Preferential voting for Britain ?

I was thinking about Chris Bertram’s post on tactical voting at CT and I was struck by the thought: Why hasn’t Labour introduced preferential (single transferable) voting in Britain? Readers will probably be struck by the alternative question, Why should Labour introduce preferential (single transferable) voting in Britain?

My first is that this would be an improvement in democracy, both for individual constituencies and for the country as a whole. Although no voting system is perfect, preferential voting is much more likely to produce an outcome that reflects the views of the majority of voters than is first-past-the-post.

I don’t suppose that an argument like this will cut much ice with the Blair government (or most incumbent governments), so let me move to the second point. Labour would almost certainly benefit from this shift, at the expense of the Tories. It seems pretty clear that Labour would get the bulk of LDP preferences, as well as those of the Greens and minor left parties. The Tories would pick up preferences from UKIP (but this group looks like a flash in the pan) and the far-right (but this is a small group, and there are disadvantages attached to such preferences, especially if, say, the BNP demands preferences in return).

It’s true of course that the biggest benefits would go to the Liberal Democrats, since their supporters would not have to worry about ‘wasted votes’. But even here, there’s a hidden benefit for Labour. Sooner or later, there will be a hung Parliament, and the price of LDP support will be full-scale proportional representation. If Labour introduced preferential voting without being forced to, it would not only cement LDP support but would greatly weaken the case for PR.

The remaining objection is that of additional complexity. This can be overcome, in large measure by adopting the optional preferential system, where voters can indicate as many or as few preferences as they choose.

21 thoughts on “Preferential voting for Britain ?

  1. It appears to be in Labor’s interest to introduce some form of preferential voting, but is it really in the interests of democracy? Preferential voting can be a powerful tool for major parties intent on squeezing mutually hated minor parties out of existance, take the “put One Nation last” campaign here in Australia? Starved of preferences they were denied seats, despite the fact that normally a party with say 13% in a senate race would win a seat.

    Australia has had preferential voting for some years now, but do minor parties win lower house seats? On freak occasions. I doubt it would be much different in a First Past the Post system.

    Personally, I’m a great fan of the Hare Clark system!

  2. That “sole difference” is pretty huge in terms of the constitution of the resulting assembly.

    Overall preferential will be more democratic than FPP – more reflective of the will of the people. The least disliked gets in, not the most liked which may not be a majority.

    If One Nation was “starved”, it would have similarly starved under an FPP system, wouldn’t it? It was still up to the voters to choose to follow the major party advice.

    As JQ says, democracy will cut no ice as an argument. In view of that, the fact that our electoral systems (all over the West) are much more democratic than 150 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 50 years ago, is something of a miracle, is it not?

  3. I agree it makes for a huge difference, ie the senate v the house of representatives. I also agree STV in single member districts would be better than what the British have now. incidentally, sympathise with the people of Scotland who elect MPs by FPTP, MEPs by MMP and local councillors by STV. New Zealanders are in close to the same boat.

  4. John, your whole analysis assumes that voting patterns would stay the same if the voting system changed. That might not be true. People might vote differently knowing that there is a preferential system in place. Labour voters might well vote for the LDP knowing that they can give Labour their preference, whereas right now, for a Labour voter, a vote for the LDP only increases the chances of a Tory getting elected.

  5. Kieran, you say that that preferential voting is bad because it forces out minor parties; but that preferential-proportional (Hare-Clark) voting is good. As an example of why preferential voting is bad, you use the Senate. The Senate is a preferential-proportional system.

    That seems inconsistent. What am I missing?

    (BTW: The problems with One Nation being forced out aren’t a problem of pref.-prop. voting, but of preference direction. Directing preferences, particularly as it’s done in the Senate where no-one knows what’s happening, is clearly not in the interestes of democracy, but that’s another discussion.)

  6. Alan — Your mention of the Scottish Parliament reminds me of the case of the Rev. Ian Paisley, who is simultaneously a Member of the (British) House of Commons, the European Parliament, and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Without doubt, if he stood for a seat in parts of Glasgow, he could have been elected to the Scottish Parliament also.

    In the European Parliament, he famously sat in the chamber and heckled the Pope, when John Paul II addressed the Parliament. Even though the man’s politics are atrocious, I have to admire his gumption in puncturing the Pope’s religious pomposity and claims to speak for everyone.

  7. John, Bloody good post. You come up with good ideas and good reasons for them disconcertingly often. If I were a less generous soul it would depress me.

    But I recall you doing this on numerous occasions, in your articles, and also on this blog. Vis your exegisis of why the idea of abolishing the states in favour of regional govts is a chimera. And your call for unilateral nuclear disarmament for the UK. (Though the case is stronger again for unilateral nuclear disarmament by the US).

    And lots of other things.

    So well done from little old me.

    A jolly good Federation Fellow.

  8. “STV and Hare-Clark are the same system. The sole difference is in the number of members returned in each seat.”

    The same could be said about the difference between preferential voting and proportional representation, in PR there is a single electorate.


