Against Donkeys

The Police and Crime Commissioner elections are supposed to be an extension of democracy, giving voters the chance to chuck out folk they reckon are not governing the police sufficiently well. The same people (Daniel Hannan MEP and Douglas Carswell MP) who pushed for this reform also pushed for other extensions of democracy such as open primary elections. Safe seats are a reality, but anti-democratic they argue, because the real choice is made by a party selectorate rather than by real voters wherever the locals are wont to say “they would vote for a donkey round here, if it was wearing a red/blue rosette”.

In the elections for Police and Crime Commissioners it is unlikely there will be any real primaries. A real primary is a bit like a real election, with a vote for every voter, and almost the same cost to engage the voters in the decision as to who becomes the party candidate. No-one is rushing to bear that cost – not the parties, not the government, no-one.

But there is another way it could happen, and it wouldn’t cost a penny.

The Police and Crime Commissioner election will be decided by something called the Supplementary Vote. In this system you put the number ‘1’ next to your favourite candidate, and the number ‘2’ next to your next preference. You don’t go beyond no ‘2’. The count then has 2 rounds. The 2 candidates who get the most ‘1’s go through to the second round. All the other votes for other candidates are then reallocated depending on how the second preferences are distributed.

It is designed to create an absolute majority for the winning candidate and, as such, moves the winning post near enough to 50% to exclude most extremist parties from ever having a chance of winning. In practice it doesn’t always get to 50% because not everyone expresses a second preference, or their second preference doesn’t make it through to the final round.

However, it also has a potential use in those safe seats that we are so worried about. We assume that parties will only ever choose one candidate in an election where only one person can win. But what if they didn’t? What if a party, dominant in a particular seat, was bold enough to put two choices before the electorate. What if you could not just choose a Conservative, but had a choice between two different Conservatives. Sure the party’s vote would be split on the first round, but it could reunite in round 2 as long as one of the candidates comes at least second – and that is most likely in the sorts of seats we are considering.

In fact, if this was not a unilateral action, and the parties co-operated in the way that they co-operated on election debates, it need not be limited to the safest of seats, because the main election could function as a basic primary for the main parties, and one of them would likely end up with more votes and win.

Will the parties be so radical? Why would they give up their right to have the final say on their own candidates?

I don’t think they will do it, but any party that did would be inviting the public into its decision making in a meaningful and high-profile way, and that very fact could give it an advantage and a level of public engagement that might make the difference as to whether it has a successful candidate in this election. So if one party did it, it would create pressure on the others, and democracy could suddenly be very interesting again.

I’m not listing all the problems with this idea – but I’m sure you can do it for me in the comments!

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4 Responses to Against Donkeys

  1. ianchisnall says:

    Surely the point of an open primary is that the political party says to the electorate, that we will let you help us make the right choice, but once that has happened we will act like a political party. If the parties were to have several candidates each my view is that if one is elected they will be less committed to the party ideas and therefore behave more like Independents.

    • samchapman says:

      All parties are coalitions. Primaries give the public the ability to choose which part of the coalitions that are parties become stronger. Besides Ian, I thought you would welcome party politicians being more like Independents. You generally sing the praises of Independents.

  2. ianchisnall says:

    I am a huge fan of Independents and if we have parties willing to adopt the best Independent once elected (and assuming they want to be adopted) then we can remove the party name from such candidates and the competition for votes will be even handed.

  3. timrollpickering says:

    The simple answer is that this strategy is very risky under even optional AV and even more so when voters can only give preferences for two candidates. It is questionable whether the party loyalist vote will always exercise both preferences, or even make sure they vote the full ticket, and the result can be positions lost through “leakage”. And that’s before you get onto how the two candidates would distinguish themselves or whether parties will provide funds and activists to tell every voter just what the differences between their two candidates are. A further problem comes that they can’t easily collect preferences from other candidates without knowing which candidate to direct them to.

    A party (or permanent alliance) fielding multiple candidates is a risky strategy even under full compulsory preferential AV, but under optional Supplementary Vote they would be risking unnecessary defeat. For those who insist it can be done, have a look at the optional AV election currently underway in the Australian state of Queensland and state how many constituencies have more than on candidate from any particular party or from the Coalition of the Liberal and National parties.

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