Tag Archives: Alternative vote

Anthony Bradley: The Importance Of Voting ‘Yes’ To The Alternative Vote

 The unrepresentative nature of the House of Commons that arises from the present electoral system has long been the subject of adverse comment, for reasons that include two factors of constitutional importance: (1) The present system often enables a party supported by a minority of the voters to wield a commanding majority in the House of Commons.  The most recent illustration of this arose in 2005 when the Labour party was supported by 36% of those who voted in the general election and occupied around 55% of the seats in the Commons.  Such a distorted result, that our European neighbours find incomprehensible, comes at the cost of the under-representation of the third and other parties.  (2)  At the constituency level, as more and more voters have supported the third and other parties in successive general elections, more than half of MPs have been elected by less than 50% of those who voted in their constituency.

The direct consequences of these two factors include: the temptation to a government to expect the House of Commons to vote through its proposed legislation without proper scrutiny; and, on the part of many voters, disillusionment with politics and politicians, as they ask themselves, in many constituencies, what is the point of voting?

Certainly, AV will not produce a truly proportional system for the United Kingdom: for that, three possibilities would be (a) a national party list system, (b) a system providing for additional members (as in the devolved Parliaments in Scotland and Wales), (c) adoption of the ‘single transferable vote’, that would require single-member constituencies to be replaced by multi-member constituencies.

Probably no-one would support a national party list system, but there is a statable case to be made for an additional member system, and an even stronger case to be made for the single transferable vote.  However, there are arguments to be made against creating ‘two classes’ of MPs, and against ending the single-member basis of constituency representation.

By comparison with those two systems, AV offers less, but it is much easier to achieve.  Contrary to what the ‘No’ campaign is claiming, it will be a simple system for the voters and for those who administer elections.  It will enable most MPs with greater justification than at present to claim that they represent the constituency.   It is a step in the right direction and it deserves to be taken.  Those who say that it does not go far enough, should reflect that nothing else is likely to be on offer in the foreseeable future.

Anthony Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Constitutional Law, Edinburgh University, and a visiting research fellow at the Institute of European and Comparative Law, University of Oxford.

Leave a comment

Filed under Constitutional reform, UK Parliament

Grégoire Webber: No to AV

Many poor arguments are advanced in favour of the Alternative Vote. Among the arguments is the promise that politicians will be more attentive to the wishes of their constituents (though we are not told why we should not prefer Burke’s Speech to rule-by-pollsters) and that they will work harder for you. At times, the rhetoric favouring AV is so euphoric that there seems to be no ill in politics that a change in voting system cannot remedy.

In evaluating voting systems, one confronts polycentric choices, which renders the ranking of voting systems a matter of judgment rather than demonstration. Among the valuations are the following: should votes be cast for party or candidate, should constituencies be single- or multi-member, and should electors cast one vote or several preferences. On these valuations, AV and the existing first-past-the-post overlap and not: both prefer votes for candidates in single-member constituencies but differ in what is asked of the elector in the ballot box.

The simplicity of the first-past-the-post system is both its virtue and vice: electors are asked to make the difficult choice of selecting one candidate, on the strength of the candidate’s person, the officially affiliated party, the unofficially affiliated manifesto, the party leader, or some uncertain combination. The constituency’s representative is the one favoured by more electors than any other, which has never been taken to mean that the representative speaks only for those who cast a ballot in his favour.

The primary vices of this voting system are well rehearsed: representatives are regularly elected with a minority of votes and, thus, a majority of votes are wasted. Wasted? On this understanding, votes cast for defeated candidates are akin to unused ballots; only votes caste for the winning candidate count. AV professes too much if it claims to do away with wasted votes: more electors will cast a ballot in favour of the elected candidate, but many will not.

But what of those ‘un-wasted’ votes under AV? What is it to cast a ballot with the option of ranking preferences from 1 to 2 and beyond? To the voter who ranks but one candidate, AV reverts to first-past-the-post. To the voter who ranks candidates 1-2-3, AV proceeds with a rationale no more sophisticated that this: the candidate ranked 1 is equal in all material respects to the candidates ranked 2 and 3, save for their ranking. Should the voter’s first preference candidate be eliminated, the voter’s second preference is then counted. Counted how? In whole, not in fraction. AV instructs the voter that his second preference counts for no less than his first, his third no less than his first, his fourth no less than his first, and so on.

The elected candidate will see in her pile of ballots those ranking her 1st, 2nd, 3rd and beyond. It may be that she has fewer ballots marked ‘1st’ than another: no matter—AV counts not qualified preferences but whole ballots and so she speaks for the constituency.

AV challenges the commitment to ‘one person, one vote’. Unlike run-off elections (as in the French presidential election) where all electors are invited to vote again for select candidates who failed to secure a minimum threshold of votes, AV gives only a subset of electors who ‘wasted’ their votes in the first round a second go. To all other electors, they are given but one vote, even if, in the end, their votes will have been ‘wasted’ for failure to back the elected candidate. If one resists the label ‘some persons, two or more votes’ then perhaps ‘one person, one vote’ coupled with ‘for some persons, one vote counted more than once’ is a fairer depiction. Either way, the challenge is the same.