    The problem of the potential abuse of a preferential system can theoretically exist in either the House of Reps or, as it did occur, in the Senate. By and large voters follow the advice on a how to vote card, the only difference in the Senate with preference direction is that the voter cannot see on the piece of paper how exactly they are voting. Obviously a major difference, but it does not discount the potential for abuse.

    Party A on 45%, Party B on 25%, Party C on 10%, Party D on 20%, Arguably a successful “put party A last� campaign by B, C and D would be an abuse of a preferential system. I would argue that with such a significant backing, Party A should achieve some representation and their complete exclusion (similar results occurring in a number of seats) would be the use of the preferential system, through the collusion of other parties, to completely exclude one grouping deserving of parliamentary representation. A single member electorate preferential system allows for such abuse, and I would argue that parties attempt to perpetrate such abuse.

    Consider the same scenario under a Hare-Clark system. For ease of calculations, there are 100 electors. 5 members a seat, a quota is something like 17.7 percent. Party A reaches quota for 2 automatically, Party B for 1 and Party D for one. The remaining seat might go to either Party B or Party C depending on preferences. No “put Party A last� campaign would have succeeded, under any possible scenario, and the outcome is at least broadly representative of the votes cast.

    Yeah, OK, I’m getting in worst case scenarios and semantics. Ultimately I would argue that preferential voting alone does not produce a radically different result than FFP, Hare-Clark does.

  9. If as I understand it the difference between Hare-Clark and PR-STV is that Hare-Clark has no support for directing preferences, then essentially what you’re trying to say is the same as me—directing preferences is bad for democracy. Right? Because within each State, the Senate is proportional. It’s only when people foul up on their preference direction that someone who gets 95% of a quota doesn’t get the vote (as with FFP getting the Green’s seat in Victoria).

    That made me think that maybe something like the Condorcet system is better, where they always count every single one of your preferences; for Green voters, last year’s Victorian senate election might as well have been FPP.

  10. A proportional multi-member electorate system, such as Hare-Clark, is the ideal. However, anything that increases the effectiveness and power of your vote should be encouraged. First past the post is a stone-age voting system and it is a sad indictment that it still survives in the 21st century in such old democracies as the UK and the USA. The only thing worse is first past the post in multi-member electorates (which we still have in some local Councils in Queensland)

  11. Until ticket voting was introduced for the Senate in 1984 that system was usually described as Hare-Clark. The algorithm is still the same. Directed preferences are a bad idea in themselves, especially when parties re-invent tactical voting with acts of political genius like the Victorian ALP preferencing Family First.

    On a slightly different tack, it’s always struck me that STV is superior to List PR because you can use the same system to elect an assembly and a mayor or president.

    Probably the worst system ever was the pre-1949 Senate which used preferences but the first n preferences each had a value of one, where n was the number of senators being elected. A number of elections produced 36 to 0 Senates.

  12. < >

    Which is why every responsible Australian voter should take the extra five minutes every three years to vote the full Senate ticket.

    Especially since that gives you the chance to personally put Fred Nile or Pauline Hanson last.

  13. Stipulating all the questions that have been begged under the heading “democracy” for the moment, I can make a few observations before I stir the pot more in later posts.

    Practically all systems are equivalent to first past the post, if taken to the limit (if not, they are probably defective).

    Most personal tastes in systems relate to personal familiarity, e.g. a taste for preferential voting.

    Most systems that approximate democracy better include transparency and, so to speak, what you vote is what you get. Preferential voting is poor this way, which may have been obscured by familiarity.

    Compulsory voting makes the above point worse, even leaving aside disjoint arguments for or against it.

    Cumulative voting is as good as or better than preferential voting in most respects, and beats it hollow in the transparency and what you vote is what you get stakes.

    From Arrow’s Theorem and some more practical considerations, there is no ideal system anyway. However, a mixed system with two houses elected on very different bases and without a tie break mechanism (which just makes a larger system), can work if it has some practical components in there too. This is because tie breaks get referred to the people and the practical components reduce anomalies to isolated and unavoidable cases. (I won’t clarify here.)

    There is no requirement, practical or in equity, for an absolutely uniform system.

    It is nonsense to start talking about being fair to parties, or to politicians as natural persons, when considering the democracy side. These are significant matters, but natural justice for natural persons involves helping them personally not entrenching them, and fairness to a point of view does not involve imposing an intermediate priesthood between the people and their democratic expression. The current approach actually engineers “it doesn’t matter who you vote for, a politician will always get in”, it blocks a safety valve which means the likes of Hansonism take on institutional forms like One Nation (and remain like am embedded leech when you pull it off, instead of dropping away).

    Objections about workable government do not touch democracy; they are valid observations, but after not during the analysis of the democracy. If a trade off is needed, don’t kid yourselves about what you are doing – and don’t trick yourselves into not looking further for better combinations of distinct topics.

    We are all brainwashed by our cultures, since the only way to stay right with ourselves is either to accept what is forced on us as good, or to maintain a certain personal resistance to it (effective or not, on a larger scale or not). This is not so much logical as psychological, but it does make it harder to get to grips with the subject matter.

