May 11, 2010

FPTP, AV and STV aren’t the only electoral systems

Posted in Democratising Britain, Politics at 9:07 am by David Gould

What do we want out of an electoral system?

1. Governments that can govern, guaranteed

2. No governments with dangerous majorities, guaranteed

3. A free and fair election for all (except possibly the BNP)

4. Fair representation for all viewpoints (except possibly the BNP)

5. The electorate help to choose the candidates, not just the political parties

6. Every vote counts

7. All reasonable views are represented in the House of Commons.

8. A system which is easy for the public to understand and which doesn’t benefit from tactical voting

I hear you ask “is this even possible?”

Yes, it is – and there are at least 2 ways of doing it.

Note that FPTP (our current electoral system) provides none of these. AV only provides #6 and #8. AV+ arguably adds #7. Most forms of PR fail #1 and #5. STV however, only fails #1 and what I recommend is adapted from it.

What is STV?

To the voter, Single Transferrable Vote is exactly the same as AV – you simply rank your candidates in order of preference. To the vote counters however, STV is a lot more complicated.

Here is a nice Flash animation which explained it for British Columbian voters (MLAs are their version of MPs).

Believe it or not, STV produces governments in which parties polling above ~3% win seats roughly proportional to their national vote share. It is used in Ireland, Australia & local/regional/European elections in the UK.

Here are some common arguments against STV:

It allows extremists eg the BNP to gain seats

This is more false than true. Whilst the 2010 results under full PR would have given the BNP 12 seats, STV isn’t full PR and would probably have given the BNP zero seats. Their obnoxious leader, Nick Griffin, came third and probably would have come third under STV too – as few voters would give him a 2nd or 3rd place ranking.

MPs don’t have a direct connection to their voters

Whilst true about list PR, this is completely false regarding STV. Voters would have 2 MPs, much the same way most of us have 2 councillors. If you don’t like your MP, under STV you will at least have one you prefer to deal with. And bad MPs are much easier to get rid of. One could argue that having 2 MPs means they dodge responsibility for you and your area. But really, they already do that and MPs have almost nothing to do with local government anyway.

STV produces weak minority governments and sometimes deals are done that don’t reflect manifesto commitments

This is true. Although manifesto commitments are frequently broken under FPTP, even honourable parties have to do it under STV. Majority governments would require more than 50% of the country to vote for them and that almost never happens. Under STV, we would see the current situation of uncertainty and deals behind closed doors happen all the time.

Introducing Ideal-Majority STV (IM-STV)

IM-STV is exactly the same as STV except that it guarantees small majorities for the winning party by introducing a ‘winner’s bonus’. It necessarily reduces representation of the opposition parties although they remain proportionately represented within opposition (unlike FPTP/AV/AV+). Most importantly, it will be obvious that any of these opposition parties could receive the winner’s bonus next time round and thus all parties have a fair chance to form the next government (again unlike FPTP/AV/AV+). Our political system might need minor adjustments to incorporate this but the media couldn’t easily ignore smaller parties.

How big a majority do we want?

I believe all British Governments should have a majority of at least 1 (John Major started with a majority of 21 but ended up with a minority of 9). Having a majority less than a 20 generally means you need support from other parties. Majorities above 60 can be abused and should be rare. Labour’s majority in 2005 was 66.

With IM-STV, you can guarantee a specific majority/minority (perhaps set by an independent committee) or, as I’ve done, make it dependent on the mandate.

What determines a mandate?

Is it the overall % of vote that determines a mandate? Or is it how much the winning party wins by?

It’s a bit of both. The following is a bit mathematical – feel free to skip over it to the table below.

Under PR type systems, usually the winning party polls lower and wins by a smaller majority as more people vote for the smaller parties. The winning party invariably polls at least 20%.

By trial and error, I’ve determined that if you divide their total % of vote by 10, add the result to one third of the winning margin and add that to 48%, we provide the winning party the ability to deliver their manifesto based on the mandate given by the electorate.

The following exaggerates the majorities of recent elections as, under this IM-STV system, voters would have voted differently and the elections would probably have been closer. However, in last week’s 2010 election, the Tories polled 36.1% and won by 7.1%. If they’d have achieved this under an IM-STV system, this would be a good result and, as such, the Tories would be awarded [(36.1/10)+(7.1/3)+48 =] 53.97% of seats or a 46 seat majority.

