How powerful is your vote?

Stephen Whitehead of the new economics foundation reports on the new website that will help you measure just how powerful your individual vote is.

Ballot box

Stephen Whitehead is a researcher in the new economics foundation’s Valuing What Matters team

Today, nef launches the Voter Power Index, a study of how British elections would change under the alternative vote (AV). We have looked at how AV would play out in each seat, but our verdict is somewhat less than clear. True, there will be real benefits to AV – 44 more marginal seats, the power of the average vote up by a quarter – but it falls far short of the electoral reform Britain needs.

Our results show that under the current system, voter power is a postcode lottery. Voters living in the most powerful constituencies have 21 times the power of those in the least.

This is because first past the post’s small, single MP constituencies create ‘lumps’ of electoral power which are hugely inefficient at translating votes into representation. Votes are wasted in their millions, piling up in huge majorities in the safest seats or squandered on losing candidates.

We all know this system means that while all votes are equal, some votes are more equal than others. While the safest seats are neglected at election time, attention is concentrated on the most marginal where swaying just a handful of voters can be enough to change the result.

Parties spend twice as much on campaigning in the most marginal seats and voters turn out there in larger numbers. AV, whatever its merits, will keep this distorting single-member constituency system and the inequality in the system will be only marginally reduced.

Of course, the national picture is only half the story. The Voter Power Index was created as a tool to help voters understand what AV would mean for them, and that means in their local constituency as well as nationally. That’s why the report is accompanied by a website (originally devised by Martin Petts) which lets people find out how a switch to AV would affect the power of their vote.

What we mean by power is simple – the ability to affect the outcome of the election. So in Hampstead and Kilburn, where 21 people could have changed the outcome, voters have a great deal of power. Meanwhile in Liverpool Walton, where it would have taken 10,000 voters to change their minds to change the outcome, voters have almost no power at all.

Voters will have to decide for themselves whether this increase in voter power is sufficient for them to vote yes on May 5th. Clearly the index does not tell us everything we need to know to choose between two electoral systems. 

But it does make a telling case that whatever the outcome of the referendum, on May 6th Britain will have an electoral system where some votes count more than others.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.