AV: roundup and conclusion of a sort

So I asked for your help to decide what I thought about the alternative vote.

A few of you were supportive on the grounds that it was a start and it would be possible to demand further improvement later.

NomadUK said..I say vote yes. It’s not great, but it greases the skids by changing the system; once changed, it’s that much easier to change it again — much as the Reform Act 1832, whilst imperfect, led to far greater changes in the electoral system. If AV is rejected, it’ll be touted as public approval of the current system, and it’ll be a generation or more before anyone dares try again.
9:21 AM
Jonathan Hopkin said…Agree with Nomad. If you want PR, voting against this makes it less likely. Remember the sinking of devolution in the 1970s? Took 20 years to get that going again. Nick Clegg is ****ed anyway, AV isn’t going to save him.
11:21 AM
Pauline said…I agree with Nomad as well. Just think of the “told you so” smirking if there’s a no vote. And I can’t bring myself to side with Cameron and bloody Nick Griffin.

The problem here is that every attempt to model its effects I’ve seen primarily benefits the Lib Dems. All other things being equal, this fulfils their primary interest in supporting electoral reform. More proportionality starts to bring other parties into the game. In a transitional AV system, the Lib Dems would be in the position of the German FDP, and they wouldn’t have any interest in weakening this position. They would tend to swing against anyone who suggested STV or more, and as kingmakers, prevent it from happening. If making a move on electoral reform really did make it easier to go further, we’d somehow have to get to AV without having a single swing party with an interest in sticking at AV. Essentially, we’d need to have a Labour government with a manifesto commitment to STV, which requires that the Lib Dems get such a thrashing that even the AV bonus can’t keep them relevant.

Well, I can certainly imagine the Lib Dems getting a thrashing at the next election. But if the point is to beat the coalition and elect a strong Labour government, either on its own or as a hegemonic coalition partner with a few Lib Dem survivors, and then pass STV, why risk the scenario where the Lib Dems just squeak by thanks to AV and put the Tories in again? What benefit does the detour through AV provide? Isn’t it just a more complicated and slightly riskier route to the same goal?

There were those who strongly opposed AV on the grounds that losing the vote would destabilise the coalition and bring a general election closer:

Phil – April 11, 2011 at 10:56 am: Anything that makes the coalition less cohesive is good for us (and for the country), as is anything that stops the Lib Dem leadership from carrying on as if 2010 was politics as usual. Turn it round: the fact that a Yes vote would make Nick Clegg happy wouldn’t be a good enough reason to vote No, but the prospect of a Yes vote consolidating Clegg’s leadership of the Lib Dems and hence stabilising the coalition is quite good enough for me.

Chris Williams – April 11, 2011 at 11:05 am: I’m with Phil on this: vote No to split the Lib Dems and bring down the Coalition ASAP. The next lot in will find it harder to screw up the public sector.

On the other hand:

Tom said…” I’m teetering between the principle of spanking Clegg and the principle of doing anything the Murdoch papers are lying about” Organ grinder or monkey? Yes all the way, baby. 8:18 PM

Some people had technical arguments in favour of AV:

Raphael – April 10, 2011 at 10:14 pm: As far as I can tell, if voters don’t act too stupidly, the main effect of AV in Britain would be that the Tories (or UKIP, or the BNP,) wouldn’t be able anymore to win a constituency where most voters are more or less left of centre or centre-left through a split in the left-leaning vote.

Which, going by past results, might mean that it would become a lot more difficult for the Tories to win a majority in the Commons anytime soon, or even to get as close to an outright majority as they’re now again.

Phil Hunt: April 10, 2011 at 6:47 pm: Another advantage of AV — it makes it easier to get rid of unpopular MPs. I would love to see the look on Clegg’s face if AV wins and the voters of Sheffield Hallam use it to get rid of him.

Anonymous said…STV is fairer. But AV at least prevents you ‘wasting’ your vote by voting for a minor party. And over time minor parties can grow in strength to win an AV seat. Adam Brandt winning the seat of Melbourne for the Greens at the last Federal election being a case in point. 12:50 PM

One reader was strongly in favour of a majoritarian system, which is surprising as he’s a Lib Dem. Another was worried that the Tories would win an early election, to which I can only respond that the UK Polling Report‘s projection based on the current state of the polls forecasts a Labour majority of 86.

