Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday 27 May 2009

STV is the one for me

Since I posted this yesterday I have been further deliberating on the merits of just focusing on debating the principle of proportional representation as opposed to specifically pushing for Single Transferable Vote (STV).

There have been others posting about this subject and I had a lively debate with Jennie Rigg on her blog yesterday too. I seem to be in a minority in what I suggested yesterday and most Lib Dem bloggers seem to think that it is vitally important to push for STV. As I mentioned previously my problem is that I have a lot of trouble trying to get my non-politically minded friends to even listen to me about this, let alone properly engage with what I am saying. I distinctly recall spending 10 minutes a couple of years ago explaining the First Past the Post system, its advantages and drawbacks, and why I thought STV was better. The person concerned is University educated and very intelligent but a few months later she asked me "What was that about again?". She couldn't remember what I had said. I think the problem is that some of the arguments are fairly arcane to all but the politically obsessed.

However the more I have been thinking about it, the more I am persuaded that specifically arguing for STV is the way forward. I have come across too many examples in comments on blogs, twitter and in the MSM making criticisms of "PR" that just do not apply to STV (mainly it puts all the power in the hands of the parties whereas STV does the exact opposite). In some cases I suspect people who have a partisan stake in the existing system are deliberately obfuscating the issue (as David Cameron did in yesterday's Guardian) but I am sure there are many who just do not know what STV is and genuinely think that all PR systems require party lists.

So I am coming on board the STV train. That doesn't mean that I will not still be behind Alan Johnson's calls for a referendum but whenever I mention it I will point out that the PR system I favour is STV. The Referendum 2010 campaign is also calling for one but they are remaining generic for now.

The debate is only just starting and we need to be ready to rebut all the canards and nonsense that will be thrown at us. It is clear to me now that all Cameron was doing yesterday was trying to hijack the reform debate so he can neutralise the threats to his personal and parties ambitions. That's fair enough as it is his job but we should go for him now and should not allow him to paint himself as the change needed. He isn't. Lib Dems are the true reforming progressives and people need to understand that if they really want to change the political system in this country, the quickest way to achieve it is to back us.


dazmando said...

Whatever system of PR is used it must not be to complicated.

Wayne Smith said...

As one who has campaigned and lost badly in referendums in Canada on both MMP and STV, I am bound to tell you that the arguments used against you will have nothing to do with what you are actually proposing. Your opponents will claim that STV transfers power to political party elites, and they will say that MMP is too complicated.

It will indeed be canards and nonsense all the way down.

And here's the really sad part. Whatever PR system you propose, your worst critics will be proponents of the other one, or at least that's what they will claim.

Your main line of attack should be that the current system doesn't work, and has to go.

Matthew Huntbach said...

Our party made a big mistake when it welcomed the introduction of the list system for the Euro-elections and decided not to quibble about the exact PR system. We gave the impression that list-PR was just the thing we had been calling for all those years.

Because we didn't say "it's PR but in just about the worst form possible, nothing like the form we support", we let people believe or at least be able to get away with the argument, that PR must involve centralised choice of candidates, safe seats for those at the top of the lists, and an impersonal style of election in which individual candidates are hardly considered

Jennie Rigg said...

Hurrah! No we only need about 58 million more Damascene moments like this...

Will Straw said...

I certainly agree that the current system is broken and needs replacing. But STV creates its only problems: (a) lazy MPs can free ride on their colleagues - you often see this in local wards where there are 3 representatives, and (b) candidates are generally selected centrally.

Personally I would favour AV in single member constituencies with some form of top up.

Jenkins proposals are OK but create two tiers of MP. Another approach would be to give MPs' votes a weighting in proportion to the total share of the vote for that party. So, for example, the Lib Dems get 20% of the vote but only 10% of seats so each MPs' vote in the Commons counts for 2. Labour has 40% of the vote but 60% of seats so their votes count for 2/3s. This approach has exactly the same benefits of Jenkins' "AV-plus" without creating MPs without constituencies.

Mark Thompson said...

Hi Will. Thanks for your comments.

Firstly, it's good to hear more and more people like yourself accept that FPTP is broken and that we need to change to a better system.

No electoral system is perfect but for me STV is definitely the least worst compared to all the others.

To address your points directly:

a) Free rider problem: Because there are no safe seats under STV there is strong incentive for elected representatives to work hard to earn the votes next time around. After all, another candidate from your own party could usurp you if you are lazy.

b) The system used for selecting the candidates in the first place is I guess up to the party. There could of course be open primaries as being advanced by Douglas Carswell, Daniel Hannan and others. Even without this the slate of candidates is likely to be much more balanced with a much more diverse range of candidates as the parties try to achieve the widest appeal.

As I have mentioned above I do not think that AV+ is the best system. You list some of its drawbacks yourself. I also think that it would be much harder to win the necessary referendum for it and members of your party and the Tories would argue strongly against it. I would suggest that if you are in favour of a more proportional system as you certainly seem to be, you should seriously think about getting behind the best system with the most benefits. It's not a coincidence that the non-party aligned Electoral Reform Society advocate STV. See here for a list of its advantages.Your final paragraph is a very interesting idea. I have heard forms of this floated a couple of times but never really seen them pursued very strongly (perhaps you know better than me about this). I guess it would be difficult to manage a system where MPs could be 3 or more times as powerful as their colleagues. It also makes the barrier to entry very high as you would have no UKIP or Green MPs (assuming you had to have at least 1 MP to start with). Actually, thinking about it you could have a situation after the next election say if Caroline Lucas got elected in Brighton where she was the most powerful MP in the Commons able to wield the power of 10 or more times her Labour colleagues! I am not sure how popular that would be amongst the other parties!