Arc of Prosperity

Scottish Independence within the EU – with a Scandinavian Slant


The Single Transferable Vote is the worst option for the SNP

Sådan kan en stemmeseddel se ud. #FV15 #magentalove #aarhus
Danish ballot paper. (Sådan kan en stemmeseddel se ud. #FV15 #magentalove #aarhus by Karen Melchior, on Flickr.)
Although the SNP benefitted hugely from First Past The Post (FPTP) in May (gaining almost all the Scottish seats on 50% of the votes), I remain committed to proportional representation — I believe FPTP is poison for popular engagement, at least in a multi-party system, because so many people feel their vote doesn’t count.

Proportional representation comes in many varieties, however (and some are more proportional than others). We’re already using three different systems in Scotland: (1) The Additional Member System (AMS), which we use for electing the Scottish Parliament; (2) the Single Transferrable Vote (STV), which we use for electing the councils; and (3) d’Hondt, which we use in elections for the European Parliament.

The SNP opted for STV in their recent Westminster manifesto. I can understand why — STV is a decent system in many contexts, especially when the candidates aren’t organised into parties (for instance, it’s a great system for electing members for a committee in an political party). However, it has some shortcomings which makes it less than ideal for Westminster elections.

Firstly, STV benefits those parties who are good at predicting their support. For instance, if May’s election had been held using this system, Labour and the Liberal Democrats would probably not have predicted the scale of their losses, so they would have put forward too many candidates, which could have exaggerated their losses; in the same way, the SNP might not have been bold enough, which again would have harmed them. (This problem can be alleviated by forcing the voters to prioritise all the candidates and not just one or two, but we don’t tend to do that in Scotland.)

Secondly, STV doesn’t help parties with varying levels of support in different areas. In particular, whereas the SNP’s 50% support resulted in nearly 56 out of 59 seats under FPTP, it would probably only have resulted in around 30 seats in Scotland under STV; the fact that the SNP also had supporters in England wouldn’t have led to any additional seats.

The Danish electoral system would be much better for the SNP. Denmark uses a variant of d’Hondt (Sainte-Laguë to be precise) in multi-member constituencies, but crucially all the votes get added up nationally afterwards, and additional seats are allocated in order to ensure that every vote counts. In other words, if the SNP got 50% of the votes in Scotland and about 5% in the rest of the UK so that the UK-wide support was exactly 10%, the SNP would have received 10% of the seats, which would actually be even better than the current 56 seats.

Some years ago I made a simulation of the 2005 Westminster election using the Danish electoral system. I didn’t at that time assume the SNP would have received any votes outwith Scotland, but Nicola Sturgeon would definitely have appealed to many voters down south after her phenomenal performance in the TV debates.

My guess is the SNP chose STV for their manifesto in order to tempt the Lib Dems, and that’s of course a completely valid reason to opt for this, but the Danish system would be much better for the SNP.

8 thoughts on “The Single Transferable Vote is the worst option for the SNP

  • Some mistakes here, Thomas.

    First, the SNP did not put STV in their manifesto “to tempt the Lib Dems”. It has been SNP policy for several years now to promote the use of STV-PR for all public elections in Scotland.

    Secondly, STV-PR works perfectly well for parties with varying levels of support in different areas. Because the STV multi-member constituencies are usually of modest size (reflecting recognised communities), parties can build on any local concentrations of support to obtain representation. We have seen such results from Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

    Thirdly, a party that nominated “too many” candidates would not lose out if its supporters were loyal to the party in the ordering of their preferences. In Malta, with STV-PR in 5-member constituencies the two larger parties nominate what to us are amazing numbers of candidates – sometimes 12 candidates when they won’t win even 5 seats!

    And lastly, party list systems are just that – PARTY systems. I believe those SNP members who decided to adopt the promotion of STV-PR as national policy took the view that the VOTERS should have real personal choice as uniquely offered by STV-PR.

    • Thanks for your comments, James! My replies:

      (1) Fair enough, but until recently the Lib Dems were much bigger than the SNP, so it made sense to advocate their preferred system. Now that the SNP is significantly bigger, it makes sense to think again.

      (2) My point was that STV isn’t good at reflecting low levels of support. In Denmark, a party gets represented in parliament if it wins 2% of the votes nationally. Under STV, it would typically need to get 10-20% in at least one multi-member constituency to get in.

      (3) STV works much better if voters have to prioritise all the candidates, as I mentioned in my post. However, this doesn’t happen in the variety of STV used in Scotland.

      (4) For better or worse, political parties are fairly centralised entities these days. STV might have been a good system in the past when political parties were more fluid, but these days most politicians toe the party line all the time, so it makes sense to use an electoral system that reflects this.

  • I occasionally come across proponents of a more proportional system since the May 2015 election.

    Said proponents seem to be of a UKIP bent, and are (rightly or wrongly) miffed at UKIP’s single MP for the almost 4 million votes, compared to the SNP’s 56 seats for 1.5 million votes.

    They almost never talk of voter concentration, and certainly never consider how many votes the SNP would get if they went UK national (presumably a fair amount, spread across the entire UK).

    Apparently they might get as much as 11% nationally –

    Who knows.

  • D’Hondt is a bit like FPtP at large, any votes for any parties not making the threshold simply get disregarded, this incentives people not to vote honestly if it’s unlikely that the party they like is likely to meet the threshold.
    Some some parties win seats simply because some votes for similar parties are ignored. Case in point (and I have done the maths on this) the BNP would not have met the Droop quota (11.1% and 14.3%) to win seats in the 2019 EU elections has STV been used, and they were unlikely to be ranked by most people who did not rank them first.
    They were able to win seats because many votes for parties like The Greens were disregarded. What’s perverse is if every Green voter had voted Labour or Lib Dem at those elections they would have prevented the BNP winning seats, instead they helped get them elected by voting honestly.


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