Memorandum by the Electoral Reform Society
CHOOSING A VOTING SYSTEM FOR THE ELECTION
OF THE SPEAKER
The Electoral Reform Society welcomes the decision
of the House of Commons Procedure Committee to hold an inquiry
into the rules governing the election of the Speaker.
In response to the Committee's decision to invite
written submissions on the issues, the Electoral Reform Society
has prepared this briefing on the options available for reform
of the electoral system used to elect the Speaker.
This briefing will recommend that the Procedure
Committee should give particular consideration to the Alternative
Vote and the Exhaustive ballot systems.
There are a number of areas that the Procedure
Committee will need to consider when conducting the inquiry into
the rules governing the election of Speaker. However, this submission
will solely focus on the electoral system used to elect the Speaker.
It will examine:
the criteria that the electoral system
for Speaker should satisfy;
why the present system is not appropriate;
the electoral system that the Committee
should consider; and
other systems which the Society does
2. CRITERIA WHICH
If the Procedure Committee decides to change
the electoral system for Speaker then the Committee will need
to decide the principles that will guide the way that they select
a new system.
The ERS would suggest that to ensure a fair
Speaker election the electoral system should be judged against
the following criteria:
(i) the winning candidate should have the
support of more than 50 per cent of those voting;
(ii) MPs should be able to vote for the candidate
of their choice without fear of their vote being wasted;
(iii) all candidates should be treated equally;
(iv) the procedure should be transparent
3. WHY THE
The Speaker is currently elected by the procedure
generally used in parliamentary debates. The Father of the House
will take the Chair, accept a motion for one candidate and then
accept amendments to the motion. If one of these amendments is
passed then the main question is putthat the Member named
in the successful amendment take the Chair as Speaker. If the
amended Main Question is defeated the whole process starts again.
If all of the amendments are rejected then the original motion
will be put to a vote and if carried the first candidate will
be elected as Speaker.
The system was particularly problematic in the
Speaker election of 23 October 2000 because of the large number
of prospective candidates.
Sir Edward Heath, the Father of the House, expressed
"considerable sympathy" for the calls for a change to
the rules and thus offered a compromise. Instead of taking amendments
as Members "caught his eye", he instead set out the
order in which he intended to call the 12 candidates, who would
then be voted on two at a time.
The main problems with the current system of
(i) Candidates do not stand on an equal
footing: The system of nominating candidates through motions
will generally mean that the number of candidates who could be
nominated will remain unknown throughout the process. Thus if
a candidate is called as the second or third nomination then this
could be conclusive in securing their election as MPs may not
know whether other candidates will be called. This effectively
denies some candidates from being considered.
In the recent election, Sir Edward
Heath correctly predicted that Michael Martin was likely to be
the strongest candidate and all candidates were therefore considered
in the process. If his prediction had been wrong that would not
have been the case. The fact that the Father of the House has
the power to arbitrarily choose the order that candidates will
be nominated means that in future contests he or she could be
accused of manipulating or abusing the process.
(ii) MPs may not be able to vote for
their first choice candidate: MPs must make tactical judgements
about how to vote at each stage of the procedure. For example,
suppose that the motion is for the election of candidate A and
that the amendment is that B should be elected. If an MP preferred
candidate C to B and B to A, he or she might need to vote for
A rather than B because if the amendment were passed, an amendment
offering C as a candidate would not be put. The election of B
could mean that MPs never get an opportunity to vote for a more
popular candidate, C.
(iii) The system is very time-consuming
when many candidates are involved. The election took almost
seven hours and many claimed that this was a waste of parliamentary
time. This may be another criterion that the Procedure Committee
may wish to consider when looking at alternative systems.
Examining the system against the criteria we
(1) The winning candidate should have
the support of more than 50 per cent of those voting. The
person finally elected will have more than 50 per cent support
of those voting (Michael Martin was elected by 56 per cent of
MPs) but there is no guarantee that the decisive vote will be
between the two most popular candidates. The order in which candidates
are proposed is likely to have a substantial influence on the
(2) MPs should be able to vote for their
first choice candidate without fear of their vote being wasted.
MPs may have needed to vote tactically to ensure that no candidate
was elected before they had an opportunity to vote for their preferred
candidate. However, if their first-choice candidate were rejected
in a vote, then an MP would at least have opportunities to vote
for candidates subsequently presented.
(3) All candidates should be treated equally.
They are not under the present system as a candidate might
be elected before MPs have a chance to vote for some candidates.
We therefore believe that the present system
does not meet the criteria we have proposed.
It is our view that the deficiencies of the
system can only be overcome by one that involves a paper ballot
involving all candidates. This would ensure that all the candidates
stood on an equal footing and that MPs were aware of the entire
list of candidates and could thus make a clear judgement.
Introducing a paper ballot might mean that candidates
would have to face hustings or submit candidate statements. However,
this would ensure that the process was open and accountable as
it would provide an opportunity for every candidate to make their
case and enable every MP to gain a clear idea of the different
The following examinations of alternative systems
are thus based on the recommendation that the House of Commons
should use a paper ballot to elect the Speaker.
