Preference voting is the way out of this expenses mess


by DonaldS    
4:12 pm - May 26th 2009

      Share on Tumblr

Far be it from a serial ballot spoiler to dish out advice on voting, but that’s what’s coming. For all would-be reformers out there, PR has never been an easy sell. But once the dust has settled on the Telegraph’s thrilling mini-series, that could change. Because here’s a slogan that might just catch the mood: PR gives you the power to remove your MP without voting for another party.

Right now, if your party won’t deselect a flipping Blears, you’re left with an unpalatable choice. Swallow the central office line or vote for a candidate whose qualities will be subservient to another’s whip. The Single Transferable Vote (STV), a form of preference voting used in Ireland, avoids that problem. Parties would put up multiple candidates within the same (slightly larger) constituency. You can cast a vote against your tax-dodging, expense-fiddling member without abandoning your party or its principles.

Once elected, your MP has an incentive to work hard for the community, knowing that s/he can’t rely on even mindless partisan support next time around. There remains plenty of political space for mavericks like Peter Law and Richard Taylor to thrive: 13 independent candidates were elected in Ireland in 2002. (The Citizens’ Assembly in British Columbia, Canada, agreed.)

The pernicious, common myth about proportional representation, that it takes away your power to unseat a scoundrel, is based on just one extreme form, the national (closed) list.

Voters tick a box for a party, that party gets corresponding strength in parliament, perfect or near-perfect proportionality is the result. Centralized parties under this system wield the power; whether you get elected or not depends on how far down the party list you are. Not so with STV. We won’t lose our Portillo and Hamilton moments.

STV could spell the end of candidates parachuted in from HQ (a practice that’s nurtured MPs of the quality of Nadine Dorries). No more voting for the party drone. No more exclusive selection power to a local party machine. Because voters are faced with a choice of multiple candidates from the same party, STV strengthens the personal vote. Recent studies estimate that the personal qualities of an MP are a factor in only 1–2% of our votes right now.

The question is: are the LibDems, the party of voting reform, the ones to rally behind? They’ve shown themselves incapable of understanding the basics of preference voting and prone to misrepresentation and lies about proportional systems. The expenses mess is a distinctly tri-partisan one, after all, and the solution ought to come independently of party allegiance. The mess is also seemingly correlated with the way we elect most of our MPs into predictably safe seats. STV calls time on the ‘safe seat’, too.

Voters might not grasp the mathematics of d’Hondt or Droop quotas, but they sure as hell grasp the notion of preference. Only 22% of them preferred this Labour government in the first place. And right now millions would prefer they didn’t have their current MP. STV gives them alone the power to fix both nicely. It’s time for the referendum we were promised twelve years ago. I promise not to spoil my ballot if we get one.

    Share on Tumblr   submit to reddit  


About the author
Donald is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is a travel journalist, editor, author and copywriter. In the wake of the 2005 General Election, he co-founded and edited The Sharpener for a couple of years. He writes the occasional book or newspaper article for money, as well as sharing his thoughts here for free. Also at: hackneye donaldstrachan.com
· Other posts by


Story Filed Under: Our democracy ,Westminster

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.


Reader comments


1. Rob Atkins

Forgive me for my cynicism. Brown and Labour have long been critical of PR. Brown’s Labour is about to get slaughtered in the next general election. The scale of the slaughter would be diminished by PR. Brown becomes an advocate of PR. Principled stand or crass political opportunism – you decide.

Or doesn’t the motivation count – only the outcome ?

Hmmm… before advocating a voting system, you may like to read Why first-past-the-post voting is fundamentally flawed and other similar articles.

#1
Brown’s opinion either way has no impact on mine.

#2
Sorry, I don’t get your point. That link doesn’t mention STV. Nor is our system analogous to the US extreme bipolar one, and hence well suited to AV/IRV. Nor do I advocate IRV. Nor, surely, are you suggesting that ideas like range voting and Condorcet methods are serious contenders for a national voting system. Explain.

Great post, why on earth aren’t either STV or AV discussed more when this kind of thing crops up? The media is obsessed with PR versus FPTP. There are other options, people!

interesting angle

I was thinking something similar for another reason.

What we need is a system that incentivises, and promotes, people willing to enter politics for the right reasons. We need fewer career politicians and more with outside experience they can bring to bear on the issues of the day.

Current expenses ‘scandals’ are partly defended by some by saying that MPs’ salaries alone do not attract the “top people”. But an MP’s salary should/will never compete with a banker or lawyer. If we want more of those ‘bright enough’ for those careers, or those who know more about those careers to come into politics, why not encourage them to do it for a period?

