Jonny Nexus

Writing, life, politics

Month: February 2011

The “Problem” With STV

Yesterday, I blogged that many in Ireland were calling for it to abandon its current Single Transferable Vote (STV) electoral system in favour of the Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) system used for the Scottish Parliament, among others.

This makes me sad. I love STV. It has a purity and elegance against which MMP looks kludgy and contrived. I should at this point pause to point out to UK and US readers that contrary to what many people in those countries seem to think, there is no such system as “proportional representation”. Instead, there are many possible electoral systems, each of which can be judged against various factors, such as:

Proportionality: The extent to which a party getting a certain percentage of the vote will get a similar percentage of seats in the resulting parliament. The First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system used in the UK and the US fares particularly badly here. In the 1983 UK general election, Labour got 209 seats (33%) on 28% of the vote, while the SDP/Liberal alliance got a measly 23 seats (4%) despite achieving an only slightly smaller 25% of the vote. In February 1974, the Liberals got a pretty impressive (for a third party) 19% of the vote, but got only 14 seats (2%) in return. And in 1951, Labour scored 48.8% of the vote to the Conservatives’ 48.0%, but the conservatives got 51% of the seats – an overall majority.

Geographical Link: The extent to which individual members of parliament represent specific geographical areas, and thus the extent to which communities are specifically represented in parliament. FPTP is very strong here, as you have a large number of small constituencies, each represented by a single member.

Member-Voter Link: The extent to which voters can select the specific members that represent them. (As opposed to parties effectively selecting who will get elected). FPTP is pretty middling here. Where there is a tight contest, then yes, the voters get to choose who will represent them. But in the 80% of seats that are “safe”, the winner is almost inevitably the candidate chosen by the leading party, so it’s the party selection contest that effectively determines who will be the MP. (The USA kludges around this by opening up the party selection process to voters, which gives power to voters, but at the cost of depriving parties of the right to decide which candidates they wish to offer up for election). This aspect also includes the ability for independent candidates to both stand and get elected.

Effectiveness of Legislature: The extent to which the system delivers a functional legislature. It’s often suggested that it’s beneficial for a system to require parties to get at least a meaningful level of support before they start winning seats. If you assume that decisive, stable government is a good thing (and that’s a big if), then FPTP scores quite highly here, as you tend to end up with a small number of large parties (as opposed to a squabbling plethora of small, single-issue parties). Many proportional systems kludge this requirement by requiring parties to get over an arbitrary share of the vote. Get 5.01% of the votes in Germany for example, and you’ll get 31 MPs. Get 4.99% and you’ll get nothing.

As a comparison, let’s look at the “pure” proportional representation system used in Israel, which is probably the polar opposite of FPTP. The entire nation is one single constituency, with each party submitting a list of candidates, ranked in an order chosen by the party itself. Voters can choose between parties only. If a party gets X% of the vote, then the first X% of candidates on their list are elected. If there are 200 MPs in the legislature and a party gets 0.6% of the vote then they get 1 MP. If you’re not particularly keen on a party which is likely to get it’s first 5 candidates elected, but you love the bloke they’ve got at number 8, then tough. There’s no way whatsoever for you to vote for him.

I hate that system. I’d rather have FPTP. I want to vote for people, not lists.

Which is where we come to STV, the system I’ve loved ever since I found out about it in the 1980s. STV uses large, multi-member constituencies (in Ireland they have between three and five members) where voters are presented with a list of names not parties, and then rank those names in order of preference (until they have no further preference). Parties are free to suggest an order in which they would like people to vote for their candidates, but people are free to ignore this.

Imagine you lived in a hypothetical UK four-member constituency, in which the candidates were:

Dev Alahan (Conservative)
Peter Barlow (Labour)
Janice Battersby (Independent)
Hilda Ogden (Lib Dem)
David Platt (Labour)
Graham Proctor (Labour)
Dierdre Rashid (Green)
John Stape (Conservative)
Rita Sullivan (Lib Dem)
Kirk Sutherland (Conservative)
Sean Tully (BNP)
Kevin Webster (Independent)

You might have noticed that the parties aren’t putting up the maximum four candidates that you might expect. There is a reason, and we’ll get to it.

