Wednesday, 29 March 2017

How Does The Voting System Work for the Scottish Local Elections?

I've had quite a few people ask me in the past couple of weeks about the voting system employed in the upcoming local elections in Scotland.  These elections are held using the Single Transferable Vote system, quite different from the basic First Past The Post system used for Westminster, and the Additional Member System used for Holyrood, so I'm going to briefly explain the system and then answer a few questions I've been asked about it.

In an election using the Single Transferable Vote method, you vote for one or more candidates on the ballot paper by marking numbers one and upwards in the boxes beside each candidate to express your first preference, second preference, third preference and so forth for which candidate(s) you would like to represent you on the council.  There is no requirement to preference all of the candidates - vote for as many or as few as you like - but you must assign a different preference number to each candidate.

As all Scottish council wards have seats for three or four councillors, the party you wish to support most may be fielding more than one candidate.  If you wish to vote for all these candidates, you will need to express preferences for each of them in order (1, 2, 3, etc) - just voting for one of them does not guarantee that your vote will be best used to support that party, and if you try to give a first preference vote to each of them, your ballot will be invalid and will not be counted.

The ballots will be counted by computer, as the transfer process can be quite complicated, and with each council counting a multitude of different wards, counting by hand would take an extremely long time.  At the count, candidates will be elected if the votes counted in favour of them exceed the 'quota'.  The quota in a three-member ward is 25% of the vote, plus one vote (or rounded up to the next largest whole number of votes); and in a four-member ward it is 20% of the vote, plus one vote (or rounded up to the next largest whole number of votes).

If you want to understand how we arrive at these quotas, consider that in a three-member ward a candidate would have to be beaten by three other candidates in order to not win a seat themselves.  If a candidate has over 25% of the vote share, this is no longer mathematically possible since three other candidates would also have to have over 25% - therefore exceeding a total of 100% of the votes.  Likewise, exceeding 20% of the vote in a four-member ward would make it mathematically impossible to lose, and so this is the quota set in these wards.

At the start of the counting process for each ward, the first preferences on every ballot will be totalled up to give the results for the first round.  If any candidates exceed quota on the first round, they will be deemed elected, and in subsequent rounds their 'surplus' will be transferred onto the next preferences on each ballot.

The surplus is calculated as the candidate's total number of votes, minus the quota.  Each ballot then has a fraction of its value removed that has been used up in electing that candidate, then it is transferred onto other candidates, adding to their totals that reduced value.  For example, if a candidate received 2,000 votes in the first round and the quota was 1,500, the surplus would be 500 which divided amongst the 2,000 ballot papers that would give each ballot a new value of 0.25 votes (500/2,000) when transferred onto the next preference candidate.

If no candidates reach the quota in any round of counting, then the candidate that currently has the fewest number of votes is eliminated, and those ballots are transferred onto the next preferenced candidate.  No value is subtracted from these votes since no candidate has been elected, so if your first preference candidate is eliminated then your whole vote will move onto your next preference.  If the next preferenced candidate is a candidate who has already been eliminated, that preference will be ignored and the vote will be counted towards the next preference who is still in the running.

If at any time a ballot paper is transferred, but no longer has any more valid preferences expressed, it will be moved to the 'non-transferable' pile, and is no longer involved in the process of the count.

This process will continue until either enough candidates have reached quota to fill all of the available seats in the ward, or until an elimination leaves only enough candidates left for the remaining number of seats.  By the latter means, candidates may be elected with fewer votes than the quota since the votes that have gone non-transferable are not being counted against them.

This is sufficient to understand the process of how your vote will be counted in these elections.  Next I'm just going to answer a few questions I have recently been asked.  If you have any further questions, please feel free to ask them in the comments below, and I will do my best to answer them as soon as possible.

