The 2015 general election in Britain - free and fair?

Majoritarian voting systems and parliaments are a terrible way to govern pluralist societies - here are some simple ideas that could do a far better job. We should be considering them.

Peter Emerson
4 February 2015

Flickr/joebeone. Some rights reserved.


In most uk elections, polling day is seldom free of political campaigning; the polling station precinct is not always neutral; the identity of the voter is not always checked;[1] and the ballot paper is not anonymous.  On the insistence of the uk and others, such would not pertain in osce-run elections. 

Apart from that, May’s general election will probably be reasonably free and fair (if, that is, any multiple-candidate but single-preference voting procedure can be regarded as fair).

What happens afterwards, however, will probably be neither transparent nor fair, if, as expected, there is a hung parliament. Parties will meet behind closed doors. Deals will be done. Despite the fact that many of these newly-elected mps will have gained, not a constituency majority but just the largest minority of votes,[2] most will argue for majority rule. It could be chaotic.

In the wake of Germany’s 2013 election, there were four possible majority governments: (i) cdu/csu + spd in a grand coalition; (ii) cdu/csu + gp; (iii) cdu/csu + The Left; and (iv) spd + gp + The Left.  For those who believe in majority rule, all four of these arrangements would have been totally democratic. What a nonsense.

In Ireland in 1982, when the balance was finely hung, one representative—Tony Gregory td[3]—was ‘the king-maker’. Charlie Haughey offered him a ‘bribe’ of £100m for his Dublin North constituency, rather more than the £1m suggested by Garret FitzGerald, so the deal was done. What another nonsense.

And today in Greece, Syriza could have formed a majority with any one of a half a dozen parties.  Is it right that the formation of government should be at the will or whim of the powerful? Indeed, in multi-party countries like India, where elections are contested between loose coalitions of as many as 12 parties, forming a government can become a bit of a lottery.[4]

So why this obsession with (single party or coalition) majority rule? Is it all because decisions in parliament (and elsewhere) are taken by majority vote?

The rights (and wrongs) of majority rule

Majority rule is better than any minority administration. Of course. The problem, then, for any democracy, is this: how do you identify a majority opinion? And paradoxical though it may sound, it cannot best be done by a majority vote, not least because that majority opinion must be identified earlier if it is to be already on the ballot paper.

In effect, then, a majority vote—be it a referendum in the country or a division in parliament—may perhaps facilitate a ratification but not the identification of the majority will. Indeed, the main outcome of a majority vote is the identification of the will of the few who wrote the question. No wonder such binary voting has been used by the likes of Napoleon, Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Duvalier and Khomeini, amongst others. The answer is the question. He who sets the question gets the answer (the one exception was Pinochet who lost his third referendum). 

And it’s not only the dictators. Take, for example, Kosova in 1991, when 99 per cent of an 87 per cent turnout voted for independence. If, however, the question had been “Unity with Albania: yes or no?” maybe this too would have received majority support.

Or take the Welsh referendum of 1997. Devolution or status quo? 50.3 per cent to 49.7.  So devolution won. But some people wanted independence. If just 1 per cent had voted for independence, then, in a plurality vote, the outcome could have been: independence 1, devolution 49.3, and status quo 49.7.[5]  So devolution would have lost. In other words, that referendum may or may not have identified what the Welsh wanted; but it definitely identified what Tony Blair wanted the Welsh to want.

Or take Scotland in 2014. The winner was devo-max. Nobody voted for it. It wasn’t on the ballot paper. But it won. And Alex Salmond, who had originally wanted a three-option referendum, called it a “triumph for democracy.” More nonsense.

One more example is the uk referendum on the electoral system: fpp or av? – i.e., either David Cameron’s first preference or his second. For those who would have wanted to vote for a system of pr, that fpp v av question was like asking the vegetarian, beef or lamb? Unfortunately, the Electoral Commission thought the fpp v av ballot was just fine, and so did the Ombudsman.

In summary, then, the two-option majority vote is the most inaccurate measure of collective opinion ever invented. It is now over 2,000 years old.  It was first used in the forums of Greece of course, as well as in the Imperial Court of the former Han dynasty in China. But there are other more accurate methodologies.

Voting systems in decision making

In ad 105, Pliny the Younger suggested plurality voting. In 1435, Nicholas Cusanus proposed preference voting, a points system, which is now known as a Borda Count, bc, after Jean-Charles de Borda. Indeed, revolutionary France gave the science of social choice its greatest boost, for there was also Le Marquis de Condorcet who advocated a system of pairings.

