Why I Won’t be Supporting AV

I support PR. There, I said it. In fact, I said it time and again throughout the election campaign and I haven’t changed my mind. What I have never been very keen on (and indeed made clear during the campaign) is AV. There are two reasons for this:

1) AV is not PR – it doesn’t produce results which are proportional to the choices of the electorate and therefore isn’t much of an improvement on FPTP. There is a common assumption among AV supporters that somehow AV delivers MPs with at least half of the electorate’s support. This isn’t true, because it wrongly assumes that second or third preferences are equivalent to first choices. As a Labour supporter, I would now put Labour first, Green second and only if pushed very hard, Lib Dems third. If that third choice is counted towards the eventual total of the Lib Dem, does that mean my support was as fulsome as those who chose Lib Dems first? Hardly.  But that is a “benefit” that AV claims. What AV can produce, therefore, is a “least worst” candidate and I fail to see how this improves democratic representation.

Our current party system is badly suited to AV because all parties set out their stall in contrast to the others. The nature of the two and a bit party system we have demands that parties look for differences rather than common ground. We don’t have variations on the left and right. This makes preferences much less appropriate here, because in reality, the choices are so few. AV just isn’t appropriate in the UK and of itself, isn’t enough of a change to encourage the formation of smaller parties which would broaden the spectrum.

2) It has become clear that this proposed AV referendum is as far as we are going to go down the path of electoral reform for the foreseeable future. I completely refute the view that this is somehow a stepping stone to PR. The country and our politicians will not support another change in five years time. One election with AV then switch again? Not realistic. Two? Well then you are talking about 10 years before the next change. It’s terribly naive to see AV as the first step along a path to properly proportional voting. What we should be offered is a choice of systems at the same referendum. I hate the patronising implication that people couldn’t understand any more than a single option presented to them at one time.

So, after much consideration, I will not be supporting AV at any referendum. It doesn’t improve significantly on the current system and it rules out proper change for a generation. Clegg and the Lib Dems have been sold a pup. And as an aside, I won’t be told by Lib Dems that I am backing away from an election promise – six million pots calling the kettle black, I’m afraid.


Filed under Coalition, General, Labour Party

12 responses to “Why I Won’t be Supporting AV

  1. Ok you vote labour 1st… if labour are knocked out so you can’t have a labour MP do you want a choice from the remainder? FPTP you can’t, AV you can.

    What if polls say libdem/conservative are close to win, with labour a distant 3rd?

    Under FPTP do you vote labour (who you support but are unlikely to win) – or vote LibDem (who you don’t support but may keep conservatives out)?

    Under AV – just list all the acceptible candidates in order of preference – no second guessing the polls – hey you might find labour actually win!

    What if you have ‘labour’, ‘old labour’, ‘socialist labour’, ‘independent labour’ running — splitting the labour vote? FPTP you better guess the most likely (or tactically vote LibDem). Under AV – just list them in the order you prefer them… as each gets knocked out out your vote stays with ‘labour’…

    As regards the future – AV 1st prefs will show peoples *real* views any democratic deficit will be clearly highlighted.

    Voting in PR is exactly the same as voting in AV — the only difference is the way the votes are counted – so later move to PR will be simple.

    • The problem with your examples are that they don’t represent the wishes of the voters. In our system, a choice between the remainder is largely redundant. I don’t see that giving electoral support to someone who doesn’t represent my views, but might be slightly preferable to the alternatives, really adds to the democratic process. What I want is for people’s true views to be represented and AV doesn’t do that.

      Voting in PR is not necessarily the same as in AV – there is no need to have preferences in PR if you know the allocation of MPs will match the voting intentions of the public. And I strongly disagree that we’ll find people ready to make another switch in a few years. Realistically, three general elections seems the most likely minimum before people will accept another change. Otherwise how can we judge the fairness or otherwise of AV? In reality, AV will kill PR dead.

      • You don’t have to put a 2nd or later choice – just list the ones you do care about. If you don’t care, let others make the choice.

        No party represents me 100%, I have different levels of agreement with all parties.

        AV will allow (as I pointed out) more similar candidates to run, and allow you to vote for your preferences with out worrying about ‘letting in’ a completely unacceptable candidate.

        In a referendum on FPTP vs PR, FPTP would win hands down – the FPTP’ers have been rehearsing their arguments for years, they are well honed and would scare many into supporting the status-quo through fear.