Why do we use this complicated voting system? Why not just use First Past The Post (FPTP)?
Scottish local elections were conducted using FPTP up until 2003, with all council wards electing a single candidate who was simply just the candidate who received the most votes.  As part of the Holyrood coalition agreement between Labour and the Liberal Democrats after the Scottish Parliamentary elections in 2003, it was agreed to replace this system with the Single Transferable Vote (STV) and multi-member wards, which came into effect at the local elections in 2007.

As a form of proportional representation (indeed, the form most preferred by the Electoral Reform Society, and by myself), the primary purpose of STV is to ensure that the final number of elected seats for each party fairly represents the number of votes each party received in the election.  Prior to its introduction, many Scottish councils were dominated by a single party despite many voters supporting other parties.

Glasgow City Council forms a good example - in 2003, under FPTP, Labour won 90% of the seats with support from only 48% of voters.  In 2007, under STV, they won 57% of the seats for 43% of the votes, instead.  While this isn't perfectly proportional, STV achieves a pretty good level of proportionality while still allowing for people to have local councillors specific to their area.  More proportional systems would require larger wards, or some other system with no localised representation at all.

Single Transferable Vote thus enhances local democracy by ensuring that a greater diversity of political opinions are represented.  It also has most often led to parties having to co-operate to form a majority, and thus a decline in monolithic party control of councils with little democratic scrutiny.

How many candidates should I vote for?
This question is of course a matter of personal decision for the voter, but the important thing to clarify is that subsequent preference votes will do nothing to diminish your earlier preferences, so there is no particular reason not to preference all the candidates.  Your whole vote will remain with your first preference choice until they are either elected or eliminated, and then will be transferred through the process described above.

If there is one party you most want to support, and they are standing multiple candidates, the most important thing is to vote for all of those candidates at the top of your preferences.

If you think that all of the candidates on the ballot paper would be suitable to represent you (some you would prefer before others, of course), then you may as well preference them all.

If there is one candidate you dislike so much that you would rather anyone else was elected but them, then it is logical to preference all candidates apart from that one (I personally did this in 2012 to exclude a 'Christian Party' candidate who was standing in my ward).

If you really only want to support one party or candidate, and have no interest in any of the other candidates, then by all means only express a preference for those candidates - but remember that once your candidate is then either elected or eliminated, the remainder of your vote will just go to the non-transferable pile, and you are possibly not utilising your vote to the maximum effect.

The candidate I support the most is unlikely to win - should I vote tactically for someone else?
One of the primary benefits of the Single Transferable Vote is to eliminate the need to vote tactically.  If your preferred candidate is unlikely to win, there is no risk in voting for them anyway, if you also vote for subsequent preferences.  If your first preference candidate does get eliminated, your whole vote will just move on to the next available preference.  Therefore, there should be no need to consider tactical voting for a lesser preferred candidate as your top choice.

Any more questions? Please ask them in the comments below!

Friday, 10 March 2017

Race to the Bottom

So, I finally have a start date for my new library post up here in Scotland, and it's only a little over a week away so I'm pretty excited about that.  I've worked about two and a half years in library services now, in both Walsall and Coventry, and I'm really glad that I went down south and got that experience, as it's allowed me to come back to Scotland and land another good library post almost immediately.

However, at the same time, a certain advert for freelancing company Fiverr has gone viral, and it raises issues about the general societal direction that employment is moving in that I feel need addressed.  Specifically, the issue is with this advert here:
First of all, I'm not specifically attacking this company, because this is something that's happening throughout the so-called 'gig economy', not just with this one company.  But what most people have found so repugnant about this advert is the idea that we should be happy to, if not aspire to, be working as long and hard as possible for generally little return.  The advert's poster figure who 'eats a coffee for lunch' and goes without sleep is trying to glamorise the idea that we should be working long and hard just to get by in our lives.