Unfortunately it takes years of party political involvement to get selected for seats, esp one where you stand a chance of getting elected. Why go through that for a single term?

If parties operated some form of list system, places could be found for those who have particular skills that the party, and the country, need. In this way, principled individuals who want to contribute, but not spend their life in politics, could get into parliament.

Just a thought I had not way of sharing until now. Hope it was worth reading :)

#5 Robert

Absolutely agree. Anything that encourages more independence, whether that’s independent minds within parties or people standing as outright independents, has to be a Good Thing. There’s a place for the party machine, for sure. But its power needs to be checked, and right now it ain’t.

Donald,

as a member, i feel i have to stick up for the Lib Dems a bit, here. firstly, to generalize about the entire party on the basis of a) the London Mayoral election and b) some very dodgy bar charts is rather unfair, i think.

on the first one, a very simple reason for the Lib Dems not to play the ‘second preference game’ is that the Lib Dems sit somewhere between Labour and the Tories, rather than to the left or the right of both. it’s a documented fact that Lib Dems voters are split down the middle on which party they’d rather support as a second preference, so being seen to prefer Ken to Boris, while it may ostensibly go down well with the left-leaning activists (and i’d dispute even that), damages the party’s position of equidistance. this logic is precisely why the Lib Dems know it would be suicidal to announce in advance of a GE which party they’d go into coalition with, in the event of a hung parliament.

on the second one, i’m aware that this kind of thing is widespread in the party, though the egregiousness of the deceit of course varies considerably. i, for one, am against the use of such bar charts, and i’ve spoken to a number of fellow activists who agree. the fact is, these things are designed by election agents who’ve been trained in the Chris Rennard school of election campaigning. i’m not saying it’s ultimately his fault, but he probably came up with those blasted things in the first place. at any rate, now he’s gone, the party needs to have a wider debate about the place of ‘pavement politics’ and so forth in a party looking to a) go national and b) reform the political system in such a way that MPs are no longer glorified councillors, bogged down in constituency work whilst trying to hold the government to account. i, for one, hope that the dodgy bar charts go when that re-evaluation comes.

secondly, you say the expenses mess is “a distinctly tri-partisan one”; obviously i’m biased to an extent, but i don’t believe it is. our policies on constitutional reform and record on trying to reform the expenses system before this mess blew up are in stark contrast to the other two, and our MPs have, on the whole, come out of the scandal guilty of much less than the other two parties. evidence? read this: http://www.theliberati.net/quaequamblog/2009/05/23/parliament-the-telegraph-and-jo-swinson/

noughtpointzero:

Great post, why on earth aren’t either STV or AV discussed more when this kind of thing crops up? The media is obsessed with PR versus FPTP. There are other options, people!

Funny, I thought that’s exactly what happens any time PR is discussed – there’s scarcely time to agree the principle (or at least mobilise overwhelming support for it) before everyone starts breaking out their favourite systems and their slide rules…but then maybe I read the wrong papers/blogs…

I am still tempted by this more radical possibility: http://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com/2008/11/proposal-for-representative-government.html

You can vote for anyone and you can change your vote at 24 hours notice. The legislative voting power of an MP is decided by how many votes they have been invested with from all over the country. They would act rather like delegates. If we had this in place now, half the house of commons would have lost their seat over the last 3 weeks by having their votes taken away, rather than waiting for an election to come round. It wouldn’t have needed a complicated recall procedure either.

I’m a bit mobile tonight but I will respond properly on these tomorrow am… Suffice to say that the Paddick thing wasn’t just about a refusal to play the preference game in a preference election, but the frankly bizarre announcement that he voted second for Respect. I guess they too are equidistant from Lab and Con. Kinda. The other practice is indefensible for a party committee to vote reform.

@3: “Explain”

Yes sir baas. Good way to invite debate. And what was it about “…and other similar articles” that you didn’t understand?

just seen yours, Nick. In general with these radical systems, I’m generally sympathetic to the principle but always aware of what it’s actually possible to enact. i think STV is both elegant and achievable.

STV is a meaningless halfway house. If we’re doing reform, it has to be the Schulze-Condorcet method, with or without a D’Hondt party political top-up.

14. political_animal

If we were to have PR so that we got ‘near perfect proportianality’, does that me 40% of the seats would be left vacant to reflect the amount of people that aren’t exercised to lend their vote to anyone?

Thought not.

15. Akheloios

With the ubiquity of mobile phones, creating a sim card for every voter and an open database of their support wouldn’t be too difficult to manage. A return to full open democracy could be possible, forcing us to either grow up as a population or vote ourselves to colapse via constant tax cuts and large expenditures.

Have a PR/STV system to decide who sits in the legislature to create the propective policies, but let us vote on them directly.

