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STV stinks (the electoral system, not the TV station)

An electoral system that ‘gives’ you councillors you don’t really want via a barely-proportional system no-one understands, and one that seems to favour candidates who come first alphabetically and can easily result in councillors with little link to you or your concerns cannot be a good system. The Single Transferrable Vote should be replaced, and with haste.

Proportional representation is always better than non-proportional representation, right? I am becoming increasingly unsure. But before I explain why I must be clear that I am the first to champion the need for elections to represent as closely as possible the views of the electorate as possible. First Past The Post is a sort-of old-world travesty in which the masses are presented with minimal choice and all but the ‘mainstream’ stand next to no chance of being represented. It is a truly awful way to run a country, the reason for which is distilled into its very justification – that it produced clear, strong government. Yes, it usually does. But so does dictatorship and monarchy. And nine out of ten times, when I hear someone extolling the merits of strong government, it usually means the ability of government to do things the population doesn’t want it to do (wars, austerity budgets and all the rest). FPTP is a means of ensuring some form of establishment power is running the show forever. And above all it is just wrong that parties end up with power out of all proportion to the decisions made by the electorate.

I think we can all agree that the Alternative Vote option is not much better. In fact, I was surprised that so many people on the left were willing to support it in last year’s referendum. The more I looked at AV the more I became convinced that in fact it was worse than FPTP. At least FPTP is openly and honestly unproportionate; AV pretends to be but is in many ways worse. It is a majoritarian system, seeking to rule out any parties from outside the very centre of the mainstream one by one until a ‘least unpopular’ candidate is selected. I became increasingly unhappy with the concept the more I thought about it – if you vote for the BNP you will probably have your candidate excluded at the first count. So you get all your second preference votes counted. If those votes were enough to tip a Tory candidate over the 50 per cent threshold, the outcome is that BNP voters get two votes and everyone else gets one, all in the aid of electing a mainstream politician on the basis of the opinions of the fringe. And we know the outcome isn’t proportionate at all.

But the Single Transferable Vote system is endlessly loved, right? By whom, I ask? Apart from the slightly incomprehensible zeal of the Electoral Reform Society, who else in the world thinks it a good way to elect a parliament? If I recall there are about three countries in the world that use it and those tend towards the obscure. I always had problems with it, and most certainly with the Scottish local election system. The biggest problem in Scotland is that the system was rigged towards the big parties from the start – I think I’m correct in saying that Scotland is the only country in the world that uses three and four member wards, which are almost incapable of producing proper proportionality. Everyone else that uses STV has seven or eight member wards. But that is by no means the end of my problems with it.

I’ll just go over two more. The first is the straightforward one – barely anyone actually understands how it works. Be honest, even you politically-astute types – if standing in the polling booth and you’ve decided vote one and vote two and there is a candidate you think might be worth giving a third vote to, what are the implications of making or not making that third vote? Will it dilute the impact of the first two votes? Is the third choice candidate a popular candidate which might in fact mean your third preference vote could actually work against your second? And so on. In fact, it seems to me that the only way to be confident you’ve voted the way you really want to is in retrospect. Had I known the outcome in my own ward I’d have vote differently – it turns out that the way I used my vote actually helped to produce the very outcome I was hoping to avoid. And that’s from a politics-geek. The even crazier outcomes has been demonstrated in at least four or five cases in my immediate area. In a number of cases two candidates of the same party stood, one a strong local candidate, the other either an unknown or a weaker candidate. As far as I can tell, in every case, the candidate selected was the one that came first alphabetically. People who voted Labour or SNP as a slate worked their way down the ballot paper and went ‘1, 2, 3’. I have spoken to a dozen people who told me they were really unhappy about our result. I asked why and they told me they wanted the other candidate of their chosen party in. I asked how they voted and they all voted 1-2 on an alphabetical basis. They didn’t even realise that they were voting against the candidate they supported. So in the most basic sense, an electoral system which no-one really understands and which makes it difficult for most people to vote for their preferred candidate must surely be wrong. And a system which seems to elect candidates in an alphabetical order is truly facile. Plus I know of a couple of wards where councillors – and parties – were punished because they put forward ‘too many candidates’. Standing three rather than two candidates can mean you get none elected rather than two. Hurray for democracy.

But in a way that isn’t my biggest issue. I live in a fairly small rural ward. We had a total of six candidates for three seats. Many people I spoke to beforehand would have voted for any candidate that they thought would work hard for the local area. I even know a local leftie who said he’d happily vote Tory if he thought the Tory would really work for the local area. Except of course we don’t get to choose our councillor, we get to choose three councillors to cover a giant rural area. To my eye it looks like they are likely to carve this up in a way that means we’re going to get a councillor who has very little connection to the town (one has a long-establish patch, the other covers a farming area and it seems inconceivable to me that they should end up with any but one of the remaining councillors, leaving us with a virtually random choice). The only – and I really do mean only – proposed benefit of STV was to maintain a link between councillor and ward. Possibly it works like that in a city (people say that on the basis that they assume there is little link between a councillor and a ward in a city area anyway) but it sure as hell doesn’t out here and it doesn’t seem to right across my local authority.

Where does that leave us? Well, there is a simple system that maintains a solid link between elected representative and electorate, produces a genuinely proportionate outcome, is simple to understand and is well known to Scots. It’s the Additional Member system used to elect the Scottish Parliament. You choose your local candidate and then you choose the political make up of the overall authority. A small number of extra councillors are elected to create the balance. The arguments against this are (a) that you create two-tier politicians and (b) it puts the control in the hands of the parties. Well, on the second point, nothing could put parties in more control than an STV system so arcane that the political parties have to guess the result and then put forward the candidates on the basis of what they think they’re going to win, leaving virtually no choice for local voters (in Scotland, one out of every two candidates were elected – and that is supposed to put the power in the hands of the public?). And on the first, it has not really proved hard to manage in the many, many places around the world where it works, not least at Holyrood.

I care very much about my community – it matters deeply to me. That is why I am phenomenally disillusioned with this election. I care not what swings there were at the national level (I have a high degree of doubt that they tell us much – more on that tomorrow). I don’t care which coalition owns which local authority. I want to engage in lively and meaningful debate about what happens to my community and in my community. This election looks like it is going to give us candidates by mistake from a tiny gene pool with little power and with half of the people I’ve talked to unable to understand what happened, why the outcome seems so different from what they believe to be the intentions of local people.

STV has for some reason become the obsession of the obsessed. One lobby group (a group of technocrats) has got this idea so firmly in its teeth that people seem to think it is a good system and one people around the world adore. The opposite is the case, and it seems to me that it is damaging democracy by dismantling any sense of localism in candidate selection, has resulted in a barely contested election (again, I could vote for three councillors out of a total of six candidates?), and has left everyone I’ve talked to underwhelmed or confused. STV stinks.

Robin McAlpine