Now the Labour party, say, might ask you to vote for their candidates in the following order:

1. David Platt (Labour)
2. Peter Barlow (Labour)
3. Graham Proctor (Labour)

But what if you’re broadly a Labour supporter, but you think David Platt’s a complete wanker? And what if you also have some sympathy for the Greens, and think that Kevin Webster, the independent, is a good bloke with a particular interest in the welfare of small children and young women? Well you’d be perfectly at liberty to vote in the following way:

1. Peter Barlow (Labour)
2. Graham Proctor (Labour)
3. Dierdre Rashid (Green)
4. Kevin Webster (Independent)
5. David Platt (Labour)

But how does STV actually work? Well the counting is a bit complicated, but we only really need to concern ourselves with how you vote (which we’ve described above), and what the end result is likely to be.

Imagine a town in the UK which currently has five FPTP constituencies. For the purpose of this example, we’ll assume that all the constituencies are the same size (i.e. have the same number of voters) and have the same turnout (i.e. the same proportion of people voting).

----          Con1   Con2   Con3   Con4   Con5   City Total
Labour        66%    65%    75%    58%    22%    57%
Conservative  7%     16%    5%     14%    57%    20%
LibDem        26%    17%    19%    27%    19%    22%
Others        1%     2%     1%     1%     2%     1%
Winner        LAB    LAB    LAB    LAB    CON

So under FPTP, we get four Labour MPs, one conservative MP, and no LibDem MPs, even though the LibDems actually scored a higher percentage of the vote across the city than the Conservatives. Also, note that every single one of those five seats is a “safe” seat. Unless future elections deliver huge swings from one party to another, we pretty know that the result is always going to be four Labour and one Conservative. Which mean the actual selection of the MPs is entirely in the hands of political parties themselves.

So how would it work under STV? Well this city would form one large constituency, rather than five small ones, with this single constituency returning five MPs. Given the above voting patterns we’d expect the final result to be three Labour MPs, one Conservative MP, and one Lib Dem MP.

Even if the vote proportions don’t change much, this is still going to deliver a tight, meaningful election. Why? Because parties would typically put up at least one more candidate than they were expecting to get. In other words, they would put up the number of candidates they would hope and dream they would get, if their campaign went well.

So lets say that at the previous election, the vote shares were as above, Labour 57%, Conservative 20% and LibDem 22%, with the result being Labour 3 MPs, Conservative 1 MP and LibDem 1 MP. But now imagine that since that election, Labour have significantly lost support, with both the Conservatives and the LibDems increasing support. In this case, both the Conservatives and the LibDems might hope to increase their share of the vote enough to pick up a second seat.

Labour would probably only put up three candidates – their existing three MPs, just hoping to hang onto all of them. But both the Conservatives and the LibDems would put up two candidates each, their existing MP plus a new candidate. So you now have a right old dog-fight. Seven serious, major-party candidates, each with a realistic chance of being an MP, fighting for five seats.

Two LibDems fighting for what will most likely be only one LibDem seat. Two Conservatives fighting for what will most likely be only one Conservative seat. And three Labour candidates fighting for what might well turn out to be only two Labour seats.

You’ve got Conservative versus Labour to push Labour down to only two seats. LibDem versus Labour, again to push Labour down to only two seats. Conservative versus LibDem, fighting over who will get that third seat, should they prise it away from Labour. Labour versus Labour, to ensure that if that third seat is lost, they’re not the MP being lost. Conservative versus Conservative, to ensure that if the Conservatives remain on only one seat, they’re the Conservative that gets it. And LibDem versus LibDem, to ensure the same, that if there’s only one LibDem seat, it’s them.

And this is before we add in the effects of transfer votes, with parties appealing to supporters of other parties to give them their later transfers (like the Labour voter in the above example voting Green) and individual candidates appealing to voters to rank them higher than their fellow party candidates (like the Labour voter in the above example ranking the Labour #2 and #3 above the #1).

This is why I love STV. It delivers a broadly proportional result, while eliminating tiny fringe parties (but without any arbitrary threshold), and yet still manages to be all about individual candidates rather than parties. Independent candidates have just as much chance to get elected as those belonging to party. Every contest is meaningful. No party can afford to impose (“parachute in”) an unpopular candidate, because they risk losing that seat. Power really is in the hands of the voters.