15. So your an optimist when it comes to turnout?

17. Charlieman

Akheloios @16: “With the ubiquity of mobile phones, creating a sim card for every voter and an open database of their support wouldn’t be too difficult to manage.”

Excellent stuff. Whilst the campaign to elect Barack Obama managed to register voters who could only claim a park bench as their residence, here in the UK you’ll need a mobile phone to vote.

And an “open database of their support”?

As the UK learned at the last set of EU elections, technology and gimmicks are not the solutions to electoral non-participation. The more complex technology becomes, the greater the opportunity for abuse. If you want a straight voting system, it is difficult to create something more open than paper and pencil at your local community hall in a process observed by candidates and participants. Everything is conducted in public except for how you vote.

18. Charlieman

I’m puzzled by this flurry for electoral and parliamentary reform. I’m a PR believer (preferably STV but I could live with AV+), but I’m unconvinced that current events require it.

MPs have been caught out claiming for expenses in order to supplement their salaries. MPs have been exposed because their expenses claims have been published (accurately or not) in a national newspaper. The expenses claims should and could have been published anywhere; citizens have the right to know.

Now that we do know, citizens are outraged and seek removal of offenders. And MPs won’t do it in the future because we’ll know about it. We don’t even need to change the allowances scheme much — it is a fair system for those who live far from Westminster, and thanks to the crooks, we know all of the ways that it can be abused.

Political parties can remove offenders — and I mean local parties who are no longer beholden to federal parties. If you think that your MP is a crook, the normal candidate selection rules no longer apply. Just as MPs need to be reminded that they are servants of the voters, federal parties need to understand that they are servants of party members.

Recall processes for MPs are appealing because they give the impression that voters are in control. But voters are not in control; local parties will pick another crook or robot, accidentally or incidentally. The only people who know the honesty of a candidate are close friends and family, and even they can be mistaken. No voting system can deliver an MP with personal integrity.

Reform the electoral system because it is the democratic thing to do. Reform parliamentary procedure because it will create better laws. Don’t kid yourself that either will deliver more honest MPs.

Anyone lacking any info on STV, plenty of answers at the Electoral Reform Society website here

Wish we had STV here in Scotland, rather than the FPTP/top-up list mish-mash…but at least it’s better than Westminster.

Even drunk students can run STV elections…

:-)

20. AnonyMouse

STV sounds like a good idea on paper. I don’t think, though, that the average voter would bother to take the time to be well-informed about which individual candidates from their favoured party would be better. I think that, in a constitutency, candidates from the most popular party with a name begining with ‘A’ would end up getting more votes than their colleagues with a name begining with ‘Z’; as the natural response of people who wanted to vote for party X would be “Oh, I feel like preferencing party X’s candidates, let’s give a 1 to Mr. A, a 2 to Mr. B etc”.

If we are to have PR, I think an open-list would be better – as it would give the option to people who did have a clearly favoured individual to vote for him to be at the top of the list but would also enable those who favoured a party but didn’t know anything about an individual party to vote for the party without having to specifiy who should come top of thier list.

Anonymouse,

“I don’t think, though, that the average voter would bother to take the time to be well-informed about which individual candidates from their favoured party would be better.”

I believe that’s what campaigning is all about…? :-)
Bit of healthy public competition between a party’s prospective representatives sounds pretty good.

Seriously, though, for info on STV, I can only suggest you try the Electoral Reform Society link above.

(And for anyone who wants to argue campaigning doesn’t make a difference, or raise voter awareness, etc – go ask Willie Rennie, MP about how well it worked for him here in Dunfermline.)
:-)

22. AnonyMouse

Andy, however much campaigning there is – a lot of voters don’t pay attention. Something like 40% of people don’t know who their local MP is. I thus do think that STV could lead to odd results.

Looking at a list of Irish politicians – Ireland being one of the few countries with STV – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Irish_politicians, it does seem that a disproportionate number of them seem to have names begining A-G and very few H-Z (despite the no of people with surnames starting O’ that must live in Ireland).

I think – and it is sad to say it – that too many voters aren’t living up to their duties of citizenship and aren’t politically interested or politically involved enough to make meaningful choices between a range of candidates from the same party in their locality.

23. AnonyMouse

Adding to my earlier comment, it does worry me – and i am not sure how this can be resolved – that far more voters seem to take an interest in the goings-on of Jordan and Peter Andre than take a clear, firm, and thought-through view on the major questions such as: should we prioritise low taxes or public spending; should we integrate more closely with the EU etc…….

It is all very well to talk of reforming the political system – and some of these ideas (more power to select cttes, a power to recall MPs who have become v.unpopular/infamous) are very good. But for them to work at their best, they need an active and involved citizenry.

