A route to STV

If the Liberal Democrats take part in any coalition discussions in 2015, they must insist on Single Transferable Vote (STV) for local government elections.

A recent New Statesman article – http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/05/2015-election-could-revive-electoral-reform-debate – reports that opinions polls predict that the Conservatives may win most votes but Labour may win most seats in next year’s general election.

The article suggests that this may revive interest in electoral reform, especially among Conservatives.  This seems very likely.  It certainly happened in 1974 when the Conservatives won most votes but Labour won most seats.  Not surprisingly, Conservatives felt robbed even though it was their party’s fault for not introducing a more representative voting system when it could have done.

Of course, the irony is that, just when a fairer voting system coincides with Conservative interests, the party may be in opposition and unable to legislate for reform.  At the same time, the Labour Party, which has been showing some half-hearted interest in reform while in opposition, may be in government and unwilling to change the system that brought it to power.

But there may be a way to implement a fairer system in 2015, foreshadowed by negotiations between the Liberal Democrats and Labour in Scotland which successfully brought in reform of the voting system used for Scottish local government for 2007 and since.  The possible results of the next general election may portend a change in local government elections in England and Wales. (Northern Ireland, like Scotland, already uses the fairer voting system.)

In 2010, the Liberal Democrats had no realistic option other than to form a coalition with the Conservatives; the Conservative Party had won the most votes and the most seats while Labour did not have enough seats to form a stable coalition with the Liberal Democrats. At that time, the Liberal Democrats secured agreement to the referendum on AV for general elections but there was not enough public support to secure a change.

Suppose that, in 2015, again no party has an overall majority but both the Labour and Conservative Parties have enough seats for either of them to form a stable coalition with the Liberal Democrats.  But suppose also that New Statesman is right and Labour has more seats but the Conservatives have more votes.  What should the Liberal Democrats do then if the largest two parties both invite them to coalition talks?

Although many Liberal Democrats might prefer an agreement with Labour, wouldn’t they have a moral duty to voters to try first to reach an agreement (if they are invited) with the Conservative Party, the party for which most people had voted?  Liberal Democrats believe in STV so shouldn’t they try to form a coalition with the party that would probably have had the most seats if the election had been by a more representative system?  Wouldn’t that be the most democratic way to proceed?

Of course, there would have to be conditions with some give and take on both sides, as there was in 2010.  The bottom line for Liberal Democrats would have to be STV for all subsequent local government elections.

That would be fair enough.  After all, if the Conservative Party was only the second largest in the Commons, its only claim to open discussions to be the senior coalition partner would be that it had the most votes; i.e. it should have been the largest party in the Commons and would have been the largest party in a more representative election.  Indeed, in that situation, it should support PR for general elections, but the reality is that it would not do so quite so soon after the 2011 referendum.

The big question is whether the Liberal Democrats would have the nerve to hold out for this crucial, long-term improvement to UK democracy even if they were offered other short-term concessions on other policies instead.  Also, would the Liberal Democrats hold out, not just for any old PR that provided Party Representation but for PR-STV, which alone provides Personal Representation and maximizes voters’ choices?

STV Action is quite optimistic that, if the Conservative Party is persuaded to support PR at all for local government or any other elections, it will choose STV as the system.  This is because Conservatives pride themselves on valuing individualism and encouraging freedom of choice, so STV should be their natural system of choice.  David Cameron made this very clear when he explained what improvements to the voting system would mean to him – shifting power to decide who should be elected as MPs from the political parties to the voters, and specifically not party list systems.

If the Conservatives refused to offer a firm guarantee of STV for all subsequent local government elections, we hope the Liberal Democrats would make the same demand of the Labour Party, again if they were invited to talks.

Although Labour’s centralist tendencies may make it reluctant to support STV for the Commons, it may be willing to promise PR of some sort for local government in order to secure Liberal Democrat support and lead the next government, but that would not be good enough.  Liberal Democrats must hold out for STV, which alone maximizes voters’ choices and provides proportional representation not only of parties but of any other divisions that matter to voters.

Anyway, as Scotland and Northern Ireland already have STV for local government elections, it would be perverse to introduce a different PR system for the rest of the country.

STV, if only for local government, must be absolutely non-negotiable.  If there has to be compromise, it should be on other areas of policy.  On whatever else Liberal Democrats feel obliged to compromise in any coalition negotiations in 2015, they should not compromise on STV.

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