconnect that exists between the broad mass of the English people and the UK establishment that presumes to govern them – in contrast to Scotland and Northern Ireland, where a majority did vote in the UK referendum and are by implication more engaged by UK-wide politics, paradoxically because they are also engaged by the devolved politics of their nations, which motivated them to vote in their national elections. So England duly sent a V-sign to Westminster: either rejecting a reform that seemed like a devious tinkering with the existing system designed to lever more Lib Dems in to Parliament, or telling the whole worthless bunch of Westminster lackeys where to go.

But did the politicians get the message – did they heck? They immediately started to spin it as a clear rejection of electoral, and even broader political, reform; as an endorsement of the existing system of voting and governance; and as a sign of approval of the government’s focus on making the tough decisions on the economy and (English) public services necessary in the ‘national interest’. I heard both Simon Hughes and Nick Clegg for the Lib Dems, and David Cameron talking in such terms.

This is, however, by no means an expression of support for business as usual nor a ratification of the legitimacy of First Past the Post and the whole system of UK governance that depends on it. Just watch as the politicians conveniently ignore the fact that the clear majority in both England and across the UK either spoiled their ballots or did not come out to vote, and by implication rejected both options. But they’ll say that 68% of British, not English, voters support FPTP. Well, they don’t. For a start, technically, the referendum didn’t ask whether people supported FPTP but only whether they wanted to replace it with AV. I and millions like me – the silent majority – refused to legitimise Westminster rule over England based on either system. The fact that the politicians go on about the verdict of the people having been given is just a way for them to talk up their own importance and legitimacy; in reality, the people refused to give a verdict at all.

And by the way, thank you to anyone who might have decided to spoil their ballot or not vote influenced by anything I might have written on the subject. The politicians may ignore or misread the message we’re sending them; but for me, our silence is DEAFENING!

It’s a bit like the old ‘is he waving or drowning?’ syndrome. We’ve sent them a V-sign of contempt, rejection and indifference; but they think it’s a ‘V’ for victory for the established order.

Well, England says No: not just to AV but to Westminster itself.

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.

If you want a preferential voting system, at least make it preferential

I feel like the kind of pedant that will jump on you for saying ‘less people’, rather than ‘fewer people’; or ‘something I like the sound of’, rather than ‘of which I like the sound’. ‘AV isn’t really a preferential voting system’, I say. Well, yes and no, as it were.

It is the case that, in AV, voters list their candidates ‘in order of preference’. But what does that mean? It doesn’t mean, as you might expect, that if no one’s first preference wins a majority, then everyone’s second preferences will be counted and taken into consideration. Only the second preferences of voters for eliminated candidates are counted, meaning that the second preferences of a majority of voters – i.e. those who voted for the two leading parties – are not even looked at. I don’t know about ‘preferential’; that’s a bit more like giving some voters preferential treatment over others!

So what is needed is a system that treats everyone’s preferences equally. Such a system does exist and is called ‘Bucklin voting‘, which I’ve discussed elsewhere: if there’s no majority on first preferences, every voter’s second preference is counted and added to the candidates’ totals. If there’s still no majority, third preferences are added; and so on till there is a majority for someone (or more than one majority, in which case you take the largest as the winning total) or until the preferences run out and the winner is the candidate with the highest total of votes.

The trouble with Bucklin is that it violates the so-called ‘later no harm’ voting criterion, which says that your lower-preference votes should not be allowed to harm the prospects of your higher-preference votes. For example, if a Tory voter put the Lib Dem candidate down as their second choice, this could help to elect the Lib Dem; whereas if (s)he and other Tory voters hadn’t voted Lib Dem as their second preference, the Tory candidate might have won.

I think you could get over this obstacle by, paradoxically, making it compulsory to list all or at least, say, five candidates in order of preference. Then you could say to voters: ‘Your first preference should be the candidate you most want to win; your second preference should be the candidate you would second-most like to win; and so on until your lowest-ranked candidate is the one you least want to win. The higher you list a candidate in order of preference, the more likely they are to win’. The fact of being forced to select candidates from the most preferred to the least preferred outcome ironically makes it easier to order your preferences ‘sincerely’ without feeling personally responsible for handing the victory to a less preferred candidate. ‘Well, if I have to list five candidates in order of preference, I might as well try and get the best result for myself’.

