The AV Debate

By John Hayward 17 Jan 2011
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(To avoid disappointment, this is not about the merits and demerits of the Authorised Version, or King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, four hundred years after its publication transformed the spirituality, language and culture of the English-speaking world, but is a continuation of yesterday's post, Electoral Reform: a Biblical Approach, which concluded that, even if you disagree with my conclusions on this question, the discussion should be focused around participation, not representation.)

Some claim that 'millions of votes are wasted’ under the existing ‘first past the post’† voting system (FPTP) used for electing politicians to the House of Commons. If we are all made in the image of God and therefore of equal worth, then, we are told, there should be a bias toward the vulnerable, the powerless and the voiceless. However, this argument is flawed on two counts. Firstly, bias is different from protection and does not reflect equality. Secondly, and more seriously, this presumes foreknowledge of results. Millions of votes only appear 'wasted' once one knows that a particular candidate has secured a large majority. Yet the bible clearly warns against such presumption (e.g. James 4:13-17). Today's 'safe' seat was yesterday's marginal and today's marginal could well be tomorrow's 'safe' seat. In any case, the 'alternative vote'† system (AV) would not prevent seats from being 'safe'.

Others argue that we need AV because coalition government introduces checks and balances of the kind that are in evidence in the very different electoral system across the Atlantic, where compromise is needed at virtually every step if politicians are to achieve anything. Yet others respond that we only need to look at the Conservative-LibDem government to see that coalitions throw out their policy commitments and manifesto pledges, and instead develop new manifestos over which voters are given no say.

Does AV offer equality?

Yet others claim that AV would deliver a fairer result as every winning candidate must have secured the support of at least half the electorate. However, an AV system didn't stop people complaining that Ed Miliband's election as leader of the Labour Party had been unfair, as his brother David had been the clear first choice of MPs, MEPs‡ , and Labour Party members.

Indeed, given the three-party state of our politics, AV would almost guarantee a repeat of the unedifying spectacle witnessed last May, when the decision of who forms the Government was taken away from the voters and placed in the hands of the third party – the Liberal Democrats. How, one might ask, is that 'fair'?

Even at the constituency level, AV does not offer equality, as only the second and subsequent votes of constituents who do not support the preferred candidates are counted. Thus, AV treats the second and subsequent votes of a limited group of voters as of the same value as first preferences. In other words, an MP's success could be determined by the preferences of, say, UKIP or BNP voters, which could see candidates adopting more extreme policies, for example on immigration, in order to appeal to the prejudices of these voters in the hope of picking up their transferred preferences.

As John Redwood graphically put it, 'If I go to the races, I expect the horse that comes first to be the winner. I do not expect the judges to say that as the first and second were close they will ask the losers who they would like to win. Nor do we say that as it was close the first and second place have to run it again without the others to see if one is faster without the others getting in the way.'[1]

Or, as Winston Churchill more succinctly observed eighty years ago, AV allows democracy 'to be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates.'[2]

AV need not even produce a more proportional result than FPTP. For example, under AV parties in Canada have been known to obtain 90 per cent of the seats on 54 per cent of the vote.[3] Neither does AV prevent a party from winning a landslide victory. In the last ten years, AV has twice given the Australian Labor Party more than 70 per cent of the seats in Queensland, despite securing less than half of all first preferences.[4]

Making the process of casting a ballot more complicated, by asking the public to rank candidates or to vote for parties and individuals, also risks a repeat of what was seen in the 2007 Scottish Parliamentary election, when more than 100,000 (or five per cent of) voters were disenfranchised. Most constituencies saw at least 1,000 ballot papers rejected, a situation all the more unfair in any area where this number exceeds the winner's majority.

Concluding remarks 

At the end of the day, reform of the process by which individuals and the parties they represent are elected cannot bring about the change that is needed. Governments will still get majorities or even landslides with less than 50 per cent of the vote, and we will still have tactical voting and so-called 'safe' seats. We could spend days and years discussing how to structure government differently and how to determine who should represent us in government, but it will still come down to people with different ideas and values needing to cooperate and negotiate in the interests of the common good.

† Under FPTP, also known as 'plurality rule', people cast a single vote for the candidate they want as the representative for their constituency and whichever candidate gets the most votes is elected. Under AV, known as 'instant run-off' in the USA, people rank the candidates; if no candidate has more than half of first preference votes then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed among the other candidates according to voters' next preferences; this process continues until one of the candidates has secured a majority of the votes cast.

‡ MPs: Members of Parliament; MEPs: Members of the European Parliament

[1] John Redwood's Diary: Why should Lib Dems vote twice?

[2] HC Deb 2 June 1931 c106 cited by I. White & J. Woodhouse (2010) AV and electoral reform, House of Commons Library SN/PC/05317

[3] 'in 1948 the Social Credit party in Alberta hit the jackpot when it scooped 97% of the seats by winning 53% of first preference votes (in the 47 constituencies that used AV)' cited by

[4] See results for Queensland's 2001 and 2004 elections

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