David Cameron and the problem of setting real political choices

David Cameron’s referendums were regarded as reflections of ‘the will of the people’.  But is that true?  Here Peter Emerson of the de Borda Insitute questions that assumption then proposes a better methodology.

2011 Referendum on the Electoral System.

Cameron’s first problem?   “Those damned Lib-Dems and the voting system!”  Hence the first ‘which’, to silence dissent in the coalition cabinet.

Many people wanted proportional representation, pr, either pr-list as in Denmark, the Irish pr-single transferable vote, pr-stv, or whatever.  Others wanted first-past-the-post, fptp, the alternative vote, av, (which is stv in single-seat constituencies), or again whatever.  The choice was huge.

Cameron’s first preference was fptp and his second av.  So that was the first ‘which’: “fptp or av, which d’you want?”  For supporters of pr, however, it was like asking a vegetarian, “Beef or lamb?” 

With zero support for pr (because it wasn’t on the ballot paper), the outcome was hopelessly inaccurate.  Now maybe fptp was the most popular but, on the basis of just a two-option poll, it was impossible to say. 

For Cameron, however, it was perfect: he chose the question, and the question determined the answer, a massive 68 to 32%.  Magic.  The people have spoken; well, ‘X’ed; and that’s the end of that argument. 

So why not another referendum? 

Scotland 2014

His second problem?   “The bloody snp and independence!”

There were three options: (a) the status quo, (b) maximum devolution or ‘devo-max’ as it was called, and (c) independence. 

Thinking that (a) would easily beat (c) in a two-option contest, just as fptp had wiped out av, Cameron insisted on a binary ballot: “(a) or (c), which d’you want?”

In the campaign itself, however, option (c) gained strength.  So a vow was made – double, double, toil and trouble – and (a) was morphed into (b). 

On the ballot paper, however, the ‘which’ was still only (a) or (c).  So the results, 55 and 45%, were also hopelessly inaccurate.  Furthermore, because of that vow, the winner was (b)… but no-one had voted for it!

Cameron, however, got what he wanted!  We return to the ‘whiches’ coven’.

The eu Referendum

Believing as it does in majority voting, the Tory Party (along with others in the field) is a beast of two huge wings on a tiny body; so the creature is often in a flap, especially over Europe. 

Then, stage right, another scary monster, ukip, augmented Cameron’s third problem.  “These cursed Europhobes!”  Ah, the third ‘which’: “remain or leave, which d’you want?”

But ‘leave’ won, and Cameron, politically, is now dead.  The people have spoken, but nobody knows ‘the will of the people’, what the 52% actually want!  The outcome, yet again, is hopelessly inaccurate.

Democratic Theory

Now, consider a hypothetical example.  To determine the average age by a majority vote, the question would probably be, “Are you young or old?” 

So, no matter what the outcome, it would be wrong!  If, however, the question were multi-optional, “Are you in your twenties, thirties, forties, etc.?” the answer could be deemed accurate.

Likewise with collective opinion, every voter should be positive.  No-one should be voting ‘no’, ‘out’ or ‘leave’; instead, everyone should be in favour of something: the uk in the eu, in the eea, independent of both, or whatever.

Experience Abroad

When in 1992 New Zealand debated its electoral system, an independent commission drew up a five-option referendum: fptp plus four alternatives, pr-stv and three other systems, as it were, in the middle. 

So (nearly) every voter could vote positively, and New Zealand now enjoys pr.

A ‘Which’s’ Brew

If a question is binary, only one form of voting is appropriate: a (simple or weighted) majority vote.  Very few questions should be binary, however, especially in any pluralist democracy. 

With lots of options, however, popularity can be measured in many ways: the option with the most 1st preferences, with the least last preferences, with the best average, or whatever. 

And the best average is not win-or-lose; it is indeed the average, so it involves every voter; and it’s very accurate.


  • Contentious and/or complex problems should not be reduced (and distorted) to dichotomies.
  • Such problems should first be subject to an independent commission, tasked to draw up a (short) list of about four options.
  • Voters should be enabled to cast preferences on these options.


Both in referendums and in parliaments, politics should be based on multi-option ballots, with choices as in a restaurant to cater for most tastes. 

Then, if outcomes were determined by the highest average preference scores, we would no longer suffer from a democratic structure which allows one faction, and sometimes just one individual – Bashar al-Assad, Robert Mugabe – to rule over others. 

With the prospects of Trump, Le Pen and other extremists, established democracies also need a more inclusive politics, desparately! 

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  • terence patrick hewett

    Another political stitch-up to give politicians jobs for life. Just like AV. Which is why the demos voted to retain FPTP: because we like to see you politicians humiliated, sacked and disposed of in the trash can within 24 hours.

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    Us that’s who.

  • The article is about choices between policy options, not between parties or candidates. It has absolutely nothing to do with getting rid of politicians. It is about how groups make rational rather than emotional decisions.