Consider another valuation relevant to judging voting systems: the composition of the House of Commons and its role, in Bagehot’s phrase, in ‘electing our president’. Here again, the simplicity of the first-past-the-post system is both its virtue and vice: majority governments with minority support. Wherein trades the equivocation? A government with majority support in the House of Commons has but minority support in the population. How is the latter calculated? Not by pollsters, but by conflating each vote cast in a constituency for a candidate with a vote cast without constituency for a party.

Would AV remedy this problem? No. Votes would continue to be cast for candidates in constituencies, not parties nationwide. Might AV secure majority governments with majority support? Perhaps. But beyond the equivocation in measuring ‘support’ with 2nd and 3rd ‘preferences’, consider the prospect of more coalition governments. A coalition government would, by definition, secure majority support in the Commons, but could it claim majority support in the population? Not without further conflating the nature of the voter’s choice by stipulating that a vote for a candidate is akin to a vote for the candidate’s party to be in a coalition government. The stipulation confronts the challenge that the coalition agreement will take precedence over all party manifesto commitments made to the voter to secure his support in the first instance.

On this reasoning, query what it is that the voter will have cast a ballot for. Now consider, in turn, the choice that will confront electors come the term of the coalition government: each coalition partner will claim every success and disown every failure against the other. How might voters then rank their preferences? And can voters decisively ‘throw the rascals out’ other than by ranking but one preference for the opposition—that is, by tricking AV into the first-past-the-post voting system?

Among the relationships central to understanding the British constitution are the relationships of voter to ballot, ballot to MP, MP to Commons, Commons to government, party to them all, backbench to frontbench, government to opposition, and manifesto to government programme. For all of its failings, the existing first-past-the-post system allows us to grasp at each one of these relationships, in all their disharmony and incoherence. For all of the promises made in its favour, AV leaves us with many questions in attempting to understand how these relationships will come to be understood once the first among them is changed.

Grégoire Webber is Lecturer in Law at the London School of Economics and Political Science.


Filed under Constitutional reform, UK Parliament

Robert Hazell: Five reasons why the AV referendum will be lost

Yes to Fairer Votes launched their formal campaign for the AV referendum on 2 April.  Electoral reformers fondly suppose that if only the public were offered a better alternative to first past the post, people would be bound to vote Yes.  This piece does not go into the respective merits of AV and first past the post.  It simply forecasts that AV will be defeated, for the following reasons:

  • The public know nothing about electoral systems, and care even less.  The Constitution Unit did detailed research on public attitudes to different voting systems for the Independent Commission on the Voting System, and we found we were plumbing deep wells of ignorance.  The Yes campaign have a huge mountain of ignorance and indifference to overcome.  The government have given them very little time.
  • Even if the Yes campaign manage to engage people’s interest, they will find it hard to explain the difference between AV and FPTP.  AV is not a proportional system.  The overall result will not be that different from FPTP.  In the 2010 election it is estimated that the Conservatives might have gained 30 seats less, the Lib Dems 20 seats more, and Labour about the same.
  • The public will be confused by the arguments in the referendum, some technical, some contested, some misleading.  Research shows that when the public find political issues difficult or confusing, they look to political leaders that they trust to give them a lead on how to vote.  But the AV referendum offers no easy cues.  The Conservatives will campaign against, the Lib Dems for, and Labour are divided.
  • Clear signals from political leaders will be masked by the elections also being held on 5 May.  There are devolved assembly elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and local government elections in 80% of England.  The political parties will put their time and energies into campaigning in the elections, and not the referendum.
  • This is what happened in Canada, where they held referendums on electoral reform at the same time as provincial elections in Ontario (2007) and British Columbia (2009).  The political parties were silent about the referendum issues, and electoral reform was defeated in both cases.  The same is likely to happen in the UK.

Robert Hazell is Professor of British Politics and Government at UCL, and Director of the Constitution Unit.

This post originally appeared on The Constitution Unit’s Blog. (http://constitution-unit.com/)

Leave a comment

Filed under Constitutional reform, UK Parliament

Polls Show Majority Against Alternative Vote

The Guardian has published an ICM poll on the Alternative Vote that shows a strong lead for the no campaign, with 44% against and 33% in favour of change.   Perhaps even more worrying for the yes campaign, of those intending to vote, 58% say they oppose AV.  This result is the same as that reported in YouGov’s most recent poll, commissioned by The Sun.

1 Comment

Filed under Constitutional reform, UK Parliament

Estimating the Impact of the Alternative Vote

As the public debate over Britain’s electoral system reaches fever-pitch, YouGov has published a projection estimating the composition of Parliament if an election were held today under the alternative vote system.  If the projection is correct, the big winners would be the Liberal Democrats who would secure 19 more seats under AV than under the first past the post system.

The BBC has a section on its website which estimates the outcome of past elections had AV been in place rather than first past the post.  Once again, the Liberal Democrats are consistent winners, but changing the voting system would not have changed the outcome of these contests, with the Conservative and Labour parties still securing outright majorities in Parliament.

Both of these projections should be treated with some caution.  The actual impact of AV will depend on local constituency circumstances, and the second preferences of supporters of minority parties such as UKIP or the Greens.



Filed under Constitutional reform, UK Parliament