Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

The Alternative Vote system – a ‘Cunning Plan’

On 5 May, British voters will vote in a referendum on whether to replace our existing ‘First Past the Post’ voting system for parliamentary elections with the ‘Alternative Vote’ (AV) system. I had not previously examined the implications of AV and had no prior ideological bias for or against it. But having now had a chance to look at how AV would work, I am literally dumbfounded that our great democracy is under threat of being lumbered with this cruel joke of a voting system.

Under AV, voters would not just give one vote to one candidate, but would list candidates in order of preference – putting ‘1’ for their first-choice candidate, ‘2’ for their second choice, etc. In the likely event that no candidate received an absolute majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest such votes would be eliminated from the contest, and their voters’ second-choice votes would then be added to the total votes of the other candidates. If there were still no candidate with an absolute majority, the candidate who now had fewest votes would then be eliminated and their votes redistributed, and so on until one candidate had achieved over 50% of the votes.

This system would increase the voting power of voters who vote for fringe parties such as the BNP or Respect, and disadvantage those voting for moderate, mainstream parties. Those voting for the fringe extremists would be likely to have their votes redistributed to their second, third or further choice; those voting for the mainstream parties would be much less likely to. Effectively, supporters of unpopular extremist parties would be given more votes than supporters of popular moderate parties.

To illustrate this, imagine a hypothetical constituency with 100 voters, being contested by four candidates from the following parties: Labour, the Conservatives (Tories), the Liberal Democrats (LibDems) and the British National Party (BNP). To win, a candidate would ultimately have to achieve 51 votes [NB I am aware, of course, that real constituencies have more than 100 voters, and that the distribution of votes is likely to be more complicated than what follows; this is a simplified but representative model of how AV would work].

In the first round of voting, the outcome is as follows:

Labour: 40 votes – second-choice votes to LibDems

Tory: 29 votes – second-choice votes to LibDems

LibDem: 16 votes – second-choice votes to Tories

BNP: 15 votes – second-choice votes to Tories

The BNP candidate, as the lowest-ranking, is therefore eliminated and their votes transferred to their voters’ second choice – in this case, the Tory candidate, whose votes would therefore increase to 29 + 15 = 44 votes. Since still no candidate has a majority, the next lowest candidate – the LibDem – is eliminated and their votes transferred to their voters’ second choice – again the Tory. The Tory candidate thus has 44 + 16 = 60 votes, therefore an absolute majority, and wins the election.

The system is grossly unfair at every level:

1) It is the lowest-ranking candidate alone whose votes are redistributed. It privileges those voting for the lowest-ranking candidates, and penalises those voting for the more popular candidates.

Why shouldn’t it be the highest-ranking candidate whose votes are redistributed ? In the example above, this would mean the Labour candidate is eliminated, and their 40 votes transferred to the LibDem, who would then have 16 + 40 = 56 and would win the election. The Labour voters, who actually voted for the candidate with the most first-preference votes, would therefore at least have their second-choice candidate win. Yet under AV, the BNP voters – not the Labour voters – would have their second choice win.

Why should this be so ? I have not yet heard any attempt at justification from the pro-AV camp.

2) AV pretends that a candidate who might not even have a plurality under the First-Past-The-Post system, actually has an absolute majority. It’s a con-trick.

In the example above, the Tory candidate who won only 29 out of 100 votes, therefore 11 fewer than the Labour candidate and 22 short of an absolute majority, is given a ‘majority’ through the second-preference votes of the BNP and LibDem voters. This ‘majority’ is gained because only the second-choice votes of the BNP and LibDem voters count. If everyone’s second-choice votes counted, the result would be as follows:

Labour: 40 first-preference votes and 0 second-preference votes = 40

Tory: 29 first-preference votes and 31 second-preference votes = 60

LibDem: 16 first-preference votes and 69 second-preference votes = 85

BNP: 15 first-preference votes and 0 second-preference votes = 15

Under AV, the Tory candidate wins because they receive the second-preference votes of the BNP and LibDem voters, but the LibDem candidate doesn’t receive any second-preference votes, even though they received many more of them than the Tory. Were all second-preference votes to be treated as equal, the LibDem would win. Of course, the LibDem candidate only has 85 out of 200 total first- and second-preference votes – not an absolute majority. But this is more than the Tory candidate, who has 60 out of 200. The latter is a smaller percentage than the Labour candidate received of the first-preference votes. Yet the pro-AV camp would have us believe that the Tory candidate actually has an absolute majority of 60 out of 100 !

There is simple justice to the existing system: the candidate with the most votes wins. Under AV, a candidate who comes second or third might win, just because the votes are redistributed in an arbitrary and unequal way. In the example above, the Tory would win, even though 71 out of 100 voters preferred another candidate.

If, under the existing voting system, the British people don’t already feel politically disillusioned and disempowered, replacing it with AV would make sure that they do.

And all this is leaving aside the still more important reason for voting against AV – the overriding need to kick Nick Clegg. I’m not joking. We’re only voting on AV because of the back-room deal that Clegg struck with the Tories to enter government, at the price of ditching his pre-election promises and betraying his voters. And Clegg only wants AV because it would boost his party’s share of the parliamentary seats. It beggars belief that we are actually in danger of having our voting system ruined, just so an unprincipled politician can receive his pay-off. And this despite the fact that even Clegg described AV as a ‘miserable little compromise’ !

Visit the ‘No to AV’ campaign site.

Thursday, 31 March 2011 - Posted by | Britain, Marko Attila Hoare | , , ,

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: