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.