STV is not the problem

Liberal Democrat Voice carried an op-ed piece by Anthony Butcher arguing that the Liberal Democrats need to drop their support for the Single Transferable Vote because “the perceived complexity of AV was a significant factor in its rejection by the public. The whole concept of preferential voting has now been tainted for a generation as overly complicated” and STV is more complicated than AV.

It should be noted that Butcher is not a member (or even a supporter) of the Liberal Democrats. He is interested in electoral reform, however, and he argues that “the Lib Dems, UKIP, Greens, ERS and every other organisation involved” in pushing for electoral reform need “to settle on a single electoral system that we will all present to the public”:

Once agreement has been reached, we need a long term campaign of public education and preparation. We mustn’t blunder in to the next referendum (if we are lucky enough to have one) still trying to explain what the system is or why we need it.

As for the choice of system to promote, it has to be simple – the simpler the better. It has to retain the single member constituency link. It has to be a form of proportional representation. This leaves us with the Additional Member System or the simpler top-up systems such as Total Representation or Regional Top-Up. It’s time for everyone in the reform movement to take a long look at these systems and see which one they would be happiest with, and which one will be the easiest to sell to the public.

His arguments against STV and his explanations as to why the referendum on AV failed miss certain key points, in my view. Butcher argues that apart from being too complicated, STV is also riddled with weaknesses that anti-reformers would be quick to exploit, in particular the issue of STV requiring larger constituencies which would be represented by several MPs: “Either way, do we really want to replicate the situation we have with the EU elections where hardly anyone can name a local MEP? The media would tear it to shreds.”

Regarding whether or not anyone can name a local MEP, I am not entirely convinced that this is a good argument against STV. For starters, MEPs in the UK are not elected using STV – they are elected using a regional list system with seats allocated to parties in proportion to their share of the vote. For European Parliament elections, the UK is divided into twelve electoral regions with between three and ten MEPs representing each region. I don’t know if it’s true that few people can actually name one of their MEPs, but even if it is, I would wager that the main reason few people can is that they simply don’t care who their MEPs are. Voter turnout in the UK for European Parliament elections is among the lowest, as this chart clearly shows. In the 2009 elections, only six other member countries had lower turnouts.

If over 60% of eligible voters can’t even be bothered to participate in EU elections, it’s not that surprising then that many can’t then name a single elected MEP. The claim that most can’t name a single MEP because the system used requires large constituencies represented by several MEPs implies that most voters in the UK can name their actual MP because MPs are elected using FPTP and single-member constituencies. However, a poll conducted in March 2010 before the May 2010 general election found that 44% of those surveyed couldn’t name their sitting MP and three in four voters admitted to not knowing who was standing at the May election. To me this clearly proves that it’s not the voting system that is to blame; it’s largely a reflection of an overall indifference to the European Parliament in particular, and to politics in general.

The big problem with attempts to change voting systems is the insistence on putting the matter to a referendum, as I’ve blogged about here and here. To quickly summarise, electoral reform is not a pressing issue for the vast majority of citizens – they aren’t interested and really don’t care that much. A referendum asks people who are at best indifferent to choose between a system they know and have used, and one that they’ve never experienced. How can anyone make an informed choice about which they might prefer or that they think would work best if they have direct experience of only one of the two options? They have no way of knowing if the new system really will be “too complicated”, what sort of results it will return, if it will be fairer, or how parties will act and react under the new system. When presented with a choice between a known entity and a completely unknown entity, most people will stick with the tried and true. It’s human nature.

That is why I regularly suggest implementing the new system for a fixed period of time – something like 20 years or 5 elections, to give voters a chance to use the new voting system and parties to adjust to the changes a new, more proportional system, will entail. Then have a referendum on the issue, asking people if they’d like to keep the new system or switch back to FPTP. That would be a much easier choice for people to make since they’d be voting based on experience, not guesswork, assumptions, or fears.

I do agree with Mr. Butcher that it would probably help the cause if all those in favour of electoral reform could agree on one system to promote. This could be accomplished via a citizens’ assembly which could review various voting systems and recommend one that they feel would work best for the UK. But I disagree that whatever option of electoral reform is put forward has to be “the simplest” and that it has to retain the single member constituency link. Complexity and multi-member constituencies are not the real problem here; the real problems to overcome are unfamiliarity and indifference.


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