There are two electoral systems that the Society
recommends for consideration:
4.1 The Alternative Vote
The Electoral Reform Society's preferred option
for single member elections is generally the Alternative Vote
(AV) system. This was the system that we advocated for the election
of Mayor of London in May 2000.
Under AV rather than marking an "X"
against their preferred candidate, MPs would rank their candidates
in an order of preference, putting "1" next to their
favourite, a "2" by their second choice and so on. If
a candidate receives a majority of first place votes, he or she
would be elected. However, if no single candidate gets more than
50 per cent of the vote, the candidate with the least number of
votes is eliminated and their votes redistributed according to
the second preferences. This process continues until one candidate
receives more than half the votes or only two candidates remain.
AV meets all of the criteria set for a new electoral
system for the Speaker election.
(i) The winning candidate will have the
support for more than 50 per cent of the members voting (in the
contest against his or her nearest contender).
(ii) MPs will be able to vote for their
preferred candidate without fear of their vote being wasted.
(iii) All candidates will be treated equally.
Moreover, the election does not require multiple
rounds of voting as members will be able to express their preferences
between the candidates on a single ballot paper.
Whilst the Electoral Reform Society believes
that AV would be an appropriate electoral system for the election
of Speaker, the Society also believes that the Committee should
consider the Exhaustive Ballot.
4.2 Exhaustive Ballot
The Exhaustive Ballot is similar to AV in that
it involves eliminating the candidate with least votes and allowing
those who voted for that candidate to vote for another candidate.
However, while with AV voters only need to vote once and their
votes are, if necessary, transferred to other candidates according
to their list of preferences, with the Exhaustive Ballot voters
need to vote at each stage in the process.
With the Exhaustive Ballot, MPs would place
an "X" next to their candidate of choice. As under AV
if a candidate receives a majority of the vote, then he or she
would be elected. However, if no single candidate gets more than
50 per cent of the vote, then the candidate at the bottom is eliminated.
MPs would then all vote again on the reduced slate of candidates
and this process would continue until only two candidates remain
or one candidate receives more than half the votes. This is the
system used by the Canadian Parliament to elect its Speaker and
the Labour Party used to use to select its parliamentary candidates.
The Exhaustive Ballot thus has the same benefits
as AV (it ensures that people can vote for the candidate of their
choice without their vote being wasted and that the winning candidate
will gain more than 50 per cent of the votes in the contest between
the main contenders).
This system may even offer benefits over AV
in that voters can amend their preferences in each round when
they see the outcome of the previous round. Moreover, in an AV
election with 12 candidates, many MPs may not cast all of their
preferences and thus the number of voters could reduce as the
election progresses. This could mean that the final winner of
the election will not have had the support of 50 per cent plus
of the total number of MPs. With the Exhaustive Ballot MPs will
at least be aware of which candidates are still in the contest
and be able to cast their vote in the next round (assuming that
they have preferences)thus making it far more likely that
in the final round of the election the winning candidate will
have 50 per cent plus support of all MPs.
It is also important to note that in an Exhaustive
Ballot election candidates who have not been eliminated would
be allowed to withdraw between rounds. In an election with many
candidates (for example, 12) it is likely that some would take
this opportunity, thus shortening the process by a few rounds.
However, if the Procedure Committee believes
that the current system needs to be amended due to the length
of time taken to elect a Speaker then the Exhaustive Ballot would
not meet this requirement. If the Exhaustive Ballot process had
been undertaken for the recent Speaker election then MPs may have
had to vote 11 times (although with a large number of candidates
it is possible that more than one candidate might be eliminated
in some of the stages).
4.3 The use of an initial approval ballot
As a principal problem in the recent election
was the large number of candidates, the Procedure Committee might
want to consider introducing an initial approval ballot to reduce
the number of candidates.
A first stage in the election would be an approval
ballot in which voters mark each candidate who they believe to
be generally acceptable to act as Speaker. Only those who gain
at least 50 per cent "yes" vote would enter the ballot1
5. OTHER SYSTEMS
5.1 First-Past-The-Post (FPTP)
The FPTP system would allow MPs to put one "X"
next to the name of the candidate that they supported. The candidate
with the most votes would win, regardless of whether he or she
has more than 50 per cent support.
Whilst FPTP is simple to use and understand
and usually provides one immediate winner, it would present a
significant problem if there are more than two candidates in a
Speaker election. In the recent election with 12 candidates, a
candidate could have won the election with only a low percentage
of the vote (possibly as low as 9 or 10 per cent) without there
being any evidence as to whether they had the wider support of
the other MPs. Another MP who failed to win (perhaps having gained
only 5 per cent or 6 per cent) might have been much more acceptable
to a majority of MPs.
