A quick fisk of John Hayward on AV

By Jonathan Bartley
January 13, 2011

I had a couple of spare minutes so I thought I would just do a quick response to John Hayward of the Jubilee Centre in Cambridge who has just written a remarkable article on AV. (His in bold, my response in italics). I may have misunderstood, but he seems to be basing his arguments against AV largely on the idea that Canada uses AV (it doesn't, it uses First Past the Post).

Some claim that 'millions of votes are wasted’ under the existing ‘first past the post’ voting system (FPTP) used for electing politicians to the House of Commons. If we are all made in the image of God and therefore of equal worth, then, we are told, there should be a bias toward the vulnerable, the powerless and the voiceless. However, this argument is flawed on two counts. Firstly, bias is different from protection and does not reflect equality. Secondly, and more seriously, this presumes foreknowledge of results. Millions of votes only appear 'wasted' once one knows that a particular candidate has secured a large majority. Yet the bible clearly warns against such presumption (e.g. James 4:13-17). Today's 'safe' seat was yesterday's marginal and today's marginal could well be tomorrow's 'safe' seat. In any case, the 'alternative vote'† system (AV) would not prevent seats from being 'safe'.

Foreknowledge of results is precisely the point. On the day the election was called, the electoral reform society pointed out that the election result was already determined in almost 400 seats. And they were right.

Today’s safe seat is not yesterday’s marginal, in many cases. Many ‘safe seats’ have been held by one party for decades, with little or no prospect of MPs ever being unseated. Almost a third of seats have not changed hands since the Second World War.

But I have to say I am not really following your line of argument. You imply that safe seats don’t really need to be tackled as they always fluctuate between being safe and marginal? But then you imply that safe seats actually do exist but AV won't tackle them? To employ an existential argument, let's suppose they do exist. The Alternative Vote System would actually do a lot to begin to tackle safe seats. The Jenkins Commission concluded that AV would probably create more marginal seats. AV shakes things up, having an impact on turnouts, psychologies, even candidate selection. Under AV, voters will be able to vote with their head and their hearts freed from what Jenkins called the “a bifurcating choice between realistic and ideological commitment or, as it sometimes is called, voting tactically”.

Others argue that we need AV because coalition government introduces checks and balances of the kind that are in evidence in the very different electoral system across the Atlantic, where compromise is needed at virtually every step if politicians are to achieve anything. Yet others respond that we only need to look at the Conservative-LibDem government to see that coalitions throw out their policy commitments and manifesto pledges, and instead develop new manifestoes (sic) over which voters are given no say.

OK - which country over the Atlantic are we talking about here? Canada? Canada uses First past the Post like we do? In fact it's modelled on ours. It is true though, that they have been hamstrung by coalitions over the last decade under the First Past the Post System, but surely that is an argument for AV?

But it may be you mean across the Atlantic (North and South) the other way? In Australia where they have had AV since 1920, they have in fact had fewer hung Parliaments than we have in the UK.

And on the subject of “over the Atlantic” there is actually growing support for AV in the US. Every year since 2004, a new city in the US has adopted AV, where they recognise that it is an important challenge to the interests of big business

But who is it that is arguing that we need AV because coalition government introduces checks and balances? Certainly not the Yes to AV campaign, who point out, as the IPPR recently did that we will get fewer coalitions under AV.

Yet others claim that AV would deliver a fairer result as every winning candidate must have secured the support of at least half the electorate. However, an AV system didn't stop people complaining that Ed Miliband's election as leader of the Labour Party had been unfair, as his brother David had been the clear first choice of MPs, MEPs , and Labour Party members.

Not sure MPs complaining is the best basis for an argument against AV. No political system stops people (including MPs) complaining. But what we do know is that MPs and political parties have themselves chosen to use AV with good reason because they know it best represents opinion, is fair and keeps those they have elected more accountable.

AV is in fact the best kept secret in British politics. When MPs are themselves the voters, they have a notable tendency to choose AV (or similar systems) as their preferred voting system. AV (instant runoff) and other runoff systems are used to elect the leaders of their parties, shadow cabinets, chairs of select committees, the speaker of the House of Commons, and select candidates in local constituencies. The process of election of the speaker of the House of Commons for example, was recently changed by MPs to require more than a 50% majority, with candidates in last place being eliminated in each round of voting. The chairs of House of Commons select committees are elected by AV.

But let's deal with the complaining argument head on, and look at the Tories too. It is notable that if the Conservative party leadership elections had been held under First Past the Post rather than the runoff system they have chosen, their leaders since 1997 would have been different every time based on the first round result in each election. The eventual winning candidates in every case lost the first round. They however went on to win overall once everyone’s preferences were taken into account, because they were in fact the most popular candidate. No one seems to be complaining there, (OK, except perhaps John Redwood who lost one of those leadership elections and whom I note you cite below).

Indeed, given the three-party state of our politics, AV would almost guarantee a repeat of the unedifying spectacle witnessed last May, when the decision of who forms the Government was taken away from the voters and placed in the hands of the third party – the Liberal Democrats. How, one might ask, is that 'fair'?

You are right to identify that it is actually the changing nature of our politics to a three party system in which more and more people vote for parties other than the two biggest, that brings about hung Parliaments. But where on earth is your evidence that AV will create more coalitions? We got our current coalition through First Past the Post. If anything, AV is less likely to produce coalitions (see evidence above) and indeed AV is possibly more able to equip people to deal with them should they occur in the future, as parties will need to show where they agree (as well as disagree) in advance of an election, in order to win the preference votes of others.

