Preferential voting for Britain ?

by John Quiggin on April 15, 2005

I was thinking about Chris’ post on tactical voting and I was struck by the thought: Why hasn’t Labour introduced preferential (single transferable) voting in Britain? Readers will probably be struck by the alternative question, Why should Labour introduce preferential (single transferable) voting in Britain?

My first is that this would be an improvement in democracy, both for individual constituencies and for the country as a whole. Although no voting system is perfect, preferential voting is much more likely to produce an outcome that reflects the views of the majority of voters than is first-past-the-post.

I don’t suppose that an argument like this will cut much ice with the Blair government (or most incumbent governments), so let me move to the second point. Labour would almost certainly benefit from this shift, at the expense of the Tories. It seems pretty clear that Labour would get the bulk of LDP preferences, as well as those of the Greens and minor left parties. The Tories would pick up preferences from UKIP (but this group looks like a flash in the pan) and the far-right (but this is a small group, and there are disadvantages attached to such preferences, especially if, say, the BNP demands preferences in return).

It’s true of course that the biggest benefits would go to the Liberal Democrats, since their supporters would not have to worry about ‘wasted votes’. But even here, there’s a hidden benefit for Labour. Sooner or later, there will be a hung Parliament, and the price of LDP support will be full-scale proportional representation. If Labour introduced preferential voting without being forced to, it would not only cement LDP support but would greatly weaken the case for PR.

The remaining objection is that of additional complexity. This can be overcome, in large measure by adopting the optional preferential system, where voters can indicate as many or as few preferences as they choose.

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{ 19 comments }

1

chris 04.15.05 at 3:39 am

I think STV is what the Lib dems actually want.

2

des von bladet 04.15.05 at 3:54 am

Sooner or later, there will be a hung Parliament, and the price of LDP support will be full-scale proportional representation.

They’d be lucky to get a mess of potage.

3

Chris 04.15.05 at 4:03 am

Good, John, because as I was walking in to work this morning I was having the following thought:

“How can John believe that at Tory voter in the Rhondda (or a Kerry voter in Mississipi for that matter) is making _any_ contribution to a (by their lights) desirable outcome?”

What _they_ do makes no sense other than expressively. (I guess I’m committed to asserting this kind of claim for less plausible cases too, but still….)

4

Robin Grant 04.15.05 at 4:06 am

5

Chris 04.15.05 at 4:07 am

It seems pretty clear that Labour would get the bulk of LDP preferences, as well as those of the Greens and minor left parties.

Not to me, btw. At least, this might be the case at some times rather than others. If you take LD voters to be people who are more-or-less aligned with LD policies, this would be right. But it you take the LDs to be a general repository for those disaffected with the main parties, then not so.

6

Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 04.15.05 at 4:29 am

There’s a big difference between STV with multi-seat constituencies (like Irish general elections) which I suspect is what the LDP would like, and STV in a single-seat constituency (the de facto situation in Irish by-elections and Presidential elections) which I think is what John is suggesting. I know Australia has STV but I’m not sure which variety.

7

RS 04.15.05 at 4:59 am

But as soon as LD start getting Labour second choices and end up with enlarged representation, a vote for them looks less wasted – and if it looks less wasted people would be more inclined to vote for them. And the ‘there is no alternative’ pull of the two main parties wanes.

8

Ben Hyde 04.15.05 at 7:51 am

You ask the right question when you try to tease out the value of PV for the party. Treat the party as a first class citizen in the discussion. For example on vital element of a party is vigorous loyal participation. Would PV increase party loyalty? Would PV invigorate the activists? What are the other keys to a strong functional party? Would PV amplify those?

The government may also find that PV doesn’t serve it’s needs since PV tends to undermine the mandate of the governments it creates. It’s a bit difficult to govern if 30% of the votes that elected you where second or worse votes. The legislatures created by PV also don’t like it creates a sorts the members into which round they got elected in.

What costs/benefits does PV bring to the various institutions in the game – that is the key question.

9

Brian Weatherson 04.15.05 at 8:01 am

Ben, is there any evidence that “the legislatures created by PV also don’t like it creates a sorts the members into which round they got elected in”? I’ve known a handful of MPs elected by PV (and I’m others here know many more than I do), and I don’t remember any of them thinking that other MPs were first or second class depending on how they were elected.

Nor do I remember any government lacking legitimacy because it was elected on preferences. In 1998 Howard won with

10

KCinDC 04.15.05 at 9:02 am

In winner-take-all systems, is there a similar sorting of legislators into those who won with, say, 45% of the vote (because of a significant third-party candidate) and those who won with 51% or 65%? Do legislators really keep in mind the electoral statistics for all their colleagues?

