By William Britain, a Make Votes Matter activist.

With every voter in Great Britain eligible to vote, 6 May or ‘Super Thursday’ will be one of the most important days in the electoral calendar for years to come. It could have been a great opportunity to reset the political direction after the pandemic, but there are some serious gaps in how votes will be translated into representation, with three different voting systems in operation: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

FPTP

The prize for ugly goes to the English local elections, which use a First Past the Post method of counting – the same as for UK general elections. It’s ugly because representation doesn’t reflect voter intentions. Time and time again, it’s been demonstrated that the electoral outcomes make no sense.

In 2019, in 17 councils, the party with the largest number of votes did not secure the largest number of seats. In some areas, one party is so entrenched that other parties don’t even bother to run candidates. This is not real democracy. It’s an ugly system.

SV

The prize for bad goes to the way we elect Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners. Votes are counted using a Supplementary Vote, where voters express first and second choices. If no candidate achieves 50% of the first choice votes, candidates apart from the top two are eliminated. Second choices are then counted and added, though only when they are for one of the top two candidates – other second choices are ignored.

SV creates some strange tactical voting incentives. To avoid wasting a vote, either your first or second choice needs to be for one of the top two candidates. This tends to reinforce, rather than open up, closed contests between historically successful parties.

At the same time, it means voters have to correctly guess which two candidates will get through to the second round in order for their second preference votes to come into force. This is why an Alternative Vote system, where voters can rank their preferences for not just two but all the candidates, is more effective when there is just one post like a Mayor being elected. That’s not to say, of course, that this non-proportional system is in any way appropriate for electing representatives to councils, assemblies or parliaments.

AMS STV

The good voting prize goes to the Additional Member System used for Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and the London Assembly. Each voter is represented by one local constituency member, just as with First Past the Post, but also by a group of members representing their wider region. In all three cases, the addition of regional representatives aims to rebalance whatever disproportionality the constituency results produce, helping to ensure that seats match votes.

Voters have a local representative who they can approach about local issues – but if they’re stuck with a local representative they don’t see eye-to-eye with they can go to any of their regional members instead. The overall result is broadly proportional to the votes each party got – a good outcome. Scotland, Wales and London each use a slightly different ratio of the number of constituency vs. regional representatives. The closer it is to 50:50, the more proportional the results.

Also good is the Single Transferable Vote, used in Scottish local elections and Northern Ireland (although there are no elections for these bodies in May this year). With STV, voters number the candidates in order of preference – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and so on – instead of putting an ‘X’ against one of them. Votes for lower placed candidates, and surplus votes for winners, are transferred from one candidate to another to make sure no vote is wasted.

Local elections in Scotland changed from using FPTP to STV in 2007, which gives us a great opportunity to compare how the change to the voting system improved representation. The difference is stark! In the 2012 Scottish local elections, 76.7% of votes went to a successful candidate, compared to just 52.3% in 2003 – the last set of local elections to use FPTP.

From 2022 onwards, Welsh councils will have the option to choose STV for their elections too. However, English local elections still stubbornly use FPTP, which has led to a number of local one party states to the exclusion of many voters.

Let’s learn from the success of the devolved parliaments and assemblies; the First Past the Post system for Westminster and English local government urgently needs to be reformed. AMS and STV are both used in the UK already and it’s time to bring in a truly representative system. For mayoral elections, what can possibly be the justification for limiting voters to only first and second choices – let alone pushing to introduce First Past the Post as the government intends.

Make Votes Matter is focused on reforming the First Past the Post system used for general elections: the keystone of democratic reform in the UK. Rather than campaigning for a particular system, we have brokered the cross-party Good Systems Agreement which sets out the principles a new voting systems must deliver. Both AMS and STV are clear contenders – but we believe the final decision would be best made by a deliberative democratic process such as a citizens’ assembly.