Now, if you've read any social history from the industrial revolution to more recently then you're aware that for most people throughout industrial-era history it has been the case that life revolves around a job, and that often that job would barely pay enough to make ends meet for the most basic services and goods we required to continue living.  Trade unions and socialist politicians won some improvements over time, but it was really only very recently - certainly not until well into the twentieth century - that living standards really began to improve for the working classes, with the rise of leisure time and disposable income.

Now that automation is replacing more and more of the work that was traditionally done by the working classes, now we are being encouraged back into the idea that leisure time and disposable income aren't things we need, or even want.  Indeed, we're being encouraged to keep working harder and longer, driving the economy on at the expense of the value of our own lives.  As I say, this is in no way exclusive to Fiverr - just consider for example the current court case under way trying to determine whether Deliveroo can really consider its drivers as self-employed or whether they should be considered employees, with all the extra statutory benefits that would bring.

And it's only going to get worse for these people, now that the Tories in Westminster are pushing for increases to National Insurance contributions from these self-employed people, without receiving any of the benefits that employees would receive such as statutory sick pay, or guaranteed annual leave.

The simple fact is that automation ought to be making all of our lives richer and easier.  With machines doing more and more work, it ought to mean more resources and more free time available for all of us.  Instead, a very small percentage of people are taking all of the capital benefits of this process, while leaving the majority of people struggling along in this new kind of insecure, minimally paid work - encouraged to work harder and longer for less - losing out to automation instead of gaining any kind of benefit from it.

I'll talk about this more as time goes on as it's a huge pet policy of mine, but really what's going to be essential to our economy going forward is some form of universal basic income.  The idea, once considered radical but now undergoing trials in a number of countries including Scotland, is that you pay every adult citizen just about enough money to live off - so to cover rent, utility bills, food, etc.  It should be sufficient by itself to meet all of an individual's needs, but its greatest benefit over the current welfare system would come from the fact that it would continue to be paid to those in work, and not just to those seeking it.

This ends the poverty trap where often people are no better off in work than out of work, it eliminates the vast bureaucracy required to maintain the current welfare system, it incentivises spreading out the remaining work more equally so that everybody can work less and benefit from increased leisure time, and it ensures that we avoid this kind of dystopian future foreseen by Fiverr's advert where apparently we're all to be working our entire waking lives to get by, as automation takes up more and more work.

I really got into this policy after reading the below books on the matter.  I particularly recommend Utopia for Realists, which also covers the benefits of open borders and of a shorter working week, but the other two are really good too.  If you wish to buy them, please consider using the links below as it helps provide funds for maintaining this site, or of course consider checking your local library's catalogue to see if they're in stock to borrow for free!

Friday, 3 March 2017

A Glimpse at Northern Ireland's Election

So, counting is now underway for Northern Ireland's election (follow hashtag #AE17 on Twitter), and my focus for today is going to be getting results put up over on my NI Elections site as they come in.  The news coverage of these elections over in Great Britain has been pretty much non-existent since Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister, triggering the new elections in the first place.

So, for those over here who won't have heard much about this election since then, here's a quick brief of the important points to look for as results begin to trickle in...

First, there has been a reduction in the number of seats in the Northern Irish Assembly since last year's election, from 108 to 90.  The constituencies remain the same, but each will now elect five assembly members rather than six - and yes, Northern Ireland has proportional representation, using the Single Transferable Vote system to elect assembly members in each constituency.  This is the same system used by Scotland for local elections for those familiar with it there.  This is a bit more of a concern to nationalist parties than unionist parties, as they won more of the last seats in each constituency in 2016 - five Sinn Féin and five SDLP, compared to four DUP and one UUP, along with two Alliance members and one independent as well.

Rumours abound that the turnout is relatively up in nationalist areas and relatively down in unionist areas, however.  This is probably to be expected in the wake of the RHI scandal that brought down the Northern Irish government earlier this year, or at least was cited as the prime motive for Martin McGuinness's resignation.  However, if true, this could help Sinn Féin and the SDLP to perform better than the DUP and UUP, and clinch those vital fifth and now final seats in each constituency.

