Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition.
I came across an intriguing opinion poll by YouGov last week which gave an insight into the difference as to how Irish and British voters approach voting. The poll was questioning British voters as to how they would vote in the event of a second referendum on brexit. It offered voters three choices: remain, a “soft brexit” deal and “hard brexit”, what we call “no deal”.
The poll addressed the issue of a remain win by splitting the brexit vote: the idea that if remain voters stay together and brexit voters split between the two brexit options remain would win a first past the post contest even though a majority of voters actually voted for brexit. It proposed a preferential voting system to ensure that the final result would have the support of over 50% of voters. What we in Ireland know as the single transferable vote.
For the benefit of those readers who are not familiar with preferential voting, quite simply it works like this: if you are faced with a number of choices you place the number one beside your favourite candidate, number two beside your second favourite candidate and so on.
By doing so you are essentially telling vote counters that “This is my first choice. If he/she/it cannot win, I would like my vote to go to my second choice and so on until someone is elected. The idea being that your vote may not get your favourite candidate elected, but it will at least help elect someone less objectionable to you.
As a voting system it has been very successful in Ireland, as determined by the fact that both attempts to change it to first past the post, in 1959 and 1968 in referendums were both rejected by voters, in 1968 by a 20% margin.
What was interesting about the poll, however, was that it first asked voters to choose amongst the three options, and to make a second preference choice in the event the first choice was eliminated.
41% of those polled refused to offer a second preference.
Think about that for a minute. Think about it in the context of going into a restaurant and asking the waiter to bring you a steak. He says “I’m sorry sir, we’re out of steak, would you care to look at the menu for something else?”. Now, normally people would be disappointed that they couldn’t have the first choice but nevertheless look through the menu for something that they would be satisfied with. The 41% are essentially saying they’d like steak and if they can’t have steak they don’t want anything else and would rather go hungry.
From an Irish perspective, this is downright peculiar. The number of people in Irish elections who fail to transfer after their first preference is actually quite small because Irish voters recognise that even if one does not get the one’s first choice, you can still use your ballot to try and stop the option you detest the most. This matters because the brexit vote was the single most democratic act in British history since 1935: at no other time has any party or proposition won a majority of the vote on a turnout like that of June 2016.
I find it hard to believe, therefore, that there are large numbers on either side of the debate in Britain who have no view as to what would be the least worst option if they could not get brexit or remain. The idea that someone who voted for remain, if they knew that remain was going to lose would not prefer a soft brexit rather than the hard brexit seems to me to be quite bizarre.
In the same way I would assume that people who wish a hard brexit would prefer a soft brexit rather than to remain in the European Union.
There are those who could make the argument that if they thought that the choice was between remain and a soft brexit and they supported a full brexit they might actually prefer to remain in the European Union on the basis that soft brexit, as Tony Blair argues, is the worst of both worlds.
But 41% having no second opinion? Really? Unless it’s a case of “I’ve voted for what I want and I’ll burn down the place rather than consider a second slightly less attractive option” which is always possible, I suppose.
Britain is not a complete stranger to the single transferable vote or as it is known in Britain, AV. They know the alternative vote having rejected it overwhelmingly in a referendum in 2011.
But things change. The reality is that a preferential voting system whether used in a single decision such as this or used in multi seat constituencies as in Dail elections and in Northern Ireland would resolve not just the issue of a final decision by the British people as to whether brexit should go ahead.
STV also offers British voters a solution to a problem which is currently poisoning their political system.
Take the current talk of a general election to settle the issue. It wouldn’t, because it can’t. The current first past the post electoral system is malfunctioning so badly that it could easily result in a majority of remain voters or a majority of leave voters winning the popular vote but being deprived of a fair voice in the parliament that resulted.
Both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party are so split that a general election just reveals that there are people who are trapped in political parties with people with whom they fundamentally disagree with on this issue and others, and the electoral system is forcing them to remain in that party and is forcing voters then to make false choices.
What does voting Tory mean in the next election if you vote for John Redwood or Ian Duncan Smith or Anna Soubry or Ken Clarke?
If you are a solid remain voter and decide to go the whole hog and vote Liberal Democrat you may in fact be splitting in the remain vote and helping brexiteers win. The same applies to UKIP voters wanting to vote pure brexit. They’ll drain brexit votes away from more viable brexit candidates.
STV solves all this: there’s no such thing as a wasted vote. You can transfer your preferences from your first choice to other remain or brexit candidates as you see fit without hurting their chance of being elected. STV is the voter’s friend.
The irony is that the single transferable vote is a British invention, devised by a British lawyer named Thomas Hare. Britain imposed it as part of the Anglo Irish treaty in an attempt to ensure that in Northern Ireland catholics will get fair representation, and the same in Southern Ireland for protestants. It worked. So much so that the unionists abolished STV for Stormont elections as soon as they could.
A fair-minded citizen of the republic would have to admit that the single transferable vote was one of the greatest gifts the British actually gave the Irish people. It’s fair, transparent, and highly entertaining to watch on the day of an election count.
It’s a system that has served us well, as it has the people of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Malta and India. As a means of healing the tension that has arisen between the UK and Ireland since June 2016 we could do a lot worse than offer to help Britain adopt the election system they gifted us nearly 100 years ago. Go on: it really is as easy as one two three.