    So far so general. I will make more specific remarks about Australia and the UK later.

  14. Cumulative voting has significant problesm compared with STV. See Preference Voting vs. Cumulative Voting:

    If voting “1, 2, 3” is as easy as it would seem, what does it mean in comparison to cumulative voting? In a five-seat race, the voter’s calculation with preference voting is a simple one: which candidate do I like best, which do I like next best and so on, knowing that a lower choice will never help defeat a higher choice and also knowing that ranking a lower choice might help that candidate defeat a candidate you dislike.

    With cumulative voting, it’s not so easy. You like one candidate best and yes, you could put all your votes on that candidate. But what if you also like some other candidates? How do you divvy up your votes? What if you think your favorite candidate might not win? What if two strong candidates are appealing to the same community of voters that only has enough votes to win one seat?

  15. I suspect that British Labour’s reluctance to embrace preferential voting in national elections could be related to its refusal, in the 1980s, to heed calls for a tactical voting alliance with the Liberal Democrats against the Thatcher government. I would suggest that both positions stem from a desire to affirm Labour’s status as *the one and only* option for progressive voters.

    Of course preferential voting would benefit Labour by allowing it to garner additional support via preferences from the LDP, Greens and minor left parties. But as Dave Ricardo points it, it would also make voting for these parties a viable option for left-of-centre voters – and campaigning for them a viable option for activists of left-of-centre persuasions.

    The evidence of the last two US Presidential elections is that the fear of splitting the anti-Bush vote has served to inhibit interventions by left and green alternatives to the less right-wing of the two US major parties. The evidence of recent Australian elections is that preferential voting permits and possibly even facilitates the bleeding of young voters and of smart young activists from Labor to the Greens. This would not have gone unnoticed by British Labour strategists.

  16. You all might be interested in this article, about the possibility of hacking the papal election. It is written by Internet security guru, Bruce Schneier.

  17. A few obsevations for what they are worth. Firstly, I agree with PrQ – a switch to STV would greatly improve the legitimacy of UK elections. The results in Northern Ireland would be particularly interesting (where would Paisley direct preferences – Sinn Fein or the SDLP?).
    Secondly, I would argue that the majority of people tend to vote for or against a change of government – so that the advantage to the LDP and Labour that would come from a voting system change would be short-lived. If Labour were in an effective coalition with the LDP and the majority felt the need for a change of government then you would find the Tory vote would increase to effect the change.
    Thirdly, and in response to Kieran Bennet, I do not see the abuse. If there is a successful campaign to convince the electors to put party A last, then at least 51% of the people must have decided to do it. Where is the abuse? In practice, and having been a scrutineer at many elections, the number of people who blindly follow the recommendations is quite low. For example, around 75% of Greens votes go to Labor, regardless of the way they are directed. In the (few) elections where the Greens have preferenced the Libs over Labor it has made very little difference to the preference flow.
    Fourthly, above the line voting was introduced to simplify the process – too many votes were being lost when people could not be bothered to fill in the whole sheet. Bluntly, this was brought in to advantage Labor as the seats with the highest Labor votes also tended to have the highest informal Senate counts. I backfired in the first year though.
    My suggestion for a new system for the UK? Single member STV for the lower house and replace the Lords with a new elected body using full PR (no lower threshold), but retaining the same powers as current. 50% of the chamber each election (so up to 10 year terms), with no possibility of re-election and no members of the ministry may be in that chamber. The lower house would be able to return a stable government and the upper would be an effective house of review, but could only delay, not defeat, the government.

  18. Alan, that’s not a problem with cumulative voting. It’s a problem with coming to a vote with a settle-for-less mindset, a willingness to forego what you want for fear of worse. But the object of the exercise is to determine as best as may be what the people want, not how they are willing to adapt to the Procrustean bed. It’s a mindset that is actually encouraged by routine experience of having to settle for less, a remaking of the people in the image of the approximation of democracy that preferential voting offers.

  19. While Keiran Bennett makes a fair point about One Nation, what he has neglected to mention is that the electoral system for the Australian Senate is not entirely a STV one. Starting with the 1984 elections, Senate ballot-papers have been divided into two parts separated by a thick black line. Below that line are the preferential voting squares for the STV. Above that line are another set of squares for a party-list voting system (aka group ticket voting) in which (for all practical purposes) voters can let the party machines do the voting for them. By that I mean a voter who puts a “1” in one of the voting ticket squares is adopting as their vote the preferences listed on a how-to-vote card (as they’re usually called) devised by a party machine.

    Australian independents and political parties have long issued these how-to-vote cards. Some voters slavishly copy them, others do not. How many voters used to slavishly copy those cards prior to 1984 I am not sure, but anyone who uses the voting ticket squares to cast their vote in a Senate election today is now effectively doing so.

    Since something in the order of 95% of the voting population use those squares, this naturally delivers enormous power to those who devise those how-to-vote cards, as was arguably shown in the One Nation case when every major party deliberately put One Nation last. (Made all the more disturbing by the shameless bullying that went on in order to haul the more recalcitrant parties into line.)

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