The obvious disadvantage is that the constituencies can be rather large, but that can be partly mitigated against (with some loss of proportionality) by having three member constituencies in thinly-populated rural areas where five member constituencies would be huge. And I think that losing some geographical linkage (but only some) is a worthwhile price to pay for all of STV’s other benefits.

So what’s the “problem”? If STV’s so great, why is Ireland thinking of moving away from it, to systems that, while still proportional, rely on party lists.

Well put simply, where every single contest turns into a huge, vicious dog-fight, where no candidate is ever safe, and candidates are often fighting their fellow party members as much, if not more, as they are the opposing parties, politics can become very insular and local. When there is such a strong bond between voter and individual representative, when voters have so much say over who represents them, national issues can go out of the window in favour of local issues.

In our FPTP system, voters ask: “Why should I vote for your party?” After all, you only have one candidate per party, so it’s usually the party that is the determining factor between each candidate. Add in the fact that 80% of the constituencies are safe seats with the result a forgone conclusion, and you end up with an election that is very much fought nationally, on national, “political” issues.

But under STV, voters can end up saying: “Okay, you’ve convinced me that I should vote for your party, but why should I vote for you?”

And that too often leads to voters asking not what the candidate can do for their country, but what they can do for their local area. They became literal servants of the people, whose job it is to fix problems and get resources for their area. Future loyalty is bought by the services they’ve rendered in the past.

And they can never relax. No seat is safe. Even in an area that is solid for their party, a lack of attention to constituency issues (perhaps because they’re busy serving the country as a cabinet minister) risks their local party putting one extra candidate up at the next election who will be fighting to take their seat away from them.

I love STV. But I can see how, in Ireland’s case, a system where general elections actually consist of 43 viciously fought local elections isn’t perhaps the best way to run a country.

Can An Electoral System Be Too Democratic?

On 5th May 2011, the British people will be asked by referendum if they wish to change the way they elect the members of their parliament, from the existing First Past The Post (FPTP) system to a system of Alternative Vote (AV). The “Yes to Fairer Votes” campaign list the following as some of AV’s benefits:

Your next MP would have to aim to get more than 50% of the vote to be sure of winning. At present they can be handed power with just one vote in three.  They’ll need to work harder to win – and keep – your support.

Too many MPs have their ‘safe seats’ for life. Force complacent politicians to sit up and listen, and reach out to the communities they seek to represent.

So no more safe seats for central party leadership to “parachute” candidates into. Good thing, right? Are you sure? Consider this:

Since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, no bald man has been elected US president, despite the fact that male pattern baldness (MPB) affects roughly 40 million men in the United States. So that’s a baldy-free run of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush Snr, Clinton, Bush Jnr and Obama. (Yes, Gerald Ford was bald, but he was appointed by the US Senate).

Looked at in this light, (Black) Barack Obama’s victory over (balding) John McCain appears less of a historic breakthrough, and more of a depressing confirmation of a clear historical trend – that in today’s looks obsessed society, bald guys don’t get elected US President. (And add in the fact that Obama’s taller than McCain, another factor that often suggests the winner, and it’s pretty clear that McCain’s campaign had early on boarded a direct flight to Failure City, Republic of Loserland).

And this bias against chrome-domes isn’t something unique to the US Presidency:

Research from the early 1990s found that the proportion of bald men making it to elected office in the US was four times less than the number of follicularly challenged males in the population at large.

The last time a bald politician was elected to Number 10 was Winston Churchill in 1951 – and he was up against the equally receded Clement Attlee.

[BBC News]

Where am I going with this? Well that’s just if you’re bald. Imagine how difficult it would be to get elected if you were not merely bald, but ugly as well? And how about if on top of being bald and ugly, you suffered from what could perhaps be most charitably described as a certain lacking in the charisma department? Actually, we don’t have to imagine that one.

He was up against a widely despised, smug, lying war-monger, and lost huge. You get what I’m saying.

Now I wasn’t sad to see Howard lose. But what about more talented candidates? Imagine you have someone who is simply brilliant. Who will make a terrific lawmaker, tenacious in committee and analytical in debate, someone who will surgically remove the flaws from proposed laws and expose the lies and evasions of those who parliament is required to hold to account. Someone who might make a brilliant cabinet minister. The sort of man or woman you want in charge of the economy in difficult times like this.