There would still be tactical voting, but I don’t actually think that’s such a bad thing if tactical voting enables voters to secure a better outcome for themselves. For example, a Tory voter might want to vote for the UKIP candidate as the one they’d second-most want to win. But then, they might think that if they did that, they could let the Labour candidate win (based on the second preferences of Lib Dem and Green voters). So they might decide to put the Lib Dem candidate down as their second choice; and if that candidate won, at least they’d have the satisfaction of having prevented a Labour victory.

It’s a gamble; but almost all single-member voting systems involve an element of that. And at least, this compulsory-ranking version of Bucklin voting allows all voters to put down their actual preferred candidate as No. 1 without fear of wasting their vote; and the tactical vote – if people choose to vote that way – can be reserved for the subsequent preferences. By contrast, it is possible to vote tactically under AV (despite what the Yes camp says), as I’ve discussed elsewhere; but it’s more difficult to work out what to do, and this could paradoxically produce a less satisfactory result for the electorate as a whole.

So the version of the Bucklin system I’m proposing is what AV purports to be – a preferential system – but does it better in that the preferences are all treated equally and so really mean something.

An academic question? Maybe; but like English grammar, I’d rather it was done proper.

DPEV: absolutely the best single-member voting system for the UK and England – honest

OK, I admit it: I’m a voting-system geek, if not obsessive. I really dislike AV, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it leaves England short-changed: nothing done to address the West Lothian Question or the broader English Question, to say nothing about the unaccountable nature of executive power in the UK, which relies on a disproportional voting system and a subservient parliament to run the country virtually as an elective dictatorship.

During the course of the last few months, in this blog, I’ve discussed a number of alternative single member-constituency voting systems that are better than the Alternative Vote, in my view, despite the fact that AV is the only alternative on offer. It seems to me I’ve been fishing around for a ‘killer’ system: one that is simple, fair and transparent but which also addresses the two main failings of First Past the Post and AV – that they 1) produce disproportional results and 2) bring about governments with no real mandate that can basically get away with whatever they want (a simplification, I know, but it sometimes feels that way). In addition, if a voting system passes the ‘English parliament test’ – or at least a fairness-to-England test – then all the better. Basically, if I’d be happy if the system in question were used to elect an English parliament, then it must be OK.

I now think I’ve come up with such a ‘killer voting-system app’, so to speak. It’s called DPEV: ‘Dual Parliamentary and Executive Voting’. How it works is as follows:

  1. DPEV is a single-member system. There are two parts to the voting process: a First Past the Post ballot of individual candidates and a separate ballot listing the parties standing in that constituency. Voters must select the individual candidate they’d like to be their MP by marking a cross next to their name – exactly as under the present FPTP system. Again, just as with the present system, the winner is the candidate obtaining the most votes. Voters must also mark a cross next to the name of the party or parties they’d like to form the next UK government. Here, they can vote for more than one party, thereby expressing a preference for a coalition government of the parties in question.

     

  2. The individual-candidate vote is used to determine the composition of Parliament, whereas the party vote is used separately to determine which parties have a mandate to form the next government. Basically, if one party wins an outright majority of the party vote, they are deemed to have a mandate to form the government. Otherwise, the strongest multi-party combination is considered to have a mandate to form a coalition government so long as the overall total of votes for both or all of the parties involved adds up to more than 50%.

    For example, let’s say that 30% of voters want the Tories only to be in government; 25% want just Labour; 10% want only the Lib Dems; 16% want a Lab-Lib coalition; and 11% want a Tory-Lib Dem coalition. Here, the system decides there is a mandate for a Lab-Lib Dem coalition because this was the most popular party-combination vote (i.e. 16% vs. 11% for a Con-Lib combo) and the total number of voters wanting either a Labour or Lib Dem government (single-party or coalition) adds up to a majority (51%). However, if the percentage of voters wanting a Lab-Lib Dem coalition had been only 14%, those parties’ combined vote would add up to only 49%. In that case, despite having the largest coalition vote, there would be no implied mandate for a Lab-Lib Dem coalition, and it would be down to the Conservatives and Lib Dems to try to reach a coalition deal, as the combined total of individual and joint votes for those parties would be 51%.

