The inevitable post about the AV referendum

Come on, you knew it was inevitable I’d blog about the Alternative Vote referendum.  I mean, me, a bona fide politics geek (politics nerd, even): there’s no way I could possibly keep away from it, is there?  Anyway, this post is as highly structured and abbreviated as I can make it, in the hope that it might prove at least fractionally readable for people who are not politics geeks/ nerds.  It has sub-headings, and everything.

What is AV?

The name Alternative Vote is misleading, and makes it much harder to understand how the proposed voting system works.  The proposed system is properly called Instant Runoff Voting.  Voting systems that allow for runoffs work like this.

  • If one candidate reaches the required threshold (in this case more than 50% of the votes cast) in the first round of voting then they’re elected.  If no candidate reaches the threshold the election proceeds to a subsequent round of voting.
  • In subsequent rounds the candidate who came last in the previous round is disqualified from standing again, and electors make their choice between the remaining candidates.  If one candidate reaches the threshold then they’re elected.  If no candidate reaches the threshold the election proceeds to a subsequent round of voting.
  • The process continues until one candidate has reached the threshold, and so is elected.

Theoretically, each round of voting could take place on a different date.  This would have the advantage of allowing all voters to decide afresh which of the remaining candidates they preferred, but the disadvantage of making the electoral process slow and expensive.  To get round these problems electors vote only once under the Instant Runoff system, and at that point are asked to indicate who they would vote for in subsequent rounds of voting if their 1st (or 2nd, 3rd etc.) choice has been eliminated in a previous round.  This approach allows for each subsequent round of votes to be counted immediately after the previous round has been declared inconclusive, hence the name Instant Runoff.

It’s misleading to call this system the Alternative Vote because no-one really gets an alternative vote.  Everyone gets the opportunity to vote as many times as there are rounds in the election.  Voters whose preferred candidate is still in the running are in the lucky position of being able to vote for them again.  The ranking by preference is only to make sure that voters whose previous candidate has been eliminated still have the chance to vote for the candidate they think is next best.  The distinction is important, because one of the pieces of misinformation being spread by the ‘No to AV’ campaign is that voters who change their vote have more say in who is elected.  This is nonsense.  Each voter gets to vote once in each round.

Why change the voting system?

The UK is almost always governed by single-party majority governments, but the last time a single party secured a majority of the votes cast was 111 years ago, in the 1900 general election.

Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, Prime Minister of the last single-party government to enjoy the backing of more than 50% of the electorate. Ironically, as the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury he was not an MP, and governed from the unelected House of Lords.

Since so few governments ever reach the winning post in an election, it’s clearly misleading to call this electoral system First Past the Post.  A more accurate name would be Front Runner Takes the Prize, since the characteristic feature of this electoral system is that it usually turns the party with the largest minority into a majority government (though this failed to happen in 2010).

If there is a case to be made for the present system, it is that it’s decisive and clear cut.  In most cases the country knows by around 5 hours after the polls close which party will form the next government, and what policies they will implement.  This decisiveness comes at a cost.  At the 2005 election almost two-thirds of those who voted opposed Labour.  Labour still had the largest minority, and the electoral system functioned as it usually does by making them the government, and giving them a majority of 66 seats in parliament.  The side-effect of this clear-cut result was that 64.8% of those who voted saw a party they opposed take power.  It’s far from clear that a system of governance that produces results like these deserves the name ‘democracy’.

Will AV correct the problems with the voting system?

It won’t correct them, but it should ameliorate some of them.  Most notably, if each individual MP has to receive at least lukewarm support from more than 50% of their electorate it should no longer be the case that governments will be formed with a majority of votes having been cast against them.  Unfortunately there will still be other problems under AV.

Will AV create new problems?

Yes.  Note the use of the phrase ‘lukewarm support’ in the previous answer.  The biggest problem with AV is that 2nd (and lower) choice votes will be given equal weight to 1st choice votes.  What this means is that, except in constituencies where a candidate wins in the first round, the majority of voters will still be dissatisfied with the outcome of the election; the candidate they most wanted to win will have failed to do so.  If, as may well be common, the candidate who got the most votes in the first round fails to win in the final round it’s possible that the number of voters who are disappointed may be even greater than under the current system.

Will other problems persist under AV?

Oh, yes.  The second major problem with AV is that it will not tackle the issue of proportionality.  It’s a fundamental democratic principle that a party which gets 8% of the national vote ought to get 8% of the MPs.  Under the current system a party with this level of support could usually expect to get no MPs at all, and the same is likely to be true under AV.  This is because a party with this level of support is likely to be eliminated in an early round in each constituency, leaving them no hope of winning appropriate representation across the country as a whole.  This problem will persist until some form of proportionality is introduced, either in the form of multi-member constituencies, or a national party list system.

What about these other problems I’ve heard about?

The ‘No’ campaign are, in my view, behaving hugely irresponsibly, and in a way that does no credit to them, or the UK political process as a whole.

The hugely irresponsible 'No' Campaign.

They are – deliberately, one has to assume – spreading disinformation.  We’ve already seen that the claim AV will give people who switch their vote more say in who wins is nonsense.  Another claim the ‘No’ campaign are loudly trumpeting is that AV will produce more hung parliaments.  This will only happen if it’s what the electorate vote for.  If the electorate vote unambiguously for one party in preference to another, MPs will be elected in the first round and a single party will go on to form a majority government.  If the electorate don’t vote unambiguously for one party then, yes, there may well be a hung parliament and a coalition government – but so there should be, because that’s what the electorate as a whole have voted for.  It should be up to voters to decide whether or not there’s a hung parliament.  The electoral system shouldn’t make that decision for them.

