How would extremists fare under AV?

Ken Clarke has claimed that the Alternative Vote would make it easier for extremists to be elected to Parliament. This is the opposite of the truth. But it is one of a number of questionable and misleading claims about extremism being made by opponents of the Alternative Vote.

Ken Clarke has claimed that the Alternative Vote would make it easier for extremists to be elected to Parliament. This is the opposite of the truth. But it is one of a number of questionable and misleading claims about extremism being made by opponents of the Alternative Vote. Let’s look at the evidence.

1. AV would make it harder for extremist candidates to win

Despite Clarke’s misunderstanding of the impact of AV, it is entirely rational for Nick Griffin and the BNP to be campaigning against the Alternative Vote, and calling for a No vote.

Leading pollster Peter Kellner has set out why the BNP’s call for a No vote makes sense from the viewpoint of their own party interest – and has called AV:

“The most extremist-proof of all electoral systems.”

The reason why is captured in today’s shock opinion poll in France, which has Le Pen of the Front National as the leading candidate with most first preference votes:

Marine Le Pen (NF) – 23%
Sarkozy (UMP) – 22%
Aubry (Socialist) – 22%

Le Pen may be the first-past-the-post leader in this one poll. But, under the French second ballot, a close cousin of the Alternative Vote, we know that Le Pen would be opposed by 75% of voters if she made the final two-candidate run-off, as centre-right and centre-left voters would rally to the mainstream democratic opponent, as we saw in 2002, when the Front National eliminated the Socialists, whose voters supported Jacques Chirac.

Supporters of systems of proportional representation may well have to accept that these increase the possibility of the BNP winning seats if the far right party could increase their share of the vote to 5% or more (they won 1.9% in 2010). By contrast, supporters of the Alternative Vote have a cast iron case that it makes BNP victories even less likely.

It is only fair to point out that the BNP remain a long way short of winning a Westminster constituency under first-past-the-post. Honest supporters of the No campaign would have to acknowledge that they would be even further away under the Alternative Vote.

The BNP have been able to win local election seats on minority votes. As Kellner argues, it very likely that Alternative Vote elections would wipe them out in local government.

(One irony of Eric Pickles’ offer last year to consider withdrawing the Conservative candidate from Barking to ensure that the BNP could not split the mainstream democratic vote to win was that such a tactic would be entirely unnecessary under the Alternative Vote: there would be no case at all for disenfranchising Tory voters by removing their opportunity to vote for their party. But a full field of mainstream candidates would never present the risk of an extremist victory under AV which Pickles clearly felt was a risk under first-past-the post).


Few opponents of the Alternative Vote claim extremist candidates can win. (They mostly make the entirely contradictory argument that only lowest common denominator candidates will win 50% of the vote).

But several other claims about how AV might boost the BNP were used during last Thursday night’s Oxford Union debate, where I was part of the Yes to AV team, with Katie Ghose of Yes to Fairer Votes! and ex-independent MP Martin Bell, which won the students’ vote on the night.

2. The Churchill canard: do the second preferences of the least popular candidates given a higher priority?

Bernard Jenkin MP produced a splendidly entertaining Winston Churchill impression at Thursday night’s Oxford Union to promote the claim that AV decides elections on “the most useless votes for the most useless candidates”, as Churchill once claimed. Shrewsbury MP Daniel Kawczynski complained that this meant that, if the BNP did badly and came last, it might be that only their voters would decide the winner, because those transfers “would get counted first”.

This claim that transfers for less popular candidates count for more than those of a more popular candidate placed third is both illogical and innumerate.

The Alternative Vote puts a “post” into first-past-the-post election. A candidate can get past the post without any transfers at all by getting 50% of the first preferences. If they get 49%, and then pass the post after only one or two candidates have been eliminated, it is not the case that the lowest placed transfers have been given greater weight than untransferred votes.

The untransferred votes are part of the equation too – an equation which shows that, once the 50% ‘post’ has been passed, the leader could not now be overtaken, even if every remaining vote would transfer to the same rival candidate. It is clear too that every voter only has one vote in every round of the count, whether that vote is still with their first choice candidate while they remain in the race, or has transferred after their elimination.

3. Would extremist second preferences decide the result?

Daniel Kawczynski told the Oxford Union that it was quite wrong that BNP voters could decide the result in his Shrewsbury constituency. This struck me as nonsense. Kawczynski has a 15% lead over the Liberal Democrats and a 23% lead over Labour. The 2% who vote BNP can’t decide who wins.

Shrewsbury 2010 election result:

Conservative: 43.9%
Lib: Dem 29.0%
Labour: 20.6%
UKIP: 3.1%
BNP: 2.2%
Green: 1.1%

Perhaps Kawczynski means they could do in an extremely close election. But this is a very weak and rather misleading objection to the idea of seeking to elect the candidate with majority support in the constituency.

The leading candidates must appeal to over a quarter of the remaining electorate to build majority support; of course, that means that any candidate who pandered to the 2% BNP vote on the fringe would expect to pay a heavy electoral price for doing so.

4. Why would extremist voters vote mainstream too?

In any event, BNP voters are the least likely of all to have a second preference – as this relies on their deciding to “vote extremist – and vote mainstream too”.

The “BNP voters will decide the result” claim entirely depends on most voters who have gone to the polls to express a “send all the immigrants back” message or a “plague on all your houses” message deciding to vote for a mainstream winning party too.

