Meh to AV?

“I don’t vote, there’s no point.”

“Voting never changes anything”

“The same bastards always get in”

Does that all sound familiar? It does to me. I know a lot of people with the view that voting is pointless and changes nothing. I believe this view is extremely common. But why do they think this? What is the problem really?

Why do people feel that they cannot vote for the main parties? Well as I explained recently, Labour and the Conservatives are actually very close together on the political spectrum. Although claiming to be centre-left and centre-right respectively, I think both are really quite right-wing in their views. Both share the same urge to transfer most public services into the private sector, either through direct privatisation, or through contracts such as private finance initiative. (PFI) Even voting LibDem will not fix this, as economically the LibDems are actually very similar to the Conservatives. As such, their coalition makes a lot more sense when you realise this. (The LibDems are at least different to the others in their policies on the social spectrum, even if no different economically.) These three parties all seem to want to make public services make a profit for private investors, despite the fact that a public service exists to benefit the public, not investors. They also are very biased towards the banks and the financial sector, allowing them to gamble with and profit from our economy without contributing much back through taxes or through providing help to people at the bottom of the pile.

Government economic policy seems geared towards maintaining high house prices to keep middle-class home owners happy. Many people are finding themselves unable to afford their own accommodation as a result, often living with their parents into their 30s. Even after moving out, they are finding that they rely on support from their parents. When a reasonable house costs £150k and up, and a mortgage requires a 30% deposit, what chance has a 20 – 30 year old got of owning one? Younger generations are being told that the money is all gone, (Much of it spent on keeping banks going) and that jobs must be cut, services privatised or cut, the NHS destroyed, education priced out of range, pensions reduced, and retirement age pushed back so far it might as well not happen. Meanwhile, older generations have their houses, their pensions and their early retirements. Pensions and retirements that the young are expected to pay for, despite the fact that there are no jobs. It seems no surprise to me that older generations tend towards voting conservative, they have a lot to lose.

Given that many people would like a change from these main parties, why are they still in power? Here in England our voting system for general elections is a first past the post system. Historically we have only really had two parties vying for power, with a third peripheral party. It may surprise you to know that the two top parties were once the Conservatives and the Liberals, but the Labour party was formed in the 1920s and displaced the Liberals, who later merged with the Social Democratic Party to become the Liberal Democrats. Although we have a number of other parties, such as the Green party, they are often ignored because the voters know that one of the main parties will win, and they want to make sure that the winner is the least-worst option for them. Such “tactical voting” perpetuates the situation where the two main parties maintain most of the power.

Many of the people that don’t vote are apathetic about politics and will largely ignore what happens in elections and government except to complain when they are directly affected. Some of the non-voters are of the opinion that since voting is pointless, the answer is to protest instead. Of course politicians ignore the protests as unrepresentative of voters views because these people didn’t vote! This seems to be a never ending circle. There is a good argument that if people really feel that none of the parties can represent them, or that their party has no chance, they should spoil their ballot paper instead. Although I don’t think spoilt ballots are counted at a national level, the numbers are announced with the results in each constituency. It is possible that if a large number of people spoiled their ballot, it might draw enough attention to these problems.

I think it is obvious that we need a change to our voting system in order to boot out the entrenched political views, and equally obvious that the established parties would not want this change as it would threaten their power. These figures showing share of vote vs share of seats show the problem.

  • Conservative share of vote: 36.48% Share of seats: 47.2%
  • Labour share of vote: 28.99% Share of seats: 39.7%
  • Liberal Democrats share of vote: 23.03% Share of seats: 8.8%

There is clearly something wrong when receiving 23% of the votes means getting only 8.8% of the seats. The problem is really much worse than this since many of the votes for Labour and the Conservatives would have been tactical votes which might not happen if the system adequately represented people.

One of the solutions, and the one many people talk about, is Proportional Representation. PR would change the make-up of Parliament to represent the votes more directly. One of the downsides is that it would break the direct link that we have between MP and constituency. At the moment MPs are an essential last resort for people encountering problems with government and elsewhere. I have personally seen my MP intervene in a situation on two occasions and be very helpful, even though his political views are the opposite of mine. If we were to adopt PR I think we would need to think of some system to replace this very useful feature of our system.

Unfortunately, the Conservatives are absolutely opposed to PR and so offered Alternative Vote (AV) as a compromise to the LibDems when forming the coalition. AV is not nearly as good as PR at evening out the balance of power in parliament, but I believe it is a step forward from FPTP. AV allows the voter to specify a second choice, and more if they wish. Note that it does not force a second choice to be made, and voters are free to only vote for one candidate if they wish. But AV will allow all those people that currently vote tactically to specify their preferred party as their first choice, and their least-worst party as their second choice. Because of the nature of first past the post voting, England contains a number of “Safe Seats” where the MP is virtually guaranteed to always be from the same party. The main parties can for the most part ignore these areas when campaigning. People with opposing views in safe seats feel that their vote is pointless if there is no chance of their preferred candidate winning, and many don’t vote as a result. AV will to some extent address the problem of safe seats by making them require a much larger majority.

