Politics.co.uk Blog

Thursday, 28 April 2011

The voting systems you won't find on the referendum paper

Two months after the 2010 general election, 18 voting experts gathered at the Chateau du Baffy in Normandy for a rather unusual session. They were discussing the relative merits of a number of other, lesser-used voting systems, before choosing which one they believed was the best. In the end, first-past-the-post was unanimously rejected, as I wrote about last week:
Voting experts reject first-past-the-post
You can also have a look at the academic research paper if you want to delve into the details further.

Here's a pick of some of the mind-bending alternatives they considered:

Approval voting

This is one of the more positive options on offer, perfect for those voters who feel constrained by only having one vote. Under approval voting, each voter approves as many candidates as they want. The candidate with the most 'approvals' is the winner. If you wanted to encourage the democratic process, for example, you could vote for all the candidates on the ticket as a 'well done for taking part'. Or you could vote for all but one, to punish a particular candidate. Best of all, voting for the Conservative and Lib Dem candidate would be a vote of approval for a coalition government... the options are endless.

Tournament score

In this system voters submit a ranking of their candidates. Each candidate is then assessed on how many of their challengers they beat under what is known as "pair-wise majority rule" – that is, a straight fight between the two for a majority. The candidates with the largest scores are chosen. There's one problem here, though – it's not clear how ties are broken. Explaining this one to the British public might take some doing.

Two-round majority

A first-round election takes place in which each voter backs one candidate. If no candidate gets an overall majority, all but the top two candidates are knocked out and a run-off takes place. This is used around the world, but has its pitfalls. In France, for example, there is a real possibility the far-right Marine Le Pen could beat the Socialists into the runoff against Nicolas Sarkozy.


This is a variant on the alternative vote. Rather than knocking out the candidate that came last, if no-one has an overall majority the eliminated candidate is the one who is most often ranked last. It's named after the academic who came up with the idea in 1964.

Majority judgement

This appears one of the most baffling of all. Voters assess each candidate based on a graded verbal scale (eg Cameron is 'satisfactory', Clegg is 'marvellous', Brown is 'hopeless'). The median result for each candidate is then calculated. A "linear approximation scheme", whatever that is, is then used to choose the elected candidate. Wow.

Minimax procedure

If the voting system is being decided on which has the best name, this must surely be among the frontrunners. The aim of this voting system appears to be to find the candidate who is the least unpopular. Each voter ranks their candidates. Then each candidate is assessed by the size of the majority of all the other candidates against them. The winner is the one which has the smallest majority gathered against him or her.

Range voting

Why bother ranking candidates relative to each other, when you could mark them out of ten? Each voter assesses each candidate by giving them marks. The elected candidate is simply the one who receives the most points when all the marks are added together. This system is also known as "utilitarianism". Try putting that on a referendum ticket.


This is another 'the least unpopular' type of method. Each voter grades each candidate according to some kind of scale – it doesn't really matter what. The winner is the one who gets the fewest of the worst possible grade. This is calculated through a mathematical equation which, I'm afraid, I don't understand in the slightest.


Each voter chooses one candidate and the candidate with the most votes is elected. Oh, wait – we've heard that one before, haven't we? It is, according to the research paper, "the most common voting rule in the Anglo-Saxon world". It has another name, too: first-past-the-post.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

The prime minister strikes back

I've been mulling over David Cameron's very robust response to Vince Cable's criticism of his immigration speech. In the past I've always thought the PM has bent over backwards to keep his junior coalition colleagues happy. There was none of that friendly cooperation on show today.

"This speech is Liberal Democrat policy," the prime minister said when Cable's comments were put to him. By this logic, the entire weight of the Liberal Democrats backs a policy that it bitterly fought against during the 2010 general election campaign. That is, quite obviously, preposterous. The reality is the Lib Dems gave the Tories free rein in this area as part of the wider coalition deal. Why can't they just come out and say it?

The looming elections are an obvious factor in the game – as I've written about in this analysis piece on immigration being a very convenient coalition punchbag. Perhaps this sort of grandstanding suits both Cameron and Cable. It's not out of the realms of possibility that they might even have agreed to have a very public spat about this issue. Doing so in these terms seems to be taking it a bit too far, though. "The policy is agreed by the coalition. It is coalition and government policy and is being put in place right across the board," Cameron insisted.

Perhaps he is merely trying to get the message across that, despite grumblings from the party responsible for maintaining him in power, he will get immigration down to the tens of thousands, come what may. Is that different to "Liberal Democrat policy"? Obviously, but not according to the prime minister.

He must be careful not to rile the Lib Dems' grassroots activists any more than is necessary, for pressure on the coalition is slowly but surely intensifying.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Will GPs really be able to charge under the government's NHS reforms?

Among the details of Ed Miliband's dossier on the government's NHS reforms lies a potentially explosive proposal: GPs will be able to charge for services.

As a sentence it doesn't quite have the resonance of 'the death of the NHS', but that's ultimately what it means. If true, it would mark the end of guaranteed free, comprehensive healthcare in Britain.

So, is it true? Well, apparently yes. After reading the Labour dossier I tried to get more details from Labour and the Department of Health but neither were particularly useful (surprise!)

Instead, the best work on the subject comes from professor Allyson Pollock, from the Centre for Health Sciences. She wrote a piece in the British Medical Journal recently which you can read here. It’s detailed and complex but well worth your time.

The key clause is clause 22. It hands the health secretary the power to "make such charges as he considers appropriate" to GPs' consortia. Section nine of the bill allows GPs to determine which services are part of the health service and which are chargeable. Section seven gives them general powers to charge.

So really, the health secretary's powers to unilaterally charge for particular operations or procedures has been transferred to GPs. That doesn't seem such a big change. It almost seems as if the NHS was never that safe. But actually, GPs will be freer to charge than the health secretary ever was, because he always had to abide by the government's duty to provide comprehensive healthcare free at the point of delivery. Various government innovations – not least under Labour – have chipped away at the structures and mechanism holding that duty in place, but the transferral of the power marks a much greater change.

Not only that, but any move to charge by a health secretary would have been a major political story. By moving that decision to the local level and tasking a technical commissioning body to do it, we can assume that it would cause much less of a stir.

There are further complications. The health secretary's duty to promote a comprehensive service is replaced with a duty "to act with a view to securing" comprehensive services. His duty to provide certain services throughout the UK will be scrapped. Instead, consortia "arrange for" services to meet "all reasonable requirements". Tellingly, they can determine which services are "appropriate as parts of the health service". The duty for comprehensive services is replaced with "services… it considers appropriate".

Similarly, the existing duty on the health secretary to promote equity of access is replaced with a duty to "have regard" to the need to reduce inequalities.