Here’s a summary of how the last 5 elections would have come out, again slightly exaggerating the majorities:

Year Winning Party Poll result % Margin of victory % ‘Ideal’ % of seats ‘Ideal’ total seats* ‘Ideal’ majority* FPTP majority ‘Ideal’ LibDem Seats^ FPTP LibDem seats
1992 Tories 41.6 7.2 54.56 353 54 21 90 20
1997 Labour 43.2 12.5 56.49 365 78 179 83 46
2001 Labour 40.7 9.0 55.07 356 60 165 90 52
2005 Labour 35.3 3.0 52.53 339 26 66 105 62
2010 Tories 36.1 7.1 53.98 349 46 -20 107 57

* based on 647 seats

^ projected as STV isn’t 100% proportional. Taken mostly from winning party but some from 2nd place party

How are the bonus seats determined?

The seats are awarded to “best near-winners” ie those candidates for the winning party who lost by the smallest amounts. At this point, there are 2 options:

1. The seats are ‘taken away’ from those who would otherwise have won under STV.

2. The seats are granted in addition to those who won.

The second is arguably fairer but the first is more practical.

The only disadvantages of this system are that there is a small bias against independents (less than FPTP/AV/AV+ though) and boundaries would need to be redrawn. On the latter point, there is one last advantage of using this system – it dramatically diminishes the effect of unfair boundaries and hence would provide another huge advantage in the near term.

Opportunities to change the electoral system come along once in a lifetime and have a huge impact on the future of the country. We have the worst electoral system and AV would be the second worst. Whilst I think STV has major benefits over all the other systems, IM-STV addresses the main problem with STV and is clearly better than the others.



  1. Neil Harding said,

    Did you know the countries with the smallest levels of borrowing have coalition governments? See the links below for the scattergraph on borrowing and on democracy. I would also argue coalition government is more decisive not less. Think of the wartime coalition in this country but also look at the long-term infrastructure in European countries that have had long-term coalition government – look at the quality of their public services – their healthcare, their transport infrastructure etc. Look at the speed with which decisions are made compared to our parliament (half unelected) where important decisions can take years to pass. But most important of all, look at their much higher levels of public engagement in politics and the representation of all groups proportionally in parliament. You must also remember that all parties are coalitions – think of a Labour supporter voting for Jeremy Corbyn in the same party as Alan Milburn, or the 1922 back bench Tories in the ‘Monday Club’. I think it better the public decides the proportions each coalition gets – the negotiations we saw after this election is more open than party manifestos decided by a few party members behind closed doors. People rarely vote on manifestos anyway. I have a feeling people know more about their government’s policies after the election than they did of the party they voted for policies before it.

  2. waronfreedom said,

    Ben Goldacre’s link is sadly misleading. The issue is not who can create big deficits but who can bring them down. The same power/consensus is required for both overspending/big cuts.

    Yes, both the Tories & Labour are coalitions. LibDems perhaps too. But they are more stable coalitions than what a hung parliament calls for and that’s the important difference.

    Every party would put aside their differences when it comes to facing a threat like Hitler. I think 2 important factors in the current coalition were the impending credit rating crisis and NuLabour totalitarianism. Even so I’m highly impressed by both coalition parties – I don’t think we can take this degree of selflessness for granted any time soon.

    I think you imply an important point re putting off tough decisions. Labour especially tend to do this (closing coalmines, cutting public spending, pensions crisis, global warming), but where the blame is shared, there’s less of a disincentive.
    That’s not one I considered before so thanks. I’ve moved to 55-45 in favour of IM-STV vs STV. 😉

    What I’d really like is for IM-STV to be in the referendum instead of AV, because I think it’ll be preferable to both coalition parties – unlike STV. I strongly doubt we’ll get 3 systems on offer because it’ll split the reform vote (and the Tories can’t allow an AV-system to be used to count the referendum votes, can they?)

  3. […] recreate the two horse race. There is a suggested system that does something similar to that: FPTP, AV and STV aren’t the only electoral systems War on Freedom It's a bit complicated to follow, but it essentially assigns a predetermined number of seats to […]

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