AV is a small change – but it could have a big impact

by Richard Burden

For me, securing a yes vote in the referendum is about helping to create a more open and participatory politics. A lot of people in this country find politics a really big turn-off – and I can understand why. They want to see a change in the way politics is done. I do too.

Introducing AV is a small change – but it could have a big impact.

It is hardly earth-shattering to suggest that if we MPs are going to claim the right to speak for our constituents, we should each secure the support of 50% of those who voted. Preference voting systems – such as AV – are already used up and down the country in the internal elections of membership organisations, businesses and unions. Labour and other political parties use them to elect their own leaders.

That preference voting for the House of Commons is sometimes regarded as an outlandish suggestion says a lot about the narrow culture of the existing political system. It will take more than a new voting system to change that culture. But it will certainly help.

I was recently interviewed about AV on the BBC Politics Show along with the Conservative MP, Daniel Kawczynski. Like many others who oppose change, Daniel claimed that AV would give some voters a second vote whilst others got just the one vote. This is nonsense. When votes are counted in every round of an election held under AV, every citizen who casts a vote has his or her vote recorded equally – as one vote.

What AV does mean is that voters can express a preference. At the polling booth the voter can identify the candidature or party they would most like to support and cast a first preference accordingly. Under the current first past the post (FPTP) system, voters often feel obliged, not to vote for the candidate they most support, but rather for the one they think has the best chance of beating the party they least want to see elected. That fosters the kind of negative campaigning by political parties that is such big turn off for so many voters.

First past the post may have suited the political landscape of the 1950s, but, as a new report by IPPR demonstrates, it is an electoral system which has had its day. Indeed, the evidence suggests that these days it cannot even be relied upon to produce the decisive election results its supporters claim.

Even so, it’s not surprising that the Conservative party is overwhelmingly against change. They have traditionally done nicely out of first past the post – and it is likely to be even better for them if they manage to gerrymander Parliamentary boundaries in the way they are trying to.

AV would be good for Labour, but the most important reason to vote for change is that it would be good for democracy.

First past the post is actually a misleading name for our current electoral system. Because there is no winning post that the candidate has to reach. Not a majority of votes. Not even a designated percentage. It’s like a race where it doesn’t matter if your horse ever completes the course – just as long as it gets a bit further than the other horses manage. The result is that many MPs are elected with less than one in three voters supporting them.

I did better than that at the last general election, but I was still some way off the 50% mark. The atmosphere in the constituency and my assessment of what makes local people tick makes me think that I would have been successful if the election had been held under AV. But I cannot know this would be the case unless we give the voters the power to express those preferences.

If I am right in my assessment, I would win. If I am wrong, I should lose – however uncomfortable that would be for me. That knowledge would be an added incentive for all parties to stay closely in touch with voters, to develop a politics that embodies clarity and which is capable of securing a greater breadth of support. Surely that has got to be good for politics.

Richard Burden is Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield and chair of the all-party Parliamentary group on electoral reform.


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8 Responses to “AV is a small change – but it could have a big impact”

  1. “The result is that many MPs are elected with less than one in three voters supporting them.”

    I’m not sure I’d call 8 out of 650 “many”.

    Ultimately, we have three parties in competition for most seats in England. Two of them are in coalition, and the third one is Labour. That we would actively choose to help our enemies combine against us, when we have the option of fighting them divided, beggars belief.

    As to giving some voters extra votes, there is a clear sense in which AV does do that. If I vote for the “winning” Labour candidate, and the Lib Dems come second, and the Tories third, then under AV, Tories get a second vote, to cast for the Lib Dems. I get to vote Labour in the second round, sure (the same vote), but what I don’t get to do is say that, on reflection, I would have preferred the Tories to the Lib Dems.

    So a ballot cast 1, 2, 3, is fully counted and all preferences exhausted and expressed if the first preference is for the second or third placed candidate in the first round, but it is not fully counted – the second and third preferences are expressed only ‘in pectore’ if it is cast for the candidate who leads in the first round.

  2. Robin Thorpe says:

    I think that the option to vote in favour of AV is not a straightforward choice for people who are to the left of the political centre. I am in favour of electoral reform and my personal, inexpert, opinion is that STV with 3 member constituency is a fairer, more representative system. AV is, however, our onyl current choice for reform. The potential hiccup for Labour MPs is that a lot of constituencies are fought between 2 parties. Either Labour and Lib-dem or Tory and Lib-dem. There are not many where it is a striaght fight between Labour and Tory and most peoples second choice is Liberal. The potential outcome is therefore that a Liberal candidate who has 30% of first choices then gets 45% of second choices. A Labour candidate on 45% of first choices but 20% of second choices could therefore lose the seat despite being most peoples first choice. My example is over-simplified and does not make a case for AV being unfair; it is marginally more representative of peoples preference but is, I would say, weighted in favour of maintaining a Con-Dem coalition (interestingly the Lib-Dems insisted on a referendum for STV when having coalition discussions with Labour but only asked for AV with the Tories).

  3. Roger says:

    In my constituency in 2010, the Conservatives beat Labour by 333 votes. They got around 15,000 each. Yet following a good campaign, and disillusionment with Labour, the LibDems got 8,000 votes and the Greens 2,000. All the rest together got 2,000.

