Tuesday, 5 April 2011

AV: Y/N?

In one month, you have the opportunity to vote in a referendum that could change the electoral system used in general elections. Turnout is expected to be much lower than normal general election turnout, which is odd, really, because it's much more important than a single election. The result of this vote could change what British democracy means altogether. But I know that some people don't quite get what it's all about, and consequently can't make their minds up whether to vote, and if so, whether to vote yes or no.

In this blog post I'll be explaining the Alternative Vote (AV) system and comparing it to the current system, First Past the Post (FPTP), which will hopefully be helpful to those who didn't memorise an array of electoral systems for A Level Politics. I'll do a bit of myth-busting regarding some of the claims that have been made by both the Yes and the No side, and then I'll go on to explain why I intend to vote YES for a change to AV.


The Alternative Vote electoral system is actually very similar (as electoral systems go) to our current state of affairs. Each geographical constituency is represented by one MP, and if a political party succeeds in winning over 50% of the seats in the House of Commons, they form a government. None of that is going to change under AV.

The only difference is how MPs actually win their seats. Under FPTP, whichever candidate has the largest share of the vote wins the seat for that constituency. Under AV, they have to return a majority - over 50%. The way that majority can be reached, without over half of all voters voting for the same candidate, is by taking into account what people's second, third (etc) choices are. That's why a change to AV would mean changing how you cast your vote.

Instead of deciding which single candidate to cast your vote for, you can rank all the candidates in order of preference. Once all the votes have been cast, the first-choice votes are counted. Assuming there isn't an outright majority, the candidate who got the fewest first-choice votes is stricken from the election, and the second-choice votes of the people who voted for them are treated as if they were first-choice votes. If there's still no majority, you take away the second-last candidate and do the same thing with the second-choice votes of the people who voted for them. And so on and so forth, until a majority is reached.


I have been unimpressed with some of the arguments coming from both campaigns so I'm going to sift through some of them and hopefully set a few misconceptions straight.

  • Will AV make politicians have to work harder to keep their seats?
Well, yes, perhaps, in some cases. This argument is based on the fact that in order to win a seat a politician needs to get a broader consensus than usual, and cannot just rely on the same 30% of people voting for him who voted for him last time. However, realistically, people's votes are still influenced to a large degree by party loyalty and where they see themselves in the political spectrum, rather than decided solely on the basis of how hard they think their MP has worked. What will happen is that individual politicians will have to do more to reach out to people who don't completely share their political creed. This could be seen as a good or a bad thing - you can imagine it leading to more people feeling involved with politics, or to politics becoming devoid of direction as all candidates fight for the messy middle ground.

  • Will AV lead to more hung parliaments?
There's no reason to assume that it would. In the bigger picture, changing to AV is unlikely to make a deep impact on the face of the House of Commons. Most of the candidates who would have been elected under FPTP will still be elected under AV, unless it's a particularly close race. (This might make you think "then why bother?", but that's a different story.)

  • Will AV keep the BNP out? Or will it encourage people to vote for them?
Both, oddly enough. Because you can list candidates by preference under AV, you're more likely to express support for a small party than you are under FPTP, which encourages people to vote tactically. So we would probably see a few more first-choice votes for the BNP than the number of votes they currently get. However, because the BNP are usually pretty far down the list of "most popular parties to vote for", they would usually be knocked out of the competition pretty early on. They would have to get over half of a constituency to vote for them (1st or 2nd choice) to get a seat under AV. They're probably more likely to get a seat under FPTP, where they may only need 30%, or even less, to win a seat.

Please remember, as well, that the effects the voting system has on the BNP are equally relevant to the Green Party. To vote based on what you think will keep the BNP out is short-sighted and neglects the real question, which is: what is more democratic?

  • Isn't AV really complicated and obscure? Don't only, like, two countries use it?
The way to work out who's won each constituency is a bit complicated, I grant you, but as a voter the change to your ballot slip is pretty straightforward. While only a couple of countries use AV in their general elections, it's very popular as an electoral system for smaller elections - like for political party leadership, or (if you went to the University of York), student union elections.

  • Do some people's votes count more than others under AV?
Kind of. You're less likely to end up having wasted your vote under AV, because if you vote for a smaller party, your second choice will be taken into account - it will be as if your first choice never existed. Some people are arguing that that means your vote would be given more weight than the votes of those who voted for more popular parties. It all depends on how you look at it.

  • Will AV leave us with politicians who were nobody's first choice?
While it is technically possible that this could happen, it's extremely unlikely - and the politician in question would still have to have a broad base of support from within his constituency, even if it was the support of people who felt they were getting a compromise solution.


In a month's time, I plan to vote yes in the referendum. Here's why:

  • I believe AV reflects the way people actually think about politics. I've never voted for Labour before, but I'd rather have a Labour MP than a Tory. And I would certainly never vote Conservative, but I'd rather have a Tory MP than a BNP representative. Unless you think that every candidate but one is an  incompetent bastard, AV will suit you.
  • I want further electoral reform. One of the biggest criticisms of AV is that it doesn't go far enough, and it would be more democratic to have a system that incorporated proportional representation. I agree. AV is not my favourite electoral system and I think there are a lot of issues with it, as I hope has become apparent. But I believe a resounding 'no' vote will shut down the possibility for any electoral reform within my lifetime.
  • I believe it's fairer and more democratic for MPs to be elected by an outright majority who are pretty okay with him or her winning, rather than by a smaller faction who are delighted they won while the majority of voters are seething.

My intention has not been to convince you to vote yes - just to try and make the choice a bit clearer. I hope I've done that - any further questions, fire away.

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