Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Alternate Vote

As is well known, the coalition government have announced that there will be a referendum on a new voting system for the House of Commons. The referendum on the Alternate Vote (AV) system will take place next May, and if passed will replace the First Past The Post (FPTP) system that is currently used. Under FPTP, the candidate who gets the most votes wins the seat, and the votes for the other candidates are ignored.

Many people see Proportional Representation (PR) as being the ideal system. Under PR, parties get a number of seats that is in direct relation to their percentage share of the vote. For example, if a party gets 25% of the vote, then they would get 25% of the available seats. Although good in theory, it has other problems, for instance in breaking the link between an MP and a constituency.

Under AV, instead of voting for one individual, the voter selects first, second, third and more preferences by writing numbers against a candidate's name. If no candidate gets over 50% of votes on the first preference, the candidate who comes last is eliminated and his second preference votes allocated to the other candidates.  The candidates are repeatedly eliminated until one candidate has over 50%. See the LSE website for a good guide on the different voting systems.

The big argument for the change to AV is that it gives small parties a more representative share of the vote, although not as much as would be the case under PR. But is this the case?

Interestingly, Australia is the largest country that uses AV (for their federal elections), and they have just held such an election. So what do the results tell us about AV? (there are minor differences between the Australian and proposed British systems, but these do not affect this analysis). The Australian results (from show that there are 150 seats in total.

Labor: 72 seats, 38.2% of vote, 48% of seats
Coalition: 73 seats, 43.7% of vote, 48.6% of seats
Greens: 1 seat, 11.5% of vote, <1% of seats
Others, 4 seats, 6.6% of vote,  2.6% of seats

As cane be seen, Labour is over-represented in terms of seats (they got 48% of seats from 38% of votes), the Coalition less so, and the Greens are massively under-represented. From this, it can be seen that AV hos produced a massively disproportional result.

So what happened in the 2010 UK elections? This is not a simple calculation due to the nature of the country - parties such as the Scottish Nationalists only stand in seats in Scotland and therefore skew the results (therefore they get more seats than their percentage share of vote over the whole of the UK shows). For this reason I have used the England-only figures off Wikipedia. On this basis, England has 532 seats (excluding the speaker, whose seat is treated in a special manner).

Conservative: 297 seats, 39.5% of vote, 55.8% of seats
Labour: 191 seats, 28.1% of vote, 35.9% of seats
Liberal Democrat: 43 seats, 24.2% of vote , 8% of seats
Green: 1 seat, 1% of vote, 0.2% of seats

As can be seen, both the Australian and UK election results show the same problems; the two major parties are all over-represented, and the remaining parties are startlingly under-represented. This shows that AV goes nowhere near proportionality (where the number of seats a party receives is in direct proportion to the percentage votes cast for that party).

So why the change? The fact that AV is not proportional (and indeed can even be less so than the existing FPTP system) is well known to politicians. The obvious reason is that the Liberal Democrats want Proportional Representation (PR) as it gives them more seats and power, but know they could not get the Conservatives to agree to it. They therefore want to change the system to AV as part of an ongoing process, the end result being PR. This seems a costly and slightly mendacious way of getting such a change.

Interestingly, in the early days of the Labour party they were in favour of PR. They rapidly went off the idea when they became a majority government.

Governments like change (except, of course, for a change in Government). A change to AV may be a change, but it is not progress. What we need is a discussion about the future shape of politics within Britain, including all the things that need changing. What happens about the farcical situation in the House of Lords? How do we get more female and ethnic minority MPs? How do we resolve the West Lothian question? How can we have more proportionality in the House of Commons voting system? How do we prevent the 'jobs for the boys' syndrome? How can we get more experts and less career politicians involved in politics? How do we break the power of the political parties? How do we prevent lobbying (surely soon to be next scandal)?

A change to the voting system for the House of Commons should not be seen in isolation, but in relation to all of the above questions. If politics in Britain is broken (as many claim after the expenses scandal), then a change to AV will not fix it; the problem is much deeper. We need to look at the totality. Applying a sticking plaster to the wrong injury will not help.

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