Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Alternative Vote and other animals


Visualisation of electoral outcomesIt seems that our new ConDem government will be offering us a referendum on changing the electoral system used for general elections from First Past The Post to Alternative Vote (FPTP → AV). The pre-election manifesto status was that the Tories wanted to keep FPTP, the Lib Dems wanted proportional representation (PR), while it was Labour who were the party suggesting a move to AV. A few times the BBC made the mistake of suggesting that AV is a proportional system, but this is not surprising from reporters who are more concerned with personalities than electoral geekery.

There is some self-interest in the parties’ various stances. On the basis of votes cast in this last general election, the Tories would probably lose seats given any of the other systems, Labour would probably gain a few seats under AV, and the Lib Dems would probably gain around a score of seats under AV and over a hundred under PR. Of course, these are hypothetical results, because we can’t be sure how a different system might change the way electors cast their votes (for the data, see this Grauniad article). All the different systems would still have resulted in a hung parliament, but oddly both AV and PR might have made a Lib-Lab coalition more appealing with a stable majority (mainly because the Lib Dems would have more seats). The ConDems offer of AV is a compromise in that the Tories would possibly lose seats but not as many as under PR, and the Lib Dems would gain seats but not as many as under PR.

In spite of the possible self-interest, there are principles at stake here. Alternative vote aims to give voters a more nuanced vote; rather than putting one X beside one candidate, voters are asked to rank candidates numerically in order of preference. Given the knowledge that if a voter’s number 1 candidate comes last then the vote would be transferred to the number 2 candidate, there is an incentive to vote for one’s true preference rather than voting tactically as so many people did in the last election. For parties like the Greens that have widespread popular sympathy but struggle to get votes and seats because voters tend to back stronger parties, AV might give a significant boost. Safe seats would still exist under AV, but there’d probably be fewer of them. Parties would also be encouraged to be more conciliatory to gain second-preference votes from supporters of other parties. The principle behind AV is that it is better that our voting system captures the nuances of preferences of voters, rather than forcing us to second-guess one another in tactical voting.

Proportional representation is an idea rather than a electoral system. PR is the idea that a party should get a proportion of seats in parliament equal to its proportion of the vote — a party getting 25% of the vote should get 25% of the seats in parliament. This is compared to our current system that often gives an absolute majority to a government party even though it only receives a little more than a third of the vote, and virtually eliminates the representation of all but the top two parties. There is something quite reasonable in PR’s demand that, if a certain proportion of the electorate back a certain party, then that party should have a number votes in parliament equal to that proportion.

AV isn’t a proportional voting system. In Australia, where AV is used to elect the House of Representative, there is some evidence to suggest that it’s even less proportional than FPTP! So, it’s effectively More Choice, Less Voice!

There are a number of voting systems that are designed to be proportional. We use closed-list PR to elect MEPs (except in Northern Ireland). However, this is probably the worst PR system as it only allows the voter to vote for one pre-appointed list of candidates, who fill seats in order from top to bottom depending on the number of votes received. This takes the individual candidate out of the vote, and forces us to vote for a party logo and gives us no say who gets in.

The Welsh Assembly, London Assembly and Scottish Parliament all have mixed-member proportional systems: where most members are elected from constituencies and then some others are elected from regional top-up lists in order to introduce proportionality. However, this system creates two types of representative: one who wins a constituency vote, and the other who gets in on a party list as a consolation prize for not winning a constituency seat. If all our votes are to be equal, and all our representatives’ votes are to be equal, then our representatives’ mandates should be equal too.

The majority of advocates of PR support Single Transferable Vote (STV) as the best system to achieve proportionality. STV works quite like AV in the voting booth: the elector orders the candidates in order of preference. However, constituencies are enlarged so that each elects multiple candidates, between three and five. STV has a few minor problems (mainly that it’s rather difficult to decide how best to replace a MP who resigns, dies or is recalled), but it gives us full control of voting out our true preferences for candidates while ensuring a proportional representation in Parliament of our votes.

The theology of electoral systems is not a well trod path. At most we can say that there is a biblical injunction that leaders, both political and religious, act as concerned shepherds, putting the needs of their people first. A theology of the human as the image of God, and therefore the seat of all earthly sovereignty, is a desirable basis for democracy, equality and human rights. This would make it theologically desirable that each elector’s vote counts for the same (no safe seats, wasted ballots), their deep preferences are taken into account and that any representative body is truly representative of the spectrum of political will of the electorate. I note that clayboy has written against PR, but it seems that a system like STV would allay his fears of PR being just a party machine.

Given the choice between staying as we are and moving to AV, as it looks like that’s all we’re going to get in a referendum, I’d vote for AV, as it overcomes the inertia to voting reform, hoping that it’ll lead to something more like STV.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

3 thoughts on “Alternative Vote and other animals

  1. clayboy’s fears are not allayed by STV. Bp Colin Buchanan has an article in this week’s Church Times arguing as you do. Last time I saw him – a couple of months ago, so before the election – I asked him how his campaign to gerrymander perpetual power for the LibDems was going.

    I think the sort of system you propose will always give disproportionate power to the third party and even other smaller parties. Indeed your graphic backs me up. The losing party chooses the government, and with either the winner or the second party could make an unassailable majority.

    I’m not convinced that’s terribly helpful.

    • Well, I tried to separate out party self-interest (the Lib Dems support PR because it would give them more seats) from the principles (if 20% of the electorate support one party, shouldn’t 20% of the electorate’s representatives be of that party?).

      I think we have the problem of the seamless mix of what a general election is for, from representation of the people, composition of a legislative body and formation of a government. We are doing all three of these things with our elections. Advocates of PR talk most about the representative side of things, in a very bottom-up way, while its detractors speak about how a government is chosen.

      In fact many Tories, and not a few Labourites, decry PR as leading to weak and unstable governments. The opposite is, of course, the government with landslide mandate like that of Tony Blair (enough said?).

      We could try a presidential system, and vote for one person as our leader. That would keep the result simple. However, we work with a more nuanced (thread-bare patchwork?) system that makes a government out of whoever commands 50% plus one of the Commons. Although you clearly are against ‘disproportional power to the party’, how is it that you are happy when a single party claims the majority than two or more?

      You say that PR gives disproportionate power to the third or smaller parties, but disproportionate to what? Their power would be proportional to their electoral polling, rather than disproportionately smaller as it is now. Our current system and AV gives disproportionate power to the two main parties, leading us to a constant swing back and forth between red and blue. The thing is, we do not know how PR politics will look 20 years down the line, so I doubt it would lead to perpetual power to the Lib Dems. On the ground, electoral stasis can be mostly avoided if larger constituencies (five members each) are used. As I live in Vince Cable’s constituency, our current system handed me a done deal years before the election was announced. Now, that’s real electoral stasis! AV would leave us in the same situation, but just give us a more interesting race for second place.

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