One other point of detail here: to form a government, a party or combination of parties must garner over 50% of the party vote in England as well as across the UK as a whole. This is because, without devolution for England, the UK government is also an acting English government and so must have a democratic mandate in England separately. Obviously, the best solution would be a completely separate English parliament and executive. But in the absence of that, this does address the West Lothian Question, if not the English Question: it wouldn’t matter, on one level, if English laws were passed by parliamentary majorities that included non-English MPs if the government enacting those laws had a legitimate democratic mandate from English voters. This is what this ‘England lock’ on the government is designed to ensure.

So basically: in the absence of an outright majority for any party in the party-vote bit of DPEV, parties must try to form majority coalitions, beginning with the multi-party combination vote (i.e. where people vote for two or more parties together) that obtained the largest share of the votes across the UK, so long as those coalitions command an overall majority of the votes across the UK and England.

What would happen if neither a Lab-Lib Dem nor a Con-Lib Dem coalition could muster a block of votes of over 50% across the UK or in England only? In this instance, the parties would have to bring in a third coalition partner that had won a sufficient percentage of the party vote across the UK and England, as applicable, to constitute a majority mandate, so long as that third party had won some MPs. However, even so, it is possible that a majority coalition could still not be formed, either because there was insufficient political will among the parties involved or because there would be parties for which people had voted that were without MPs, such as – for example – UKIP, the Greens, the BNP or the English Democrats. In this instance, the parties would have to try to form a coalition or single-party government based on the majority of available party votes. E.g. if only 80% of the UK-wide party vote had been for parties that succeeded in winning MPs, then the government (single-party or coalition) would have to command over 40% of the party vote across the UK, and whatever the corresponding majority percentage would be in England: probably higher than 40% given the lower share of the votes won by nationalist or sectarian parties in England compared with the UK’s other nations.

To prevent this rule becoming a get-out clause allowing the Conservatives or Labour to form governments that were without a true majority mandate, one of the major constitutional innovations of DPEV would be that any government commanding the support of only a minority of voters (as determined by the party vote) would have to be ratified by the electorate in a snap referendum following the conclusion of coalition negotiations. And that means a UK-wide referendum if the government in question was based on minority support across the UK as well as England, or a referendum in England only if the proposed government enjoyed a majority across the UK but was backed by only a minority in England.

If such a referendum failed to win the endorsement of either the British or English people, then the parties would have to go back to the drawing board and try to find a majority coalition or alternative minority government. If the latter were the outcome, this too would need to be ratified in a referendum. Then, if this in turn failed, a new election would have to be held – but not a whole general election with all the new constituency MPs needing to seek re-election, merely a new party election, in which all of the parties that had won MPs would be standing. This would determine a new clear majority mandate, as now the choice of parties would be greatly cut down. In practice, in the absence of an outright majority for any single party in this second party vote-only election, it would be pretty obvious which combination of parties (e.g. a coalition between the Lib Dems and one of the other major parties) had a clear mandate, and the parties concerned could have a constitutional obligation to work together.

These provisions for majority coalitions or – in the absence of majorities – ratifying referendums and follow-up elections, as required, would ensure that any UK government had a clear majority mandate from the people across the UK and England, irrespective of whether the party or parties in government commanded a majority of MPs in Parliament. This relates to another original feature of DPEV: MPs are elected using a disproportional system (FPTP), but the executive is elected using a perfectly proportional system – so the government takes its democratic mandate directly from the people, not from parliament. This does mean that the parliamentary majority could be at odds with the executive majority, and governments could well find they commanded only a minority in Parliament. However, this could be a good thing, in that Parliament would be able to hold governments to account more effectively. Equally, the system for electing MPs could be changed separately, without altering the perfectly proportional method for electing the executive. E.g. you could introduce AV, STV or some other system for electing Parliament that would make it more proportional and representative, and make the majority in Parliament less likely to clash with that of the government.

