AV or not AV: Not AV

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This referendum is far more important that any General Election of recent times. It’s such a big change to our constitution, that its vital that people vote – and vote having taken in all the arguments for and against the Alternative Vote (AV).

The Yes 2 AV article can be found here.

I write this, still slightly uncertain about how to vote on May 5th in the Referendum, but mostly because of the doubts I have about the so-called “gains” from AV.

I have three main problems with AV; one, it is not more proportional – it is not a fairer voting system, and it is not a direct step closer to proportional representation (PR – of which I am a fan); second, safe seats will still exist; and finally, fringe parties will not necessarily get more seats – in fact they may get less.

So to start, AV is not proportional – “there is nothing in the operation of the AV system which increases the correlation between each Party’s percentage of the national vote and the number of Parliamentary seats it secures” (The Constitution Society 2010).

A report back in 1998 by The Independent Commission on the Voting System noted that “there is not the slightest reason to think that AV would reduce the stability of government; it might indeed lead to larger parliamentary majorities”, before citing two “reputable” reports that showed AV potentially increasing Labour’s majority in the 1997 Election from a 169 seat majority to 245 seats. AV has not changed since then – it would still potentially lead to bigger majorities.

The only example we have of whether AV works is Australia. In the Australian system, however, it is compulsory to allocate a preference to all candidates on the ballot: we do not know how voters will behave in an AV system where voting is optional.

What is more, the Australian Labor Party received 37% of votes and 48% of seats in 2010; the National Greens received 11% of the vote and won 1 seat; the National Party of Western Australia received 0.34% of votes, and also won 1 seat.

If Australia is the example – its not a good one.

Moving on to my second qualm – it will not remove safe seats. Over 200 MPs were elected in 2010 with a majority of 50%; the problem is the constituency boundaries if anything, not the election process. Not only that though – it’s highly probable that parties who are just short of 50% in the first round, will win enough 2nd and 3rd preferences to gain 50%. The Electoral Reform Society claimed that in the 2010 election, 382 constituencies of the 650 in the country were classed as safe seats.

The Constitution Society quotes an interesting stat about our friends down under: “in Australian House of Representatives elections, the candidate with the largest number of 1st preference votes does in fact emerge as the winner in around 90% of cases.” Whilst on a much smaller scale, looking at SUSU’s elections this year – 6 of the 7 elected Sabbs next year were winning in the 1st round, before winning overall.

It seems more and more like that AV will only affect the seats that are very marginal.

Something associated with safe seats is tactical voting – AV wouldn’t remove this either. In FPTP, it is alleged that people vote for the party most likely to rival a particular party that they don’t want to see win; likewise, in AV, you can put a string of parties before a particular party, in the hope that one of the parties is more popular than the detested one. Tactical voting is a mindset – not a voting system. AV would not change that.

Finally then, AV will be a hindrance to fringe parties (“fringe” denotes the Greens, UKIP and the National parties – the BNP and the like are minority parties, and nothing would ever help them win in my mind).

It’s one of the great ironies: almost every fringe party is backing the change to the AV, and yet AV is unlikely to help them win one more seat.

Worse, it may even lead to seat losses as many fringe parties may struggle to pass the 50% threshold demanded by AV, says Dr Lundberg (an electoral systems specialist at Glasgow University) in his soon to be published paper, “Be Careful What You Wish For: Potential Problems for the YES Side in the Alternative Vote Referendum“.

Fringe parties often win seats with small vote shares FPTP. In the 2010, the Greens won Brighton Pavilion with only 31% of the vote (the second-lowest winning vote share in the 2010 election), three Democratic Unionist Party candidates won seats on roughly 34%, two Plaid Cymru candidates won with about 36%, and Northern Ireland’s Alliance candidate won with 37%, while four of the Scottish National Party’s six winning candidates came in below 40%.

Their seat might be threatened unless they can win significant numbers of transfers from voters who prefer other parties.

This is a risky strategy for parties who are small because, by definition, they do not appeal to very many voters.