Indeed, a great deal of excitement about this election is around whether Sinn Féin can become the largest party in the Assembly, which would be a historic first for the nationalist movement in Northern Ireland.  There will be no majority government as a result of the electoral system in place, and the requirement placed in the Good Friday Agreement that the Northern Irish Government always be formed of equal numbers of unionist and nationalist parties, but becoming the largest party would be hugely symbolic for Sinn Féin, and allow them to nominate the new First Minister, assuming that either of the main unionist parties could do a power-sharing deal with them.  The DUP have been the largest party in the Assembly since 2003, and prior to that the UUP were the largest party since the very first elections to the then Parliament of Northern Ireland in 1921.

Brexit plays a large part in this belief that Sinn Féin may achieve this feat - the UUP and DUP both supported the Leave campaign, while Sinn Féin was explicitly pro-Remain.  This issue is all the more contentious in Northern Ireland, and particularly amongst the nationalist community too, for fear that Brexit will result in the restoration of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  While unionist voters are unlikely to switch their votes directly to nationalist parties, reduced turnout in unionist areas, and unionists switching to cross-community parties like Alliance or the Greens could be just enough to see Sinn Féin emerge as the largest party.

So, in 2016, the DUP won 38 seats, Sinn Féin won 28, the UUP 16, the SDLP 12, Alliance 8, and others won 6 (see full 2016 results on my NI Elections site here).  Removing the final seat from each constituency last time gives us a provisional result for comparison of 34 DUP, 23 Sinn Féin, 15 UUP, 7 SDLP, 6 Alliance, and 5 others.  So, can Sinn Féin close that gap?  They're unlikely to gain more than a few seats, realistically, so a lot of it depends on how well the DUP can retain unionist voters.  If a lot of them start moving to other parties, there's a good possibility that Sinn Féin could move into first, though it would be a scenario that would involve a number of gains for the UUP, and possibly for smaller unionist parties like Traditional Unionist Voice as well.

Personally, at an educated guess, I expect a result along the lines of 28-30 DUP, 25-27 Sinn Féin, 16-18 UUP, 6-7 SDLP, 6-7 Alliance, and a few others including Greens, People Before Profit, and Traditional Unionist Voice.  But if the turnouts really do move enough, or enough DUP voters move to the UUP or TUV, then anything is possible...

Thursday, 2 March 2017

A New Blog!


Most people reading this probably already know me. I've been tweeting, blogging, and otherwise creating internet content now for about the past ten years. If you don't know me, you can expect this blog to largely be concerned with Scottish politics, election results, and so forth. To begin with, however, it's going to focus more just on my return to Scotland, as I only just moved back to East Kilbride yesterday, after exactly three years of living and working in the West Midlands of England.

It's been a rather strange experience thus far. East Kilbride is where I grew up and went to school, living their for my first eighteen years. Returning after nearly ten years away, things are strangely familiar and yet I can also see a lot of changes.

As I said, I've spent the past three years in England. Down there, I was working for a library service, and my new job in Scotland that should be starting soon is also going to be working for a library service – so expect libraries to come up in a lot of blog posts as well, especially as libraries remain very much in the front line of public sector cuts.

Most of the internet content I have created over the years has been related to archiving election results, especially local by-election results, and to this end I run a number of websites (English Elections, Scottish Elections, Welsh Elections, Cornish Elections) where I host these archives. They're all needing some work to bring up to date at the moment, but that's something I'm hoping to get done during this brief gap between jobs.

So, what was the point of creating this new blog? Well, I wanted to establish a more general presence on the internet. This blog is going to be more for my own opinions and thought pieces, focused on Scottish politics but occasionally covering other topics as well. I may also use this platform from time to time to promote any other projects I am working on, or new ones being launched.

This blog intends to be jovial and good-spirited, and I hope that over time it will become an enjoyable read. Now, let blogging commence...