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.