We can’t let the government force a broken system on important elections

Federico Scolari, Former Student Placement

Posted on the 19th March 2021

This week, Home Secretary Priti Patel laid out new plans as part of a review into the role of Police and Crime Commissioners. The move would see the current preference-based Supplementary Vote (SV) system replaced by the First Past the Post (FPTP) for elections of the Mayor of London, as well as the Mayors of nine combined authorities in England and all PCCs in both England and Wales.

The move is alleged to make PCCs more accountable to the public and to “reflect that transferable voting systems were rejected by the British people in the 2011 nationwide referendum”. Unfortunately for those of us who want a fact-based discussion on how we elect our representatives, neither of these claims are entirely true.

Under the current system, if no candidate gets over 50% of the vote, the top two candidates continue to a run-off and all other candidates are eliminated. When casting their ballot voters can put a second choice (who they would vote for in a runoff) on the original ballot paper.

If your favourite candidate gets through, your vote is counted for them in the run-off. If they didn’t, but your second choice did, your vote goes to them. The run-off candidate with the most votes is declared the winner.

The run-off ensures a broader base of support, as opposed to First Past the Post, which lets candidates win even if a big majority oppose them. Having individuals elected with broader support means they are accountable to more of the electorate and have a stronger mandate to serve. This is important for electing 1 out of 650 MPs, but it is particularly crucial for elections of one individual with substantial power – and does little to improve accountability.

The current system act as a safeguard against mayors and PCCs sneaking into city halls and local communities on low levels of support. This is vital for mayors as multi-million-pound budgets holders as and for PCCs as representatives with wide-ranging policing powers.

There are practical instances of this. If the past 2016 combined authorities’ mayoral elections had been held under FPTP, then West of England’s Tim Bowles would have won on just 27.3% of the vote, with about three-quarters of votes wasted. In just two contests (Manchester and Liverpool) did the elected candidate get over 50% of the vote in the first round under SV. Even if we can’t know if results would have been identical, these are some crucial differences.

Second, and contrary to the Home Secretary’s claims, there was nothing generic about the 2011 referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote. Unlike the EU referendum, which was open-ended on what our relationship would be after the vote, the 2011 referendum was a binding vote on a specific question – “At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?” –  It was not a vote for First Past the Post or against all transferable voting systems for all elections.

The voting system for Mayors and PCCs was in place before 2011 irrespectively, and it has served the City of London well for over 20 years. 72.01% of Londoners voted in favour of the Government’s proposals for an elected mayor and assembly, and the government’s proposal was to use a transferable vote to elect the mayor. A flawed justification for a flawed move.

If the review intends to ensure accountability and legitimacy, it is heading in the wrong direction entirely. And arrogantly so: replacing a functioning method with a broken one, without public support, can only serve to undermine these positions and lower public faith in our electoral processes.

Turning back the clock with a discredited, outdated and broken voting system should never be a priority. And while the ends are commendable – improving accountability and legitimacy – these proposals do neither. If the government’s intention is to improve the democratic process they should look into their own backyard and take care of the ailments of first past the post for Westminster instead.

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