Alternative Vote is “even less proportional” than status quo

Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced that there would be a commitment in the next Labour manifesto to hold a referendum on changing the electoral system for Westminster to one that uses the "Alternative Vote" method. But it is not a proportional system and can actually be less proportional than our current First Past the Post system.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced that there would be a commitment in the next Labour manifesto to hold a referendum on changing the electoral system for Westminster to one that uses the “Alternative Vote” method.

There has been much comment about this in the media today but there seem to be some misconceptions about what AV actually is. For example, Simon Heffer writing in today’s Telegraph seems to think that it is a proportional system. It is not and can actually be less proportional than our current First Past the Post system.

Indeed section 82 in Chapter 5 of ‘The Report of the Independent Commission on the Voting System‘ which reported in 1998 (commissioned by Tony Blair after his 1997 election victory although never acted upon) makes clear what is likely to have happened in 1997 under AV:

“AV on its own suffers from a stark objection. It offers little prospect of a move towards greater proportionality, and in some circumstances, and those the ones which certainly prevailed at the last election and may well do so for at least the next one, it is even less proportional that FPTP.

“Simulations of how the 1997 result might have come out under AV suggest that it would have significantly increased the size of the already swollen Labour majority. A ‘best guess’ projection of the shape of the current [1997-2001] Parliament under AV suggests on one highly reputable estimate the following outcome with the actual FPTP figures given in brackets after the projected figures: Labour 452 (419), Conservative 96 (165), Liberal Democrats 82 (46), others 29 (29). The overall Labour majority could thus have risen from 169 to 245. On another equally reputable estimate the figures are given as Labour 436, Conservatives 110, Liberal Democrats 84 and others 29, an overall majority this time of 213.”

Lewis Baston of the Electoral Reform Society wrote on Comment is Free yesterday that this is a “half measure” and that UKIP are likely to be the only allies that Gordon Brown can count on in any campaign for AV. He suggests “Vote yes, because Gordon Brown and Nigel Farage want you to” is not a compelling slogan.

Neal Lawson, chair of Compass also made his feelings plain at last night’s “Democratic Renewal Rally” where, as reported by John Harris:

“..he said he felt ‘patronised, angry and frustrated’. A convincing referendum on election day, he said, would have put David Cameron on the defensive, and begun to rebuild the centre-left electoral coalition that was glued together in 1997. With the offer of a better system than AV, there would have been the prospect of a new kind of politics: the entry of into Westminster of new outsiders, an end to the tyranny of swing voters in the marginals, and more.

“But Brown had ‘flunked the test of boldness’ thanks to his usual insistence on grim split-the-difference politics”

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8 Responses to “Alternative Vote is “even less proportional” than status quo”

  1. Alex Ross

    Out of interest, has anyone suggested an alternative system that still keeps 100% of MPs with a constituency link? I’d be interested in looking at that – AV+ and PR are no goes for me as I think all MPs should have a constituency link.

  2. Ronan*

    Yes – the PR-STV system retains a constituency link for all representatives. They are elected by a Single Transferrable Vote (STV).
    It is the system used in the Republic of Ireland.

  3. Ed Leighton

    AV is an answer to the question of how to better assign an MP to his constituency. In this system, even a conservative (for example) with the most votes could lose if a clear majority voted for anyone but him.

    However, AV+ also gives those who vote for minor parties a stake, as the greens and even (perhaps) the SDP would get the odd seat in the top up section. The job of those minor parties elected in the top up would be to represent the interests of their voters nationally on whatever their core issues are. While being representative in this respect, and increasing the scrutiny of the House of Commons over legislation, it retains the link between the constituecy and its MP.

    Surely this is a panacea?

  4. Roger

    Ed – SDP?

    Excellent article – question I have is whether anyone has done any serious analysis of how AV might have impacted on the 2005 election?

    I started doing one myself but found it methodologically too complex to calculate.

    Other question would be whether GB’s reference to AV allows an option to choose between AV and AV+?

    As one can hardly now conceive of a majority Labour govt resulting from the next election, the only scenario I can imagine a referendum happening at all is if a minority Labour government is forced to seek Lib-Dem support – n which case they would certainly demand at least an AV+ option.

    What gets tricky is turning it into a genuine multiple choice – one that allowed a choice between no change, AV, AV+ and STV would almost certainly be indecisive in that no clear majority would vote for any one of these options.

    I’d also suggest that if we do by some largely undeserved miracle get a hung parliament rather than a Tory landslide then having a referendum on any form of PR under a weak minority government is hardly conducive to a strong vote a system that will be presented by the media as delivering more weak minority govts.

    Lets face it this could have all been settled in 1998 but Tony Blair blew it – now we’ve no hope of seeing any change for at least another decade.

  5. Mark Thompson

    Roger – thanks for the nice comment.

    As for an assessment of what would have happened in 2005, I did see something the other day that suggested Labour would have got an increased majority (something like 82, up from 66) but I cannot for the life of my find where I saw it. If anyone else spots it please let us know and we can hopefully do another post based around it.

