Outside the marginals

A commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010, 2015 & 2017 elections (and THAT referendum)

Coalitions of Convenience

Some cite the European Elections as being “more democratic” than in the UK “because they are done on Proportional Representation“. This is a thoroughly misleading statement given the current state of politics, particularly in the UK.

The use of a Proportional Representation system does give a (slightly) more representative EU Parliament – the make up of the Parliament more closely matches the views of the Electorate than say the UK parliament. BUT,

Being proportional does not necessarily make it “democratic” or automatically more “representative”. There are of course many types of proportional representation – in fact in the UK there are two systems used for electing MEPs – In Northern Ireland, it is felt that STV is more able to cope with the divisions in Northern Ireland.

In Great Britain the EU elections are now held on a Party List System – you vote for a party; in effect you delegate your choice of MEPs to the party listing committees.

This has given me quandaries before because if I voted for a particular party and they got enough support they would start to be able to nominate MEPs.

Now I can remember (a couple of elections ago?) looking at one list and thinking that I quite liked the first person on the list, but I thought the second person on the list was an absolute plonker – did I support the first person enough to risk the second person getting elected?

Even longer ago, a sitting MEP (not of a party I naturally supported) but who I thought had done a decent job and was the sort of “shade” of that party that I could accept, was placed bottom of their party list. I would have quite liked to have seen him re-elected – but to have voted to do so I would have had to support all the other candidates on that party list and see them elected before “my candidate” was elected.

The problem of course is that under the Party List system I cannot choose an individual and cannot express any preferences.

This time the Labour Party has a major problem because of its confused position on Brexit where there are several shades of opinion:

  • Sitting MEPs – usually (universally?) anti-Brexit
  • Party Conference – Brexit sceptical and wanting a peoples’ vote
  • Party Members – probably fairly strongly Remain
  • The party leader – sees Leave/Remain and the Peoples’ Vote vote issue as entirely secondary to getting a general election (which has very unpredictable results)

If I were to vote for Labour’s Party List, where do “my” prospective MEPs stand? Is a vote for Labour a vote for Leave, Remain or Peoples’ Vote? Or is it just a vote against the UK Government? The leaflet I have received would tend to indicate that a Labour vote is one to:

… tell the Tories you are fed up with their divisive austerity policies and incompetent government

Labour Election Communication North East Region

At least the Labour leaflet tells me the names of the people on their list – unlike UKIP and the Brexit Party who do not even tell me the names of the candidates in my region. (The others I have yet to hear from – a week before the elections)

The Brexit Party’s leaflet is actively misleading – the reverse of it lists “Our Candidates” – but none of them are standing in my region. They list four candidates – in a three seat constituency – perhaps they are anticipating a lot of resignations so want “reserves”? But no, it’s a “national” leaflet – but if they can print my name and address on it why not the names of the candidates?

For voters, the Party List system is profoundly undemocratic – it gives power to the party in an almost Maoist manner – the party knows best, it will choose the MEPs and it will not allow you to recognise shades of opinion or to express preferences (within the party list – never mind across parties).

In this election, the problem is particularly acute because the two old elitist parties have become coalitions of convenience – the churches are so broad that you can no longer be certain what you are voting for.


In Northern Ireland (and indeed countries like the Irish Republic) a different form of proportional representation is used: STV.

Under the Single Transferable Vote, every voter has one vote, but they can express their preferences for individual candidates by putting “1” against the name of their first preference, “2” against the name of their second preference etc.. They can vote across parties if you wish.

Under STV:

  • I could vote for a candidate of one party without worrying that “the plonker” in the same party would get elected on their coat-tails
  • I could give a preference to a sitting MEP who I thought had done a good job
  • I could give preferences for candidates who had specific views on particular policies

My preferences are then interpreted by the returning officer to be:

  • First, apply my vote to my first preference, but if:
    • He or she does not need all of my vote to get elected, transfer the otherwise unused part of my vote to my next preference
    • He or she is bottom of the poll, transfer my otherwise wasted vote to my next preference
  • Iterate through the above applying my preferences (in fractions if necessary) until the required number of candidates have been elected.

So in a three seat region (like the North East), once a candidate has got just over a quarter1 of the votes (either through first preferences or transfers) they are declared elected. Once three candidates are elected, just over three-quarters of the votes will have been used to elect someone – and even if all the remaining votes went to one candidate they would not have a better claim on a seat than one of the elected candidates.

[1 Four seat region – just over a fifth … ten seat region – just over a eleventh, etc.]

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