AV: A bigger and better change than people think

By voting Yes in the referendum on AV on 5 May 2011, the British public will be voting to give themselves a voice. AV isn’t just a slight tweak to the way we count votes. It’s an opportunity to make a truly historic leap towards real and effective democracy.

Our guest writer is Andy White, research analyst, Electoral Reform Society

Nick Clegg yesterday confirmed a date – 5 May 2011 – for a referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV). Since the Coalition agreed to a referendum on AV, we in the Electoral Reform Society research office have been inundated with queries from sitting MPs. More often than not, they’re after projections of how AV might have affected the most recent general election. In short, they’re worried about how a switch to AV will affect their chances of holding onto a seat in 2015.

Some of them have every reason to be fearful: AV means that all MPs need 50 per cent support in their constituencies, and only a third of the current cohort of MPs command such levels of support. Many MPs are also concerned that AV will negatively impact upon their party. But there is a problem with trying to understand voting reform in this way.

For too long, the different options have been outlined in crude party political terms. So the Conservatives favoured First Past the Post, the Lib Dems were passionate about proportional representation, and Labour were divided about what would work best for them.

The AV referendum is a chance to rethink the debate. Nobody is sure which parties will get the most out of it (although we can state with some certainty that the BNP will struggle). British politics is now characterised by an unusual inter-party dynamic: the Lib-Cons in Westminster, an SNP minority government in Holyrood, and a Labour-Plaid coalition in Wales.

It is extremely hard to predict how voters will use their second and third preferences – the crucial votes needed to push candidates over the winning mark. This is a marked difference from the mid-nineties, when the Jenkins Commission concluded that AV was “unacceptably unfair to the Conservatives”. Back then, the anti-Tory vote was so strong that most voters would happily have written “1” next to a Labour candidate and “2” next to a Lib Dem, or vice versa.

Now, though, several parties have had a taste of government. The party system is fractured, and the parties themselves look fragile. Will Lib Dem voters reward the Conservatives for working with them in government? Do left-leaning voters who opted to vote tactically for Lib Dem candidates feel betrayed? How will things pan out in Scotland and Wales, where the nationalist parties enter the fray?

These questions are difficult to answer, hence the dithering on this issue from the Conservative and Labour leaderships. And therein lies the beauty. The great opportunity that AV offers is for the people not the politicians. MPs will no longer be able to depend on a minority of diehard supporters in their constituencies. They’ll need to build consensus across the community, attracting second-preference votes from supporters of other parties. This much is obvious.

But what nobody has really picked up on is the effect the newness and unpredictability of AV will have on British election campaigns and party manifestos. In recent years, we have become accustomed to highly sophisticated election campaigns from the richest parties, exemplified by Lord Ashcroft’s Tory strategy at this year’s election. Millions of pounds are funnelled into a small number of key constituencies, where the latest marketing techniques are used to attract the swing voters who decide the election.

AV won’t make “safe” or “marginal” seats extinct, but, crucially, the battleground seats will be much harder to identify. The parties’ well-oiled campaign machines will be forced to broaden their range of targets for fear of being ambushed in previously secure seats. Sure, the Tories won’t have to worry about Windsor or Tunbridge Wells, but current strongholds like Bournemouth, Canterbury, and Chelmsford will suddenly seem a bit too risky to ignore.

By voting Yes in the referendum on AV on 5 May 2011, the British public will be voting to give themselves a voice. AV isn’t just a slight tweak to the way we count votes. It’s an opportunity to make a truly historic leap towards real and effective democracy.

29 Responses to “AV: A bigger and better change than people think”

  1. Andy Urie

    RT @leftfootfwd: AV: A bigger and better change than people think: http://bit.ly/a72500

  2. diana smith

    found this piece from electoral reform society on AV very useful http://bit.ly/a72500

  3. paulstpancras

    RT @mulberrybush: found this piece from electoral reform society on AV very useful http://bit.ly/a72500

  4. Felicity Burch

    RT @leftfootfwd: AV: A bigger and better change than people think: http://bit.ly/a72500

  5. Gareth Lewis Shelton

    RT @leftfootfwd AV: A bigger and better change than people think: http://bit.ly/a72500

  6. amol rajan

    RT @leftfootfwd AV: A bigger and better change than people think: http://bit.ly/a72500

  7. Rupert Read

    Useful post, thanks.
    Good things about AV: 1) No more tactical voting. 2) No more wasted votes. 3) Hardly any more safe seats. 4) It’s a start…
    p.s. Worth pointing out once again that it was this blog that first broke the news to the nation that the announcement would be made this week and would include a May 5 date. Our story has now been fully vindicated: http://www.leftfootforward.org/2010/07/av-referendum-to-be-announced-next-week-held-in-may/

  8. RupertRead

    RT @leftfootfwd: AV: A bigger and better change than people think: http://bit.ly/a72500

  9. Andrew Tennant

    RT @amolrajan RT @leftfootfwd AV: A bigger and better change than people think: http://bit.ly/a72500

  10. Jack Holroyde

    RT @leftfootfwd: AV: A bigger and better change than people think: http://bit.ly/a72500

  11. Anna

    RT @agnt_orange RT @amolrajan RT @leftfootfwd AV: A bigger and better change than people think: http://bit.ly/a72500

  12. winston k moss aka 9xzulug

    this av+ progressive policy holds them to account.they now realise they are employed to work in the interest of the taxpaying british citizen and not the other way around.TAKE BACK PARLIAMENT,it’s our the people’s

  13. winston k moss

    RT @leftfootfwd: AV: A bigger and better change than people think: http://bit.ly/a72500

  14. Cory Hazlehurst

    Great post on @leftfootfwd on AV: http://tinyurl.com/39z7esd "an opportunity to make a historic leap towards real and effective democracy."

