Westminster’s voting system turns elections into a tactical guessing game

As voters go to the polls, we can be sure that tactical voting has the potential to play a decisive role in who gets elected.

Recent research commissioned by the Electoral Reform Society in Britain suggests that one in five electors there will vote for a candidate or party best positioned to keep out someone they disliked.

This is also a familiar feature of Northern Irish political life, with the truth being that in First Past the Post elections people often vote for the candidate they think is best placed to defeat those they least want to win.

While this is usually on the basis of nationalist/unionist competition, it has also historically been seen in places such as South Down, where unionists voters have buoyed the SDLP vote to ensure a Sinn Féin defeat – although this may change today…

While this undoubtedly reflects a certain level of sophistication among voters, it is also forces voters to try and second-guess how others will vote, rather than being able to simply back who they believe in.

This whole situation turns elections into a gamble around splitting the vote and trying to predict who (usually either on the unionist or nationalist side) is most likely to win.

Even if electors are generally unlikely to vote in a cross-community way in Assembly and other preferential elections, they at least have the capacity to vote in order of preference in line with their political position.

Under a fair and proportional voting system, people aren’t forced to predict the winners or predict how others will vote when they cast their vote.

Single Transferable Vote (STV), as used for Assembly elections – where seats match votes – allows citizens to rank their candidates, so that if their first choice didn’t have enough support, their second choice would be counted instead.

By adopting a proportional system for Westminster elections, we could move beyond the calls for electoral pacts that force people to choose somebody they don’t necessarily agree with just to keep somebody out that they dislike more.

Under STV voters can of course vote for all the unionist or all the nationalist parties, but they do so with the knowledge that they can express their preference without wasting their vote because they choose not to give their first preference to the winning candidate.

It’s time to abandon the archaic system of First Past the Post, and replace it with a system that can represent the diversity of views in Northern Irish society today.

Dr Edward Molloy is a Research Officer for the Electoral Reform Society

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  • hollandia

    PR doesn’t suit either the Tories or Labour, so it will never happen. The best chance for PR was during the 2010-2015 coalition, and it didn’t happen then.

  • chrisjones2


    While I accept your bona fides in your arguments I note that on its website ERS claims that

    “The Electoral Reform Society is an independent campaigning organisation ”

    It may well see itself that way but your Chief Executive does have a record as a (repeatedly) failed Candidate of the Labour Party. Nothing wrong in that in itself but why is it not made clearer on the site?

    Hollandia says that “PR doesn’t suit either the Tories or Labour” and that’s probably right. More important is that it doesn’t suit the people. We had a referendum on it and there was a decisive ‘No’ from the public after which the Lib Dems went off in a huff and refused to address the much bigger lacuna of the huge differences in constituency size across the UK. So much for the commitment to democracy.

    I know all the arguments that its unfair and the referendum asked the wrong question, etc etc etc ……but the bottom line , as with Brexit, is that No means No.

    The referendum was 62% against and only 38% for. The public don’t want a new voting system – indeed they are simply not prepared to have one

  • Neonlights

    I would prefer an STV system, but this subject always turns my mind towards humour. What would the Norn Iron version of STV be? Sectarian Transferable Veto springs to my mind for a parody title.

  • Lex.Butler

    In defence of FPTP. Facist and far right parties* have never gained a foothold in Westminster. UKIP should have had seats and it might be ‘unfair’ they didn’t but as we’ll be seeming their humiliation and total demise and in the next 12 hours, I for one will be toasting it.
    * what the system does is produce parties which are coalition of interests so carpet eating right wingers join the Tories and generally are controlled same for the extreme left in Labour, even at present.

  • tmitch57

    Dr. Molloy,
    PR-STV doesn’t guarantee that the people elected accurately reflect voter intentions as there is still some distortion between the end results and the voter choices due to elimination of higher preferences. For a more accurate reflection you would need to use the PR-List system used in much of Europe as well as Israel. The problem with that system is that it destroys the link between the voter and the representative as the latter becomes merely a servant of the party that can replace him/her with someone else. The PR-STV is a compromise between the representative-constituent relationship of the FPTP single-member districts and the accurate reflection of public opinion of the PR-List system.

  • Korhomme

    We had a referendum on the Alternative Vote; it’s not a PR system.

  • Korhomme

    A PR system if used at Westminster would give us government by coalition. A coalition implies a ‘working together’, something that didn’t seem to happen between 2010 and 2015. Rather, the Tories saw themselves as having won, and treated the LibDems disdainfully. (And the LibDems fatally undermined themselves with their student fees volte-face.) Even at Stormont, elected by STV, we have ‘power sharing’ but no trace of a coalition.

    The idea of a coalition, of working together, is so far beyond the comprehension of the main parties as to be fanciful.

  • Patrick Jones

    Yeah…and you think the public would flock to vote for PR no matter how you explain it? No means no

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Well, it’s high time they were made to fancy it.

  • Korhomme

    You would trust politicians to be truthful about the merits or otherwise of PR?

    “No means no” even when “no” is achieved by lies? Really?

  • Korhomme

    That referendum was a demand of the LibDems; the Tories fatally undermined it by insisting it was about AV and not a PR system.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    I’ll join you in your toast, but democracy is about ‘representation of the people’s’ voices. A PR system is needed for that. OK, extremists on the right may get a seat or two, but extremists on the left will too, as well as parties like the Greens. It will all balance out, as long as there is no scope for force and manipulation being used as in Germany in the thirties. As an extremist of the libertarian left, I would like to see my views represented in the country.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Nice one!

  • Korhomme

    Our local Assembly is elected by STV.

    The old Parliament at Stormont was elected for the first two terms by STV. This was changed to FPTP for the third election (though retained for the University seats).

    So, our politicians can change the goalposts as it suits them.

  • hollandia

    I agree. Missed opportunity.

  • Patrick Jones

    What lies this time? There is no absolute truth in many of these matters and the public expect politicians to put their spin on them

    There is as much interest in PR in UK elections as there is sin supporting a military invasion to free Venezuela to restore toilet paper supplies. There is no solid groundswell of concern at the current system

  • Korhomme

    A consultant surgeon told lies to his patients and damaged them. He’s just got 15 years in clink.

    Why is it possible and acceptable for any politician to lie and for this to be described as ‘spin’?

    ‘No means no’ is a variation of ‘Brexit means Brexit’; that was achieved by the bus with the slogan about giving the NHS £350m a week. That was a downright lie. And the chief perpetrator, what of him? A jail term? No, he’s Foreign Secretary.

  • Reader

    Korhomme: He’s just got 15 years in clink.
    Not for lying: “Ian Paterson was sentenced at Nottingham Crown Court on Wednesday after being found guilty of 17 counts of wounding with intent and three counts of unlawful wounding 10 of his private patients.”

  • Korhomme

    He lied to his patients, told them they needed operations that they didn’t need.

    His conviction was for wounding, but the root cause was his lies.

  • John Collins

    Fascists tried that in the Free State in Ireland prior to the 1937 Constitution and despite a PRSTV System they failed

  • aquifer