So what’s this Referendum About?

Posted on April 19, 2011 at 10:01 am,

On May 5th 2011, the UK will go to the polls to decide whether we want to change our voting system from the current First Past the Post system to the Alternative Vote system. There’s been a lot of confusion about this amongst both the general public and even in the two campaigns, so I thought I’d try to explain what AV is. Tomorrow, I’ll tackle some of the myths, distortions, and outright lies that are being repeated by both campaigns, and on Thursday I’ll give my thoughts about what the effects on election results are actually going to be, if the nation votes yes.

What AV is

The Alternative Vote system is where, instead of voting for one candidate by putting a cross next to their name, you rank the candidates in order. If nobody gets a majority of the vote, then the least popular candidate is eliminated, and their second (or third) preference votes are given to the rest. This process continues until one candidate has a majority.

If this confuses you, think of it like a reality TV show, where viewers vote for their favourite contestant, and the rest are eliminated one by one. If nobody changes their favourite contestant until that person is voted off, then what you’ve got is essentially AV. The only real difference is that, once somebody has a majority of voters on their side, they are clearly going to win and we don’t bother counting any further, whilst the TV Show will probably continue until the bitter end.

For those of us who think carefully about who to vote for, the AV is actually simpler than first past the post, and those who just vote for their own political tribe can continue just voting for the one candidate.

The main impact will be that our votes will count for a bit more. The Voter power index site measures how much a vote is worth in any given constituency, and shows that there will be more ultra marginal seats and fewer ultra safe and very safe seats as a result.

What AV isn’t

AV is not proportional representation (where the number of seats each party gets in Parliament is roughly in line with their share of the national vote). Some parties will still be over-represented, and others will still be under-represented. In some past elections, AV would even have made Parliament even less proportional (in 1997, for example, the Labour landslide would have been even bigger because almost all of the Labour and Liberal Democrat voters would have preferred the other party to the Conservatives).

AV does not ensure hung parliaments. Australia, the only comparable country to use AV, has had only one hung Parliaments over the century they’ve been using the system, whilst we’ve had five.

What are the main advantages and disadvantages of AV?

Like all voting systems, AV has good and bad points. Most of these are shared with first past the post, but the differences are significant:

Shows the true level of support for smaller parties

Under First Past the Post, many voters who would naturally support a smaller party (such as the Greens) will vote for a larger party because they believe their party cannot win, and they want to keep parties they really dislike (such as the Tories or the BNP) out of office. AV allows these voters to express their real preference without risking the parties they hate getting in.

Reduces the level of tactical voting

Whilst AV doesn’t actually eliminate tactical voting, it does reduce the need for it. Instead of pretending that, for example, you want a Labour MP when you’re really a Green or a Lib Dem you can simply list your preferences. Your constituency may still end up as a Labour-Tory marginal, but at least you don’t have to choose between voting honestly and ending up with an MP you hate.

Keeps out extremists

The one thing AV does better than almost any other system is to keep out extreme parties. Under a genuinely proportional system, extremist parties can still get in by having enough support over a wide area. Under AV, they need the support of half the electorate in a particular seat. Even in constituencies where a party like the BNP is in with a genuine chance of doing well, I can’t imagine them getting enough votes to win on first preferences, nor can I imagine them getting more second/third preference votes than other parties. If the BNP got popular enough to win seats under AV, then no electoral system could keep them out of office.

Will AV lead to further reform?

This is the big unanswered question – especially for those of us who want to see a genuinely proportional system. If we vote yes, then it’s possible that that’s all the voting reform we will get for a generation or more, Labour and the Tories will proclaim the system fixed (yes, the Tories are likely to be in favour once it’s been in place for a while), and we’ll get no more reform out of them. But if we vote no, it’s almost certain that Labour and the Tories will say that the public are against even modest reform of the voting system, and it will be even harder to get genuine electoral reform.

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