The Alternative Vote: An Opinion

Yesterday, Parliament voted to include a referendum on replacing the existing First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system for UK-parliamentary elections with the Alternative Vote (AV) system in the Constitutional Reform Bill presently being debated in Parliament. For those who still don’t know what AV is: instead of marking a cross beside the name of their preferred candidate, voters rank candidates in order of preference. Then, if no candidate obtains more than 50% of first-choice votes, the bottom-ranked candidate is eliminated and the second preferences of those who voted for that candidate are added to the totals of the remaining candidates, and the process is repeated if necessary until one candidate has more than 50% of first, second and, in some instances, third, fourth, fifth, etc. preferences.

I support the view that Gordon Brown’s insistence that the referendum proposal be included in the Constitutional Reform Bill is an entirely cynical ploy to position the Labour Party as a supporter of constitutional and electoral reform ahead of the general election. This is because the bill has no chance of being passed before the election, as it still has to go through the House of Lords, where it will face opposition, and time is running out. Brown is trying to hoodwink voters into believing that Labour supports electoral reform while the Tories manifestly do not (as they’re committed to retaining FPTP) simply in order to attract the votes of Lib Dem voters in seats where Labour needs their support to avoid being beaten by the Conservatives under the present voting system. In short, it’s a tactic to win tactical votes.

There’s absolutely no guarantee that Labour, should they be re-elected, would revive the legislation that includes the referendum on AV: the Bill would have to be revived, or a new one drawn up, as the existing one would be dead. And even if they did follow through, the AV system is designed to engineer a permanent Labour / Lib Dem majority in the House of Commons, and thereby to disadvantage the Conservatives. See for example the excellent analysis of what the election results from 1983 to 2005 might have looked like under AV on the BBC News website. This reveals that, in scenarios where more Lib Dems vote Labour as their second choice than Conservative (i.e. in the last three elections and probably the next), the number of seats won by both Labour and the Lib Dems would be greater, to the detriment of the Conservatives. According to the analysis, the Tories would have been practically wiped out in 1997, with only a few more seats than the Lib Dems presently hold, despite being the second-largest party in terms of first-choice votes.

And this illustrates the deficiency of the AV system. Gordon Brown has stated that it would restore the public’s confidence in politics and Parliament, because it would mean that all MPs would enjoy the backing of a majority of their constituents. But this is a fallacy. This supposed ‘majority’ is in fact merely an artifice of the AV system. For example, you could in theory carry on eliminating the lower-ranked candidates until only the winner was left standing, who could then be said to enjoy the support of 100% of voters. And it all depends on how you reallocate the second preferences. For example, there could be some instances where the candidate that is first to cross the threshold of 50% based on the second preferences of people voting for smaller parties would actually lose if you counted the second preferences of the stronger-performing, eliminated candidates. This might be the case in a narrow finish between Labour and the Conseratives, where a Conservative could narrowly win based on the second preferences of those who selected UKIP or the BNP as their first choice, but where the Labour candidate might win if you went on to count the second preferences of the losing Lib Dem candidate.

No, when Gordon Brown says AV would restore the public’s faith in Parliament, what this actually means is that AV is a ploy to deceive the public into thinking they’re getting a more representative and accountable parliament while basically preserving the present parliamentary and electoral systems fundamentally unchanged. Indeed, it’s worse than before, in that the results can be more disproportionate than under FPTP; they fail to fully reflect the strength of voters’ positive choice of parties (as opposed to what they regard as the ‘least bad’ candidate); AV continues to marginalise the smaller parties; and it’s intended by Labour to disadvantage the Conservatives and favour Labour itself. 

In short, it’s just another case of cynical Labour gerrymandering and electoral posturing.

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4 Responses

  1. I totally agree with this piece!

    AV is a read herring, designed to make people thinm things are getting more democratic when there would actually be little change.

    What we really need is a reform of parliamentary procedure. There must be an end to government domination of the parliamentary timetable, while select committees and their chairmen must be elected by the House of Commons rather than appointed by the whips. It is probably also time to look at the Royal Prerogative, perhaps allowing the House of Commons to determine the date of elections itself; forcing the normally secretive decision out into the open.

    Unfortunately, there arn’t many votes in parliamentary procedure!

  2. He was elected as Labour leader on June 25, 2007, though he ran unopposed. I don’t know how you imagine someone could “inherit” such a role. It’s not like the monarchy.

  3. […] in government) have his insulting referendum on the Alternative Vote (which, as I’ve said elsewhere, is not a real alternative to First Past the Post), rather than pushing for a properly proportional […]

  4. […] I won’t reiterate the more detailed points I made in my previous discussions on AV (here and here). What I want to do here is set up a series of criteria against which to measure the merits of […]

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