    That’s a clear example of vote-splitting. Though Labour wouldn’t have been their first choice, most of those Green and LD voters would have preferred Labour over the Tories, and kicked themselves upon seeing the result.

    @oldpolitics: More than one vote may be counted but only one counts. It’s essentially a quick version of a run-off system in which the bottom candidate is eliminated and their supporters told they must choose someone else (or not vote again).

    @all: In some ways AV prepares the ground for STV in that it gets voters used to a preferential system (then the only change is to multi-member constituencies). But I’m not personally convinced about STV: for now it’s just a question of AV vs FPTP.
    The LibDems may attract more Tory 2nd preferences than they would have in the past but it’s still very much a social democratic party with a lot more in common with Labour and the Greens. As I said, it was only split-votes that denied a centre-left majority in 2010.

  4. Neil says:

    “but what I don’t get to do is say that, on reflection, I would have preferred the Tories to the Lib Dems.”

    Errrr surely you do: you vote 1) Labour; 2) Tory; 3) Lib Dem. Look! You’ve just ‘preferred the Tories to the Lib Dems’ – that’s because 2 is better than 3.

  5. @Neil – Yes, I can cast a vote that way, but nobody ever finds out that I have done so – I get to “say it” in exactly the same way as if I whispered it to my bathroom mirror, or wrote it in my private diary. My second and third preferences are not counted, not tabulated, not published, and have no impact. Nothing.

    If I want my preference to be counted, I have to cast a tactical first preference for the Tories – but if that causes them to leapfrog the Lib Dems, I don’t have the option to transfer it back to Labour in the final run-off – I just have to hope that Lib Dem support for the Tories is less monolithic than Tory support for the Lib Dems. Whichever way you cut it, the more popular my first choice, the less opportunity to make an impact I have with my votes.

    @Roger – The claim that the Lib Dems are “still very much a social democratic party” can only come from someone who has been living some kind of secluded monastic existence for the last 12 months. A year ago, it was merely a misunderstanding. Now, it is a travesty of the truth – and the willingness of Lib Dem voters by a margin of over 3 to 1 to back the Tories in a straight Red-Blue fight shows both how far to the right their party has moved, and why AV would damage Labour massively in 2015.

  6. Labour it may be suggested faces a difficult struggle over the next five years as it now appears that it will have to fight two party’s both the Orange Book Liberals and the Conservatives. For it is almost certain that the far right Orange Book Liberals will support the Conservatives in future elections.
    The changes to the electoral boundaries, the proposed system of AVand electoral pacts will help both the Conservatives and the Orange Book Liberals to gain more seats thus Labours uphill struggle starts to become a mountain. The answer to Labours dilemma may come in the form of further electoral reform by supporting Full PR. The Open List System will allow every vote to count and may gain massive support from electors who have been disenfranchised for decades under the current system and how have been treated unfairly by boundary changes.
    If Labour were to support the Open list system then this might unbalance the Liberal Democrats and drive a wedge between them and the far Right Orange Book Liberals. Disaffected Liberal Democrats may even join Labour as they realize That a commitment to a PR system if Labour were elected could create a vacuum with The Orange Book Liberals and Conservatives on the far right and Labour, The Green Party,rebel liberal Democrats and others filling the centre left.
    Clegg may find himself under massive pressure as a proclaimed supporter of PR for he will know that under The Open List system the LibCon coalition would be revealed and vulnerable as a far right group thus it is conceivable that Clegg would find some way to reject PR so as to maintain his cosy relationship with the Tories and the monopoly of power they may gain through boundary changes, AV and electoral pacts thus, AV should be rejected in the referendum in May 2011. Labours best weapon it may be suggested remains the transparency and honesty of a binding Commitment to Full PR within six months of office should they be elected.

    After much thought I now reluctentley believe that voting for AV in May could be the only way of ever moving toward full PR in the future. A no vote would probably set the cause back decades with this in mind I will be voting for AV in May(posted 30/12/2010)

  7. Robin – I’m not a fan of STV in general, but I can’t fathom why anybody would think a three member constituency is the best bet. Lot at the North East in European parliament elections if you need an explanation why. There aren’t enough seats to ensure proportionality. It’s the worst of all worlds – no constituency links, a lot of safe seats and minimal proportionality.

  8. Andy says:

    Yet more nonsense with the omission of what AV is all about which is party economics and what the Yes campaign claim to be the inability to fight wining campaigns in what it deems as so-called safe seats.

    The tactical voting myth needs to dismissed, as does this ‘its great for democracy’ fallacy.

    AV allows the BNP to vote (as we do now) but then have a preference vote. While this pathetic campaign sees this as a good thing and a price worth paying, if that 2nd preference comes Labour’s way, I don’t and make no apology for it!

    The idiots within the campaign can continue with their petty ‘you must be a Tory not to want what we deem is good for you’ argument but if you look closely at Labour you’ll find that we lost the last election the Tories or Condems, as they prefer to be called, didn’t win it and we lost because we didn’t give enough people reason to want to vote for us.

    Create policy that the electorate want and give candidates that people will vote for, as they did in Oldham and we will win, without the need for a rigged voting system. Don’t and we won’t get in and more importantly won’t deserve too.

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