  • terence patrick hewett

    Expressed myself badly: all these sorts of propositions simply wish to weaken the force of a binary choice. All this “rational” and “emotional” is rather a red herring do you not think? It just means a decision that I do not agree with is emotional: I on the other hand am rational!!! All b*llocks of course. Just like you are a populist but I am statesmanlike!!!

    It is significant that this sort of language, using exactly the same words was used in the late 19th early 20th centuries as auguments against universal suffrage: the ladies poor things were emotional and incapable of rational thought! Enough to make a cat laugh.

  • kensei

    There are fundamental problems with some of the approaches suggested. Too many options can lead to exploiting questions via the man in the middle fallacy, an it’s not clear that we should be setting policy on the basis of potentially weak preferences.

    Even where a country is utilising direct democracy for critical constitutional questions, it is always paired with representative democracy for most day to day decisions. It’s one of the jobs of our representatives to winnow those options down and frame meaningful choices. The problem comes when that process is hijacked for party political ends.

  • chrisjones2

    Someone has to shape the questions and we elect people to govern so it might as well be them!!

    You can take this ad absurdum

  • Scots Anorak

    Cameron’s policy was systematically to exclude the popular choice in a bid to shore up the status quo. Devo Max / Home Rule, had it been on offer, would have won quite convincingly in Scotland. Indeed, were a meaningful, properly worked-out package on offer as a third option at the next, post-Brexit independence referendum, it might even prove the most popular choice in that (NB, a vague vow would not suffice this time around, since an important constituency of swing voters is still feeling duped after the last one).

    Similarly, he forced the Lib-Dems to accept a vote on AV instead of PR. That showed his gambling streak, since AV would have been particularly disastrous for the Conservatives. However, his intuition that it would not enthuse enough PR supporters to get out and vote proved to be correct. Just as in the Brexit referendum, many people voted on something else entirely, grabbing the chance to give the Liberals a drubbing for the crime of coalition.

    Ironically, had he offered three options in the EU referendum (status quo, his package, or Out), Leave might never have won, since many people feel safest with the middle option. What a wide boy!

  • Katyusha

    Human beings tend to think logically, but act emotionally.

    We react to situations based on our emotions and subconscious tendencies, and then attempt to justify it with reason afterwards. And then we accuse those who went through the same process from a different starting point of being irrational!

    I’ve got a feeling man’s greatest fear is to look in the mirror and realise that nothing he ever does makes any sense. Instead of having unfettered free will and incisive reason, we are very much slaves to our genetics and upbringing.

  • cu chulainn

    Should the referendum on voting type use a single transferable vote?

  • Roger

    A referendum on 3 options would not have accorded with the promises he made in order to be elected.

  • Peter Emerson

    STV (or the Alternative Vote, AV) can be capricious. If 12 people vote on three options, ABC; if 5 have preferences A-C-B, 4 choose B-C-A and 3 want C-B-A, then C (the 1st preference of 3 and the 2nd preference of 9) is obviously the most popular. But in AV (STV), C gets eliminated at the first stage. The better methodology is the Modified Borda Count, (all on google).

  • Reader

    In the Scottish independence referendum the SNP wanted independence and the Government wanted to keep the union. That’s the fundamental reason those two options were on the ballot paper.
    When their campaign got off to a slow and weak start, the SNP started hinting that devo-max should be an option, but wouldn’t actually request it. Then they lost interest in that option as things hotted up and looked far more hopeful for them.
    Neither campaign was static in its offers to the electorate – I wouldn’t really expect that they could be. Both sides were hoping to form the subsequent government, and felt they were in a position to make promises and out-bid each other.

  • Teddybear

    If one has a brief encounter with an electoral referendum you will end up with a STV

  • Reader

    Then C needs to work a bit harder and get more first preferences. Why do so many people think they are second best?
    Looking at the votes, it looks like the population is split, with some preferring A over B & C, and rather more preferring B & C over A. Note the absence of BAC and CAB voters. So the 7 voters that had B & C as their first two preferences are at least glad that B wins.
    You may feel that I am over-analysing a casual example? And I feel that you are cherry picking combinations.

  • Kevin Breslin

    If the No to Independence campaign wasn’t static, why did The Vow take so long to happen?

  • Kevin Breslin

    FPTP doesn’t give people jobs for lives and STV does?

    Nigel Dodds managed to keep his job for life, while AV could’ve seen him lose it, likewise Gregory Campbell, and possibly Alasdair McDonnell too.

    Let’s stop the nonsense that the system determines the outcome.

    This nonsense of comm-“unity pacts” would be useless too.

  • Peter Emerson

    The SNP were in favour of three options under AV, and first advocated such a policy for the 1997 referendum in 1992.

  • Nahanni

    You equate STV with AV and they are entirely different animals. STV is a proportional, multi-member district voting system. AV is a single-member district winner-take-all voting system. Their only commonality is ranked ballots – which is only 1 element in a voting system.

    Of course, if you;re talking about a referendum with only one winner, there can never be proportionality. So just leave STV out of it altogether.

