Arimathean Essay

The Alternative Vote, what difference will it actually make?

(By ‘Elijah Luce’, May 2011)

I have been challenged to consider what the effects would be of this country going over to AV as a means of electing our representatives to Parliament.  Several of my friends have accused me of having been “conditioned” by the “outrageous lies” of the ‘Vote NO!’ campaign.  My friends, however, should know me well enough to know that I delight in taking my own very individual (possibly even eccentric) stance on most matters.  I do not unconditionally accept other people’s opinions, and in this case I have avoided the party political rhetoric and stupid personalisation being used by both sides, which I regard as demeaning sensible debate.  I have tried to read only unbiased accounts of what is involved in the process of election by AV, and I have then sat down and tried to rationally and logically deduce what this will mean for democracy in Britain.

I have entered this process with an open mind, apart from the fact that I am not a fan of FPTP, which clearly manifests numerous examples of unfairness, and I would welcome some kind of reform to the British electoral system.  My reasoned deliberations have led me to state certain opinions that agree with those expressed by the NO! campaign, but this is not because I have been in any way influenced by their supposed “lies”.  These are my own considered opinions, if they are wrong they are not “lies” they are simply mistaken opinions, however I have yet to be convinced that any part of my understanding of the situation is factually incorrect.  The hyperbolic protestations of the YES! campaign that anyone holding views different to theirs is “lying” seems to me to be verging on paranoia.

Apart from the concern I have about the fairness of the process of election by AV and its inherent complexity which I believe will make the electorate feel further divorced from politics, I have considered what the likely result would be on the make up of Parliament.  Everyone seems to agree that the effect of AV, when introduced to Britain’s very individual political process, is unpredictable.  Some predict big advantages for parties such as the LibDems and other smaller parties, and others speak of weak governments and everlasting coalition politics.  Actually I am more concerned that this enormous upheaval will hardly affect the make up of Parliament at all, and will actually be disadvantageous to the smaller parties.  I think it is possible to make some surmises based on the current voting patterns in the constituencies, which necessarily relies on generalities, and considers the situation in English constituencies only, but may still be instructive.

Firstly the Labour and Conservative Parties, who currently share the majority of seats in parliament under FPTP, are unlikely to be voted out in the early rounds of AV.  They are therefore liable to be the major beneficiaries of the second, third and subsequent preference votes of voters for the smaller parties who will be first to be eliminated.  Assuming that there is not an overall majority for a particular candidate in the first round, let us look at the order that candidates are liable to be eliminated and see what will happen to their second preference votes. 

First to go will be the small independent candidates.  As they are generally non party political, their support may be assumed to be cross party and their second preferences may go in any direction, however as their numerical support is low they are statistically fairly irrelevant and are unlikely to swing the vote for any of the leading candidates.  This changes if there is an independent candidate standing on an issue of particular local constituency interest, such as the closure of a local hospital for instance.  In this case they may command a sizeable minority of votes, whilst being incredibly unlikely to win the seat with an absolute majority.  Such ‘local interest constituency candidates’ actually stand a far greater chance of winning a seat under FPTP because they can claim votes from all other parties without needing to get an overall majority, meaning that the few independents we currently have in Parliament would be the first victims of AV.  It would however be necessary for the major parties, who want the second choice vote of the supporters of such a local candidate, to make every effort to appear to be sympathetic to the cause on which they were standing.  No candidate is going to say that a local hospital will close under him if that gives all the second choice votes to his opponent.  This will lead to the unedifying spectacle of identical promises being made by all the major candidates, which they may well not be able to keep when in government, thus splitting the second choice votes for the local candidate and again making no statistical difference to the outcome.

Next to go will be the smaller National parties, such as the Socialist Labour Party and the British National Party.  The SLP inevitably take their support from natural Labour voters, and mainly in seats where there is an extremely high Socialist support in the first place (there will never be an SLP surge in Knightsbridge).  Under AV these seats are almost inevitably going to be won after just a few rounds by the Labour party, and it may be anticipated that the second choice votes of SLP voters will help achieve this.

The BNP are a more interesting proposition as their support is more spread, but is primarily concentrated in areas of deprivation, notably in old industrial areas now experiencing considerable male unemployment.  It may be expected that second choice vote from BNP supporters would naturally go to parties on the political right, namely the Tories, however it is quite likely in some areas that the natural second choice would be Labour.  It can confidently be expected that very few BNP second or third choices would go to the LibDems or to the Greens.  There may be some second choice support for the UK Independence Party, even though these two parties are bitter rivals whose leadership loath one another, though they may command some similar core support.  There is no doubt however that both Labour and Tory candidates will need to woo the second choice votes of BNP supporters and either party may benefit from this support depending on the nature of the constituency.  It is unlikely that AV will result in the election of a BNP candidate to parliament however the BNP second choice vote is the first which could be sufficient to provide a leading party with an absolute majority, however the only parties liable to be elected on a BNP second choice vote are Labour or Tory.

The national party with the next lowest support is the Greens.  They currently have one MP elected via FPTP, but apart from Brighton where they have support comparable to a ‘local constituency interest’ candidate, they have made no significant showing in any other constituency.  There is no reason to suppose they will benefit particularly from ‘Independent’ second choice votes, they might benefit from SLP second votes but certainly not from BNP, therefore AV is not likely to give any electoral advantage to the Greens.  It is even possible that the one seat they have won under FPTP may be under threat once they need to win an absolute majority rather than simply the highest number of votes.  Assuming that a Green candidate is therefore the next to be eliminated their second choice is most likely to go to another ‘left leaning’ or ‘progressive’ candidate, thus Labour or the LibDems.  Note that this is the first political advantage which may be assumed for the LibDems under AV, although the Greens may not have been eliminated until several rounds into the counting by which time an absolute majority may already have been won by Labour or Tory.  A second choice for a Green voter may be for an Independent standing in that constituency, however if this independent has already been eliminated then this second choice is wasted as you cannot ‘reactivate’ a candidate who has previously been eliminated.