AV would effectively eliminate the very capability that often allows smaller parties to win seats under FPTP – splitting the vote. As Fair Vote Canada, the electoral reform movement in Canada, recently stated in its unequivocal rejection of AV:

“Turns out vote splitting is how third parties win seats.”

To sum up, I fully understand that people want AV to enter the political foray on a national level, simply because there’s something wrong with the way we do politics at the moment – something doesn’t fit. But AV is not the answer. It will not make “each vote count”, it will not remove safe seats, and if anything – it could make Government even less proportional, by losing all the fringe party seats.

I am an advocate for Proportional Representation. My worry is that if we vote Yes to AV – we wont see PR; the Government will not change the voting system again, and AV is not good enough – if not worse than what we have. I do appreciate that if we vote No, it may be taken as saying the electoral system does not need changing – but that’s where campaigners just need to up the ante more – but we can’t give in and accept AV instead.

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Afternoon! Welcome to my political world, reporting on all things studenty and politics-like. I do most of my writing whilst browsing the Internet when I should be doing other things, and I do love a good stat, so do expect links and numbers that are meaningless yet informative. Enjoy!

Discussion20 Comments

  1. avatar

    And if we reject any form of electoral reform it will never get the political oxygen it requires to ensure we do move to a better system.

    AV is not perfect but it is a step in the right direction.

    Do you think Referendums just happen all the time?? This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the politics in this country.

    Unfortunately your self-righteousness has just helped make sure we retain the status quo for another millennia.

    Hope you are proud

  2. avatar

    Hello stranger – if you could read properly, you would see that I acknowledge the dilemma of voting no, potentially being seen as approving FPTP, but equally voting yes is not a move closer to PR, and could be seen as “our lot” for reform. I want proper reform, not AV.

  3. avatar

    Did you forget the £250million price tag? Lets cut education & public services funding..and buy a new voting system.

    I keep hearing that it will end tactical voting. Literally, what a pile of dump. It makes voting even more tactical that before.

    Sasha Watson
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    The reason I didnt mention the £250m is because thats a crock of rubbish. If Im arguing against AV – its certainly not for crap reasons like that.

    Chris points out this £250m myth in his article, although I’ve read “education” of the new system will cost £30m, not £9m. Regardless – AV doesnt need counting machines like the No team have suggested, and seeing as that is where the majority of this so called cost is, its a myth.

    Matt Quinn
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    fp

  4. avatar
    Ben the Optimist

    Nationaly I’ve seen little talk about ideologically if its fairer that I get to list preferences, regardless of its effects on seats etc. Of course I acknowledge the importance of the effects on elections / seats, but I have seen little attention paid (on a wider scale, not in this article) to the fact that I feel like I can vote for who I truly want to in my constituency, without feeling like my vote is wasted (and seeing as people “feel” disillusioned with politics, I’d argue “feeling” is not wishy washy at all). You could of course say “well your second preference would go to who you would have tactically voted for anyway, and your first preference wont win, so whats the difference?”. That is true. However the party I voted for may have more first preferences as I might not be the only person who felt they couldnt put them as first preference before, increasing there total share of the vote first round. This in turn could lead to a multiplier effect, as they become a more credible candidate for the runnings, rather than the “wasted vote” they were previously seen as.

    Also on the point of extremist parties getting a foot in the door so to speak. Your point is valid that it could very well lead to them having greater difficulty. My issue is more with whether extremist parties should have there foot in the door at all (an issue Baroness Warsi brought up). The votes represent voters, not the BNP. And therefore their vote counts as much as the next persons (in my possibly idealistic opinion). Not only that, but the way to deal with extremist parties in my opinion isnt to try and shun them electorally, but maybe approach the issues that they feed off? Again, maybe im just being too idealistic…

    Just my 2 cents. Im not trying to paint AV as perfect, and im aso open to the points I made being disputed, something the national debate does seem to lack at the moment…

    P.s. I agree, the campaign from both the Yes and the No side have been pretty diabolical.

