Self-interest and electoral perversions

In this post I will argue that all of the political parties are arguing the case for AV in their own self-interest, this is very obviously what they are doing and admitting such will make a change.

I’d like to start with the electoral system as it stands today:

Two things are going on at an a general election: there are “local” elections in 650 constituencies which determine which individual represents each constituency in parliament and then there is the government formed as the result of this set of elections. Once elected to parliament MP’s represent their constituents interests but vote largely as whipped by their political party.

First past the post (FPTP) and Alternative Vote (AV) are both algorithms for determining local representation: they make no deliberate effort to make the output of a collection of constituencies proportional to the proportion of votes cast for a particular party across the country. The degree to which they give proportionality is dependent on the spatial distribution of voters for each party across the country and the locations in which electoral boundaries are drawn1. The current distribution of party support is not far off the point where it can give completely perverse results with the Liberal Democrats gaining the largest fraction of the popular vote and the fewest parliamentary seats and Labour gaining the smallest fraction of the popular vote and the largest number of parliamentary seats2.

The FPTP system acts to supress the formation of more than two political parties, this is known as Duverger’s law. You can see this in action in the UK, with the separation of the SDP from Labour in the early 1980’s, gaining a large fraction of the popular vote: approaching that of Labour, but nothing like the same number of seats3.

Best estimates for AV in a UK general election are that the Liberal Democrats will gain seats in a Westminster election and Labour and the Tories will lose some, it isn’t particularly clear who will lose most.

So moving on to the self-interest of parties:

The Liberal Democrats are in favour of AV because they will get more seats, this is OK because they will still have far fewer seats than their proportion of the vote should allow.

The Tories are against AV because they believe that they will lose seats to the Liberal Democrats for the same share of the vote, and that Labour-Liberal Democrat coalitions are more likely than Tory-Liberal Democrat coalitions. Wait! What?

Labour is split on AV, this is because some believe that Labour-Liberal Democrat coalitions are more likely than Tory-Liberal Democrat coalitions, and the Tories could be basically locked out of power for ever. Others in Labour, on the left of the party, believe that the Socialist utopia should be pure and that coalition is anathema and so oppose AV.

UKIP is in favour of AV because they believe that they will be first preference for a number of people who vote Tory tactically and second preference for a number of Tories. Their visibility will rise, even if it doesn’t lead to much increase in seats.

The Greens are in favour of AV because they believe they will pick up second preferences from Liberal Democrats and Labour.Their visibility will rise, even if it doesn’t lead to increased seats.

The BNP is against AV because it judges that it will not pick up second preferences from anyone. It decreases the likelihood of them gaining seats even if it increases the visibility of the party. The BNP is entirely visible already but for the wrong reasons.

Oddly those on either side of the debate are able to draw on arguments that match the self-interest of their parties. What is the non-aligned voter to make of this?


  1. Oxford is a nice example of this: across the two Oxford parliamentary seats (Oxford East and Oxford West and Abdingon) the number of votes for the three main parties are (LibDem: 41087, Tory: 33633, Lab: 27937. The two constituencies return a Labour and a Tory MP.
  2. Don’t believe me? Put Tory: 33.2%, Labour: 27.2%, LibDem: 27.7% Other: 11.9% into this BBC seat calculator. The actual result was Tory: 36.1%, Labour: 29.0%, LibDem: 23.0% Other: 11.9%
  3. The 1983 General Election. Vote share: Tory: 42.4% Labour: 27.6% SDP+Liberal Alliance: 25.4% Number of seats: Tory: 397 Labour: 209 SDP+Liberal Alliance: 23.
  4. Given 1-3, on what basis is it that we claim to live in a democracy?


Skip to comment form

    • Phil on April 14, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    Out of curiosity would you be happier if the system were FPTP with MPs only nominally representative of their party – putting their constituents first? For me it's the power of those whips that is the greatest threat to 'representative' democracy – something that won't be changed by switching to AV – but then I would say that ;-)

    • SomeBeans on April 15, 2011 at 8:05 am

    I don't think so, if we use the pudding choosing analogy: (a group obliged to select a single pudding at a restaurant) then I would prefer to go with a preference method, rather than a single X.

    For me lack of proportionality/FPTP leading to a choice of one of two parties except in exceptional circumstances is the greater threat to democracy.

    Argument supported as noted above ;-)

    • Nico on April 15, 2011 at 11:50 am

    This is fascinating, as a LD/Green sympathiser I hope AV will go through to give those parties the voice they deserve. Unfortunately being of Gallic nationality I am not allowed to vote here for referenda or the general election. Next step hopefully will be the House of Lords!

    • SomeBeans on April 15, 2011 at 12:41 pm

    @Nico – if the AV vote is lost, that'll be it for electoral reform for 20 years (my guess based on devolution referenda for Scotland). Would be interesting if House of Lords had more democratic legitimacy than the House of Commons!

    • WomblePie on April 16, 2011 at 9:08 am

    A very clear overview, as always.

    I'm torn on the whole issue really.

    I can see that, although "a miserable little compromise", AV is inherently fairer than FPTP. Tactical voting becomes redundant. Candidates are no longer punished for having closely aligned competitors on the ballot paper "splitting the vote".

    The idea is, of course, to make every vote count. My problem with it is this: Although we elect MPs we're actually, most of us, voting for governments. AV (and PR) are likely to lead to more hung parliaments. Governments will be formed according to the inclination of leader of the third party. We move from many votes not counting to only one vote that really counts.

    In the past, I'd have probably seen this as acceptable, even beneficial. But, the truth is, because of Clegg and the complete abandonment of much of what he said he stood for I'm seeing this as a problem.

    Cards on the table, I'm a long-time Labour supporter. My vote will be out of self-interest, I'd be crazy to vote any other way.

    As I said, I'm torn, I fear it may come down to who of Clegg and Cameron I want to annoy the most.

    • SomeBeans on April 16, 2011 at 10:22 am

    @WomblePie yes, really the key benefit of AV is much reduced need for tactical voting. Shifting a bit towards proportionality is largely coincidental.

    I am pretty happy with coalition, I think it has led to rather more inspection of manifestos that would otherwise be the case. Many people seem unhappy that the Liberal Democrats have not implemented all of their manifesto, but it's a big improvement on none of it.

    I'm toying with the idea that FPTP has done the LibDems a particular disservice in this election. Many people voted LibDem in 2010 and they knew this, and LibDems appeared to get into power so people assumed they had a strength related to their proportion of the vote – but they don't they have it in proportion to the parliamentary seats gained.

    • Anonymous on April 17, 2011 at 5:51 am

    The Lib Dems have strength, strength, "in proportion to the parliamentary seats gained." Not so. Their strength is far in excess of that. The smallest of the main political parties gets to choose the government? They may be under-represented in terms of seats, but they are certainly not under-represented in terms of power.

    • SomeBeans on April 17, 2011 at 8:59 am

    LibDems have ministerial positions in proportion to the number of seats in parliament, not the popular vote. That means that policy largely originates with Tory ministers.

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