  • eamoncorbett

    If Devo Max was on the ballot and accepted , who would determine what that meant , probably the Tories as they were the party in power at the time . Devo Max is at best a vague term as nearly all power eminates from Westminster ,just look at the damage a political party with 2 factions can do in a couple of short months .
    What suits England does not necesserally suit all UK regions ,that is what is fundamentally wrong with Wesminster .

  • Peter Emerson

    PR-STV is different from AV, yes, but STV in single-seat constituencies is the same as AV, which is used in Australian elections. And just to add to the confusion, AV or STV is also known as IRV in North America, and PV in Australasia. PR-STV can be used only in elections, but AV/STV/IRV/PV can be used in elections or decision-making.

  • Nahanni

    By definition, STV requires multi-member electoral districts. So, it does not apply to single-seat elections. Why confuse the issue?

    It’s bad enough that promoters of winner-take-all ranked ballots come up with a new name every time you turn around (AV/IRV/PV/PB/RCV) – the better to disguise that fact that it is not a proportional voting system and, in multi-seat elections, is as bad or worse than FPTP.

  • Peter Emerson

    Call it cherry picking if you like. I chose that particular voters’ profile to show that, in theory, AV/STV can be inaccurate. (If I used a different profile, with 11 people liking A-B-C and only l opting for C-B-A, almost every voting procedure would be OK.) The logic is clear: if AV/STV can be inaccurate in theory, then maybe we should theorise more to identify a voting methodology which is more accurate. No need; the work has been done already. One of the first was in the 15th Century, when Nicholas Cusanus proposed what is now the MBC.

  • Peter Emerson

    PR-STV requires multi-member electoral districts. But, of course, STV in single seat constituencies is a different ball-game.
    It should also be said that the de Borda Institute does NOT promote winner-takes-all voting systems; indeed, (and I go back to my original article), the opposite is the case, and the MBC is very much part of consensus voting. At best, as I said, the winning option is that which gains the highest average preference score, and an average, by definition, involves EVERY voter, not just a majority of them.

  • Reader

    I don’t get your point. The vow happened before the poll, and it wasn’t in the original plan, therefore – not a static campaign.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I don’t get your point, the No to Independence campaign was the status quo campaign, even if there were things like a Smith Tribunal in the background it was largely passive outside the political boardrooms. It’s only when the Love bombing and the Vow happened that an aesthetically passive campaign became aesthetically active.

    The Yes campaign was the reform campaign and had the pressure to offer a reformed independent Scotland. The Scot National Party and the Greens and other social groups had to evangelise a path of faith over the status quo certainties.

    Of course we saw with Brexit, you can win with offering the most defensive and isolationist reforms, paired with a sense of insular almost tribal conservatism (bar an extremely limited Lexit movement). At the end of the day these are still reformist. Even if it is to many a very ugly zeitgeist at the moment.

  • Kevin Breslin

    No it doesn’t require a plurality of districts or multiple seats. The Irish Presidency (technically single seat constituency) is decided by STV.

  • Kevin Breslin

    What I hate about FPTP is that it encourages negative voting, for example
    Let’s take East Belfast where a former third party Alliance won the seat.
    Naomi Long probably got that seat because of a lot of negativity towards Peter Robinson and may have lost that seat due to pressure about flags.

    If people were allowed to show their support for their preference in list rather than their preference at the top it would encourage positive politics from a broader political spectrum of people trying to earn a vote, rather than the capitulating pact politics that entrenches tribal winner take all views here.

  • Nahanni

    Not sure where you are getting ur definitions from. But all sources I refer to have STV with multi-member electoral districts.

    Those who wish to pass off winner-take-all ranked ballots as proportional often use terminology to confuse people.


  • Kevin Breslin

    Both in referendums and in parliaments, politics should be based on multi-option ballots, with choices as in a restaurant to cater for most tastes.

    I disagree to an extent, the social contract between the government and the people to carry out the will of a referendum is somewhat flexible. The government isn’t legally bound to respect the referendum, but more importantly the people are not legally bound to respect their own decision either.

    The main problem with Brexit win, for the Vote Leave side is they were highly reliant on an “inferred” contract … pretty much a contract upon Brexit they had no right to offer and no ability to deliver upon.

    The official organisation for Vote Leave’s covenant with the people so to speak was utterly useless propaganda and no more.

    The people should in turn have no covenant with Vote Leave, and if they are under law held accountable for their lies, it is a sign that the British people can stand up to liar politicians from Europe, even when these European politicians are Eurosceptic British ones.

    It would be a remarkable sign of post-Brexit patriotism to do such a thing, and though I will never be a British nationalist or a Unionist, It would be a tremendous achievement of a people to hold their political elites in check.

    Brexit and has been voted for, those who voted Remain have a job preserving what was good about the EU and their networks developed through EU countries, those who voted Leave have a job trying to be responsible for some homegrown reforms that make the nation prosperous and take risks and not blame the EU if things go down and not to be arrogant if things go right. Pride comes before a fall anyway.

  • Infomatic