Tag Archives: voting

UK GE 2019 part 1

Just a few thoughts on the General Election result here in the UK.

One concerns an issue that seemingly differentiates the UK from lots of other nationalities in how we present the result. It concerns the winning party’s “majority”. Consider the UK House of Commons, with 650 seats (and lets totally ignore the influence of the speaker and Sinn Fein whose MPs refuse to take their seats for simplicity). In theory 326 seats gets you a majority of one. But in the UK we would say:

“The overall majority is two”.

Why? Because in a typical vote in Parliament, when MPs follow the whips in their party, we’d observe an overall majority of two (326 vs 324). I’m aware that in the USA and elsewhere the logic is as follows:

Only one MP needs to “defy the whips” to lose the majority. So the majority is ONE. The source of confusion comes from the expression (which I EXPLICITLY saw used in a major website) “defy the whips”. I worked in mathematical psychology for most of my career in the academic and commercial sector. I am VERY specific about the definitions of words and phrases, especially when they have mathematical and/or psychological/practical choice implications.

An MP in the UK can “defy the whip” either by abstaining or voting against their party. The implications can be VERY different. Which is why you MUST qualify your meaning. Historically, before BREXIT came along, “defying the whip” in the UK House of Commons was much more commonly done by abstaining. If a reader has official Hansard based statistics disproving this I will happily defer but two MPs have told me this personally. If you’re interested why, take a look at a typical UK parliament in the post-war period. The governing party has a surprisingly large number of its MPs being “in the government”, if not as ministers, then as PPSs to a minister (and thus subject to ministerial obligations if he/she wants to keep their job and go up the greasy pole). The fraction of the parliamentary party that are thus “in govt” can be as high as TWO THIRDS! So if you want to defy the whips you tended to abstain – a far less egregious (and career-ending) move than “vote with the opposing party”.

Thus, whilst the UK and non-UK ways of quoting the majority are both right, which is appropriate depends on convention in a given country. In the UK, abstention is the common way to defy the whips, so using the “overall majority of two” is the more realistic measure of how likely the government is to lose a given vote: typically TWO abstentions are required to lose a majority. So the UK rule of “doubling how far the winning party went over the line” is actually, IN PRACTICE, pretty logical, since IN PRACTICE, MPs defying the whip will abstain. You can afford up to that number (double the number “over the line”) abstaining before you lose. Conversely, 99% of the time the difference between the votes (when all MPs follow their whips) will be TWO (the “double figure”). Why would the UK use the “single figure” of ONE when that happens only 1% of the time?

In the BREXIT world things have begun to change. MPs now “defy the whip” more often by outright “voting with the opposing party/parties”. Which makes the other way of thinking more logical. So a majority of one. If just one MP actively votes with the opposing side you lose your majority. But historically, overall, it remains the case that abstention is the “way to defy the whip” rather than “cross the floor”.

So please, if you’re going to discuss the UK “majority” observe how we generally define it. Or if not, be VERY CLEAR YOU ARE DEFINING IT DIFFERENTLY!

Best-Worst voting the answer?

With the truly appalling outcomes for Labour and Lib Dems – compared to where they need to be to be competitive in the General Election in a few weeks – maybe it is time to start thinking about electoral reform again.

Let’s start with that old trope from the LibDems – “fair votes”. Kenneth Arrow got a Nobel prize for proving there’s no such thing. Stop using the term. You decide what are the key welfare criteria you want from your system, then you can choose a voting system that delivers those (and probably not the “unimportant criteria”).

Now, we know there is a strong desire in the UK to preserve the link between “an MP” and “a constituency”. Fair enough. But the Alternative Vote – defeated in the referendum a few years ago – is not the only, or indeed perhaps even best, replacement for first-past-the-post (FPTP)

Tony Marley – co-author on the BWS book with me – has written a lot about the maths behind voting systems. People don’t realise Best-Worst Scaling works as a voting system. Plus I reckon it’d be attractive in the UK.

Here’s an example of how it might work, and deliver a different outcome to that observed in the results just published in the Local Election for the TEES VALLEY.


  • CON – 40,278
  • LAB – 39,797
  • LD – 12,550
  • UKIP – 9,475


  • CON – 48,578
  • LAB – 46,400

So what happened? It’s pretty obvious most UKIP 2nd prefs went Conservative – their boost is suspiciously close to the UKIP vote. Of course we know UKIP has also poached from Labour in LEAVE-dominated northern seats, but I doubt many “kippers” put LAB as 2nd pref.

Where are the rest of the 2nd prefs?

About 7,000 are missing in action. Maybe people just refused to put a 2nd preference or gave them to fringe parties.

But I bet they knew what party they hated most.

Here’s how it might have played out under BWS:

  • LAB and LD voters encouraged to put Conservatives as “least”
  • UKIP put Labour (primarily) as “least” – some will put LD
  • CON put LAB as “least”


  • CON “lose” around 52,000 (LAB/LD) votes
  • LAB “lose” around 50,000 (CON/UKIP) votes

LIBDEM gain – or, if UKIP and some CON voters hate the LDs sufficiently (for their pro-Europe stance) even more than they hate Labour, then the “least” Labour vote leaves their net total beating the LIBDEMs. Either way the Conservatives don’t win – the UKIP/Conservative vote simply isn’t enough to offset both Labour and the LDs.

Of course with turnout around 21% a LOT more potential votes are up for grabs if people are energised to believe their vote(s) matter.

Worth thinking about.



Best-Worst Scaling in Voting

My comment to one of the links posted to today’s “Water Cooler” posting at Naked Capitalism. (Cross posted to my company blog too). The original link concerned a proposal in the US state of Maine to introduce ranked voting rather than the first-past-the-post (FPTP) that is ubiquitous in the US and UK…..the proposal sounds attractive to people, but…..

“Ranking is a double edged sword – not that I condone the current first past the post (FPTP) system endemic in the US and UK (it’s the worst of all worlds) – but people should first look at what oddballs have ended up in the Federal Senate in Australia. Plus that awful Pauline Hanson may be about to make a comeback there.

Ranking has proven very very difficult to properly axiomatize – i.e. in practice, there are a whole load of assumptions that must hold for the typical “elimination from the bottom” (or any other vote aggregation method) to properly reflect the strength of preference in the population. For instance:
(1) Not everybody ranks in the same way (top-bottom / bottom-top / top, bottom, then middle, or any other of a huge number of methods);
(2) An individual can give you different rankings depending on how you ask him/her to provide you with answers (again, ask ranks 1, 2, 3, etc,…. 9, 8, 7, etc, 1, 9, 2, 8 etc ….)
(3) People have different degrees of certainty at different ranking depths – they are typically far less sure about their middle rankings than their top and bottom choices.

Unfortunately, where academic marketing, psychology and economics studies have been done properly, these kind of problems have proven to be endemic….furthermore they often matter to the final outcome, which is worrying. It’s why gods of the field of math psych (from Luce and Marley in the 1960s onwards) were very very cautious in condoning ranking as a method.

Statement of conflict of interest: Marley and I are co-authors on the definitive textbook on an alternative method called best-worst scaling….it asks people for their most and least preferred options only. The math is much easier and I’d be very very interested to see what would have happened in both the Rep/Dem primaries if it had been used – generally you subtract the number of “least preferred” votes from the number of “most preferred” – so people like Clinton and Trump with high negatives get into trouble….”

What I didn’t say (since the work is technical) is that Tony Marley has done a lot of work in voting and has published at least one paper extolling BWS as a method of voting.