We had an excellent debate here last night – although we lost the vote as usual – on the Government’s belated plan to have a referendum on the Alternative Vote system of voting to replace our current First Past The Post (FPTP) method for Westminster elections. I support FPTP and think AV the least fair and most volatile of options.There was a good deal of criticism of the Government trying to move the goal posts after a long stint in government to a system that is thought to favour their narrow Party interest.
There was also some hilarity at the position of the Lib Dems who backed the Government on AV, even though the AV system is less proportional than FPTP. I challenged David Howarth Lib Dem (Cambridge):
“Mr. Heald: After all these years of going on “Question Time” and other programmes saying that the Liberal Democrats want proportional representation, does it not feel a bit odd to the hon. Gentleman to be arguing for disproportional representation? Why are the Liberal Democrats going to vote for something that Lord Jenkins and so many other commentators have described as unfair and disproportionate?
David Howarth: We will vote for amendment (b) to Government new clause 88 so that the referendum is between first past the post and a proportional system. What will we do if that is defeated? Although the new clause is a very small step in the right direction, there are two truths. First, changing the electoral system is on the political agenda, which is a big and important point for us. Secondly, AV is a preferential system, which we are in favour of. The system we support-STV-is a preferential system, but it just happens to be proportional as well.”
Despite the response, I continue to think it was out of character for modern Lib Dems to back AV. Of course, they have a long chequered record, the Liberals having been against Proportional Representation when they were a major Party of Government and then in favour when they lost power. Then briefly they flirted with AV in the 1930s. Bill Cash made this point accusing Lib Dems of cynicism:
“in the heady days long ago when Lloyd George had a big majority, he said that proportional representation was
“a device for defeating democracy…bringing faddists of all kinds into Parliament and…disintegrating parties”?
Then in 1931, Lloyd George changed his position, and in an electoral reform Bill proposed the alternative vote.”
The Alternative Vote (AV) system, which like FPTP is based upon single member constituencies, is a majoritarian system. Essentially, AV allows voters to keep a representative MP for their constituency, but also rank both their first and second choices.
AV operates in single-member constituencies. Each voter is required to rank the various candidates in an order of preference. It is possible for the first count to produce an absolute majority but, with more than two candidates, this becomes less likely. If no candidate secures an absolute majority at the first count, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. His or her second preference votes are then redistributed among the other candidates, being added to their own first preference votes. If this does not produce an absolute majority, the next lowest candidate is eliminated and his or her second preference votes redistributed, and so on until someone does reach an absolute majority.
The AV system is used in a number of elections around the world, including those for the Australian House of Representatives, the Australian Legislative Assemblies of all states and territories (bar Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory), Irish Presidential elections, By-elections to the Dáil (the lower house of the Irish Parliament), By-elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Papua New Guinea National Parliament, the Fijian House of Representatives, and numerous American Mayoral and district elections.
In December 1997, the new Labour Government, in line with its Manifesto commitment, established an Independent Commission on the Voting System, chaired by the late Lord (Roy) Jenkins of Hillhead, with a mandate to recommend the best alternative ‘system or combination of systems’ to the existing First Past the Post system of election to the Westminster Parliament.
The Commission’s central recommendation in its report of October 1998 was that the best alternative for Britain to the existing system was a two-vote mixed, described as either ‘limited AMS’ (Additional Member System) or ‘AV Top-up’. Under such a system, the majority of MPs (80 to 85 per cent) would continue to be elected on an individual constituency basis, with the remainder elected on a corrective ‘top-up’ basis which would significantly reduce the disproportionality and the geographical divisiveness which are inherent in FPTP.
The Commission further recommended that, within this mixed system, the constituency members should be elected by the Alternative Vote (AV). The Commission argued that, on its own, AV would be unacceptable, because:
“… of the danger it might increase rather than reduce disproportionality and might do so in a way which is unfair to the Conservative Party.”
Following the Commission’s report, however, it became increasingly clear that the Government was not considering reforming the Westminster electoral system with any urgency. Indeed, speaking in June 2001, Lord Jenkins suggested that the proposal had been kicked into the long grass by the Government, commenting:
“I am beginning to feel a bit sorry for the grasshoppers which must find things rather overcrowded in their territory…I thought Tony Blair was going to take my report seriously and I believe he does in a way take it seriously…”
The main argument against AV is that it can be less proportional than First-Past-the-Post – research by ICM immediately after the 1997 General Election showed that Conservatives would have won only 110 seats under AV – a wildly distorted and unfair outcome.
It also encourages dishonest use of second preferences, distorting the election if, for example, the contest will be fought between two strong candidates, supporters of one would rank third parties above the other, even if the other is technically their second choice.