Why do so many parties use transferable voting for their leadership elections?

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 24th March 2023

The 27th of March sees the announcement of the results of the SNP leadership election. As we wrote a few weeks ago, the SNP uses the Alternative Vote to elect their leader – and they’re not alone. Every major party in the UK uses something like the Alternative Vote to elect their leader. When you look at the other options, it’s quite clear why.

Those interested in the finer details of electoral systems may be confused by Scottish press coverage which has said the election will be via the Single Transferable Vote (STV). STV is a form of proportional representation used to elect groups of people, such as the councillors in a Scottish ward, so it is a system that Scottish voters already understand.

When the rules of STV are used to elect a single position they are, in effect, the same rules as the Alternative Vote. Only electing one person though means it is no longer proportional representation. Hopefully, that clears things up…

How do political parties elect their leaders?

Party Leadership Election
Conservative Party Series of Ballots
Labour Party Alternative Vote
Liberal Democrat Alternative Vote
Scottish National Party Alternative Vote
Green Party Alternative Vote
Plaid Cyrmu Alternative Vote

What is the problem with using First Past the Post?

The Alternative Vote is designed to solve the problem of vote splitting. This is when more than two candidates stand for an election, say two from the right of a party and one from the left. With First Past the Post, the left-wing candidate might win, even if the majority of voters are from the right of the party – as the right-wing vote is ‘split’ between two candidates.

You could solve this problem by holding a series of votes, excluding the candidate that comes in last each time. This is how the Conservative Party run their leadership elections.

Conservative Party Leadership elections explained

Conservative MPs hold a ballot every few days, with the candidates with the least support eliminated after each round of voting. To speed things up, the contest sets a series of cut-offs, rather than just excluding the candidate in the last place. The exact rules can be changed though, and have for the recent contests.

MPs can transfer their support in each round. The final two candidates are then presented to the party membership, who vote – on a one member one vote basis.

This process of physically holding rounds of ballots can take quite a long time, and would be impractical if the whole membership was voting, as they are in the SNP contest, rather than just MPs.

What is the Alternative Vote?

In line with most political parties, SNP members are electing their leader directly. Humza YousafKate Forbes and Ash Regan are standing in the contest this time.

The Alternative Vote is like a virtual series of ballots. Rather than physically hold rounds of ballots, SNP members will number the candidates, giving instructions for who they would vote for if their favourite candidate was in last place and was excluded.

SNP members will place their favourite candidate at number one. All the votes are counted and if nobody has won over half the votes, the candidate who came last is excluded from the contest.

Rather than post new ballot papers to the 72,000 SNP members for a second round of voting with the two remaining candidates, the poll workers can simply look at the existing ballots. If your favourite candidate is still in the contest your vote stays with them, if the candidate you voted for was the one that was excluded, your vote moves to your second favourite candidate.

There are only three candidates in the SNP contest, so after transferring the votes from the excluded candidate to the remaining two, one will have a majority of the vote. If more candidates were standing you would repeat the process until you get down to a winner.

Why do political parties like the use the Alternative Vote?

Running elections like this has a few benefits for a political party. Leadership elections are a dangerous time for a political party as the losing side might simply leave the party if they don’t like the new direction. With a crude First Past the Post vote the losing side could be the majority of the party. The Alternative Vote on the other hand means the winner has the support of the majority.

The Alternative Vote encourages participation since voters can still have a say in the outcome of the election even if their first choice doesn’t win.

Parties also have to come back together after the contest, and the Alternative Vote encourages candidates to run more positive campaigns. If a candidate decides to spend their time denigrating their opponents or insulting factions of the party, they might then find it hard to convince those same voters to put them in second place. Unless they win a majority of the vote on the first count, those second choices could decide the winner.

That’s why so many parties use a form of the Alternative Vote to elect their leaders, so the winner has the support of at least a majority of the party and the process of electing them doesn’t tear the party apart.\

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