02 May 2011

How radical is the Alternative Vote?

Gandhi listed 7 deadly sins, one of which was 'politics without principle'. Whatever happens in the AV vote, all of us who have campaigned for a YES vote can reassure ourselves that we were on the side of the principle of democratic progress and that history will judge us on the same side as the Chartists and Suffragettes (no matter how inept our national campaign has been).

I have no doubt that eventually we will get a change in our very undemocratic electoral system because plurality of voting will not go away. More and more people are voting for parties other than the main two, as the results become more and more unfair as a result, I am confident that hopefully we will get change before I die but I think AV would have accelerated this change by allowing people to put their real first preferences down. While AV is fairer it would highlight even more how unfair one MP per constituency majoritarian rule is (more on this below).

The Tory insistence on new enlarged boundaries and five yearly boundary reviews will lead to an even more distorted system - The Tories winning well over 50% of the seats on less than 30% of the vote could be on its way - would people really tolerate that? Will people really tolerate a system where you never get a chance to vote out your MP because you have been moved across a new boundary after just one term, a boundary that bears no relation to geography or local council boundaries. These boundary changes (that have already been put through without a referendum) will make a mockery of the so called 'constituency link' that first-past-the-posters are apparently so proud of. Maybe 1 in 6 voters will be moved boundaries every general election, making a mockery of results, and making it even more impossible for small parties and Independents to make an impact.

If we lose on Thursday, it might put back the chances of reform for decades. It is quite interesting to note that in 1931 when Labour and Liberal MPs voted through AV only to be scuppered in the Lords, that it was the divide between those who wanted change that ultimately lost the change. If you don't want the present system to continue, then vote YES for change. Cleverly the NO campaign have managed to win over not just those that want to preserve the status quo, but some of those who don't. It is this last group that hurts us reformers the most.

One of the arguments not used by the YES campaign is one of its most powerful arguments for AV, just how radical AV could be in changing people's first preferences. To explain how complicated decision making is under the current system I will use an example I know a lot about.

At the last general election in Hove I voted for the Labour candidate because I knew it was very likely (looking at past constituency results) that the only two candidates that could win were Tory or Labour (and I most definitely didn't want a Tory MP). This was a hard decision for a number of reasons;

1. I really wanted to vote for the Greens.
2. I knew that plenty of others wanted to vote for the Greens but would probably do the same as me and vote Labour because Labour were probably best placed to stop the Tories.
3. I knew enough people would still vote Green despite it probably handing victory to the Tories.
4. A lot of the large Lib Dem vote would also prefer the Greens or Labour candidate to a Tory.
5. It was likely Labour would lose anyway, so out of the three losing leftish candidates perhaps I should vote Green to build up their vote for next time, even though they would lose badly this time. Impossible to know.
6. If everyone could express a preference the Green might win.
7. Without AV we could never be sure how popular ANY of the candidates really is.
8. Even some of the Tory vote was tactical.
9. There had been some boundary changes which made assessing the strength of each candidate's vote even more difficult.
10. No-one could be sure how different Hove voters would be from the national opinion polls which had moved considerably since the last general election.
11. The Greens had done very well in local ward elections in Hove, but these voters would very probably vote tactically. Who knows how many?
12. A lot of Green, Lib Dem and other minor party supporters might not have turned out because they knew their respective party couldn't win.

Surveys have shown that nationally at least 20% of voters vote tactically in general elections. In marginals like Hove this is likely to be much higher. As most tactical voters would vote for the Labour candidate, perhaps as much as 40% of the Labour vote was tactical coming from Green and Lib Dem supporters, 20% of Tories might have preferred UKIP and even some of the Lib Dem vote might have preferred the Greens. None of this is especially unlikely, these are similar to the sort of transfers that actually do take place between similar parties in Australia. Lets look at the actual results in Hove last year and try and guestimate how much tactical voting would have changed first preferences.

Tory 37%
Labour 33%
Lib Dem 23%
Greens 5%

Under AV the first preferences could have easily have looked like this (The Euro elections held under PR allow voters to put their real first choice and the Greens got 31% in Brighton and Hove. Just in case you think these first preferences are not plausible for Hove).

Tory 29%
Lib Dems 23%
Greens 20%
Labour 18%
UKIP 10%

As you can see, a radically different idea of what voters really want, but of course under AV this is only the start and things can get really interesting once we start looking at further preferences.

UKIP would be eliminated first and their 2nd preferences redistributed.

Tory 38%
Lib Dems 23%
Greens 20%
Labour 19%

Next Labour preferences would be redistributed.

Tory 39%
Greens 31%
Lib Dems 30%

Then the Lib Dem vote.

Greens 52%
Tory 48%

So the Greens would go from finishing fourth under first-past-the-post with 5% of the vote to winning the seat under AV (this is not mere speculation, the Greens did a similar thing in Melbourne - although admittedly it took 2 general elections).

And this could have happened in Hove at a time when the Lib Dems were still popular. Now I don't rule out either Labour or the Lib Dems sneaking ahead of the Greens in the early rounds and going on to beat the Tory to win, but this would still place the Greens with an outstanding chance of taking the seat next time now that people know their true level of support (it would also stop Labour using disingenuous bar charts to suppress the Green vote). The Greens doing well is even more plausible now the Lib Dems are so unpopular.

Hove is hardly an unusual seat, but we could see the Greens also doing very well in Brighton Kemptown, Norwich South, Leeds Central, Bristol South, Stroud, Lancaster. In fact 6 seats would become immediately very winnable for the Greens straight away under AV with plenty of others coming onto the radar. Also UKIP could start to make serious inroads in Tory heartland safe seats. Still think that AV is not a radical change? Vote YES on May 5th if you want things to change radically.

1 comment:

  1. That's a good idea,to assume that first votes under AV would be the same as votes cast in the 2009 Euro's. As you say, Lucas would have probably won anyway, and where's the harm in that?