So do you support AV, Aethelread?

Not really.  I think it’s a marginal improvement on the status quo, in that it least allows voters to block the candidates they really can’t stand, but its lack of proportionality is a fundamental problem.  As someone who’s ambivalent about representational democracy at the best of times (see delegative democracy for one obvious, but perhaps impractical, alternative), I want any representational system I back to at least reflect as closely as possible the voting intentions of the electorate as a whole.  This requires a proportional system, and AV is not proportional.

Will you be voting Yes or No in the referendum?

Let me take you through my thinking.

On one hand, I’m wary of falling victim to the Politician’s Fallacy: reform of the voting system is essential, AV is reform of the voting system, so AV is essential.  AV is really just a shamefaced attempt to paper over the major flaw in our electoral system, which is its lack of proportionality.  AV does have the potential to overturn the entrenched two-party system, but at the cost of setting up an entrenched three-party system in its place.  Since there will need to be a candidate on the right, a candidate on the left, and a compromise candidate in the middle, only the parties that field those three candidates are likely to prosper under AV.  There will be exceptions (especially in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland), but most of the time those roles will be taken by Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates, respectively.  It’s hardly controversial to point out that there are many millions of us who find our ideas are not represented by any of those parties.

On the other hand, I’ve already explained that I do see AV as a marginal improvement on the status quo.  AV is far (so very, very far) from being a desirable system, but it’s the only thing that’s on the table right now, and it should at least mean that the majority of voters are represented by an MP they can tolerate.  Take me as an example.  I’d like the opportunity to vote Green and have that vote count for something, but I would probably settle, as a distant second, for the opportunity to make sure I’m not represented by a Tory.

Caroline Lucas, MP, leader of The Green Party.

Truthfully, I haven’t absolutely made up my mind which way I’ll vote, mainly because I don’t like either the status quo or its proposed replacement.  Both are bad systems, and I don’t want either.  It’s a question, therefore, of trying to decide if one bad outcome is worse than the other.  I think a victory for the ‘No’ campaign is probably fractionally worse, so at the time of writing, I’m more likely to vote yes than no, but I remain somewhat undecided.  I really wish it was a referendum between First Past the Post and a proportional system.  It would be so much easier to decide if one of the options was something I actually wanted.

If you’re not happy with the status quo or AV, Aethelread, what electoral system would you set up instead?

Oh, that’s a fascinating question – and a topic for another post…

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6 Responses to The inevitable post about the AV referendum

  1. J. Wibble says:

    Every flat in my house (of 4 self-contained flats) received a leaflet from the Conservative Party No to AV campaign. Specifically, every man received a leaflet; the two women residing here did not. Dorothy said if she wasn’t planning to vote for AV anyway, she’d be tempted to purely to spite the Tories for this interesting oversight. I don’t know if it just happened in my house, but it does seem odd.

    You’re right, it’s still fraught with problems but it’s a slight improvement over the current system. I’m not sure if I’m that much in favour of it, but I’m certainly not a great fan of the current system so I guess it’s the lesser of two evils.

  2. Ryan says:

    I wrote a similar article about AV at my site too. You’re right, the only thing about AV is its inevitability in passing conversation; beyond that, it really is dull. I don’t think I’ve ever been given a vote on something about which I have no opinion before…

  3. ITS says:

    Your thoughts on AV pretty much mirror mine. I’m leaning towards a yes vote, but I’m not even sure I can be bothered, and for someone who is practically obsessed with elections and voting that’s a pretty sorry state of affairs. If it wasn’t for the fact I’d quite like to kick out my local borough councillor I really wouldn’t be bothering to go to the polls.

  4. Denis Cooper says:

    Could I draw your attention to this impartial analysis:

    Click to access TheAlternativeVoteBriefingPaper.pdf

    and in particular to these remarks on page 21:

    “A “no” vote in a referendum is always followed by what Professor Lawrence LeDuc calls a “battle for interpretation”. Those who support the status quo argue that the people have spoken and that the issue should be left alone. Supporters of change, by contrast, argue that the referendum has not decided the issue: they might say, for example, that voters were offered the wrong reform option or that a better information campaign should have been launched.

    This will happen in the event of a “no” vote in the UK too. Supporters of FPTP will say that the people have decided in favour of the status quo. Supporters of change will argue that AV was the wrong reform and that a more substantial change should be offered.

    The question is, who will win this battle? Given that the issue of electoral reform has not caught the public imagination and that few voters understand the intricacies of electoral systems, it is likely to be difficult for reform supporters to convince many that another reform should now be considered. Such was the experience of reform supporters after recent referendums in three Canadian provinces: the battle of interpretation was decisively won by the supporters of the status quo.”

    “It is clear that changing the electoral system is easier where change has already recently happened: the idea of reform is no longer so radical; more people are familiar with the reform options; there are fewer interests vested in the status quo. Four established democracies – France, Italy, Japan, and New Zealand – have introduced major reforms to their national electoral systems in the last thirty years. Two of these – France and Italy have subsequently instituted further major reforms, while Japan passed a further smaller reform, and New Zealand will hold a referendum creating the possibility of another major reform later this year.”

  5. Julie says:

    Speaking as a Scot, I would recommend you vote yes. AV is neither fish nor fowl, but it is a step in the right direction and will make it easier for you to move towards a full PR system as people get used to the voting papers. Up here, the single transferable vote has really transformed our politics; things get done faster and smaller parties with good ideas get taken more seriously under consensus government. It’s been good for us; I think it would be good for Westminster, which has become totally hidebound under FPTP.

  6. Pingback: Aethelread’s alternative to AV: Multi-member constituencies & the Borda count | Aethelread the Unread

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