  15. Vote No To AV

    In a post by @leftfootfwd it overlooks the fact that AV is unfair to an unpopular party so will hurt LibDems badly http://bit.ly/a72500

  16. Benjamin

    AV is just another form of FPTP. It avoids the crucial elements of proportionality, free choice, and competition, and is simply the politicians’ answer to notions of illegitimacy. Instead of responding properly to free and equal FIRST choice votes (proportionality), a second category of votes of votes is created (second preferences) to dragoon or manufacture majorities. That way politicians can claim “legitimacy” by claiming 50 per cent mandates per seat, while carrying on with business as usual: a locked up political system dominated by disproportional results and a two (or two and half) party system. And I thought Left Foot Forward was pluralist!

  17. Mr. Sensible

    I am not in favour of this.

    I don’t want to see perminant Hung Parliaments, particularly after the experience we have had here.

  18. cim

    Benjamin: Absolutely AV is not proportional, but I do think it has potential to improve competition between parties and give the current minor parties more of a chance to break through in target seats. That’s a start.

    Mr. Sensible: The only recent general election in which AV would have been likely to give a hung parliament in which FPTP didn’t give a hung Parliament anyway is 1992 (and since the Conservatives lost their shaky majority before the end of that Parliament, it’s hard to hold this up as a success of FPTP in producing a strong government). Conversely, it’s possible that AV would have prevented the hung parliament of February 1974, and saved the need for another election.

    Opposing PR systems on those grounds is fine, but AV isn’t a PR system and is not any more likely to give hung parliaments and coalition or minority government than any other system.

  19. Andrew Barnes

    RT @leftfootfwd: AV: A bigger and better change than people think http://bit.ly/a72500

  20. Edward Carlsson Browne

    Talking about millions of pounds being funnelled into key constituencies is scaremongerering and, for the most part, wrong.

    There are strict election spending limits, which kicked in on 1st January this year. Sure, Ashcroft may have chucked his money in before then, but election spending is most powerful closest to the election.

    And close to the election, you’re limited to a specific amount per constituency, with a hard cap for the nation as a whole.

    I can’t remember the exact amounts, but it’s in the region of £8,000 per constituency plus 7p per elector.

    That’s not big money. Big money is America, where you can get $10m spent on a congressional race.

    There are good arguments for electoral reform. But the ERS keeps ignoring them to peddle half-truths at best.

  21. cim

    Talking about millions of pounds being funnelled into key constituencies is scaremongerering and, for the most part, wrong.

    8k per constituency, plus another 4k for electors, is around 12k. Twice, once for each party strongly contesting the seat. There’s around 150-200 constituencies marginal enough to potentially change hands. So, 150*12k*2 = around 3.5 million pounds within the strict limit period alone. That’s probably significantly more than is spent in the (larger) group of safe seats.

  22. Andy White

    Edward: as cim shows, it certainly does number in the millions of pounds.

    But spending in key marginals even exceeds that, because much of it can be justified as national expenditure. For example, the resources (staff, equipment, databases) needed to target the marginals effectively is not a constituency-level cost, but will be used for targeted constituency-level campaigning.

    I know from our own campaigning that a key marginal can be targeted without exceeding spending limits by including surrounding constituencies (e.g. with mobile billboards).

    There are always loopholes and workarounds, and the bulk of campaign expenditure is ultimately aimed at the marginals.

    Which of the good arguments for electoral reform do you think the ERS keeps ignoring? That’s a nice accusation, but you haven’t elaborated on it.

  23. AV: A bigger and better change than people think | Electoral Reform Society

    […] This post first appeared on Left Foot Forward […]

  24. Electoral Reform Soc

    RT @leftfootfwd: AV: A bigger and better change than people think http://bit.ly/a72500

  25. The Case for AV (or: ‘AV it!) « Paperback Rioter

    […] what had been a Labour seat since 1945, whilst the BNP vote dropped by a quarter. AV would make more seats more competitive, meaning that MPs would have to take more notice of their constituents. We’d have […]

  26. ‘AV it! The case for AV (part 2) « Paperback Rioter

    […] what had been a Labour seat since 1945, whilst the BNP vote dropped by a quarter. AV would make more seats more competitive, meaning that MPs would have to take more notice of their constituents. We’d have representative […]

  27. DocRichard

    @CharlotteV AV won’t make “safe” seats extinct, but, crucially, the battleground seats will be much harder to identify. http://bit.ly/cycOPi

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