It’s a bit like a sports competition. If there are four teams, then, to see which is the best, you could have a knock-out competition (but you might need a bit of seeding), or you could get each team to play every other team, to see which has either the best goal difference or the most wins. 

Similarly, to see which of four policy options is the most popular, you could have three majority votes – a knock out competition like the fa Cup; but then you might get an anomaly like Wigan emerging as the 2013 champion.[6] Or you could have just the one ballot, a preference vote; then either you convert the preferences into points to see which option has the most, a bc, a sort of goal difference; or you could compare every pair of options, to see which option wins the most pairings, the Condorcet rule, a league system.

There are a few other ways of making decisions:

  • - Pliny’s plurality voting. The voters cast just one preference, as in fpp (see footnote 2), and the winning option may get majority support or maybe just the largest minority;
  • - The two-round system, trs. This is a plurality vote plus, if need be—i.e., if no one option gets majority support—a second-round majority vote between the two leading options from the first-round; and
  • - av,[7] a series of plurality votes. After each round, the least popular is eliminated and its votes are transferred, until one option gets a majority.

Plurality voting, however, can be capricious, so these three electoral systems are all vulnerable.  There are in addition:

  • - Approval voting. The voters tick the options of which they approve, but this means the intransigent voters may be more likely to win than the consensual; and
  • - Range voting, a loaded form of approval voting, which is even more manipulable.

Of them all, the Borda and Condorcet rules are probably the most accurate, not least because they take all preferences cast by all voters into account. And of these two, the Modified Borda Count, mbc, to give it its full name, is probably better because it is non-majoritarian. There again, the team with the best goal difference, a sort of mbc winner, is usually the league champion, the Condorcet winner.

Alas, the Electoral Commission refuses to consider these methodologies, the bbc refuses to discuss them,[8] and many in academia refuse to consider them.[9]

A more inclusive polity

If decisions in parliament were taken by such a non-majoritarian procedure, there would then be little or no further justification for majority rule. Instead, all-party power-sharing, as in Switzerland, would be the norm.

Accordingly, parliament could elect its government of national unity (rather than select such an administration in painful and protracted negotiations – Kenya in 2008, for example, took 70 days; Afghanistan today has already taken 90; Iraq in 2010, 291; and Belgium, in 2010/1, 541). 

The appropriate methodology is called a matrix vote. In this tabular (paper or electronic) ballot, every mp could vote, in his/her order of preference, not only for those whom he/she wished to be in cabinet, but also for the particular portfolio in which he/she wanted each of these nominees to serve.  At best, the outcome will be a power-sharing government of national unity in which, individually, every newly appointed minister is the one most suited to his/her chosen portfolio, while collectively, the cabinet represents the parliament in proportional due. The matrix vote is quick, robust, accurate, ethno-colour blind, and utterly transparent.[10]

Such an inclusive democratic structure would involve a proportional parliament, an equally proportional government, and decisions based on the will of the people and/or their representatives as expressed in multi-option referendums or parliamentary votes – the latter identifying either the mps’ collective will or at least their best possible compromise; the outcome would always be the option with the highest average preference.  

On debates of contention, then, every party in parliament would be entitled to move a policy proposal. Next would come the debate, during which Mr Speaker and his/her assistants would accept amendments to any one of the proposals, or even, if the movers so wished, a composite.

At the end of the debate, if (as expected) there were still a number of options ‘on the table’ (and computer screen), the Speaker would ask all concerned to move to a vote. Having first drafted a final (short) list of options, and having checked that each mover was content with the (new) wording of their particular proposal, he/she would ask the mps to cast their preferences (via their smart phones). All would then pause for a nanosecond or two before both the mps’ voters’ profile of preferences and the result of their vote were displayed, and Mr Speaker would announce the outcome. 

In 2013, Dublin City Council[11] used this non-majoritarian form of decision-making, twice: first, in committee, from an initial list of over 80 options, to draw up a short list of just five; and then, in plenary, on a bc ballot of these five options, to make the final decision.[12]  Decisions, then, need not be taken by a majority vote, or even by a majoritarian ballot. Indeed, if the mbc were the means by which all contentious matters were resolved, then, as noted above, there would be no further justification for majority rule.

