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Conservatives would gain most from changing the voting system for European Elections

The Conservatives could beat UKIP and be neck-and-neck with Labour in next year’s European elections if the voting system were changed from “closed-list” to “open-list”, according to new research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

A YouGov poll, commissioned by LSE and the Electoral Reform Society, showed that if the elections were held today under the existing “closed-list system” Labour would win 30 per cent, UKIP 25 per cent, Conservatives 23 per cent, Greens 12 per cent, and Liberal Democrats 10 per cent. 

VotingHowever, one group of respondents was asked to vote under an “open-list” system, in which respondents could vote for individual candidates rather than lists of candidates presented by parties. Under this alternative system, Labour received 31 per cent (1 percentage point better), Conservatives 28 per cent (+5), UKIP 19 per cent (-6), Lib Dems 12 per cent (+2), and Greens 10 per cent (-2). 

Professor Simon Hix, Head of the Department of Government at LSE, explained:

“European elections in Britain are currently conducted under a ‘closed-list’ system, which only allows voters to pick parties rather than individual candidates. An ‘open-list’ system would let them choose the individual candidates which most reflected their views.

“Our poll shows that if the voting system were changed to an open-list system, many voters would switch their support.  In particular, many Eurosceptic voters would support a Eurosceptic Conservative candidate rather than vote for UKIP.  Under the current system, in contrast, the fact you have to vote for a party rather than an individual encourages Eurosceptics to protest against the three mainstream parties.” 

Previous research by Simon Hix and others has shown that by allowing citizens to support individual candidates, open-list systems encourage candidates to campaign directly to voters, which leads to more information for voters about the electoral process, the candidates who are standing, and the positions of the parties in the campaign. This new research is the first to show how switching from a closed-list to an open-list system would also change which party some people would vote for in an election.

Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, which co-funded the research, said:

“This research shows the huge effect of giving people a real choice at elections. Clearly more Eurosceptics would choose the Conservatives over UKIP if they could pick an actual candidate rather than the party’s pre-ordained selection. If the Conservatives were to let people, rather than parties, choose their European representatives, they could do a lot better in the polls.

“There is still time to move from a closed-list to an open-list system before the 2014 election. The Conservative Party should take note. Give people more choice, and it could serve you well.”

Most EU countries use an “open-list” system, where each party presents a list of candidates, and voters place an X next to the name of their favourite candidate from their most-preferred party. This system is used in European elections in 18 of the 28 EU countries (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Sweden). The single-transferable-vote system, where voters rank-order individual candidates, is used in European elections in Ireland, Malta, and Northern Ireland.

The researchers conducted a representative survey in which 8,000 respondents were asked to cast a vote in a hypothetical European Parliament election. Respondents were randomly chosen to complete one or other ballot paper. The names on the ballot papers were hypothetical candidates and were randomly ordered for each separate respondent. 

The survey involved providing information about the “European position” of the candidates to some respondents but not others. This information was in the form of an endorsement of a candidate by a hypothetical campaign group: (1) Britain Out of Europe, which endorsed Eurosceptic candidates; or (2) Britain in Europe, which endorsed pro-European candidates. One candidate from the Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, and Greens was randomly endorsed by Britain Out of Europe while another candidate was randomly endorsed by Britain in Europe. All UKIP candidates were endorsed by Britain Out of Europe. Hence, a respondent faced with an open-list ballot could choose between a pro-European, or neutral, or a Eurosceptic Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem or Green candidate.

Respondents were also asked to place themselves on a 0-10, anti-/pro-Europe opinion scale, which allowed the researchers to look at how self-described “anti-European” voters behaved under the two electoral systems.

Seventy five per cent of respondents found the open-list ballot paper easy to use, while 88 per cent found the closed-list ballot paper easy to use. 

Notes to Editors

The research was supported by the Electoral Reform Society. A brief slide presentation of the research is available from http://personal.lse.ac.uk/HIX/Working_Papers/Switching_from_Closed_to_Open_List.pdf

Simon Hix is Professor of European and Comparative Politics, Head of the Department of Government at LSE, and Fellow of the British Academy.

To interview Professor Hix please e-mail s.hix@lse.ac.uk or call 07984 625 912.

The other members of the LSE research team are Mr Jack Blumenau, Dr Andy Eggers, and Dr Dominik Hangartner.

Katie Ghose is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society.

To interview Katie please email mediaoffice@electoral-reform.org.uk or call 0207 928 1622.

For more information contact LSE Press Office: Peter Wilkinson p.wilkinson@lse.ac.uk 020 7955 7440, or pressoffice@lse.ac.uk 020 7955 7060.

24 July 2013