        AV in an ice cream cone…

      • Having different levels of agreement will all parties is, in effect, an argument against AV because all your vote does is consolidate the position of one party. I think you agree Paul that AV is far from perfect. I don’t think more candidates will run under AV because they are no more likely to achieve representation under AV (in fact probably less, with the 50% threshold. I wonder if the Greens would have won Brighton with AV?). This is my argument that AV doesn’t do enough to change the system to open it to a wider variety of parties – it will consolidate the current system.

        My major concern (as stated in the article), is that AV will prevent any genuine change ever happening and it’s not a significant enough improvement to support on that basis. If you think as a nation, we could never accept PR here, then we are probably doomed to FPTP.

  2. My preference would be AV with weighted votes for MPs and a few top up members where required from ‘most popular losing’ candidates giving them ‘national constituencies’.

    On you last point – its just a matter of opinion, I understand yours, but beleive a vote for ‘FPTP’ will be spun as ‘you had your chance – you said no’ along with the current boring ‘it has served us well’. Whereas a vote for AV (in addition to some benefits) can be more effectively spun as ‘change is wanted, change is possible, lets keep going’.

  3. Sean O'Hare

    Paul, Greg

    FPTP?, AV?, PR? Whatever it just doesn’t matter any more! We are ruled from Brussels and it’s looking like that won’t change any time soon unless the silent majority wake up to what’s going on an create merry hell. I wish!

    • Don’t need to tell me!

      But AV gives voters a less blunt way of expressing their preferences – so if there is a national will to repatriate power from Brussels people can vote for UKIP with out endlessly being told it is ‘a wasted vote, and will let XYZ in’.

  4. ST

    I agree that if we were building an electoral system from scratch, and proportionality was the primary requirement, AV would not be in the running. However, since we are not, the main issue here is how much of an improvement AV would be on FPTP. I think it is easy to get caught up in AV’s shortcomings, of which there are many, whilst forgetting the inherently unfair system we are currently encumbered with.

    As has been stated many times before, FPTP was arguably acceptable in the days of two party politics, but is now extremely difficult to defend. How can it be right that in the 2005 general election Labour’s 35% of the vote was translated under FPTP into a majority of 66, or that in the last election 33,000 votes were needed to elect a Labour politician, 35,000 for a Conservative, yet 120,000 for a Lib Dem? I know you are not supporting FPTP, but my concern is that if the electorate vote against AV at the referendum it will be years, possibly decades, before the opportunity to reform FPTP arises again.

    Whilst your points on the shortcomings of AV are valid, the question for me would be is it a notable advance on FPTP and does it remove some of the more unjust elements of FPTP. The answer surely is yes; under AV voters would no longer have to negotiate the perils of tactical voting, knowing that their first vote would not be wasted as it may be now because they have the option to influence events with their other choices. Moreover, MPs elected under AV would be able to point to the support of at least half the voters in their constituency, rather than the position we find ourselves in now where more than two MPs in every three were elected to the current parliament with less than 50% of their constituents’ votes. I take your point that you may be effectively electing a “least worst candidate” but surely that is better than having no say at all. Imagine I am a vegetarian; I go to a restaurant and choose three possible options off the menu, in order of preference. The waiter then brings me a nice rare steak, which I am obviously unhappy with. Surely I would have preferred to have my 3rd choice off the menu, even if my support for it was not as emphatic as my other choices, than the steak?

    If our current party system is badly suited to AV I would argue that is a direct consequence of FPTP, rather than an inherent characteristic of British politics. The very nature of FPTP incentivises politicians to exaggerate the differences between them and to ignore any common ground. AV would actively encourage contenders to address the concerns of voters outside their own party, because their vote could become meaningful to them. The majority of people in this country are neither hardcore Tories nor diehard Labour supporters, but somewhere in the middle; FPTP takes no account of these nuances whilst AV does. AV would also force politicians to be more honest with the electorate during campaigning, so we don’t repeat what happened in the last election when nobody would discuss the prospect of a coalition government yet we ended up with one in which both parties have reneged on key parts of their manifesto.