In general, it seems to me that the problem is basically whether you consider the Lib Dems to be a credible partner for a left-wing government. If so, then all the stuff about a progressive majority and keeping the Tories out of as many seats as possible retains its force, up to a point. But only up to a point. One thing we know now that we didn’t in May, 2010 is that the Lib Dems are indeed capable of enabling a radical Tory government. For the “anti-Tory AV” model to work, you have to assume that Labour-Lib Dem coalitions will drag the political spectrum far enough to the Left to balance out the inevitable periods of Tory-Lib Dem coalition. That might be true in a STV world where a Labour-led coalition would have to be concerned about its left flank, but it wouldn’t be true in an AV world where, assuming mediocrity, the election would be decided by the Liberals. Of course, the Liberals might be a moderating influence on the Tories, but have we seen that much evidence of this?

And if you don’t believe they can be treated as a reliable factor in the Left’s calculations, well, you just have to consider them to be Tories operationally, more like the Aussies’ National party than the FDP.

In fact, I’m coming around to the view that AV itself sucks. Isn’t it just a way of dignifying swing-voter politics? Rather than hypertargeting five people in the bit of Stevenage with no smelly foreigners, close to the Tesco and just far enough from the motorway, isn’t it just a way of redefining them as the Lib Dem base?

So what about “no, and campaign to get STV on the next Labour manifesto”?

(Someone also dropped off this link, which makes a strong argument against letting Labour become a second preference party.)

(I really am starting to talk like I’m back in again, aren’t I?)


  1. If you want to kick Clegg in the balls just come out and say it, enough with the ‘what’s best for the Left…’ hand-wringing.

  2. aelle

    Of course AV sucks. So does STV. Why do so few people talk about the version of PR where the first-past-the-post winners get seats (direct mandates), thus ensuring the personal MP-area link is maintained, and then seats are topped up from party lists until the total party strength reflects the PR result? (Example: Baden-Wuerttemberg, as I mentioned last time.) Maybe it lacks a convenient acronym – you could call it First-past-the-post 2.0 or something 😉

    Having said that, the questions seems to be whether AV is better than the current system. If this is really all about the Lib Dems, then I suppose the real question is whether you believe the orange bookers that have currently taken over control of the party can maintain this dominance in the long run against a grass-roots that would appear to skew much more to the left. (Certainly the Blairites managed this quite well.) I have no idea, you’d have to know the Liberal party much better than I do.

    My question would be whether AV would mean that election results are less predictable, with less safe seats. This might help new ideas find a faster way to gain influence in the political mainstream.

    • duaneg

      I’m not sure if it is what you are thinking of but it sounds similar to the system used in New Zealand, Mixed-Member Proportional voting or MMP.

      The way it works is that you cast two votes: one for your local constituency MP and one for a party. The party vote determines the number of parliamentary seats each party has. Directly elected MPs make up 50% of parliament, with the other 50% being taken in order from each party’s “party list”, as required to make up their overall result.

      This has a very nice feature: it is proportional but still retains, and indeed strengthens, the constituency system. If your MP is doing a great job for their constituents but you don’t like their party, you can still vote for them. And vice-versa, of course.

      At first there was some confusion about how the system would work, particular with respect to coalitions. This was mostly resolved after a particularly loathsome minor party provided an object lesson in how to destroy yourself by negotiating from a position of weakness and then arsing about to stuff-all effect (sound familiar?)

      IMO, MMP has been good for NZ, although both the benefits and downsides were and are exaggerated. Jedibeeftrix’s fears notwithstanding, greater minor party involvement has made little impact. The Greens got NZ’s first Rastafarian MP was elected, but he didn’t manage to legalise cannabis. The right-wing populist demagogue, whose vanity party provided the object lesson mentioned above, was extremely offensive but didn’t manage to prevent the “wrong sort” of immigration.

      The way MMP was introduced is also instructive. We had a referendum which asked two questions: first, whether NZ should retain its existing system or switch to an alternative; second, *if* we switch, which system should we switch to (I forget what all the alternatives were, although STV was amongst them).

      I’m proud I voted for MMP, in the first election I was eligible to vote in, and I did and do consider it the best electoral system on offer. I should note that there is another referendum scheduled for next year on whether to retain it or shift to another alternative (in practice, if MMP loses, back to FPP). I’ve been out of the country too long to know how that is likely to go, though.

      • x.trapnel

        The system used in B-W is a bit different, since there are no party lists. Here’s a description (auf deutsch; google xlate; more detailed discussion of the system here). Basically you have 70 electoral districts that generate 70 directly-elected (plurality) representatives, and then after that use the statewide vote percentages of those parties that surmount the 5% cutoff to determine the total seats each party gets. This means that the total number of seats isnt fixed; it’s at least 120, but you add more in order to get rough proportionality. As for who precisely gets picked for this compensatory seats, that’s determined by who did (relatively) best in their distict. There’s also some weirdness about allocation being done at a middle, quarter-of-the-state level, which I don’t entirely understand and don’t care enough about to figure out. Anyway, you do get some interesting results with this–in the latest election, a crushing defeat for the FDP/CDU coalition, the CDU still has 60 out of the 70 direct mandates (down from 69), while the Green/Red coalition has only 9 and 1.

