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UK Vote: Australians Bear A Gift

  • May 9th, 2010
  • Posted by 7thmin

commons.jpegCOMMENTARY: Liberal-Democrats trying to get a reform of the electoral system out of  last Thursday’s British elections, might consider  the Australian “preferential”, not “proportional” scheme.


Amid discussions on an agreement between Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats on the weekend (9.5.10), all that the minor party was being offered, at least in public, was a committee to discuss possible change.

With a hung parliament, the most plausible bloc, on sheer numbers, would look to be one based on an agreement between these two parties.


Their talks might, conceivably produce a electoral reform, as presumably the Lib-Dem Leader, Nick Clegg, if unhappy with the progress of that committee, under a minority Conservative government, could send them back to the people; dangerous for Tories then, if the undertow of recession should be affecting the judgment, and feelings of voters .

Let it be assumed that change in the voting system is a serious option, to do away with the old system, first-past-the-post in single member constituencies, which always forces a choice between the two main parties, Conservative or Labour –  voters becoming anxious to keep one or the other of them out.


Most talk of alternatives is about a variety of proportional systems, usually with multi-member  constituencies, or “list” systems where voters choose a party group in a national or regional poll.

The outcome is very often a parliament on the continental European model with several parties represented, and the need to negotiate formal coalitions to get a governing majority.

The preferential system on the other hand gives minor parties an influential role, though (in Australia at least) the election still ends up in the Westminster way, with one winner who takes all – a leading party with an absolute majority.

Voters start the process  by marking preferences on their ballot paper, putting “1” beside their first preference, but putting in other preferences, “2”, “3” etc, against the names of other candidates.

When the votes are counted, the winner is declared on first preferences, only if they’ve got  more than 50% of the votes.

Otherwise it “goes to preferences”.

The candidate who came last has their “2” votes distributed to the candidates still in the race.

If those don’t put somebody past the 50% mark, the current last-placed candidate’s “2” votes are distributed among those left standing, and so it goes on until one of the remaining candidates gets the 50%+, and so is elected.

The votes are handled in bundles in front of Party scrutineers; there are few disputes, few delays, very few complaints about a candidate needing to get 50% of the voters behind them, before they can be declared the winner.


How would this affect contests in the United Kingdom?

Members currently being elected with a small vote, say 35%, because they are in front of all other candidates (and even if actively loathed by 65%), would not automatically get in.

It does happen that a weak front-runner gets overtaken.

For example:

Conservative  10000
Labour  8000
Lib-Dem  4400

If three-quarters of the Lib-Dem’s vote went to the Labour candidate, that Labour candidate would finish up with 11300 votes (50.5%), and the Conservative with 11100 (49.5%); so in the example, that seat would go to Labour instead of Conservative.

This week, the thought of such a system would allow the Liberal-Democrats party to imagine they could do better than recent decades, including last week, whereby they get 20% of the national vote but only 10% of parliamentary seats.

In a lot of cases where they currently run second, preferences from one of the two main parties, in third place, would help them to the front.

They’d be in some jeopardy where their candidates came first, but would Conservative or Labour voters really prefer the main enemy – or give their “2s” to the Lib-Dem, already out in front?

(There are variations and different interpretations given to the counting regime; in some Australian States it is not compulsory for voters to give second preferences, only their number “1” — the preferences which are cast, voluntarily, get counted).


List systems and proportional mechanisms often do away with single-member constituencies, depriving voters the experience of trying to bully or cajole the “local” MP into delivering some direct benefit of the state, righting a wrong, or behaving more responsibly with public money.

There is another Antipodean answer to that problem.

In New Zealand they have two elections at once, for the one house of parliament.

Some of the seats are for local constituencies, contested as such, and others are contested on a fully proportional basis with lists of several candidates – and so, the election to parliament of several minor party candidates.

Imagine that the Westminster Parliament was reduced from 650 to 500 single member constituencies, but 200 more members were then elected “proportionally” from a lists contest (e.g. in the multi-member European Parliament electorates, in the devolved national electorates, or even UK-wide); that way, one-third of the parliament would be elected on a proportional system, providing better representation for supporters of the minor parties — while also keeping alive the tradition of lone “local” MPs!

(On that example 50 new MP positions would be created; expensive, though the clean-up of the corrupt Westminster expenses system – no more money for cleaning out moats around one’s  manor house – would ease the actual cost).


In the real world interesting Australasian arithmetic must mean little to hard-nosed politicians bargaining over actual numbers right now.

A look at the projected numbers in the new House of Commons will show how hard those bloody-minded minds will have to concentrate, and bargain, to get any stable majority in place.

The Conservative Leader, David Cameron, has 306 MPs, needing 326. Presumably he might be helped by the eight Democratic Unionists from Northern Ireland. Would he receive any, or enough help from other small parties: Scottish (6-members) and Welsh (3) Nationalists, Sinn Fein (5) and Irish SDLP (3), or the Green Party member? If not, (and it would seem unlikely), it’s Lib-Dems or nothing.

Also difficult, add Labour (258) and Lib-Dems (57), and that’s still not a majority for them, either.

Even the wonders of preferential voting, Australia-style, may not have prevented that impasse; but the hard-nosed chaps at Westminster might be wise to start thinking more widely this time.

(PS … In favour of preferential voting versus proportional. Most proportional systems come down to pre-set choices of Party officials. Allocation of preferences in the Australian electorates is done by individual citizen-voters in the privacy of the polling booth. While Party workers do hand out “how-to-vote” cards outside; most people cunningly accepting one from everybody, to conceal their true intentions).

Picture: House of Commons