How can we sell the Single Transferable Vote to the public?

by Stephen Tall on February 11, 2010

The last 24 hours’ focus on voting systems – surely every Lib Dem’s dream come true? – have highlighted just how hard it will be to gain acceptance for the party’s preferred proportional voting system, the single transferable vote.

It’s no surprise that almost all MPs from the two establishment parties, Labour and the Tories, are desperate to hold onto the electoral system that secures their cosy hold on power: just five Labour/Tory MPs voted to include STV in any referendum on voting reform.

But it will also be the case that a significant portion of the country will need to be won over. A PoliticsHome poll this week suggested 42% of the public would vote to keep first-past-the-post, with 37% backing the alternative vote; though no proportional voting system was included in the poll’s questions, it’s optimistic to assume that would have convinced more people of voting reform’s merits.

Beyond MPs’ expenses

For the past nine months – since the MPs’ expenses scandal exploded onto the scene – much of the argument in favour of electoral reform has centred, understandably enough, on the potential for STV to end the ’safe seats’ culture that has allowed some Labour/Tory MPs to grow complacent, and take the trappings of power for granted.

But is this enough to convince the public of the need for STV? Will arguing for a change in voting systems really convince the public that sch widespread abuse will be a thing of the past? I doubt it. Especially as the furore of last April/May recedes in the public consciousness.

STV: competition drives up standards

So how should the party try and sell STV in the future? Well, two related points have stuck in my mind over the past day or so. First, here’s Lib Dem MP David Howarth’s defence against the oft-repeated accusation that STV breaks the constituency link:

… it would not. It would just mean that there were more Members per constituency. It would break the one Member, one constituency link. For 17 years I was a local councillor and there were three members in my ward, but I did not feel that that meant I represented the people in my ward less. In fact, when a member of another party represented the ward for a few years, it increased competition between the parties in the ward and made us all better representatives.

It’s an important and crucial point: STV does not break the link between MPs and their constituencies. What STV does do is increase voter choice. Not only can the electorate rank parties in order of preference, but they can also mix and match – for example, voting for a Lib Dem MP who has been particularly helpful on a piece of casework, while casting their other votes for Labour/Tories in accordance with their wider political views.

It’s a modern concept turning voters into proper consumers, able to pick ‘n’ mix according to their experience, and so increasing the competition between the MPs representing their constituency to provide the best service. If Tories actually believed in the power of markets to drive up standards they would jump at STV. As it is, and as has always been their practice, they prefer to stick with a system which entrenches existing privileges.

STV: it improves the constituency link

So STV does maintain the constituency link but improves upon it by increasing competition. Which leads me to the second related point: size of constituencies and the public’s identification with them. Look at the current electoral map of the UK, and it’s a mess, in particular in densely-poulated urban areas. Wholly articifial constituency borders are inserted, often seemingly at random, by that vast unaccountable quango, the Boundary Commission, in order to ensure constituencies of roughly equal size.

It’s an absolute nonsense. Where I live, in Oxford, the electorate is too large to have one parliamentary constituency for the entire city, so a squiggly, virtual line runs through its centre bisecting the constituency of Oxford East from that of Oxford West and Abingdon. Thus you are left with the absurd situation that voters in adjoining streets in the centre of Oxford are seregated, while the market town of Abindgon (eight miles away) is lumped in with Oxford West to make the figures add up. And this is the sacred ‘constituency link’ which devotees of first-past-the-post and the alternative vote hold to be inviolable!

In fact, one of the big advantages of STV is that the constituencies become much more coherent in urban areas than is currently the case. Over at the Fabian Society’s Next Left blog, Denis Mollison has authored an illustrative new constituency map showing how STV could work in practice. To see a larger version of the map than the one shown in this post, click here.

As Lib Dem blogger James Graham has pointed out in his self-explanatorily titled article STV Is beautiful:

I really like what Mollison has done here. He hasn’t simply drawn lines on the map but created constituencies based on local authority boundaries. Ironically this would mean that people would identify with parliamentary constituencies more than the largely artificial ones we currently use (if the Tories get their way and replace the current system for drawing boundaries with a more technocratic one based on number of voters, this problem will get even worse). His model would also result in 140 fewer MPs.

Conclusion

There are any number of high-minded reasons to support STV: the fact that we should have a government that commands the support of a majority of people, and that pluralism makes for more mature decision-making.

But in terms of how we sell the need for STV to the public, the pitch is surely simpler. First, STV means you can shop around to choose the MPs you think work hardest from among the political parties you agree with most of the time. And, secondly, it puts an end to the ridiculous carving up of communities forced upon us by first-past-the-post, and provides a proper constituency link based on estalished geographical identities.