I believe that AV will encourage a great many more people to vote since it can potentially add a lot more weight to their votes. In the end, I don’t think it even matter whether AV is really better than FPTP or not. If introducing AV encourages more people to vote, I don’t see how it could be worse than FPTP. I’ll be voting Yes to AV.

Author: Latentexistence

The world is broken and I can't fix it because I am broken. I can, however, rant about it all and this is where I do that when I can get my thoughts together. Most of the time you'll find my words on Twitter rather than here though. I sometimes write for Where's The Benefit too.

10 thoughts on “Meh to AV?”

  1. Good article, but you miss the fact that you can have forms of PR without severing the consituency link..
    Pure PR is party list – you go and vote for a party and party are allocated seats depending on their % of the vote, usually with a bottom limit to get any at all (eg: you need to get 1% or 5% of the vote to get a single seat)

    But there are two ways you can keep constituencies and get PR:

    Multi-MP constituencies elected using STV (Single Transferable Vote). Usually suggested you have 3 MPs per constituency, larger constituencies and same number of total MPs. As a voter you go in and place your preferences as you would with AV, but of course all the main parties are fielding 3 candidates, whilst smaller parties probably only one.
    This system allows people to spread their votes around different parties, and for instance, vote for a good constituency MP even if they are in a party that they don’t want to be in power (I had this issue when chosing to vote for Lynne Jones even though she was a labour party candidate because she was a very good constituency MP).
    This problem would have been solved for me as I could have placed a preference for her, but not other labour party candidates..
    STV uses a quota system to decide when a candidate has reached the threshold of votes so that it is in effect producing the same thing as AV, in that (in theory) a candidate has to get over 50% of the preferences of voters to win. Indeed in a single seat constituency, STV is the same as AV.

    It is likely that this would produce a more proportional system as minority parties would get preferences concentrated because they only stand one or two candidates where the main parties stand 3. It also gives more space for people to vote for a set of MPs that reflects their views (ie: I might be somewhere in between Green, Labour and Respect and this way I can place my initial preferences for each of these – but because Green and Respect only have one candidate each, they are more likely to make it through the rounds of voting, whereas Labour candidates votes are split where people are voting along party lines).

    Another advantage of Multi-member seats is that it is more likely that an individual will have an MP that represents their views.. if you are a labour voter in an area when the tories win 66% of the votes and labour 33% of the votes, you’ll be in a very strong tory seat, and have no-one to represent your views, whereas with a multi-member vote it is likely (though not certain) that you’ll get 2 tory and 1 labour MP

    [It’s been 13 years since I seriously looked at the different voting systems so my explanation of this one, which is a complicated system, may fall short of being good]

    The other way is a mix of AV and Party List (I think this is usually called AV+) where some MPs have constituencies, and others don’t. This gives a more proportional representation without entirely removing the constituency link, but is a bit of a fudge.
    I’d have a lot of sympathy for the idea of electing government benches using party list and backbenches using AV/STV because I do wonder how ministers actually manage to be constituency MPs at all, especially the senior ones.

    So there are more ways to elect parliament than the three you consider in your article.

  2. AV+ maintains the constituency link while being “nearly” proportional (depending on how you implement it). Take a look at wikipedia…

    What we’re being offered is AV. This is better than First Past The Post in every way. Some people are making a really silly argument, something like “AV isn’t proportional, isn’t the best system, so vote to keep First Past The Post”.

    Keep a really bad system, because the alternative on offer is only good, rather than great?! Rubbish.

    The point of AV is really simple: you can vote for who you really want, without worrying about “letting in” the party you really _don’t_ want.


  3. AV just makes tactical voting more complicated. Imagine your first choice is Green but the seat is a close fight between Tory and Labour (your second choice), with Green a respectable third, followed by a lot of small parties. You might well decide to give Labour your (1) place, because Green will do too well for your second preference to be counted but the Tories could pick up enough UKIP and BNP votes to swing it for them.

    1. There are a very small number of circumstances where, if you knew for certain all the first, second and third preferences of everyone else voting, you could vote “tactically” to influence the result. In practice, this is pretty much impossible, though some people might be daft enough to try (and almost certainly fail!).

      However, in the simpler(!) example you give, I don’t think the maths adds up. For the Tories to win, they need over 50% of the votes. This means over half of the constituents need to put them either first, or second after BNP etc. This means over half of the constituents are voting to the right of the political spectrum.