And then imagine that this brilliant person, this person who all concerned agree would be an asset both in Parliament and in government, is cursed by being both ugly and uncharismatic. Is there not possibly an argument here in favour of safe seats? Is there not perhaps some benefit in having seats where a non-domiciled, pedophile pit-bull terrier could get elected provided you shoved the right colour rosette on it?

Now you might say that I’m being over-cynical here, and yes I am a bit, and my tongue is somewhat lodged in my cheek. But only partially. It’s all very well saying that surely we can trust the electorate to make the right choices, to pick the brilliant but ugly bald guy over the slick, smooth-talking wanker with a sharp hair-cut and a well-worn suit, but they don’t do they?

Dwight Eisenhower. 1956. Fifty-four years of hurt. Bald men should perhaps stop dreaming.

And it’s not just me thinking this, although those other thinking it might not describe it in quite the same terms. Some believe that the roots of Ireland’s economic disaster lie in its highly democratic STV system, in which every MP is directly elected/chosen by the voting public, and in which there is pretty much no such thing as a safe seat. This has supposedly led to TDs (MPs) who are good at getting elected, but perhaps not so good at making laws or running a government.

Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have committed to changing the electoral system, to a still proportional, but more list based system. But perhaps the most succinct explanation is given by journalist and campaigner Fintan O’Toole in his petition for reform:


Change the electoral system that turns TDs into constituency fixers. Replace it with a mix of direct election and a list system similar to that used for the Scottish parliament.

Such a system would massively remove the power of individual voters to select who they want to represent them. Most of the direct election seats would be “safe”, meaning that it would be the relevant local party who would ultimately select the MP. And then the list would provide extra opportunities for central parties to “parachute” in bright and brilliant but ugly and tongue-tied candidates.

And I can’t help but notice the similarity between the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign’s “Force … politicians to … reach out to the communities they seek to represent” and O’Toole’s “[End] electoral system that turns [MP]s into constituency fixers”.

You know, this was supposed to be a satirical post. But I don’t think it is. I really am starting to think that an electoral system can be too democratic.

Which is a bit of a pisser really. Bugger.

Campaign Idea: Children Of Selene

I’ve been having a bit of a hankering recently to do some GMing (games mastering). Given that I’m not only at the other end of a Skype link from my gaming group, but also spending quite a lot of time writing novels, it’s pretty clear that I’d need something that:

a) was an abstract game not requiring much in the way of battlemaps or plans; and

b) could involve a lot of improvisation based on limited, sketched out preparation.

I initially thought of some kind of pulpy superhero game, but quickly ruled that out as superhero games tend to involve detailed combat, which wouldn’t really work via a remote Skype link. But when I thought about it further, I remembered that most of my superhero games then to devolve into detective stories where the characters spend most of their time “out of costume”.

So I started to think of something more detective based, and segued from there into a sort of pulpy new-age thing that might be way too overblown for a novel, but perhaps good for the broader-brush, larger than life setting that I think an RPG sometimes required.

Anyhow, this is what I eventually knocked up and sent to the guys in the group. At this point, it’s no more than a vague suggestion for some possible future date, but I figured that having written it, I might as well shove it up here.

(It’s as I sent it, except that I’ve added in links to make it more understandable).

* * * * *

Hi guys,

Been thinking of something. If I did it (big if, as yet), I’d probably use the Gumshoe system (Esoterrorists, Trail of Cthulhu et al) modified to include some simple magic and ESP.

Children of Selene

New-age, paranormal private detectives on a living, breathing Moon.


It’s hard to remember now what the world was like before the 60’s, so utterly did they change things. New ways of living. New ways of thinking. And then came the revolutionary year of 1968, and two revolutions that were the seed in the ground and the crack in the wall that would eventually smash the old world apart.

In Paris, an alliance of students and workers overthrew the Fifth Republic and sent de Gaulle packing. And in Prague, the massed ranks of a people united stared down the tanks of the Soviet empire.(1)

The rate of change, already bewildering, increased yet more. Old ways fused with new. Old lore, long ignored but not quite forgotten, was relearned and regained: the power of the mind, ESP, and the power of the universe around us, magic. Equipped by the latest techniques in meditation and sensing, far-seeing scientists began to make break-through after break-through. And through all of this, both capitalism and communism continued to crumble, new organic, anarchic structures
growing up to replace them.

