Labour used the wrong electoral system to select its leader


Remember the AV referendum in 2011? Among the arguments laid out for a Yes vote was the contention that the Alternative Vote system removed the need to vote tactically. If, for instance, you were a Labour supporter in a Tory-Lib Dem marginal in the South of England, you could safely cast your first preference for a Labour candidate, perhaps even your second preference for a Green candidate, and still have preferences left over to stop the Tories, UKIP and even worse parties from winning. The idea was that every MP would be elected by securing the support of (or at least not the opposition of) the majority of their constituents. Except, it wouldn’t necessarily have worked out like that, and it’s taken the use of AV in one of the most extraordinary leadership elections ever held in the UK to reveal why.


The rise of Jeremy Corbyn during the Labour leadership campaign spooked Labour members and supporters all the way from the soft left to the hawkish right. He became the “marmite” candidate, who was loved and hated in almost equal measure. The prospect of a Corbyn victory focused the minds of some of his opponents on the most effective way of stopping him. They noticed that if a candidate (probably Andy Burnham) – whose supporters were keener on Corbyn than those of his or her rivals – was knocked out before the final round of voting, Corbyn could have won against the wishes of the majority of Labour’s selectorate. Ergo, tactical voting under the AV system did occur after all.


In the end, of course, Corbyn won comfortably, and would have triumphed even if the selectorate had been restricted to members-only. But it is not difficult to imagine a future contest during which a marmite candidate wins against the wishes of the majority. As a result, I think there might actually be a better electoral system which could resolve this problem. I don’t know if this system is in fact used for any kind of election in the world, or even what it is called, but I am convinced it would be superior to both First-Past-The-Post and AV for any direct election to a single post.


The best way to explain this system is by using the notion of head-to-heads. Imagine if the Labour leadership contest had actually consisted of six different elections, all under one umbrella. Each election would have been a head-to-head contest between two of the leadership candidates. The entire Labour selectorate would have possessed the option of voting in each contest. If they were sure of their preference, then they should have voted in each head-to-head. The winner would be the candidate who defeated all comers, rather like a boxing champion who defeats their challengers one-by-one to hold on to their title (except it would be over all at once, I’m not proposing perpetual leadership challenges).


If this was done using multiple boxes on a ballot paper for each head-to-head, or some kind of grid where voters could place noughts and crosses corresponding to the different axes, there would be a danger of reaching an indeterminate result. Voters could contradict themselves by preferring x to y and y to z, but z to x. This would raise awkward questions about what ought to constitute a spoiled ballot. But this could actually be avoided if the numbered preferences on a ballot paper were simply inferred as multiple votes, one each cast for each hypothetical scenario. If this happened, it would be impossible for somebody not to win (save for the possibility of a tie, which would be just as remote as under any other electoral system), and yet also impossible for a candidate who was actively opposed by the majority to be elected. Yet, everyone could still express a clear preference for their favourite candidate, and give that candidate the best possible chance of winning.


If, for instance, more people had expressed a higher preference for Andy Burnham than each of Corbyn, Cooper and Kendall, then he would have won and become leader. But, under AV, if Burnham was knocked out before Kendall or Cooper, Corbyn might have won even if he had been less popular than Burnham. And, just to convince Corbyn supporters too, it’s not impossible (given the party’s recent history) to imagine a scenario in which Liz Kendall might have won under AV in similar circumstances.


It might be difficult to ever persuade the general public to consider abandoning FPTP for any other voting system in the near future, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t be possible to persuade the better informed and more engaged selectorate within the Labour Party itself to change its own electoral system. It simply makes sense.

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