    Regarding your second point, I agree that we should be offered a choice of systems in the referendum, but since AV is the only option on the table (at least for this parliament) I would prefer it to FPTP. You may be right that we could wait ten years for another referendum on PR, but I can’t see the Tories in particular agreeing to a referendum on any truly proportional options anytime soon, and their opposition to PR would be strengthened if, at the one opportunity the electorate did get to change the system, it stuck with FPTP. The only reason the Tories have agreed to the referendum in the first place is because it is the weaker version of PR that is on offer; I just don’t think we would get a referendum if AV+ or STV were on offer because the jump from FPTP would be viewed as too large.

    For those reasons I disagree that AV doesn’t improve significantly on the current system. In a democracy the bare minimum we should aim for is that a voter’s choice at the ballot box cannot be simply ignored, and that those who are elected to represent a constituency should have at least 50% of votes cast. FPTP fails to meet these criteria, whilst AV, for all its flaws, does.

    • Thanks for this excellent response. Most of my responses are laid out in the article, and I stand by AV potentially scuppering any form of proper reform for a generation at least. However, the thing to remember is that AV categorically does not mean that an MP has the support of 50% of the electorate. It is entirely misleading to allocate the same weight to a second or third (or even fourth!) preference vote as to a first choice. I could choose a Lib Dem as my second preference – it would only be an anti-Tory tactical vote in the same way I might consider voting for them now in certain seats (or would have done, pre-coalition). The fact that my first choice is somehow “registered”, but completely irrelevant when it comes to representation, does not in any way make up for this.

      As a final thought – why not push PR through for the Lords and let people get used to it? Once they realise there are no demons, then a proper conversation can be had about the General Election system. Rushing after AV now had very very few positive benefits for democracy long-term and is the wrong answer to an important question.

      • ST

        Cheers Greg,

        AV may not guarantee that an MP is the first choice of 50% of the electorate, but as I stated in my response, it is still preferable to the system we have now. I don’t think you have to allocate the same weight to additional preferences as you would to a first; by their very nature they are a voter’s second and third choices. However, I still think that a voter’s 2nd choice would, in most instances, be an informed choice that mattered to them, and crucially it is a choice that is denied under FPTP, and will give MP’s elected under AV a much stronger mandate than they have now.

        In your example your Lib-Dem second preference vote is not the same as an anti-Tory tactical vote under FPTP, because you don’t have to sacrifice voting for Labour as you would now.

        I think the main difference between us is the extent to which a vote for AV at the referendum would prevent a more genuine system of PR being introduced in the future. Since the option is there for the first time to reform FPTP I think we should take it, because there is no guarantee that the electorate will get the chance again. You may well be right that choosing AV may scupper further reform for a generation, but if it’s a choice between AV for a generation and more (or possibly indefinite) FPTP I’ll take AV.

        I like the Lords idea; problem is I just don’t see it happening any time soon, although I’d like to be proved wrong.

      • Your weighting suggestion is a phantom argument.

        AV is ‘instant run off’ – if your first preference is not available then why shouldn’t you be allowed a full vote?

        If (say) you are a Green and no Green is running, so you give your 1st pref to SWP should that count less than any other vote (because it isn’t really the voters real first preference)?

        If not then why should a 2nd pref for SWP if 1st pref Green is knocked out count any differently?


        Many decades of campaigning for an FPTP vs PR referendum have *failed*. The best it got was FPTP vs AV. You can go back to the failed FPTP vs PR campaign for more decades to come, or you can support AV now and once it succeeds start a new AV vs PR referendum campaign – and maybe have better luck!!

      • Under AV you are allowed a “full vote” and they do count the same, but it is naive to think that people are equally as happy having, say, a Lib Dem MP as they are a Green. And in this country, there are very few people who associate themselves with parties who don’t run candidates – that’s a marginal argument.

        I must have missed the many decades of PR campaigning. It’s been consigned to the fringes of political debate at best. We have an opportunity now (which may not arise again – my key point) to put real change into the system. Instead, we are pushing ahead at great pace with something which will consign the process in the eyes of many to history, one way or the other. It’s wrong to think that amongst the public the only appetite for change is to AV (most people don’t know the ins and outs) and so the chance is there to work more steadily over the coming two or three years towards something vaguely proportional. Ask people if they want their vote to count and they’ll say “yes” – in many ways PR is an easier argument to make nationally than AV.

        I can’t help but see the whole process as politically desperate by Nick Clegg and a shrewd trade-off by Cameron. Yes, AV is a bit better than FPTP, but Cameron knows this referendum kills the debate dead for a generation. I simply don’t accept the “small steps towards PR” and I think that’s where I disagree with both ST and Paul.

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