Not only the executive but also MPs would be more directly accountable to their voters, in two main ways:

  1. Separating out the vote for an individual MP from the vote for a government, as DPEV does, restores the direct accountability of an MP to his or her constituents. Voters can now choose an MP on the basis of their individual suitability for the role – their experience, character and values as well as political opinions – without prejudice to the party they want to be in government, which they vote for separately. By contrast, under the present FPTP system, and the proposed AV system, if you vote for the man or woman, you are also voting for the party and are presumed to be endorsing that whole party’s programme for government as set out in their manifesto. This is rolling up two distinct choices in one, and it’s what helps make MPs subservient to their party apparatus in Parliament, because they are presumed to have been sent to Parliament to fulfil that party’s programme. Under DPEV, each individual MP has been personally chosen by the plurality of their voters: having been elected independently, they are empowered to act independently.
     
  2. This independence from party, and accountability to voters, would be reinforced by another constitutional innovation that would be associated with DPEV. Let’s say a Conservative MP has been elected into Parliament, but a majority of constituents had voted either Labour or Lib Dem (or for both Labour and Lib Dem) in the party vote, and a Lab-Lib Dem coalition was in fact formed. Then, if that Tory MP persistently votes against government bills at their third and final reading (e.g. in 50% or more of cases), constituents should have the right to demand a by-election to hold that MP to account. If the MP is re-elected, they could be said to have received a mandate to continue opposing government bills. The smart thing for the government parties to do in this instance would be to field only one candidate to ensure a government majority in the by-election – but whether they’d have the wit to do that or not is moot.

    I would envisage that voters would be able to call a by-election on this basis one year after the general election, and then again after another year, by means of, say, more than 10% of the electorate turning up at polling stations on a designated day to sign a petition for such a by-election. Once more than two years have elapsed after the general election, there should be no further by-elections of this sort, in that – ideally – there would be four-year fixed-term governments, so that holding a large number of by-elections at the close of the third year of the parliament would be somewhat excessive. (Incidentally, if a coalition collapsed before the fixed term had expired, it could be made mandatory for the parties to try to form a new coalition – but this would also have to be ratified by referendum. If it was rejected in the referendum, then a general election would have to be held.)

    This method of holding MPs to account could be applied to any MP that persistently voted against the party majority in their constituency. For instance, if a candidate from one of the government parties had been elected as MP but a majority of constituents had not voted for the party or parties of government in the party vote, those MPs could also be held to account and forced to fight a by-election if they persistently voted with the government. This means that MPs would truly have to respect the opinions of their voters and take them into consideration in their work in Parliament, alongside party loyalty.

All these aspects of DPEV would bring about much greater popular sovereignty and political accountability: the government taking its mandate direct from the people; MPs directly accountable to their voters and expected to act independently of party dictates. And, as I said above, it provides a solution to the West Lothian Question, if not an answer to the English Question – but I would say that it’s still an excellent voting and constitutional system for any English parliament and so passes my English parliament test.

How does DPEV perform in relation to the six criteria I’ve been using to assess the merits of different single-member voting systems? My first criterion is: Does every vote count, and is every vote counted? Here, I’d give DPEV four out of five. Every party vote, under DPEV, counts in the sense that the right to form a government depends on every single vote cast. However, as many parties for which people vote would still not win MPs, those parties could not participate in government. Similarly, the constituency vote counts for more than it does presently under FPTP, in that MPs are elected independently of their party affiliation and are expected to act accordingly. However, as the system used to elect MPs – at least in my initial version of DPEV – is the disproportional FPTP, many constituency votes will count for little.

In terms of the second criterion – Is the system proportional? – I’d again award DPEV four out of five: it’s perfectly proportional in terms of the party vote that is used to determine the shape of the government,but disproportional with respect to the constituency vote. However, the fact that the government derives its mandate direct from the people, and the fact that accountability of MPs to constituents is built into DPEV, makes it less critical to achieve a perfectly proportional parliament.