When Apollo 14 lifted off her pad in the January of 1971, she represented the last gasp of a dying order, a final flourish of a nation not far off existing in name only. On the journey to the Moon, Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell experienced some kind of spiritual epiphany. An awakening, even.(2)

When he arrived on the Moon, his consciousness now expanded, something happened, something incredible, something that could not have been foreseen and that is still not understood.

Selene awoke.

Dormant spell of unimaginable power? Intervention by the Gods? We do not know. We know this Before Mitchell landed on the Moon it was a dead world, bereft of both life and magic. This world was Gaia’s stillborn twin.

Mitchell’s arrival resurrected the twin. In just minutes, as he and his commander Shepherd watched, the sky turned from black to blue, grass, trees, birds and insects appeared all around them, and a wide sea filled the lowlands around the Fra Mauro Highlands upon which they’d landed.

Mitchell and Shepherd were now trapped; their Lunar Lander could not fly into orbit through a thick atmosphere. As the third member of their crew, Stuart Roosa, headed home alone in the Command and Service Module, a host of brilliant minds back on the mother planet were already mobilising to design a cargo carrier that could be parachuted to them through the Moon’s new atmosphere.

In the meantime, Mitchell and Shepherd explored what was now the island of Fra Mauro, surrounded by the Ocean of Storms to the north and west, and the Sea of Clouds to the south and east. They found a rich world, full of edible fruits and clear, fresh water.

More people followed, both to Fra Mauro and elsewhere. Shepherd would eventually return to Earth some five years later. Mitchell stayed, founding a spiritual study centre at what had become the town of Birthplace.

(1) In our world, both revolutions failed, and the idealistic dreams of the sixties gradually died, as the world moved into a more pessimistic decade of economic decline.

(2) Mitchell did actually have a kind of spiritual epiphany, and has spent the time since his flight promoting a new field of study that he hopes will fill the gap between science and spirituality.

The Moon Now

Thirty years have now passed since Selene’s awakening and the Moon is home to around 200,000 people. Most of these people are concentrated in the central area, between the Ocean of Storms to the west, and the Seas of Nectar and Tranquility to the east. The capital, Brighton, is located on the west coast, with the second city, Armstrong, on the east coast.

Birthplace, on Fra Mauro island, is small, but influential. A place of spiritualism and magic, it is regarded by the majority pagan faith as the holiest place on the Moon.

There are other smaller settlements scattered along the western coast of the Ocean of Storms, and the eastern coasts of the Seas of Fertility, Tranquility and Serenity. The far side has few seas, and is, for the most part, a wide expanse of hostile desert.

Like Earth, the Moon operates as highly decentralised, near anarchic state, with no government as such, and the only authority being a network of legislatures/courts used to determine laws and resolve disputes. Commerce consists almost entirely of co-operative businesses, most quite small.

Magic on the Moon is slightly more powerful than on Earth, perhaps reflecting Selene’s younger state. Whilst still subtle (magical practitioners can’t cast lightning bolts or fly) it can be a powerful


The Moon might be a peaceful utopia, but even a utopia is full of people, and people will always have problems. Worried people looking for missing relatives; plaintiffs in a dispute gathering evidence for
the courts; wives concerned that their hand-fasted mate might be straying.

That’s where you come in.

XXX, XXX and XXX: paranormal detectives for hire. Skilled in the use of conventional techniques, magic, and ESP.

Even a utopia needs people to peer beneath the rocks.

A Note On Magic and ESP

Neither of these are very powerful. As a rough rule of thumb, things which some people in our world think work (astrology, divination, curses, telepathy, precognition, “aura sensing”, love spells, and so on), in this world, do actually work. But things which no-one in our world would suggest might work (lightning bolts, flying etc) don’t work in this world, either.

Oh, and there’s two maps that might be useful. One shows the near-side of the Moon as we see it, and is useful for having the names of things on there:

The other shows a full, Mercator view of the entire Moon, including the far side:

As a rough rule of thumb, anything dark is sea, anything light is land. (i.e. The “seas” have become actual seas). Where it’s a bit murky, you’ll have chains of islands within a sea.

That’s it…

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