In our generalised English constituency we are now down to the four national parties who have consistently shown themselves to have the largest support in the country, the smallest of which is UKIP.  They have suffered most under FPTP because their support is geographically diverse (unlike much smaller Nationalist parties in Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland).  Though their support is high in Proportional Representation elections such as the European Elections, a vote for them in National Elections by FPTP is seen as a wasted vote so electoral support at General Elections is lower, though still about double that of the Greens.  They suspect that AV may benefit them, though they would prefer PR, and are therefore the only one of the four main national parties to have consistently supported AV (Labour and LibDems didn’t used to).  It is unlikely to win them any seats, however voters may feel more confident in giving them a first preference vote in the expectation of their second preference also being able to count, which may mean they have fewer lost deposits.  Assuming that none of the leading candidates have yet achieved the required 50% majority, the UKIP second preference votes will be divided up, though as UKIP are fairly contemptuous of all the other parties it is interesting to surmise how this might affect the vote.  It may be assumed that the majority of these second choices may go to the Tories, though UKIP claims that it gets as much of its natural support from Labour as it does from the Conservatives.  It can confidently be expected that virtually no second choice UKIP votes would go to the LibDems, the only avowedly pro-European party.  Similarly very few UKIP second choice votes will go to the Greens though some may regrettably go to the BNP, but as both these candidates are likely to have been eliminated before the UKIP candidate these would be wasted votes.

By this time virtually all constituencies should be in a position where the second choice votes have raised one of the candidates above the 50% threshold.  In the very few constituencies that are so finely balanced that there is no clear winner it will be one of the three main parties that will be next to fall, which could be any of them depending on the part of the country in which the constituency is situated.  On balance this is most likely to be the LibDems.  I believe this is more likely under AV because as I have shown above the LibDems have little reason to assume that AV will favour them.  They may pick up some second choice votes from independents, but these will be small numerically and cannot be relied upon; they will pick up a number of Green second choices but this should be balanced against the fact they will have virtually no support from UKIP or BNP.  In some areas, such as the West Country, they may be able pull ahead of Labour and it is possible that in these cases the Labour may be eliminated and their second choice votes are most likely to benefit the LibDems.  In other areas there is a chance that the Tories would be eliminated, but their support of the LibDems is likely to be less certain.  However, I reiterate my belief that it would be quite exceptional for either of the leading parties to be eliminated for although there are areas where either the Tories or Labour are extremely unpopular, the other party correspondingly has considerable support so will probably have achieved the 50% majority in the early rounds.

I have not mentioned Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland where regional (not National) parties command considerable support.  I anticipate they will benefit from AV, picking up a number of second choice votes across the board, strengthening their vote and increasing their representation in parliament.  FPTP has already has given them vastly more seats (25 in all) in our National parliament than their share of the National vote indicates that they deserve, due to the local appeal they draw upon, and AV will probably make this situation even more unbalanced.

I have so far deduced how second choice votes may influence the outcome of the constituency election.  There are also the third and subsequent choices, however these will of course only come into play when the voters for a candidate have seen both their preferred candidate and their second choice eliminated.  As you will see from my surmises above this is likely to be rare; only voters who give first second and even third choices to candidates who are unpopular enough to be voted out in the early rounds will get to ‘use’ all their choices.  Because of the numbers involved (small enough for their chosen candidates to be eliminated) their influence on the final vote will be statistically very small, particularly when one gets to third and forth choices.

Voters who give their first choice to one of the larger parties may think that if they give their second choice to one of the smaller ones then they are somehow spreading their support or giving succour to a smaller party with whom they may also have some sympathy.  This is not true, if you give first preference to one of the two or three main parties in your constituency it is extremely unlikely that your second choice will ever be considered.  If you give your second choice to a party that is liable to have been eliminated before your party then that second choice is wasted.  The only additional support smaller parties will get is from the second choice votes of voters for parties less popular than their own.  But this is unlikely to happen; it is far more likely that a voter who gives first preference to a small party to show their true allegiance, will go on to give their second vote to a candidate who they think stands a chance of winning the seat, otherwise they will have “wasted” their vote. 

Based on this logical projection of the outcome of an election in Britain under AV we can draw the following conclusions.  There will be fewer, if any, independents or representatives of smaller parties such as the Greens; there will be more ‘regional party’ representatives with a tiny part of the National vote; the LibDem vote will be squeezed and their representation may defy expectation and actually go down; the majority of the seats in parliament would continue to be shared between the Tories and Labour.  In any case, a candidate who wins a seat under AV through a combination of first, second and even third choice votes cannot honestly claim to have the support of more than 50% of the voters.  They have the support of the first preference voters who would have elected them under FPTP plus the votes of other members of the electorate who did not support them enough to give him their first preference.  This is not a mandate from the majority of the electorate.

In short a more complicated system is liable to produce a similar or even more unbalanced result to that achieved by FPTP.  The electorate, who had been promised a fairer system where their views would be made to count, would see that parliament was even less representative of the balance of political opinion in the country.   The electorate will feel even more deceived by politics and even more divorced from the process of choosing their representatives.

Ok, I acknowledge that the above is hypothetical, but it is reasoned and logical and is therefore quite possibly correct.  This is however completely the opposite to what the ‘Vote YES!’ campaigners are telling us will happen under AV, so will some of my pro-AV friends please explain to me where I am going wrong?

[see also ‘the Alternative Vote, an alternative to common sense.’ Click for link]

The Alternative Vote, what difference will it actually make?