      In such a constituency, there’s no “tactical” way to make any “left” party win, however you vote, because fewer than 50% of the constituents vote that way. Labour and the Greens didn’t get in or miss out because of tactical voting or not tactical voting – they didn’t get elected because more people wanted the Tories.

      So AV gives the result that most of the constituents want.

      There’s a word for that… let me think… oh, that’s it… democracy.


      1. David – Although your broad analysis is correct, the idea that anyone must have over 50% of the votes is wrong, I should also point out the differnce between “voter” and “constituent” as the two are not the same, but I suspect this is simply sloppiness on your part rather than confusion (but do let me know if you want further explanation).

        The reason for not needing over 50% of the votes is quite simple – voters do not have to place preferences for every candidate (which is, imo, quite right – I would never want to place a preference for BNP for instance).
        This can lead to a situation whereby I might choose to place preferences for Green and an Independent socialist candidate, but as the final runoff is between Labour and Lib Dem, my preference does not get counted. (The same might happen on the right, with people placeing preferences for BNP & UKIP but not liking the tories, but I suspect this will be much less frequent than on the left)

        Wasted votes can and will happen under AV – far fewer than under FPTP, and this shouldn’t be used as an argument against AV (at least not in the narrow AV vs FPTP terms we’re pretty much being forced to talk about), but as a pedant and statistical geek I feel compelled to point out that this idea that candidates must recieve over 50% of preferences of voters is not actually true, though it will usually be the case.

        If AV does come in, it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in practice, how many people place preferences for every candidate, how many just place preferences for one or two candidates.
        Personally I can’t see myself placing a prefernce for any of Labour, Tory or Lib Dem and therefore my vote is likely to be wasted, unless I decide to use it tactically by placing a preference for Labour to keep out the Lib dems

        1. @BP,

          Yes, I got as far as Exhausted ballots in the wikipedia article, though I don’t claim to be a stats or voting geek (yet – finding it strangely interesting the more I read about it!).

          In fact the only “problem” I can see with AV is that some dishonest people will try to con some not very bright people into “tactical” voting, where it’s not tactical at all – it’s just party X lying to the supporters of party Y to try to get more votes.

          Whichever system we have, the ultimate weakness of democracy is that some people will be too stupid or ill informed or disinterested to vote in any way that’s sensible (even on their own terms) – it’s the absolute worst system (apart from all the others).


        1. Could you explain your point further please Judy, because I think that David did reply directly to that point (although I derailed the thread).
          Tactical voting doesn’t really work in AV – there can be some tactical voting (eg: I might chose to place a preference for Labour to keep out the tories) but there’s no reason I can see to place a first preference for Labour to do this.
          It’s not going to matter if I go 1) Labour 2) Green or 1) Green 2) Labour in terms of the tories winning the seat.

          Lets make this an actual example: first round..

          Tory 33%
          Labour 29%
          Green 20%
          LD 13%
          UKIP 3%
          BNP 1%
          Others 1%

          So we’ll drop out others and LD and split their 2nd preferences between the 3 main parties (fuck knows where they’d actually go – LD probably more strongly to the tories tbh, so I’ve given the tories the spare 2%), and UKIP/BNP to the tories.. then we get this:

          Tory – 43%
          Lab – 33%
          Green – 24%

          Green drops out and if they all give second preferences to labour then labour wins..

          Or if all the LD votes when to tories then you’d see this:

          Tory – 51%
          Labour – 29%
          Green – 20%

          Tories win

          If every green had given labour their first preference, the tories would still have won.

          What will matter if is I just go 1) Green .. but that’s not what you seem to be saying in your post.

          I don’t think tactical voting works with AV in the way you are thinking it does, but if you can clarify the situation you are envisaging then it may all become clear

    2. I don’t follow your reasoning here tbh. I think your concern is that with AV the greens would beat labour into second place, thus creating the likelyhood of a runoff between Tory and Green, which green would lose because of the 2nd/3rd preferences of UKIP/BNP, but you neglect to think about where the 2nd preferences of Labour voters would go – I think it would be reasonable to assume most of them would go to Green, and this could/should outweigh the BNP/UKIP votes.

      Far more interesting is to consider where Lib Dem voters will go to – some of them will be back to Labour or going to Greens or even a small socialist party, these are the ones who came from Labour during the Blair/Brown Years.
      Others (those on the right of the party) will place 2nd preferences for the tories, as in effect this will give them what they want anyway, esp. if they can get another coalition in place.

      I think it’s likely that the conservative vote in the kind of constituency you describe would get more 2nd preferences from Lib Dem voters than from BNP/UKIP in absolute terms (although UKIP have beaten the Lib Dems in the Oldham East byelection so this may not be true)

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