Select Committee on Procedure Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by the Electoral Reform Society


  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 not recommend.


  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; and

    (iv)  the procedure should be transparent and efficient.


  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 put—that 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 election are:

    (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 have proposed:

    (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 eventual result.

    (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 candidates' experience.

  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[2]


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 criteria—it 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 being wasted.

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 the votes.

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 of votes).

  Approval voting is particularly vulnerable to tactical voting.

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:

    A, B C—35;

    B, C, A—35;


    C, A, B—30.

  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" contests—particularly 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.

November 2000

2   Other methods of reducing the number of candidates that could be considered are: Back

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