  3. “One reader was strongly in favour of a majoritarian system, which is surprising as he’s a Lib Dem.”

    I am in fact a classical liberal, which is not at all the same thing as a Liberal Democrat.

    To be more specific; I am both economically and socially liberal, and therefore pleased that the Tories are becoming more socially liberal, and likewise that the Lib-Dem’s are becoming more economically Liberal.

    To expand on my previous argument:

    Other people might have differing priorities and expectations from their electoral system, priorities and expectations that will lead them to different conclusions about the most appropriate system to employ, but these are mine.

    On those broader priorities:-

    I for one loath party-list PR because it has the dual disadvantage to removing a constituency link and making MP’s subject to party power, therefore discouraging a sense of responsibility to the mandate awarded by the voters who elected them.

    I equally dislike an electoral system that greatly encourages coalition government, as it has the dual disadvantage of discouraging radical policy due to the desire to pre-arrange compromise positions with potential coalition partners (yes, this is the experience in Oz), whilst removing an easy link to an electoral manifesto that both provides a mandate for such radical policy, and allows easy punishment at a later date if it proves a disaster.

    I further dislike electoral systems that encourage the splintering and narrow factionalism of political ideology, because all that matters to me is national politics within the nation state, therefore I demand that parties of government commit to a creed that is both broad and centrist. An electoral system that encourages coalitions provides legitimacy and influence to political ideologies utterly rejected by the mainstream of society.

    You may have guessed by now that principle of proportional representation means little to me, that would be correct, it is far from a priority that matters to me in so much as it actively hinders factors I really do care about.

    You may well say that is all well and good but what about all the people who do not find themselves ideologically represented by the big, national, parties of government, that while I may be perfectly represented other are not………….. My answer is simple: I do not care that communists, marxists, BNP, EDL, hard-Greens, etc find themselves without political representation in national politics. If their core and guiding principles cannot appeal to the nation at large then there is a bigger problem than their lack of ‘representation’

    Needing to see minority ideologies represented is characterised by transnational-progressivism and the intellectual result of the fascination with using proportionalism in defence of ‘victim’ groups (equality agenda), the institutionalisation of multitudinous identities (unrestrained multiculturalism), and the end of majority rule in favour of power sharing (coalition politics). All things I reject in favour of the following; is the proposal acceptable to Britain?

    Further, that I too am imperfectly represented as someone who is a classical liberal, but that it is an acceptable compromise given the priorities I value.

    On those priorities specific to the AV referendum:-

    While I favour a majoritarian electoral system one of the most important aspects of representative democracy in Britain is Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, and the evidence shows AV reinforces prevailing trends which in the case of landslides would tend to utterly destroy the incumbent under AV. It is difficult for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition to hold the government of the day to account, and thus perform its function, if it is reduced to 70 or eighty seats.

    So, AV achieves nothing I value, and manages to knacker all the characteristics I do hold dear, therefore I will be supporting FPTP.

    I do not expect everyone to hold the same priorities I do, and understand this will lead to different conclusions, but the idea that only scoundrels and cads support the continuation of FPTP is ridiculous nonsense.

    It works as I desire it to, and thus I will support it.

  4. Alex:

    A sincere question: do you think that STV/PR is worth aiming for because you believe that the Great British Public are broadly social democratic and the only reason we’ve had Tory govs and right wing policy is a mix of FPTP and cognitive bias, or do you think the Great British Public are mildly right wing and slightly stupid, and STV/PR is good because it would act to weaken this right-wing wanker tendency?

    I don’t know the answer to this question. I don’t know if my countrymen and women are right wing wankers or have been duped into thinking that a right wing agenda is in their best interests.

    And I don’t know if STV/PR will automatically lead to a more left wing political consensus. As it is there is something to be said for being able to kick out the bastards after five years or so.

  5. aelle

    “no, and campaign to get STV on the next Labour manifesto”?

    What, trust Labour to deliver electoral reform? Wait… haven’t we already seen that movie?

  6. Keir

    I think you can have a principled no-to-av vote even though you agree with the concept of av & so-on if you think that back room coalition deals designed to strap the chicken sanctified by a particularly silly referendum are a bad way to reform the constitution.

    The best model for effective UK electoral reform has to be the NZ Royal Commission, which moved NZ from a very bad FPP system where the Social Credit Party (yes, that Social Credit) picked up between 5 & 30 % of the vote but never got more than two seats, to one of the best electoral systems in the world.

    The main thing that worked was that MMP wasn’t a politician’s system.

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