11

paul 04.15.05 at 9:18 am

I hate to be petty, but the missing words and typos in Ben Hyde’s (April 15th, 2005 at 7:51 am) post kept me from understanding the key points each was trying to make. In particular:

Ben Hyde: “The legislatures created by PV also don’t like it creates a sorts the members into which round they got elected in.”

I am going to imagine that Brian Weatherson (April 15th, 2005 at 8:01 am) was just trying to respond in the same spirit when he wrote: “I’ve known a handful of MPs elected by PV (and I’m others here know many more than I do)”

Anyway, Ben can you resubmit the sentence in question to clarify.

And to JQ: can you talk to your confreres at CT about getting a PREVIEW button?

Thanks

12

paul 04.15.05 at 9:21 am

And I see I had some grammatical errors of my own in the above post, which I would probably have avoided with a Preview button.

13

Ben Hyde 04.15.05 at 4:28 pm

Dyslexia is amazingly contagious. Isn’t that weird?

I probably meant to type: “Legislatures created by PV also might not like it since it creates a sort over the members; bucketing them according to which round they got elected in.”

An effect is a bit like getting pick last for dodge ball.

I don’t want to put too much weight on the particulars of my argument though. My point is that if you want to shift to PV you need to seek advantages for most of the players, particularly the institutions.

14

leederick 04.16.05 at 9:22 am

Why hasn’t Labour introduced preferential (single transferable) voting in Britain?

The reason Labour hasn’t introduced preferential voting in Britain is that the current system is *massively* biaed in favour of the Labour party. In political terms the number of Labour MPs is so greatly disproportional to party’s actual vote that the leadership would in effect have to convince Turkeys to vote for Christmas.

This bias also goes far beyond seats being disproportional to votes. The systems is actively stacked in favour of Labour and against the Conservatives. (The bias isn’t just in favour of the biggest party.) The geography of the UK means Labour votes are more efficiently distibuted than Conservative votes. For the Conservatives to get the same number of seats as Labour they need a far higher number of votes (I think about +5%).

The bias used to be in favour of the Conservatives but has shifted over the last 50 years to a substantial boost to Labour. The standard treatment of this issue is From Votes to Seats which is worth reading.

If the Conservatives ever get more votes than Labour, but Labour gets a majority – something which I think will happen eventually – it will really damage public faith in democracy.

15

novalis 04.16.05 at 12:22 pm

Why hasn’t Labour introduced preferential (single transferable) voting in Britain?

Because, as nearly everyone agreed last time we discussed this, STV sucks?

16

leederick 04.16.05 at 3:36 pm

Why hasn’t Labour introduced preferential (single transferable) voting in Britain?

Because, as nearly everyone agreed last time we discussed this, STV sucks?

STV does indeed suck. But, tragically, this hasn’t stopped Labour from introducing it in the UK: it’s used in Northern Ireland, and they’re planning to inflict it on the Scots.

I also can’t see why anyone would support STV. A basic property of a voting system should be that a voter ranking a candidate higher should increase the candidate’s prospects of a win. STV doesn’t do this. It also makes it impossible for voters to figure the right way to vote in order to get the result they want.

17

Brian Boulton 04.16.05 at 4:10 pm

As a Liberal/LibDem voter for 40 years, I have NEVER assisted to elect an MP or even a local councillor. Equally, almost all successful winners on the first past the post system have won with less than 50% of the votes cast – sometimes with little over 30%.
If STV was adopted, my second choice would most likely be Labour (usually the winners in my area) and thus whilst my vote would not change the result, I would feel less disenfranchised if I could actually help elect a political representative.
STV is much fairer than FPTP and would avoid the need for people to vote tactically to try to defeat the party they dislike.
FPTP encourages negative voting whereas STV allows people to vote positively, and a second choice is not compulsory!

18

Keith Gaughan 04.17.05 at 10:51 pm

@Ben Hyde:

I can assure you, Ben, that as somebody who comes from a country (Ireland) that uses PR/STV/PV/&c., it doesn’t introduces tiering between the different representatives. Frankly, such a large number of tallies go to second and third counts just to elect the first seat that this could never come into play.

Anyway, it’s what you do once you’re elected that gets you credo, not how you were elected.

19

Keith Gaughan 04.17.05 at 10:52 pm

And yup, STV sucks, but it doesn’t suck as much as FPTP.

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