  6. Ben Raue

    There are still some advantages to AV. Primarily, it eliminates the need for tactical voting, which would help minor parties and to a lesser extent the Liberal Democrats. People can freely vote for the Greens without worrying about wasting their vote. Most analysis I have seen suggests AV would benefit Labour and Lib Dems, as the two parties would tend to swap preferences considering the ideological position of the Lib Dem membership towards the left and Labour’s animosity towards the Tories.

    It’s also worth noting that AV+ as proposed by Jenkins is not particularly proportional. Jenkins proposed electing 80-85% of MPs through constituencies. This in itself is problematic, as it is quite possible and indeed likely that parties could win a majority just in the constituency seats without getting anywhere close to a majority.

    In 2005 Labour won 413 seats off 40.7% of the vote. If you assume that AV wouldn’t particularly hurt Labour at the very least, and assume the bare minimum of constituency MPs, then Labour would stil win about 330 seats. They wouldn’t need a single list seat to form a majority government on less than 41%.

    Even worse than this, Jenkins proposed dividing list seats amongst 80 regions across the UK. Even Northern Ireland was given two regions.

    If you look at this map:, you see that the vast majority of top-up areas would only get a single top-up MP, producing very severe lack of proportionality.

    Many, many top-up areas would elect constituency MPs solely from one party (in the last few elections, Labour, but there are other areas where this applies for the Tories). In those areas, the opposition party would get the one seat, but this wouldn’t come close to proportionality. It would be unlikely the Lib Dems would win many in any place where they came third unless the constituency seats were divided very evenly. I think the chances of the Greens or UKIP winning any seats would be virtually zero. If they were to win any, it would have a lot more to do with them standing in a region with an even split of major party constituency seats rather than actually polling particularly highly.

    To see this problem of disproportionality, it’s worth looking at the 2007 Welsh Assembly election. In four of the five regions, the proportional result was not achieved due to a party getting an ‘overhang’ in the constituency seats. Unlike in Germany and New Zealand, where an overhang is solved by adding extra seats, in Wales (and Scotland too I think) this is solved by simply taking away a seat from the party that wins the last proportional seat. In Wales this cost the Conservatives three seats. Labour won more seats than its proportional share in three regions. This would have made a significant difference in the Assembly. Remember Wales elects four top-up AMs in every region, which is much more proportional than AV+ would be for the House of Commons.

    If you wanted to make AV+ work you would need to increase the proportion of list seats to 30-40%. Germany has 50%, Wales has 33%, New Zealand has 40% or so. In addition you would need to increase the size of top-up regions. Germany has 16 top-up regions to elect 299 top-up seats. I think the correct magnitude would be to elect say 200 list MPs to represent the nine English regions and the three other countries (the Euro constituencies) or maybe break Scotland and some of the English regions in two.

  7. Cantab83

    When Gordon Brown announced a referendum on AV, did he mean AV? Or was the term simply a lazy shorthand for all possible flavours of AV+ with the exact composition to be decided later? Or was it another exercise in triangulation designed to kill off any real prospect of reform?

    If it was the latter then I can understand the anger of people like Neal Lawson of Compass who wanted the referendum to coincide with the next General Election. However, the problem with that strategy is that the issue of PR could become subordinate to the other main issues at the election. Then there is the other problem of double jeopardy. Either scenario will mean that two separate electoral hurdles must be overcome before electoral reform can become a reality. With four possible permutations and only one that will deliver electoral reform the odds are not good.

    As Ben Raue points out, the proportionality of AV+ depends on the number of top-up seats. However, there are three other important factors that most people overlook when considering the merits of any type of electoral reform.

    Firstly, you cannot judge the merits of a proposed electoral change for the House of Commons without considering how such a change interacts with the electoral process for the upper chamber (assuming we ever get one). The two bodies should be designed to work in unison with each complementing the other and compensating for the deficiencies of the other, not merely reproducing the political balance or composition of each other. A bicameral system only serves any real purpose if it introduces a separation of power or powers, and creates constitutional checks and balances.

    Secondly, people wrongly assume that if electoral reform is implemented everything else will stay the same, that the constituency boundaries will be the same and the amount of tactical voting will be unchanged. Neither of these are true. If the voting system changes then the Boundary Commission will inevitably change the size and shape of constituencies in order to make the outcome of any election fairer, and people’s voting strategies will then be influenced by both of these changes.

    Finally there is the elephant in the room that no politician will talk about. That elephant is the Parliament Act of 1911 and its 1949 amendments that give the House of Commons ultimate supremacy over the upper chamber. It’s justification is the greater democratic legitimacy of the elected House of Commons (HoC) over the unelected House of Lords (HoL). But if the HoL is reformed into a democratic chamber elected by PR using the list system, and the HoC remains with FPTP or merely changes to AV or AV+, how can the Parliament Act continue to be justified? The reformed HoL will have at the very least equal democratic legitimacy, and so should have equal power and status. Unfortunately, many MPs will never countenance such a transfer of power, and presumably neither will many of them countenance any real electoral reform either. In that respect these MPs demonstrate their true anti-democratic credentials.

    But perhaps the most worrying aspect of Brown’s speech was the one reform that was glaring by its omission. What is the Government’s policy on House of Lords reform? Until we know that everything else will be put on hold.

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