Is that how voters think? The “No to AV” campaign’s claim would depend on large numbers of voters thinking something like this in the voting booth:

“Well, it’s the BNP for me. I’m sticking two fingers up to the entire political class.

“Oh! I see I’m allowed a second preference too. Hmm. How interesting. Well, come to think about, maybe the Liberal Democrats aren’t so bad after all. I’d quite like to see them defeat the Conservatives around here!”

It is very likely that many BNP voters will cast only their first preference, while others might also vote for the English Democrats, or perhaps a more mainstream anti-politics appeal of UKIP, before exhausting their ballot without voting for the major parties who are in the top two in all constituencies.

BNP votes could decide results under AV only if several extremely unlikely conditions were met. They would need to have more votes than the winning margin (which is very rare); their voters would need to express a mainstream second preference (which is unlikely in most cases), and even where they do, those preferences would need to break very unevenly for one major candidate over another to have the potential to be decisive (and there is no evidence that they would do so). The electoral geography of BNP support – strongest in heartland Labour seats – makes their ability to affect results even less plausible.

Pandering to BNP votes would prove a self-defeating strategy under AV. The winning candidate needs to seek 50% of the vote – since the BNP have under 2% of the vote and 80% of voters very strongly disapprove of them, any association with them is going to be toxic. There is simply no hard evidence that BNP voters would be more likely to play a decisive role under AV than under the current system, where extremist voters could already decide to vote for one of the likely winning candidates over another.

The fact that the extremist BNP prefer first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote does not and should not delegitimise the arguments of mainstream democrats from the Conservative or Labour parties who think first-past-the-post a better electoral system for their own quite distinct reasons. But it does make their attempt to argue that the Alternative Vote would be good for the BNP especially unconvincing.

66 Responses to “How would extremists fare under AV?”

  1. David Angell

    RT @_Jameslloyd: RT @leftfootfwd: How would extremists fare under AV?

  2. oldpolitics

    I am rather enjoying this outbreak of apparent expertise about the French political system. The high poll rating of the Front National comes within a system which uses second ballots widely – so while they may not win, it’s hard to argue that they have been damaged by the voting system. For more on that, I’d recommend Marc Bayle’s book (old, but not necessarily dated), “Le Front national: ça n’arrive pas qu’aux autres”

    Some specific points;

    * That poll is a bit dodgy – it picks a particular list of possible candidates, which is by no means certain to be the actual list of candidates.
    * Electing a President is different from electing an assembly. I’d probably support AV over FPTP) for electing a President, despite its flaws (but then I don’t think electing a President is a particularly good idea.
    * It remains most likely than the FN will come Third, rather than First or Second. In that scenario, what we have to worry about is not their chances of victory, but the corrosive effects on French politics of the eventual victor being determined by who can attract the most FN voters to their corner.
    * In that poll, left-wing voters split 21% for the Socialist Party, and 17% for some other fringe party. That wouldn’t happen under FPTP, so they would probably actually win – as opposed to getting eliminated as in the past even though they might have won an individual run-off with candidates 1 and 2.

    I addressed the BNP issue in what I think was a more nuanced way a while ago:

  3. oldpolitics

    “The Churchill canard: do the second preferences of the least popular candidates given a higher priority?”

    Yes. Of course they do. The lower placed your candidate, the more likely it is that your second preference and further preferences will be counted. So, for example, if an election results in a close split of the type favoured by AV example-givers as follows;

    A) 35%
    B) 33%
    C) 32%

    Then it is C-voters who get to determine the result. They have had more say than A-voters. Supposing C-voters all back B over A; a classic AV scenario – B wins by 65% to 35%. Yet, A-voters, whose second preference never gets counted under AV, might prefer C to B.

    Therefore in a pure match-up, C would beat the candidate actually elected, by an even bigger margin – 67% to 33%. But the option for that to happen never exists, because in order to make your second preference effective, you have to have supported an unpopular candidate in round one.

    In other words, if you are in an X/Y marginal constituency, there is no incentive for X or Y to attract one another’s second preferences. The incentive is to attract the preferences of candidates who will not be in the later rounds – the more you can guarantee they will be knocked out, the better.

  4. Sunder Katwala


    The French example just happened to be in today’s newspapers; I am aware the poll is out of line with others (not least in assuming Aubry, not Strauss-Khan, will be the Socialist), but the hypothetical example does I think capture Clarke’s mistake in claiming extremist candidates are helped to win.

    There is a significant difference between an extreme party on 2% and one on 15-20%, as in France. There is no evidence at all to suggest the BNP is going to make that kind of leap, whatever electoral system we have. This is not, in my view, primarily a question of electoral systems, though my recollection was that it was the [tactical] switch to PR for the French National Assembly elections of 1986 which assisted the FN’s breakthrough in terms of national media presence and Parliamentary platforms ahead of the 1988 Presidential election. The increased personalisation of a Presidential system was no doubt also somewhat useful to them.

    Giving greater representation to minority parties and viewpoints (both nice and nasty) is part of the trade-off around PR (a case for or against, according to viewpoint). I don’t see a persuasive case that it is a significant factor between FPTP and AV, and the insistence on majority support is a bulwark against extremism.

  5. Deborah Segalini

    RT @leftfootfwd: How would extremists fare under AV? @NextLeft examines the evidence

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