The third criterion is: Does the system foster accountability? Here, I’d modestly give DPEV five out of five: it embodies a very high degree of accountability of MPs to their constituents, and it also makes the government directly answerable to the whole electorate, a majority of whom have to give it their backing, either in general elections and referendums to ratify minority governments or coalitions.

Fourthly: Does the voting system allow voters to express the full range of their political and personal preferences, and send a message to politicians? Here, DPEV scores four out of five. It enables voters to support individual candidates that can be of an altogether different political persuasion to themselves, on the basis that whichever candidate you vote for (based on their personal qualities), you can vote for different parties to form the government. In addition, you can vote for as many parties as are on the ballot paper in the party vote. Not all of those votes will be effective, however, in the sense of resulting in representation – and in fact, it would be silly to vote, say, for four parties, as it is unlikely that such a vote will be rewarded with a coalition of all four parties. But all party votes are nonetheless recorded, so that voters can send a message to politicians. In addition, the more people voted for parties such as UKIP and the Greens, the more people would feel emboldened to vote for UKIP and Green candidates, too – with the added incentive that even if only one or two MPs from those parties were elected, they might go straight into government as part of a coalition.

The fifth criterion is: Does the system mitigate / obviate tactical voting? Here, I’d give DPEV four out of five. Under DPEV, there is virtually no incentive for tactical voting, other than to try to defeat the candidate of a particular party in the constituency vote. But the reward for doing so is considerably less than under FPTP or AV, in that MPs of any hue are supposed to act independently and can be held to account if they put party interest above that of constituents by opposing legislation that the constituents have by implication supported (by voting in a majority for the parties that are in government).

Finally, How easy is the system for voters to understand, trust and use effectively? Well, DPEV should be easy for voters to understand and use to their best advantage. You just vote for an MP in the same way as now; and you can vote separately for the party or parties you want to form the next government. However, some voters might find the separation of the candidate and party vote confusing, and also might not use the option to combine votes for multiple parties very effectively (i.e. they might select several parties or not understand that selecting multiple parties means you’re expressing a preference for a coalition of them all). So I’d give DPEV four out of five here.

So here’s how I rate DPEV in comparison with the other single-member systems I’ve discussed, including several I’ve ‘invented’ myself, as I have with DPEV. For the sake of comprehensiveness, I’m also rating the variants of AV I’ve discussed recently (FMT (First Past the Post Majority Top-UP) and AV 2.0); and the method I evoked in my post yesterday, whereby you just have two preferences, and if there is no majority of first preferences, the second preferences of all voters are added to all candidates’ totals, and the winner is the candidate obtaining the most votes (let’s call that ‘TPP’: Two-Preference Plurality!):

Criterion FPTP AV AppV ARV TMPR AV+ NetV 3CV Bucklin
Does every vote count?

3

2

3

4

4

3

4

3

3

Is the system proportional?

1

2

2

3

3

3

3

3

3

Does the system foster accountability?

3

3

4

4

4

4

4

4

3

Does the system let voters express their views?

1

2

3

4

4

3

4

3

2

Does the system mitigate tactical voting?

1

2

2

3

4

2

3

3

3

How user-friendly is the system?

3

2

4

3

3

3

3

3

4

Total scored out of a maximum of 30

12

13

18

21

22

18

21

19

18

 

Criterion DPEV FMT AV 2.0 TPP
Does every vote count?

4

3

4

4

Is the system proportional?

4

2

2

2

Does the system foster accountability?

5

3

3

3

Does the system let voters express their views?

4

3

3

2

Does the system mitigate tactical voting?

4

2

2

3

How user-friendly is the system?

4

3

2

4

Total scored out of a maximum of 30

25

16

16

18

 

Clearly, different readers will rate these voting systems differently according to their own perspectives: my ratings are to an extent subjective. My scoring system is, however, based on an attempt to think through the main implications of the systems in terms of the degree to which they provide an accurate and user-friendly means for voters to record their opinions, and how they might influence voter behaviour.

But DPEV is the clear winner: a single-member system that would produce more accountable government and MPs, and would be fairer to England. I know I would say so, but it gets my vote!

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.