Yes to AV!

Alongside the local elections on the 5th May, we will all have an opportunity to vote in a referendum on voting reform*. The choice is between keeping the current system, First Past the Post (FPTP) or switching to the Alternative Vote (AV) system.

The Liberal Democrats use Single Transferrable Vote (STV) to elect their leaders. Labour uses straightforward AV. The Tories use a system to elect their leader which is substantially equivalent to AV: a ballot is taken with all candidates standing; if more than two candidates are standing then the last placed candidate is knocked-out and the ballot is repeated – this process is continued until only two candidates remain. In this two candidate election the candidate with most votes wins. The Tories could have used a straightforward FPTP system, but they didn’t: if they had then David Davies, not David Cameron, would have won the 2005 leadership election.

AV is substantially similar to this process of successive ballots but rather than a sequence of ballots, a single ballot is held with voters ranking candidates by preference. In common with the Tory system, the last candidate is eliminated after the first ballot but rather than return to the electorate for another round of voting the second preferences of the people who voted for the loser are inspected and votes redistributed accordingly. This process is repeated until one candidate has more than 50% of the votes.

The Tory leadership election is not identical to AV because the electorate can switch votes between rounds, whilst in an AV election the rankings are chosen and frozen at the time of the first (and only) ballot. With electorates of tens of thousands the Tory leadership system could not be used for parliamentary constituencies without substantially increased cost and time taken to conduct the election, I will assert that it would produce the same result as AV.

These political sophisticates have rejected FPTP as a method of choosing who represents them, why do so many of them not support the same for us?

AV will not bring great changes to our elections, the majority of constituencies would return the same MP under AV as they currently do under FPTP. The benefit of AV over FPTP is that tactical voting, where you attempt to encode your preferences with a single X by second guessing who everyone else will vote for, becomes largely irrelevant.

We are not being given a choice between FPTP and an ideal electoral system, we are not being asked whether AV is a perfect system for voting, we are being given a choice between FPTP and Alternative Vote. Personally I would prefer a system of proportional representation, but that isn’t on offer.

In the absence of a better choice I will vote “Yes to AV”!

*The BBC have apparently banned themselves from describing the choice of AV over FPTP as “reform”


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    • Doormat on April 11, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    Nice post, succinctly put, and I couldn't agree more!

    What I don't understand is the hypocrisy of Labour and Tory anti-AV campaigners, when they use it to elect their own leaders! (I know people will argue that it's somehow different to electing hundreds of MPs etc. etc. but we _do_ have a representational system, where my MP is meant to represent my views, not just to views of those who voted for them– seems pretty similar to a party leader to me.)

    • Barnaby Dawson on April 11, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    On the subject of AV: I've created this app on facebook that lets you try out the Alternative Vote for yourself:


    • Phil on April 12, 2011 at 8:31 am

    I think it's your assertion of the same result that I might quibble with(!); This paper for example, sequential elimination versus instant run-off, suggests there is a difference.

    I can certainly think of an example in AV where I vote strategically/tactically against candidates rather than express a real preference, I might for example be tempted to vote for 'everyone else', in an any old order, in order to maximise my vote against the BNP.

    • SomeBeans on April 12, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    @Doormat – striking also that whenever new voting systems are introduced (Welsh, Scottish, London Assemblies, Iraq, Afghanistan) we don't go for adoption of FPTP

    @BarnabyDawson – I tend to steer clear of Facebook

    @Phil – there is a difference between sequential and instant run-off. The paper you reference argues sequential is theoretically superior. I'd argue the difference in outcome is small in the practical case of Westminster elections and furthermore sequential run-off is impracticable for Westminster elections.

    And I don't argue there is no tactical voting under AV simply that it is reduced relative to FPTP.

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