@1: Brown’s Labour is about to get slaughtered in the next general election. The scale of the slaughter would be diminished by PR. Brown becomes an advocate of PR. Principled stand or crass political opportunism

That question answers itself.

But if Brown does the right thing for the wrong reason, I’m not complaining. At the very least it’ll redeem Labour’s 1997 manifesto promise — only 12 years late.

@21: I think that, in a constitutency, candidates from the most popular party with a name begining with ‘A’ would end up getting more votes than their colleagues with a name begining with ‘Z’

I’m chaning my name to Aaron A. Aardvark!

But as I understand it, the plan is to print different ballot papers, which cycle which name is at the top, to eliminate this effect.

Some time ago you posted an article by David Lammy arguing for ways to engage people who are not normally involved in the political process and the usual know-it-all dinner party crowd who frequent this site jumped down his throat for his troubles. But isn’t that the real issue? How would changing to PR, STV or even the French high speed train encourage anyone other than the same motley crew of self-promoting egomaniacs to engage in politics and perhaps even seek office?
It might be sobering for some to consider the fact that Berlusconi managed to win with both a modified FPTP as well as a PR system. Of course you could just carry on with your ostrich-like behaviour and just tell yourselves that Italians are just funny that way!

27. Shatterface

(25): ‘I’m changing by name to Aaron A. Aardvark!’

You’ll regret that if Judge Cal comes to power.

“Reform the electoral system because it is the democratic thing to do. Reform parliamentary procedure because it will create better laws. Don’t kid yourself that either will deliver more honest MPs.”

Actually it probably will. STV means there is a lower number of safe seats. And one of the things that has come out of this current scandal is that the safer the seat, the more likely the MP has fiddled his/her expenses.

29. Charlieman

Alex @30: “And one of the things that has come out of this current scandal is that the safer the seat, the more likely the MP has fiddled his/her expenses.”

There is circumstantial evidence that suggests MPs from a safe seat or long standing MPs are those most likely to have made unreasonable allowance claims. Unreasonable claims were also made by relative newcomers. Somebody who has more talent with statistics than me may be able to demonstrate a correlation with something. Remember that claims were made under a system in which MPs did not expect them to be published, which may have had a greater effect on honesty/dishonesty than job security.

Indeed, I’m not even convinced that job insecurity keeps people honest. Employees at a warehouse owned by a company that is failing are more likely to take souvenirs home than those who fear losing a secure job. The same rule applies to MPs, and an MP who knows s/he will lose the seat in a few years time (under FPTP or STV) may decide to make hay while the sun shines.

Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling has often argued that we need to pay politicians and judges a reasonable wage to keep them honest. Definition of a “reasonable wage” for MPs is open for debate, but we can assume that MP salaries aren’t going to increase in the immediate future. Selection committees are going to need to assure themselves that candidates honestly believe that they can live on £65K plus honest expenses. And we are all going to have to look out for MPs who need to fuel a lifestyle that outstrips their honest earnings. Both considerations are independent of the voting system.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: Preference voting is the way out of this expenses mess http://bit.ly/19ri8i

  2. DonaldS

    Preference voting is one way out of the expenses mess (UK politics by me at @LibCon) http://bit.ly/5XpjX

  3. Robert McIntosh

    RT @hackneye: Preference voting is one way out of the expenses mess (UK politics by me at @LibCon) http://bit.ly/5XpjX [left a comment]

  4. Justin McKeating

    Preference voting is the way out of this expenses mess… http://is.gd/Fecd

  5. Robert Dickson

    RT @chickyog: Preference voting is the way out of this expenses mess… http://is.gd/Fecd ??#noneoftheabove

  6. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: Preference voting is the way out of this expenses mess http://bit.ly/19ri8i

  7. DonaldS

    Preference voting is one way out of the expenses mess (UK politics by me at @LibCon) http://bit.ly/5XpjX

  8. Robert McIntosh

    RT @hackneye: Preference voting is one way out of the expenses mess (UK politics by me at @LibCon) http://bit.ly/5XpjX [left a comment]

  9. Justin McKeating

    Preference voting is the way out of this expenses mess… http://is.gd/Fecd

  10. » Reforming democracy; in whom do we trust? Though Cowards Flinch

    [...] that, I’m not opposed to STV and there are some decent attempts to explain why it’s not a bad system. I campaigned for an independent in the Dublin North [...]

  11. Links and stuff from between May 26th and May 27th - Chicken Yoghurt

    [...] Liberal Conspiracy » Preference voting is the way out of this expenses mess | creating a new l… – Great post from Donald Strachan [...]





Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.