Even at the constituency level, AV does not offer equality, as only the second and subsequent votes of constituents who do not support the preferred candidates are counted. Thus, AV treats the second and subsequent votes of a limited group of voters as of the same value as first preferences. In other words, an MP's success could be determined by the preferences of, say, UKIP or BNP voters, which could see candidates adopting more extreme policies, for example on immigration, in order to appeal to the prejudices of these voters in the hope of picking up their transferred preferences.

Actually the BNP join with you in opposing AV. They realise that they will lose influence under AV. The Electoral Reform Society 2005 study in Burnley also showed that the BNP's influence would lessen under AV. But don’t you think it’s a little mischievous to just single out UKIP and the BNP? What about the Greens? What about Plaid and SNP? Do you feel that their influence will increase extremism? Or will it perhaps help to broaden the values of the very narrow political debate, which I note you say below, you would actually rather like to see?

Regarding the 'equality' point, let me ask you this. Would it be 'equal' or at all fair, if you went to a shop and said "i'll have a coke please", but they said "sorry, we're out of coke, and as you didn't guess that we don't have any, you can't have any other drink either. Now shove off!" It clearly wouldn't. In the real world we all express preferences on a day to day bases, and those preferences are part of being human. To say that my preferences aren't as important as yours is the unequal argument.

Lets take another example. You go for a job interview. You don't get the job because another candidate was chosen instead by a minority - just two out of five people doing the interviewing. And this is despite the fact that three out of five thought you were a better candidate than the one chosen? Is that fair or treating you equally? Clearly not. The other candidate has only got the job because the panel were divided in their first preferences between other candidates, letting a more unpopular candidate (who the majority didn't want) get the job.

As John Redwood graphically put it, 'If I go to the races, I expect the horse that comes first to be the winner. I do not expect the judges to say that as the first and second were close they will ask the losers who they would like to win. Nor do we say that as it was close the first and second place have to run it again without the others to see if one is faster without the others getting in the way.'

Actually, the point is that First Past the Post is a misnomer. There isn’t a post anymore. It would have been true in a two horse race, when one candidate won by getting 50%. But now candidates can win in a constituency even if 7 in 10 voters detest them. (And of course this is why the BNP want to keep First Past the Post because they believe they stand a chance that they wouldn’t have under AV)

The analogy is of course also a false one because other horses don't take 'lengths' away from each other, as candidates do in an election. But in any constituency, if an MP who would be elected under First Past the Post runs against one who would be elected under AV - in a straight two horse race where the analogy actually works - the MP elected under AV will always win, by definition, because they would have had more support.

Or, as Winston Churchill more succinctly observed eighty years ago, AV allows democracy 'to be determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates.'

You mean Churchill who only once won a majority in a General Election as a party leader in 1951, when he got an overall majority with 48% of the vote despite being behind Labour, who had 48.8% of the vote in first place?

AV need not even produce a more proportional result than FPTP. For example, under AV, parties in Canada have been known to obtain 90 per cent of the seats on 54 per cent of the vote. Neither does AV prevent a party from winning a landslide victory. In the last ten years, AV has twice given the Australian Labor Party more than 70 per cent of the seats in Queensland, despite securing less than half of all first preferences.

That’s Canada that uses First Past the Post (not AV) and has been hamstrung with a succession of hung parliaments under its First Past the Post system for the last ten years? More of an argument against FPTP than AV surely? You also really need to make up your mind about whether you think AV delivers perpetual coalitions, or landslide victories?

Making the process of casting a ballot more complicated, by asking the public to rank candidates or to vote for parties and individuals, also risks a repeat of what was seen in the 2007 Scottish Parliamentary election, when more than 100,000 (or five per cent of) voters were disenfranchised. Most constituencies saw at least 1,000 ballot papers rejected, a situation all the more unfair in any area where this number exceeds the winner's majority.

Come on, “it’s as easy as 1-2-3” ! The cause of the spoilt ballots was actually thought to be the fact that they had two different elections and systems running at the same time. Indeed, the preferential voting had less spoilt ballots than the FPTP constituencies!

AV is used by about 15 million people each year in the UK by unions, businesses, charities, a whole range of civil society groups for their own elections, and no one seems to have that problem. You should perhaps note that a number of supporters of the Yes campaign are those that work with vulnerable people. We also of course, express preferences for Mayor in London and we haven’t had a problem, but I do note you live in Cambridge.

At the end of the day, reform of the process by which individuals and the parties they represent are elected cannot bring about the change that is needed. Governments will still get majorities or even landslides with less than 50 per cent of the vote, and we will still have tactical voting and so-called 'safe' seats. We could spend days and years discussing how to structure government differently and how to determine who should represent us in government, but it will still come down to people with different ideas and values needing to cooperate and negotiate in the interests of the common good.

So basically you are contradicting The Jenkins Commission? Jenkins concluded: “[AV] would increase voter choice in the sense that it would enable voters to express their second and sometimes third or fourth preferences, and thus free them from a bifurcating choice between realistic and ideological commitment or, as it sometimes is called, voting tactically”

Jenkins also observed of FPTP “a natural tendency of the system to disunite rather than to unite the country”. At present during election campaigns, there is little incentive to find constructive areas of dialogue with other candidates and parties. Rather the emphasis is upon attacking and bringing down opponents - even if they have a lot in common with you.

AV introduces a degree of incentive for candidates to highlight not just where they disagree with one another (which will always be a necessary feature of political life) but also where they agree. As the members of the Jenkins commission observed, it is likely to contribute to a ‘less confrontational style of politics’. Conflict will still exist of course. But in order to win the seat under the Alternative Vote, candidates will need to demonstrate some common ground with other parties, or with their supporters. They will need to highlight where they agree (as well as disagree) in order to win the second and third preferences of other parties.

Isn't that exactly what you are after?

To be concluded tomorrow: Real electoral reform

Looking forward to it

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