Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Saturday, 10 November 2012

"How STV resembles the Grand National" or "Why Prateek Buch deserves his FPC place"

I stood in an election recently.

It was for the Lib Dems Federal Policy Committee.

I lost.

The elections use Single Transferable Vote and I was in the bottom quarter of candidates in terms of first preferences. I was eliminated fairly early on during the count. I make no complaints. It was my first time in an internal election like this and I have learnt some useful stuff that will hopefully mean I have a better shot next time.

One person who did not lose in the FPC election however was Prateek Buch. He was elected from the 63 candidates who stood to one of the 15 places available. He is a good candidate and has done lots of high quality work, not least in the area of one of my particular hobby-horses, drugs policy.

However if you look at the election tables which show how the STV count progressed (available here) you would not have guessed at the end of round 1 of counting that Prateek would have been elected. At that stage, after only first preferences were counted he was in joint 27th place, way off the pace.

But this is one of the great things about STV. Of the just over 1,200 voting reps who make up the electorate 19 wanted him on the committee as their first choice. There were more voters who wanted other people on as their first choice. But as the count progressed, something interesting started to happen. As lower preferences from eliminated candidates began to be redistributed and surpluses were also factored in, Prateek started to inch up the pecking order. Slowly at first, but by the time we get to the latter stages of the count he is really piling the transfers on. In this phase he is regularly getting 2, 3 or 4 transfers and this pace keeps him in contention. In the end he just pokes his nose over the finishing line bagging 14th place with 64.05 votes. If he'd been 3 transfers shy of this he would not have got onto the committee.

Tracing this through it does show to me how a transferable electoral system can be a thing of beauty. It actually does take on the auspices of something like a horse race. You can see at each stage who is keeping up and who is falling behind. You can also see which horses have fallen at each stage (I fell at fence 12 for example). Perhaps it is because I am a psephological geek but it was rather exciting to go through the stages and observe how the fortunes of different candidates fared as it progressed.

It is invidious to try and say what would have happened if this election has been run using first past the post. Voters would have voted differently and it is never clear how the final result would have differed. What is clear is that Prateek may only have had the first preferences of 19 voters, but there were many more than that (more than 3 times as many) who preferred him to many of the other candidates. He may not have had as deep support as some of the much higher placed candidates such as Lord Rennard or Evan Harris. But he certainly had a decent breadth of support. Crucially his wider appeal as a candidate put him above most of the candidates who after the first round looked like they were better placed.

During the AV campaign last year, one of the criticisms used by the "No" camp was that transferable systems "allow losers to win". That was always based on a specious reading of how AV works and used an extremely narrow definition of "loser". It was essentially anyone who did not have a plurarlity of votes after round one. AV is effectively just a single member variant of STV but it does also allow a candidate with a breadth of support to win even if a plurality (although not a majority) of voters prefer another candidate as their first choice.

I have to say that I am much happier with a process that allows such sophistication in voting preferences and for all that information to feed into the result.

Prateek Buch very much deserves his place on the committee.

As for me, I clearly need many more first preferences next time I stand to have a chance. It's all very well having a breadth of support, but you have to stay in the race long enough for them to count!

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