I assume it was the 2021 mayoral election results that finally clinched it. With the Conservatives winning just two of that year’s 13 mayoralties to Labour’s 11, it was time to enact the party’s 2019 manifesto pledge – “to continue to support the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system of voting, as it allows voters to kick out politicians who don’t deliver, both locally and nationally”. Specifically, the Supplementary Vote (SV) system – despite also, like electoral systems generally, featuring the kicking-out of politicians – had to be replaced for mayoral and Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections asap.
True, the counting of electors’ supplementary – second preference – votes had just enabled West Midlands Conservative Mayor, Andy Street, to be re-elected with the useful perk of a narrow overall majority of votes cast, along with the party’s rising star, Tees Valley’s Ben Houchen, who’d swept in with nearly 73% of first preference votes.
No supplementary second round necessary there, but nor should there have been, reformers reckoned, in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, where the established Conservative Mayor, James Palmer, had been a victim of the dastardly SV ‘system’. He’d comfortably led Labour’s Nik Johnson after the count of first preference votes – by nearly 18,000 votes or 8%. Yet, by some foul trickery, or possibly because he simply wasn’t as broadly appealing his opponent, after the counting of relevant second preference votes, he’d fallen behind: 48.7% to new Mayor Johnson’s 51.3%. Despite Government Ministers repeatedly claiming that “the candidate with the most votes” lost, he hadn’t. He’d won – he just wasn’t Conservative.
Anyway, Palmer threw what looked like a wobbly, promptly retired from politics, and SV elections for Mayors and PCCs would be retired with him, though not in time for last May’s Mayorals, which very nearly produced a Croydon re-run of that Cambs & Peterborough result. First count: Jason Perry (Con) 34.8%, Val Shawcross (Lab) 32.7%. Second count: Perry 50.4%, Shawcross 49.6% – the candidate with the leadership-resonant first name just edged it.
By then, though, the FPTP legislation was well under way. The next Mayoral elections – this May – would use FPTP, as will next May’s PCC elections. It seemed a good time for a review of the whole SV lifespan, facilitated by the invaluable statistical records of my polling specialist friend, David Cowling.
Quickish review: the Supplementary Vote is obviously not a proportional system, which would be tricky when electing single Mayors, Police & Crime Commissioners, etc. Rather, it’s a simplified majoritarian system, enabling voters to rank their two most favoured candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference.
If no candidate gets over 50% of first preference votes on the first count, just the top two candidates continue to a run-off, thereby encouraging candidates from the outset to seek support beyond their core supporter base. The winner may still get less than half the total vote, but will need significantly wider support than under FPTP, and especially under FPTP with a lowish turnout.
Both, however – ultra-topical insert – are more democratic than this past weekend’s Spanish ‘mayoral’ elections, in which Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, almost certainly the nation’s best-known mayor both at home and abroad, is seeking a third term of office … but as Leader of a two-party socialist coalition – for Spanish mayors aren’t even elected by ‘the people’, but indirectly by fellow councillors.
The name – Supplementary Vote – may have been new when it was ‘invented’ by an early 1990s Labour Working Party, but essentially similar ‘preferential’ systems had been quite widely used internationally for ages. France’s Presidential ‘double-ballot run-off’ was one example, but most obviously there was the Alternative Vote – the actual subject of Winston Churchill’s senseless but oft-recycled quote, about it rewarding “the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates” – although today’s Conservative critics have no difficulty unearthing and redirecting it to SV.
I’m old enough to recall lecturing about the SV’s UK ‘invention’ by a Labour Party working party in the early 1990s and the even then revered ‘psephologist’, the late Sir David Butler, getting uncharacteristically incensed about it – calling it “silly”! But his sphere of matchless expertise was parliamentary elections, with turnouts at the time of consistently over 70%. Even they, though, have slipped a bit since, and well over a third of today’s MPs won less than 50% of their constituency vote, and that’s an awful lot of voters left feeling unrepresented.
Local (including mayoral) election turnouts, however, are proverbially in another ballpark – and this is probably the blog’s key point. Except when they coincide with parliamentary elections, they average around 40%, and that’s on good days. PCC turnouts, unsurprisingly, are significantly lower still – not one of the 39 areas in England and Wales managing even 51% in May 2021, and Durham and Wiltshire not quite achieving 17%. All of which, under FPTP, will mean large percentages of the votes of the most civically conscientious and politically committed citizens being ‘wasted’ and, arguably even more importantly, the mandates of the elected mayors and PCCs correspondingly diminished.
And then there’s the loss of the visual aids – for SV also produces what I only recently discovered are called ‘Sankey charts’, illustrating how the second-round count both produces a winner able to claim a statistical majority of positive votes and a dramatic reduction in the proportion of ‘wasted votes’ – on the part of voters choosing not to make use of their possible second choice. Good, isn’t it!
The Supplementary Vote, then, still favours the two main parties, but, returning to recent history and as shown in the following table, one in three of the 67 SV Mayoral elections going to second counts were won by Lib Dems, Independents and other parties. Labour won by far the most mayoral contests, but they also lost most in second counts. All of which contributes to SV hovering around mid-table in global democratic rankings of electoral systems – nothing to shout home about, except when compared with FPTP’s ranking as ‘least democratic’, apart from maybe Djibouti’s ‘Party Block Voting’.
SV’s statistical merits apply in principle to any elections, but particularly to a set in which two-thirds of turnouts were under 50% and nearly a third under 40% (see table). First, it hugely reduces the number and proportion of so-called ‘wasted votes’ – those cast for neither of the leading two candidates – and secondly it ensures that the winning candidate can claim the majority backing not necessarily of all voters, but at least of those the system counted.
My presumptuous guess would be that West Midlands PCC Simon Foster likes knowing, and possibly even mentioning now and then, that he was elected with 53.7% of the vote, rather than 45.5%. And, while I don’t know any of these people, that Surrey PCC Lisa Townsend (one of 12 women PCCs, if you were wondering) definitely prefers her 58% to 33.5%.
Time to start closing, by checking out the arguments Ministers sought to make to justify their replacement of SV with FPTP – or, rather, plundering the critique the Constitution Unit’s Alan Renwick and Alejandro Castillo-Powell made at the time.
- That SV increases the number of spoilt ballots – possibly, very fractionally; but, if so, why not work on improving ballot paper design?
- It allows ‘loser candidates’ to win – stupid argument (see above); they won the election they were required to contest.
- It reduces the accountability voters have in expressing a clear choice – but increases it by saving them from calculating how best to cast their single vote ‘tactically’ to elect or defeat a particular candidate.
- “FPTP is the world’s most widely used electoral system.” Tricky – needs its own separate blog; also a bit silly. Depends a bit on whether you mean number of countries or number of voters. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the US give FPTP a head start. More to the point, a 650-Member legislature isn’t the same as a single elected mayor or PCC.
- SV is an “anomaly … out of step’ with other elections in England.” True, it was decisively rejected in the 2011 referendum for the election of MPs, but these are the country’s only public elections to executive offices. In short, they’re completely different.
None of which, of course, stands the remotest chance of influencing, never mind changing, anything … but it was quite enjoyable to ‘research’ and write!
Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan. He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.
Picture credit: Theresa Thompson at www.flickr.com/photos/theresasthompson/