Thursday, 27 January 2011


Ken Livingstone put the case against the alternative vote succinctly in a piece for Socialist Campaign Group News more than 12 years ago:
The problem with AV was summed up perfectly by Winston Churchill at the beginning of this century when he pointed that it allows an election to be decided by ‘the least important votes of the least important candidates’. Those voters who have backed one of the two strongest candidates in a constituency get no further say in the process, whereas those who have voted for minor parties and crank candidates then get a second vote to determine the outcome between the two leading parties. I can see no logic to justify a majority of the representatives in parliament being determined by a small minority of voters in each seat who will be allowed the luxury of a second vote.

Friday, 21 January 2011


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 21 January 2011

It’s an old adage of political journalism that it’s a mistake to read too much into a single by-election result, and Oldham East and Saddleworth last week is no exception.

Indeed, you could argue that it’s not very significant at all. Oldham East and Saddleworth is a very unusual constituency, one of a handful of Labour-Liberal Democrat marginals, and the circumstances of the by-election were odd in the extreme – the nullification of the general election victory won only eight months ago by Labour’s Phil Woolas, and Woolas’s disqualification from parliament on the grounds that he had untruthfully claimed that his Lib Dem opponent, Elwyn Watkins, had sought the support of Islamist extremists in his campaign. Unless there is a spate of by-elections following convictions of sitting Labour MPs for fiddling expenses, Labour isn’t going to have to fight many fights in conditions remotely similar.

Add the likelihood that nearly all constituency boundaries will be redrawn as a consequence of the coalition’s plans to reduce the size of the House of Commons and the possibility that the next general election will take place under a different electoral system, and Debbie Abrahams’s victory for Labour last week looks in certain lights to be very small potatoes.

But it’s not completely insignificant. It is, most importantly, a win for Labour under Ed Miliband at a time when – how to put it politely? – he has yet to establish a commanding presence on the political stage. If Labour had lost, his leadership would now be being lampooned widely, and not just by the usual suspects in Labour’s ranks who still haven’t got over his beating his brother last September. As it is, he has a little more breathing space.

Oldham East and Saddleworth also provides a fascinating snapshot of how voters’ allegiances have shifted in the eight months since the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government was formed. Labour won essentially because it attracted thousands of votes from people who had voted Lib Dem at the general election. The Lib Dem share of the vote held up, but only because thousands who had voted Tory in May 2010 switched tactically to the Lib Dem to keep Labour out.

This pattern of Lib Dems defecting to Labour and of Tories tactically voting Lib Dem was good news for Labour last week – but it need not always be so. If anti-Labour tactical voting becomes the norm in other Labour-Lib Dem marginals, it’s quite possible that Tories tactically voting Lib Dem will outweigh Lib Dems defecting to Labour, with very bad results for Labour. It would be even worse if Lib Dem supporters opt to vote tactically for Tories to keep Labour out in Labour-Tory marginals.

And that’s on the assumption that the electoral system remains the same. If it is changed to the alternative vote, as will happen if voters vote yes in the forthcoming referendum on the electoral system … well, the message for Labour from Oldham East and Saddleworth is not at all reassuring.

Under AV, single-member constituencies are retained, but voters mark their preferences on their ballot papers by ranking the candidates (“1, 2, 3, 4 …”) rather than choosing one (“X”). If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of first preferences, the second preferences of the last placed candidate are redistributed, and so on until one candidate has more than 50 per cent.

Now, no one can do more than guess how preferences would have stacked up under AV in Oldham East and Saddleworth. But the scale of Tory tactical voting for the Lib Dem suggests that he would have picked up many, many more second preferences than the Labour candidate from the 13 per cent of voters who voted Tory last week. And it’s by no means an outrageous conjecture that the Lib Dem would also have picked up an overwhelming majority of second (or third or fourth) preferences from the 11 per cent who voted UKIP or the BNP. I know it’s only a parlour game, but on this scenario I think that Labour would have lost narrowly last week.

Party self-interest is not of course what should count in choosing an electoral system – but in reality it will count a great deal come the AV referendum. Oldham East and Saddleworth is a warning to those Labour supporters of AV who have blithely assumed, on the basis of the experience of anti-Tory tactical voting in the four general elections before 2010, that Labour would benefit from a switch to AV. If anti-Labour feeling is widespread among voters, it could lose even more comprehensively under AV than under first-past-the-post.

That’s not my principal, principled reason for voting “no” in the referendum. But it’s a reason all the same, and it’s related to the principal, principled reason – of which more anon.

Cross-posted from Gauche

Tuesday, 11 January 2011


Conservative electoral reformer Phil Cane has a post on the Platform 10 blog that makes a pro-PR case against AV:

The alternative vote was proposed as the electoral system for Westminster in 1918 and 1931, and both times it failed in the House of Lords. Since then it has also been rejected by Lord Jenkins (whose 1998 Report of The Independent Commission on the Voting System is available here)...

In 1997, the Conservative party won 30.7 per cent of the vote; under FPTP it won 25 per cent of the 659 seats. Under AV, Jenkins reported that the party would only have won 14-16 per cent of those seats. Jenkins concluded his findings on AV by stating that “it inhibits a Commission appointed by a Labour government… presided over by a Liberal Democrat from recommending a solution which [would] have left the Conservatives with less than half of their proportional entitlement”.

But this disproportional link isn’t a one-off. In 2010, when Labour scored only 29 per cent, it would have delivered it almost as many seats (248) as the Conservatives, who won 36.1 per cent of votes (ie 283 seats). In 2005, Blair was re-elected on 35 per cent of the vote – the lowest share of the vote ever won by any majority government (and which meant a majority of 66). Yet under simulations of this election under AV, Labour could have increased its already disproportional majority to 88...

Complexity and invalid votes are also a hidden danger of AV. The Australian parliament analysed 146 countries’ voting patterns to calculate the average number of invalid votes over the last 4 years. Australia was in 46th place, while the United Kingdom was best placed, with 0.2 per cent of votes cast being invalid, compared to Australia’s 3.2 per cent. Even Gambia (1 per cent) and Bangladesh (1.5 per cent) – both FPTP users and with half the literacy rate of Australia – suffered fewer invalid votes...

The alternative vote doesn’t eliminate the problem of safe seats. In Australia since 1945, 40 per cent of seats haven’t changed hands; inner city and rural seats are nearly all safe and it’s in the suburban marginals that elections are won. In the UK the equivalent figure is just 29 per cent of seats.

As a modern Conservative I support and understand the need to modernise our parliament and the electoral system (to the additional member system or AV-plus). FPTP may be flawed but AV ... does nothing to solve these problems – it adds to them.

Thursday, 6 January 2011


Labour blogger Darrell Goodliffe makes a salient point in a post on Labour Uncut:
AV will not increase the chances of smaller parties winning a seat. The 50 per cent threshold makes this less likely than with a simple majority system. Caroline Lucas, for example, was elected with 31 per cent of the vote in Brighton Pavilion. The reason smaller parties do not win more seats under FPTP is down to the scarcity of resources, the cost of campaigning and the geographical density of their smaller support. None of these are issues addressed by the introduction of AV.