Therefore the FPTP system fails on two of the
criteriait does not assure the winning candidate of more
than 50 per cent support of the Commons (when compared with his
or her nearest rival) and it does not allow MPs to cast their
vote for their preferred candidate without fear of their vote
5.2 Second Ballot System
The Second Ballot System is the system that
Tony Benn MP proposed to the House before the Speaker election
on 23 October. As in a FPTP election, each MP would initially
vote by placing one "X" next to the name of the candidate
that they supported. If no candidate gets more than 50 per cent
of the vote then the two candidates that come top in the initial
ballot would face a second ballot. The candidate with the most
votes would become the Speaker.
This has benefits over the FPTP system as the
final winner will have more than 50 per cent support of the House
of Commons. However, at the end of the first stage of the election
the two leading candidates could still go through for the run-off
with very little support and with the majority of the House voting
for alternative candidates.
(a) Increasing the number of nominations which
each candidate requires. While this could reduce the number of
candidates, it could discriminate against a candidate who is not
the first choice of a substantial number of voters but who nevertheless
would command broad support and respect.
(b) Requiring nominations across all major parties.
This may have some attractions as the Speaker should be acceptable
to members of all parties. However, the approach is vulnerable
to tactical voting as it allows parties a veto over candidates.
The candidate with the broadest support might
not reach the second stage of voting. The Second Ballot system
is also more time consuming than FPTP as MPs will have to fill
in two paper ballots rather than one.
5.3 Supplementary Vote (SV)
This is the electoral system which was used
to elect the London Mayor. SV would allow MPs to cast an "X"
for their first choice candidate and an "X" for their
second choice candidate. If no candidate gets over half the votes
in the first round then all but the top two candidates are eliminated
and the second preferences of the defeated candidates are redistributed.
The primary defect of the system is that MPs
must guess how to cast their second preference vote if they want
it to count in the second stage of the election. If an MP guesses
wrongly then his or her vote will be wasted (eg in the London
Mayoral election, those voting Dobson-Kramer or Kramer-Dobson
had no voice in the second stage of the election). In some circumstances
this could mean that the winning candidate gets less than half
5.4 Approval Voting
Approval voting is a voting procedure in which
voters can vote for, or approve of, as many candidates as they
wish by putting an "X" next to those candidates they
"approve" of. Each candidate approved of receives one
vote and the candidate with the most votes wins.
A number of candidates could receive the same
number of votes. If there was a tie in an approval election then
one would have to resolve it via an FPTP election (or possibly
with AV if there were more than two candidates with the same number
Approval voting is particularly vulnerable to
5.5 The Condorcet system
The Condorcet is a system which benefits moderate
candidates with a broad range of support. In the election of a
Speaker, where it is important that the winning candidate is widely
acceptable, this could be an advantage.
With the Condorcet system, voters rank candidates
1, 2, 3 and so on as they would with AV. However, the system then
pits each candidate against all other candidates in a series of
"one to one" elections. So in an election with three
candidates (A, B and C) each candidate would be pitted against
each other (ie A vs B and C and B vs C). The winner is the candidate
that wins a majority of the "one on one" elections.
However, a drawback with the Condorcet system
is that it might not produce a unique winner. For example, if
the preferences had been:
Then A defeats B, B defeats C, but C defeats
A. It is therefore possible that there will be no candidate who
defeats all others, and a number of candidates to win an equal
number of the "one to one" contestsparticularly
in a contest with a large number of candidates. This is called
a Condorcet paradox. There is then no in-built way of resolving
such a result and the election would probably have to be resolved
either by FPTP (in a two-candidate contest) or AV (if there are
more than two candidates).
The Condorcet system is therefore not without
its problems and because it does not have the simplicity or transparency
of AV, we do not recommend it.
The Electoral Reform Society has therefore come
to the following conclusions and recommendations:
(1) The current system of election for Speaker
is inappropriate. Candidates do not stand on an equal footing
and MPs are not assured of voting for their first choice candidate.
The House of Commons should adopt a new election
procedure and the election of Speaker should be conducted by using
a paper ballot.
(2) The First-Past-The-Post system is not
a preferable alternative electoral system. It enables candidates
without the broad support of the House of Commons to win the election
and does not enable MPs to vote for their first choice candidate
without fear of wasting their vote.
(3) The Alternative Vote would meet the criteria
proposed for the electoral system: the winning candidate will
have 50 per cent plus support; MPs can vote for the candidates
of their choice without fear of their votes being wasted, all
candidates are treated equally and the election involves only
the completion of a single ballot paper.
(4) The Exhaustive Ballot, a variation on
the Alternative Vote, also meets the criteria. It may provide
some benefits over AV but it can be long and cumbersome process
when many candidates are involved.
(5) The Second Ballot system, the Supplementary
Vote, Approval Voting and the Condorcet system have all been considered.
None of them meet the required criteria.
(6) Consideration ought to be given to the
use of an initial approval ballot to reduce the number of candidates
in the Speaker election.
The Speaker should be elected either by the
Alternative Vote or the Exhaustive Ballot.
2 Other methods of reducing the number of candidates
that could be considered are: Back