The psychology of the MBC

If democracy is to work properly, all concerned and/or their representatives must be able, not only to cast their preferences on a (short) list of options at the end of the debate, but also participate in forming that final list during the debate. This applies to both referendums, which would be subject, initially, to an independent commission, and to votes in chamber where Mr Speaker and his/her assistants would referee the process.

In an mbc vote, nobody votes against any body or any thing. Instead, voters and/or the elected representatives would talk with each other and then vote with each other. Each casts one or more preferences.  In an n-option ballot, he who casts just one preference gives his favourite 1 point; she who casts two preferences gives her favourite 2 points (and her second choice 1 point); and they who cast all n preferences give their favourite n points, (their 2nd choice n-1 points, and so on). In other words, the system encourages all concerned to cast a full ballot. In so doing, each in effect recognises the validity of their colleagues’ aspirations.

Likewise, any protagonist will know that victory depends not only on a high number of high preferences and some middle ones perhaps but also on very few low preferences. Accordingly, it will be worth her while to talk to her (erstwhile majoritarian) opponents, so to persuade them to give her option a preference higher than they originally intended.[13]

In other words, the mbc is inclusive. It encourages dialogue,[14] compromise and full participation.  As noted earlier, it is accurate and non-majoritarian; it is also very robust. Furthermore, and this makes it ideally suited for conflict zones, it is ethno-colour blind. It is also transparent, as all mps’ preferences would be in the public domain and, as and when appropriate (i.e. in certain debates), all the mps slate of preferences should conform to a single-peaked curve,[15] and if they don’t, maybe the press will have some questions to ask. Then, if every mp expresses such a slate of preferences, the collective ranking of parliament will also form a single-peaked curve. Consensus politics is not only possible; it is ideally suited to the electronic age.


Democracy is for everybody, not just a majority. If all concerned cast a full or nearly full slate of preferences, in other words, if everyone states their compromise position, then it is possible to identify the collective compromise. Which, in theory, is what politics is all about.

The 2015 general election will probably be chaotic. There will probably be a hung parliament, and there may well be lengthy and opaque negotiations, with countless arguments in the media, before shady deals are done and a new perhaps fragile majority coalition is established. 

Things which don’t work well, however, can be the catalysts of change.


[1]           Photographic id is required in Northern Ireland.

[2]           In first-past-the-post, fpp, there is no post: when there are just 2 candidates, victory depends on 51 per cent of the valid vote; if there are 3, the winner might need just 34 per cent; with 4, it’s 26; with 5, 21; and the world record is held by Papua New Guinea where, with a plethora of candidates, some mps were elected on less than 5 per cent.  png now has the alternative vote, av, with the wise requirement that a vote, to be valid, must consist of at least three preferences.

[3]           Teachta Dála or Deputy.

[4]           This was not the case in 2014, when the bjp actually won a majority.

[5]           One million people voted in the referendum, but in the election of the same year, 16 per cent of that turnout voted for Plaid Cymru.

[6]           With all due apologies to any Wigan supporters.

[7]           Otherwise known as stv or, in the Americas, as irv – instant run-off voting – or, in Australasia, as pv – preference voting.

[8]           bbc Radio 4 did a documentary on referendums just before the 2011 av v fpp? referendum, and despite (a) correspondence prior to the programme, and (b) the fact that in 1992, New Zealand had used a five-option trs ballot on exactly the same subject of electoral reform, they failed to even mention any form of multi-option ballot let alone a preferential plebiscite.

[9]           One Professor Tierney from Edinburgh University spoke in Queen’s University, Belfast, in 2012 on the theme “Can referendums be fair?” and, despite correspondence prior to the talk, he did not mention multi-option referendums.



[12]          A bc is used in some elections in Slovenia and another rather unusual form in used in Nauru.  The above vote in dcc, however, is probably the first time a democratically elected chamber has used a bc in decision-making.

[13]          This might sound naive.  But it worked in a public meeting in Belfast in 1986 with both Unionists and Sinn Féin et al – and that was still eight years before the cease-fire. It worked at another all-party conference in 1991, when we used electronic preference voting for the first time.  It has also worked in Bosnia, Moscow and Tiānjīn.

[14]          Or maybe ‘polylogue’ would be a nicer word.

[15]          Emerson, P., (2012) Defining Democracy, Springer, Berlin, London, New York, p 35.

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