Britain debates preferential voting, again

I mentioned earlier this month that the significance of local elections in Britain was “even less than usual,” due to Boris Johnson’s government being only 18 months into a five-year term. That hasn’t stopped a great deal of pundit ink being spilt on them, and a great deal of navel-gazing in the Labour Party in particular over its poor performance.

In fact Labour had some good results as well. It won 11 of the 13 directly-elected mayors, up three from last time (one newly established, and two gained from the Conservatives). As the realignment that people like Stephen Davies keep talking about continues, its vote is gradually shifting away from the traditional working class, especially in the north of England, and towards more educated and multicultural urban areas.

Ed West argued last week that the Tories’ advantage is only temporary, and that the changing demographic balance means that “Labour now has a coalition designed for winning in the Britain of 2040.” But predicting voting behavior that far out, even in the most general terms, is tempting fate.

Back in the present day, Johnson has a plan to hamper Labour further by abolishing the limited form of preferential voting, known as the supplementary vote, used in mayoral elections and conducting them instead by first-past-the-post, as used for the House of Commons. Based in this month’s figures that would have cost Labour one of its mayoralties (Cambridgeshire & Peterborough) and considerably reduced its margin in some others, including London.

To be sure, the supplementary vote is a dreadful system. As far as I know Britain is the only country that uses it (and only for mayors and for police and crime commissioners); it seems to be designed to mimic first-past-the-post, with voters asked to put a cross in the column beside the candidates’ names. But instead of one column there are two, for a first preference vote and a second preference vote.

If one candidate has a majority of the first preference votes, they are elected and the second preferences are ignored. If not, all but the top two candidates are eliminated and their second preferences are counted and added to the first preferences. As compared to real preferential voting (which the British call the “alternative vote”), it therefore incorporates the disadvantage of a runoff system – that there’s no way a third- or fourth-place finisher can win – without gaining the advantage of additional time for consideration.

Worse still, because voters are limited to one additional preference, they have to guess at who the top two are going to be and risk wasting their votes. (That helps to reinforce the two-party system, which no doubt is what its authors intended: the system was originally introduced by a Labour government.) And the two-column layout confuses many voters and increases the informal vote.

But first-past-the-post would, as always, be a step backwards. This bad imitation of preferential voting is still better than having no preferences at all, and the slight encouragement it gives to minor parties is better than throwing away their votes entirely.

No surprise, though, that the Conservative Party doesn’t see things that way. It’s ten years ago this month since a referendum to introduce the alternative vote in parliamentary elections was defeated by a crushing two-to-one margin, mostly due to a scare campaign run by the Conservatives.

Some of them might have had second thoughts a few years later, when Nigel Farage’s UKIP was cannibalising their vote. But the Tories saw off that challenge (by giving Farage what he wanted), and these days it’s clear that preferences would mostly favor Labour, allowing them to pick up votes from the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists.

The main argument people make against preferential voting is complexity: that voters who are used to just putting one cross on their ballot paper won’t understand the idea of numbering candidates instead. But there’s precious little evidence for it. And the problem is that attempts to simplify it by constructing hybrid systems – like the supplementary vote, or like Papua New Guinea’s strange system – usually make matters worse, sacrificing elements of democracy and further confusing the electors.

Preferences of whatever sort are no substitute for proportional representation, which is how parliaments should be elected. That option was not offered in the 2011 referendum and is not likely to appear on the agenda until one of the minor parties again succeeds in winning the balance of power in the Commons.

But for single positions like mayors preferential voting is the most sensible system, and the best way to do it is also the simplest: give voters a list of names and have them number as many as they like, in their order of preference.

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