    Ben the Optimist
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    My grammar was also terrible in that post, so I’d like to apologise before I get hounded for it.

    Sasha Watson
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    Valid points – partly the reason why I’ve been (and still am) swaying on which way to vote.

    I think more people will choose fringe parties (not minority/ extreme ones) as 1st choices than before – but I dont think it would ever be enough to get them more seats, because, as the lovely quote I found says, they’re fringe by definition for a reason.

    Equally, they will be scrutinised more (a la the Liberal Democrats were in 2010), and I think when push comes to shove, more people will prefer a traditional party who has had power before to be in Government.

    The phrase “we didn’t realise how bad it was going to be” still burns holes in my brain every time I think of Vince Cable and the sun that used to beam out of their manifesto…

    Either way – it will certainly make the Election interesting next time if it passes! Although I personally think it would be like 2010, where “change” was expected, but it just never came.

  5. avatar

    “What is more, the Australian Labor Party received 37% of votes and 48% of seats in 2010; the National Greens received 11% of the vote and won 1 seat; the National Party of Western Australia received 0.34% of votes, and also won 1 seat.”

    Looking at the UK election last year:
    Conservatives received 36% of the votes and 47% of the seats, (similar numbers to the Australian Labor Party)
    The Greens received 1% and won 1 seat,
    Democratic Unionist Party received 0.6% of votes (almost half of the greens votes) and won 8 seats..

    is that any fairer than the Aussies’ system?

    Sasha Watson
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    No, they’re both as unfair, random and purely based on constituency boundaries as each other. The point I made is that AV is not a move to fairer votes at all, and then theres the risk that it could be worse.

    If it was a case of AV causing exactly the same outcome as FPTP, I wouldn’t mind so much – but its the fear of actually ending up with a worse and disproportionate Government from AV thats got me, and there’s only evidence that it realistically stay the same at best. To me thats not worth chasing and giving up the dream of PR

    Ben the Optimist
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    Iain, I dont think you took my point about not looking at seats and actually looking at whether its ideologically fairer to list preferences rather than have one cross. In that case thats just an argument for PR, and the criticism is strong for both FPTP and AV so I dont think it can be used as a point for either to be honest. Other factors have to be looked at instead.

    I think instead of “ending” safe seats, it infact affects marginal seats more than anything. But to me this is a good thing, and I dont understand why the Yes2AV campaign focuses on safe seats. Marginal seats are the ones that will have an MP that least represents its voters, and so AV for me is an attempt to make sure more (im not claiming all views, depends on the number of rounds) are considered. Even if the same MP is elected, I dont care if I have the knowledge of knowing it atleast went to a wider consensus to some extent. How this effects national seats so much I do not care for, but obviously if you are a fan of PR this is an issue that you care for much more than I do. Mainly for the reason that the constituency link is too important to me, although I cant claim to be largely knowledgable of PR. In any case, im not sure number crunching from Australian elections for proportionality is fair. Afterall, dont “No” campaigners say the situation would be entirely different here anyway as we dont have compulsory voting and have to list all preferences etc? I thought we were different to Australia? If some more solid evidence comes out that AV is less proportional than FPTP, then fair play, but I dont think the Australia example is enough.

    On the point of extremist parties. Indeed, of course they still wont be elected. But im thinking about the voters not the parties. I want them to have a second preference so that while they know there vote for an extremist party will never win them a seat (as like you say, by definition they wont), they can atleast rest on the knowledge they have a second preference that will be taken into account. They get to express to people “I voted for this party because I believe in these principles” (I dont care if they’re extremist), but at the same time still having less of a “wasted vote”.

    This post was very wordy, I apologise. I type my train of thought and am lazy when it comes to proof reading…

  6. avatar

    Its great to finally see some debate on AV in Southampton. Yes! to fairer Votes has had a very positive response down here, and with no opposition we have been waiting for an opportunity to have a good debate! Keep an eye out for debates and articles coming out nearer the time of the referendum. But for now, here’s my take on the article!

