Voting systems in the UK

We’re used in the UK to the first past the post system (FPTP) for elections to the Westminster parliament; and in N Ireland we’re used to the single transferable vote (STV) for our local elections. There are a surprising number of other voting systems used for official business in the UK. Six systems are used by the public to elect members of parliaments or assemblies, or to elect single officials. One system is only used within the Westminster Parliament.

1 FPTP This is a simple majoritarian system, the winner takes all. It’s suitable when there are only two candidates; there are single-member constituencies. If there are more than 2 candidates, the ‘smaller’ parties tend to do badly. Westminster elections used to be straight fights between Labour and Conservative, or between a Unionist and a Nationalist. No longer.

2 STV This is an attempt at proportional representation. Electors number the candidates in their choice of order; electors may choose as many or as few candidates as they please. There are several ways to determine the quota, the number of votes a candidate must get.  It’s a multi-member constituency system; one criticism is that in sparsely populated, remote areas it produces geographically very large constituencies. STV is used in N Ireland for Assembly, European and local councils. It’s used in Scotland for local elections.

3 AMS (Additional Member System) This is used in Scotland for Parliamentary elections; in Wales for elections to the Assembly there, and in London for the Assembly. You have a vote for a person, and another vote for a political party. The constituencies are single member, and the winner is decided by FPTP, or the ‘second ballot’ or AV (Alternative vote).

4 AV (Alternative Vote)  In this, candidates (for an office) are ranked 1, 2, 3 etc. A candidate needs a 50% threshold to win. If no one is successful on the first round of voting, the candidate with the fewest first preference votes is eliminated, and these votes are redistributed; the process continues until one elected candidate emerges. AV is used to elect the Lords Speaker—since reforms of the Lords, the Lord Chancellor is no longer Speaker; it’s used for by elections for replacement hereditary peers, and for most of the chairs of committees in the House of Commons. AV is another majoritarian system—it isn’t proportional representation; it was the alternative to FPTP in the referendum a few years ago.

5 SV (Supplementary Vote) This is similar to AV, though there is only a first and second preference choice allowed—a cross in one column for the first preference, and a cross in the second column for the second preference. This is used to elect the mayors in Britain, such as the Mayor of London and elsewhere.

6 CPL (Closed Party List) This is used in multi-member constituencies in Great Britain for European Parliament elections. Electors vote for a party, not for a candidate, with an X. The parties get seats in proportion to the votes cast. The political parties determine the order of their candidates.

7 PAL (Plurality-at-large) This system is used for some local elections in England and Wales—most of these local elections are by FPTP. PAL is a non-proportional system, rather like a block vote.

There are even more voting systems, as described on the website of the Electoral Reform Society, here.

Unsurprisingly, following the 2015 general election, there have been calls for the UK electoral system to be changed. These calls come from parties who have received seats out of proportion to the overall votes cast for them. And there are those who seem to think that the UK voting system has remained unchanged for centuries, so why should it change now. These latter are mistaken; voting systems and constituencies have been changing from the Great Reform Act in the early 1830s. This Act removed ‘rotten’ or ‘pocket’ boroughs, those where a tiny number of voters elected two members to ‘represent’ them, while attempting a degree of representation to industrial conurbations which hitherto had had been unrepresented. Until the 1950 general election, there were still some multi-member constituencies in the UK, with members being elected by ‘block vote’ or ‘limited vote’; and MPs elected to represent universities were elected by STV.

After voting systems, there are questions about the franchise, who gets to vote and who doesn’t; and the size of constituencies, by how much the electorate could vary from the average, whether some constituencies should be ‘protected’, and who decides all this—politicians or independent commissioners.

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  • Zig70

    I don’t actually care about voting systems. We got more votes than you, simples. Voting systems seems to be the obsession of the minority view that can’t understand why it is such. They should take a lesson from right wing brothers and have a good march when everyone disagrees with them and feel better (for a while).

  • tmitch57

    Judging from your comments you must be a unionist, and of the worst kind–the kind that believes in majoritarian democracy with the majority being sectarian.

    Besides, if you don’t understand the voting system you won’t be able to design an efficient electoral strategy. So it is good that you are simple.

