Friday, 8 April 2011

AV, or not to be?

The time has now come for the UK population to come together, make a momentous decision and take part in a national referendum. “But the ‘X-Factor’ has finished and ‘Britain’s got Talent’ has yet to begin”, I hear you all cry.

No, this national vote isn’t as interesting as dancing dogs and emotionally unbalanced singers; but it will decide whether we change the way we elect our political masters in the future. So on balance, it is probably worth taking a look at the debate.

The current voting system is called First Past the Post (FPTP) and is pretty simple to explain. You put an X next to the person you want to win and the person with the most votes is declared the winner.

FPTP works very well in a system where two political parties dominate the election process, but where several parties compete, as is increasingly the case in the UK, it becomes more problematic.

The downside to this system is if you support, for example the Green Party, and your area is dominated by Labour and Conservative voters. Then voting Green is in all probability a wasted vote. Green voters in that area would have to decide whether to vote with their conscience, or to vote tactically for either the Labour or Conservative candidate.

Another failing of FPTP is that if there are more than two parties with broad support in a constituency, then the person elected could be chosen by as few as 20% of the voters; the remaining 80% are in effect ignored. In 2005, for example, George Galloway polled the votes of only 18% of his constituents, yet ended up in the House of Commons.

FPTP favours parties who concentrate their support in geographical areas. So Labour from the urban conurbations and the Conservatives, from large rural counties, have many more seats in Parliament than their votes would otherwise justify. The Lib-Dems, whose support is spread evenly across the country, have far fewer seats than they might otherwise expect.

The Alternative Vote (AV) has been proposed to remedy some of these problems. Under AV a voter has to rank candidates in order of preference, so 1 next to their favourite, and 2 next to their second choice and so on. Listing preferences is optional, if a voter only approved of 1 candidate; they could just put 1 next to their favourite.

If after the votes have been counted, one of the contenders has over 50% of the vote, they are declared the winner. If not, the last placed candidate is eliminated and their second preference votes are distributed to the remaining candidates. This is repeated until one person gets over half of the votes.

So taking the example of our theoretical Green voter under an AV system, he or she could vote Green with their first preference. They may decide that the next closest party to their views is the Lib-Dems and rank them as their second preference and their third choice may be Labour.

When the votes are counted, none of the candidates passes the 50% mark and the Green in last place gets eliminated. In the next round of counting, our voter’s second preference is added to the Lib-Dems, but still no one has passed the half way line. In the third round, our Green voter’s support is transferred to Labour, who this time receives over half the votes and is declared the winner.

It is worth reiterating that each round of the process is a new vote. Those people who voted Labour have done so three times in this example, and our Green only voted Labour in the third round. It is a method to stop the big parties hovering up tactical votes and then ignoring those voters and pretending they are their own.

This sounds more complicated than it actually is, but it has the effect of forcing the main parties to broaden their support to people who vote for smaller parties. It also means that people who, under FPTP, vote tactically can now register their support for their closest ideology and use their preference votes for their tactical choice.

AV is certainly not a great panacea to cure our democratic ills, but it is in my opinion a small change which can make a significant improvement. I have been told that AV is not proportional representation, and that it should therefore be opposed. Is this not letting perfection be the enemy of the good (to mangle Voltaire)? It is much better than the status quo, and all reformers should support this change. It is not that AV is so good, but that FPTP is so damn bad.

I have lost count of the times that I have heard Labour supporters tell me they are going to vote no, to give Nick Clegg ‘a bloody nose’. Really? Some Labour supporters are planning to vote against a system that they proposed, to spite the Lib Dems, and thereby miss the opportunity to give the Conservative Party a broken jaw. If that is the case, then Labour really has now become an irrelevance to political discourse.

As the No campaign has been busily peddling a quote from Churchill where he criticises AV, I’ll close with his thoughts on FPTP. Speaking in 1909, he said: “The present system [FPTP] has clearly broken down. The results produced are not fair to any party, nor to any section of the community. In many cases they do not secure majority representation, nor do they secure an intelligent representation of minorities. All they secure is fluke representation, freak representation, capricious representation”.

Now that’s sorted, we can get back to more popular elections. I wonder if there will be a dancing dog again this year?


  1. I've created this new Facebook app that lets you try out the Alternative Vote for yourself. Take a look:


  2. Nice piece - also liked the animal u-tube into.

    Louis Stephen