    As a campaigner for AV, the thing which gets me going more than anything is how it changes the nature of campaigning. Its ok for bigwigs and anoraks to argue about which structure benefits politicians and parties the most, but in my mind, its a question of looking at how campaigns or elections are conducted, and what is perceived as fair.

    Is it fair that our members of Parliament are elected on a minority vote?

    Is it “democratic” that in order to win, the only people that need to be mobilised are the core vote rather than reaching out to everyone?

    Is it better that in order to win, MPs should have majority support in their constituency?

    We are at a state in our politics where there is little support for any one party, person or candidate in our elections. Call it cynicism, apathy whatever – politics isn’t doing the best job of delivering what people want. AV isn’t a perfect system, and to be honest I don’t think we’re quite yet ready for PR in England, but all things with time. The result of the referendum, “Yes” or “no” doesn’t set the UK’s political future in stone. There will be new governments, new opportunities with the public and new leaders with different outlooks.

    However, saying Yes! now does send a message that we want something different from our politics – that we want a stronger voice and fairer votes.

    AV is the next logical upgrade – it retains the constituency link (and in fact strengthens it!) and gives more legitimacy to elected representatives. Why should we say no to that? If we want PR, it will come with time. So for now, lets say Yes.

    Jonathan Bates
    Yes! to fairer Votes @ Southampton University

    Our Facebook:

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Yes-To-Fairer-Votes-Southampton/183050265058683

  7. avatar

    I doubt there will ever be a referendum on total PR, so might as well go with this, rather than snubbing the opportunity. I get where you’re coming from Sash, but I feel your article may be too optimistic. I doubt the UK will ever revert to PR in our lifetimes.

    Sasha Watson
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    Unfortunately I think you’re right – and this is probably what will ultimately sway my decision, despite my disgruntlement at AV…

    That said – the Liberal Democrats have always touted the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system – if they were able to convince the Labour party that it was a worthwhile venture, we could see it happen. And STV is more proportional, and is a step towards PR.

    Shame its confusing as hell and would require a complete re-jig of the MP/ Constituency line though…

    Anon
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    Furthermore, with all due respect, I don’t think you’re the best ambassador for No to AV. You’re negating the fact that the Referendum is between choosing AV or First Past the Post, and I feel you would prefer the former to the latter. I think a true blue Tory was needed for this, instead.

    Stranger
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    Agreed. Sasha misses the whole point of this referendum.

    This article desperately needs a FPTP advocate not and ideologue

    Sasha Watson
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    Correct, Im not the best ambassador for No to AV, Im still very much undecided. But equally, when this debate was mooted – no one was wanting to write the No side in support of FPTP, and I had my negative suspicions and doubts, which were proven through research in writing. Feel free to write your own and submit it, the pledge to publish will mean it goes up.

    Second – I feel that debunking AV IS a valid line of argument; this referendum is as much about choosing between FPTP and AV as it is between accepting or declining AV – saying why AV is worse than FPTP is just as powerful as saying why FPTP is better than AV, they both serve the same purpose, leading to the same result.

    I thought this to be a different tact to what has been plastered in the nationals, and equally not based on myth and ideology of how “FPTP is our heritage” and the never-ending debate on whether AV does or does not stick to the one-vote-one-person mantra, but rather stats and findings debunking AV, challenging the points raised in Chris’ article. This made the articles relate to each other, rather than having two articles going in completely separate ways, leaving people who read both going “so what?”.

    My conclusion may make me an ideologue, but take that away – its a strong argument against AV, voting No, and keeping FPTP. How is that missing the point of the referendum?

  8. avatar

    After reading AV or not AV, it looks to me as a typical political fudge. IE nothing will really change, so I’ll wait for the proper and meaningful change in the voting system – Proportional Representation. I won’t hold my breath however.

    Stranger
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    Good Ol Roy

    Changing the world one Wessex Scene blog post at a time!

  9. avatar

    I echo the sentiments of Sasha in this article; as for how to vote, I don’t favour either system, but I also don’t want to not have any say at all. I’m tempted to spoil my ballot and enter a third option of “closed list”.

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