  • tmitch57

    Thanks for the education. I always thought that the entire mainland UK ran off of FPTP and that PR-STV was a franchise system introduced into NI in the early 1920s and reintroduced in 1973 because of the unique political conditions of the province. Personally, I think that if Britain goes off of FPTP it should limit the alternatives to be considered to PR-STV, additional member system, or a mixed system of single-member constituencies and PR-list as in Germany.

  • Korhomme

    Thanks. This started out as education for me after GE2015 and the subsequent calls from some sides that the present FPTP system was ‘broken’ and that we should move to a more proportional system of representation. I didn’t expect that there were so many systems in use throughout the UK—it quickly became clear that it was all much more complex than I had thought.

    And thanks to Alan in Belfast who saved me from a very stupid error about STV.

    Yet another system, the d’Hondt method, is used in the Stormont Assembly in the allocation of ministers.

  • ekell

    Run off only ‘work’ in France because the two biggest parties are willing to shut down Le Pen. It’s not as democratic as PRSTV but it does support the status quo and prevent radicalism.

    However, the Run Off system has been used in lots of other countries in an attempt to copy the French example. In both Libya and Egypt the run-off idea is almost entirely responsible for bringing down the Arab Spring.

    A majority in both countries voted for a liberal, progressive candidate, but so many stood that the candidates from the old regime and the Islamic fundamentalists came 1st and 2nd.

    Mainland Britain could probably copy France, it would entrench the two-party system even more but would be unlikely to crush UKIP anymore than FPTP already does.

    Northern Ireland should not try the idea, there are too many big parties and it could end up giving everyone with the straight choice of SF or DUP in the run off, stoking tensions even further and making the election into even more of a sectarian head count than the unionist packs have done

  • scepticacademic

    Around one third of the electorate chose parties other than Con or Lab in the last 3 UK general elections. The FPTP system is basically unsuitable unless there is a two party system, like the US or GB in the 1950s-to-70s. With pluralism and the rise of “minority” parties like the Greens and UKIP, as well as what’s left of the LibDems, the case for a more balanced system, like STV, has never been stronger.
    STV works well for the NIA, giving a good representation to opinions across the spectrum (it’s the disfunctional executive system and absence of “opposition” that’s the problem). It minimises the need for tactical voting and means fewer people live in a constituencies where their vote will be ‘meaningless’. It also allows for the emergence of new parties which can freshen-up the political system. Unfortunately, the vested interests of the “big 2” in England mean we’re unlikely to see a change any time soon.

  • There are several problems with a run-off. The main one is that it leads to increased cost and instability versus having elections on one day. Organising an election isn’t cheap and at a time of austerity is that really the direction we should be going in? Remember at the AV referendum, cost of the electronic voting machines we’d supposedly have to use (nonsense though that was) was one of the arguments which drove people to no. STV, FPTP and most other systems sort everything out on the day.

    Also, while it works ok for presidential elections, the effect of having run-offs at constituency level would be that voters in some constituencies would have an advantage, since they’d be even more sure of the result. Think of it in terms of game theory, some people have perfect information and some don’t.
    Lastly, it doesn’t totally eliminate tactical voting. You still have to consider whether the preferred candidate from your side will make the run-off or not. For example, take a Northern Ireland example, let’s say the result in a constituency last time was:
    DUP 23%
    UUP 17%
    Green 15%
    SF 13%
    SDLP 12%
    In that case, if you’re a nationalist, you’d probably be better off voting Green, to ensure they make the run-off.

  • Thanks to someone else who tipped me off!

    But it’s a useful and timely reminder of the variety of some of the voting and decision systems that exist, and all have strengths and weaknesses depending on your perspective as a party/candidate and as a voter.

  • Korhomme

    In which case, my thanks to both you and ‘someone else’ for preventing me from making a complete eejit of myself!

  • Zig70

    Don’t worry tm, your day will come.

  • Haha, you’re right, my dodgy maths add up to 80, but you got the idea. The point, though, is that if anything, run-offs are worse than STV, since in some cases, the third placed candidate might command more support overall than the top two and they also cost more, drag the election out more and favour some voters over others. Ultimately, I don’t see any advantage whatsoever over using STV in that case.