Parliament risks failing out for want of an adequate voting procedure

by Ira Straus

Chair, Centre for War-Peace Studies

3rd April 2019

Only a single transferable vote can guarantee a timely result. A confirmatory up-or-down vote could follow.

Parliament’s effort to avert catastrophe has had to take the form of a procedural rebellion, given the conduct of the PM; but its voting innovations have not been sufficiently robust to be consistent with the novel purpose of the indicative votes. This insufficiency has stymied the effort and assisted the PM in undermining Parliament’s self-confidence. The rebellion is at risk of petering out. Parliament could nevertheless adopt a more adequate voting procedure, as proposed by several of its leading Members. It would give Parliament the means and confidence to make the needed progress.

Mr Nick Boles MP, in his statement of resignation from the Conservative Party, pointed out that the reason all the resolutions failed is that his party refused to compromise. This was a polite way of saying that it was because Theresa May had whipped Conservative MPs against voting for the resolutions. She did not whip them to vote for any resolution, just against. It is a kamikaze, zero-sum strategy: she wants all alternatives to fail. Some would see it as a cynical strategy, some as Machiavellian; others, myself among them, as logical from her perspective of doubling down in her tracks, but as reckless and ruthless from any wider perspective.

May is playing hardball. The MPs have thus far continued playing softball, or rather blind ball, letting her outmaneuver them. Parliament has set up a novel overall procedure by dint of taking these indicative votes without Government tabling, yet has failed to draw the logical conclusion of setting up a specific voting procedure that is truly fitting to the purpose of the votes, or that would make reasonably sure of getting to an agreed resolution.

There is only one way sure to overcome May’s whipping. That way is to use a more skillful voting procedure: the single transferable vote.

This is something that the wiser MPs, among them no lesser a personage than Kenneth Clarke, the Father of the House, have been proposing. The failure to heed them shows a mystifying lack of basic foresight and an even more mystifying lack of basic self-interest.

It is a definite mistake in procedure, not just a jousting blunder. It makes no sense to take straw votes on a number of alternative propositions as independent, single-proposal, up-or-down (yea or nay) votes. The actual purpose at this stage is to find out what is the ranking of the proposals in order of preference among MPs, not to vote each proposal up or down. The voting procedure that is fitting to this purpose is the transferable vote.

Until the Commons adopts this method and finally adjusts the voting procedure to fit it for the purpose it has established, it will not really be true to say that the Commons has seized control of the process. It will only be possible to say that the Commons has temporarily rebelled against Mrs May’s failed control, without quite daring to take effective control for itself. This runs the risk of falling into the class of rebellions that prove ineffective and incompetent. When these rebellions peter out, there is usually an even worse submission to the old failed authority, which, despite its rank incompetence on the substance of the issue, has at least the virtue of wanting to wield power and being serious about it.

In saying that the transferable vote is the most sound voting method that exists for getting an ordering of preferences when there are multiple options — arguably the only real method of doing this winnowing by voting — I am not saying it is the only method at all. There are plenty of non-voting methods for winnowing down options, also, but they take much longer. In ordinary Parliamentary conditions, there is initially an almost infinite range of options on a subject. The range is narrowed over a period of months, by the normal public and parliamentary processes of discussions, debates, committee work, studies, caucusing, factional formation around an ever smaller number of options, and leadership in formulating a definitive up-or-down binary choice.

Normal conditions do not pertain today. There is no normal leadership that is trying to get matters resolved, and there is no time remaining for the months needed for winnowing options down by the ordinary discussion processes. There is a deadline less than two weeks from today, effectively one week.

That is why Parliament has recognized a need to use a more rapid process, that of trying to establish a ranking of preferences by votes. Parliament has compromised in this regard, not drawing the full logical conclusion — the transferable vote, which does it conclusively in a single ballot. Instead it is using a mix of the old and new procedures: multiple old-style up-or-down votes, taken more than once, in iterative stages, with a day of recaucusing of factions and reformulation of options in-between the iterations.

In principle this was a good compromise on procedure. In practice we have seen its fatal weakness: it has fallen easy victim to Mrs May’s destructive whipping tactics, and to the inevitability of strategic voting by MPs. There is not the time to continue much longer without getting to a positive resolution; the present method does not guarantee ever getting there; a faster and surer one should be chosen. A single transferable vote would have gotten to a definitive resolution of the most preferred resolution on the first day of voting. It still will do so the first time it is used.

This does not mean that the proposition that would come out first in a transferable vote, as the top preference, would necessarily thereby be considered adopted. It could instead become the sole proposal before the Commons, one that would be put to a subsequent confirmatory vote taken by the old up-or-down procedure. That traditional procedure is indeed fit for deciding on a singular proposition. It would satisfy the need for a vote of the old-fashioned sort.

The confirmatory vote in turn, being singular, would be more visibly important than any of the multiple straw votes thus far. Each MP would feel a personal responsibility in it. Many more Conservative MPs would find the courage to defy May’s whip than in the recent votes; almost certainly enough to pass it, probably with a robust majority at that. Indeed, much her cabinet might find the courage to defy her on it. She could prove unable to whip party members.

Parliament might proceed to decide thereafter to pass its results on to the public for a confirmatory referendum, with a suitable extension of time for this; and to find means to compel the Government to comply, or else replace it with a National Unity Government. Having finally adopted a substantive resolution and proven itself capable in taking some real control of the process, it would no longer be unreasonable to expect Parliament also to find the courage to take steps such as these and make its decision stick.