The alternative vote and the Lib Dems

This week Westminster has been preoccupied by possible changes in the voting system.

The bill to give the people a referendum vote on whether to move to the Alternative Vote system or not was granted a second reading on Monday.

The history of this measure is complex. It failed to get a Parliamentary majority in the 1920s when a previous Coalition looked at it. In the 2010 General Election the Conservatives opposed AV strenuously, Labour proposed it, and the Lib Dems said they would prefer a more proportional voting system.

After the election the Lib Dems said they wanted it as part of their price to join a Coalition, Labour said they now opposed it because it is linked to other changes to constituencies in the Bill, and Conservative Ministers said they now support a referendum on it, but will urge people to vote “No”.

It is in a way surprising that Lib Dems are now enthusiastic about this measure. They should study two different and interesting General Election results. In Brighton a Green emerged as the outright winner, leaving the Lib Dem struggling in fourth place. In a future election under AV more Lib Dem members and voters might decide the Greens were a purer version of what they believe in, and give them their first preference votes. Telling themselves they will vote Lib dem second preference, they could just get a Brighton effect. We know Greens can draw enough votes from across the party spectrum to win in an individual seat with a leading Green candidate.

Buckingham shows us something different. Labour and Lib Dem withdrew from this contest, giving UKIP the best possible conditions for their best known candidate to win. He struggled in well behind not just the former Conservative Speaker, but also behind a pro EU integration independent. This implies AV is less of threat to Conservatives, than it is to Lib Dems.

Under an AV system we should expect to see more splinter group or single issue type parties, as people can vote for them on first preference and still express a view on between the better supported candidates, where their preferred candidate is a minority cause candidate. This may not work well for the Lib Dems.


  1. nonny mouse
    September 8, 2010

    Labour may have promised an AV referendum in their manifesto as part of an attempt to form a coalition with the LibDems, but a large number of Labour MPs don't want it and would have joined the NO campaign.

    All the research that I have seen says AV will increase LibDem seats at the expense of the Conservatives and Labour. That will just make coalitions more frequent, which in turn will give the LibDems a shot at more or less permanent government as they could join either of the main parties.

    The only right wing people who advocate AV appear to be UKIP supporters who don't seem to understand that it actually makes future governments more Europhile.

    AV is bad for the country. AV is bad for the Conservative party and the Labour party. AV is only good for the LibDems.

    1. APL
      September 8, 2010

      nonny mouse: "AV is bad for the Conservative party .. "

      The majority of 'tories' in the cabinet aren't Tory, they could just as well fit in in an enlarged Liberal Democrat party.

  2. A.Sedgwick
    September 8, 2010

    Talk about deck chairs and Titanic, the referendum the country should have is …..

  3. waramess
    September 8, 2010

    If we can have a vote on the electoral system then why not on EU membership?

    My hope is that the electorate will see through this nonsense for what it is and simply not bother to vote

      September 8, 2010

      As we've said before why not use any referendum date to vote on upto 6 major issues?

    2. Alan
      September 8, 2010

      Maybe the electoral system is bad and the EU is good?

      More seriously, the EU is a complex trading agreement that it is reasonable to expect our elected representatives to understand in detail before they decide what to do. The ordinary elector should not be expected to deal with complex issues. The electoral system is about how those representatives should be selected and that is something that the electors have to understand.

      1. Mark
        September 8, 2010

        I doubt whether more than a handful of MPs or electors can really get their heads around the complex mathematical theory of voting systems. Try l0lking at Gibbard's 1973 Econometrica paper "Manipulation of Voting Schemes: a General Result". It's degree level stuff. A PhD in Game Theory might come in handy.

        I think the EU is probably a simpler issue – at least if facts are honestly presented.

      2. forthurst
        September 9, 2010

        You are confusing the EU with the Common Market: the EU is a federal state of which we are now a part. The fact that we were never told or got to vote in a referendum doesn't alter the reality. However I think we could still leave; it simply requires a majority in parliament who are not traitors. As to MPs understanding anything in detail presupposes a degree of intellect and dedication which is not mandatory for elected representatives.

        I would prefer an election system in which candidates could stand for a party of their choice irrespective of what Head Office or the local party wanted; so for example someone could stand as a Conservative against the official candidate who might be in favour of wars, immigration and the EU rather than having to stand for UKIP.

    3. A David H
      September 8, 2010

      Or in large felt tip pen, overwrite the referendum:

      EU? NO X

    September 8, 2010

    We're still unclear as to whether voters would be compelled to vote for more than one candidate under AV.
    Could someone please tell us if our ballot paper would be deemed to be spoiled if we merely put a 1st preference against a single candidate?

    Reply: I expect your first pref vote would count, but watch this space as the rules have not been completed yet.

      September 8, 2010

      Thanks for that. We'll watch and wait as quite a few Conservative AND Labour voters have suggested to us that the tactic would reflect their real political thinking…'my lot or nobody'.

  5. Mark
    September 8, 2010

    You are right that AV is likely to throw up completely unpredictable changes to the balance of politics in this country – which may or may not benefit the Lib Dems or other smaller parties. In Australia, it produced a two party system which is now beginning to be challenged from the left, not the centre, by the emergence of the Greens.

    The system of electing MPs is not really the most pressing issue of reform for politics (although selection of PPCs could do with reform that cut the power of narrow party cliques). We really need to restore the credibility of politics by attracting more people of ability and wide ranging experience, who are able to indulge in serious debate about policy rather than being repetiteurs of the line to take soundbites.

  6. Simon Gates
    September 8, 2010

    Looking at their policies, the Greens are closer to the Communist party to the Lib Dems. I guess people might just look at the fancy packaging and not peer too closely at the contents.

    1. nonny mouse
      September 9, 2010

      Both the Greens and LibDems used to be 'trendy' parties for the younger generation. They were also protest parties who you voted for if you couldn't make up your mind.

      At least you know what the Greens stand for, even if they do wrap it in Communist wrapping paper.

      I don't think that many voters vote for LibDems because they are really Liberals. I'm pretty sure my sister used to vote for them as the 'none of the above' party. Their appeal was that the were all things to all men – witness how they were both scrapping nuclear weapons and replacing them with a British solution. That worked if they never got into power.

      Of course, after the coalition all that changes.

  7. Alan
    September 8, 2010

    I think the reason for changing the voting system is to give the people more say in who represents them. That is the important point, not which party gains or loses as a result. AV will decrease the number of safe seats, and that can only be a good thing. An MP with a safe seat can almost ignore his constituents. AV will make those people more responsive. In my opinion arguments about which party gains or loses should be ignored.

    1. nonny mouse
      September 9, 2010

      We are governed by parties not MPs. The troube with AV is that it makes it harder for parties to get a majority.

    2. wab
      September 9, 2010

      It is not obvious to me that AV will give me more say in who represents me. I am still the same (tiny) fraction of the electorate. I get two votes but so does everyone else (and in the past election I didn't like any of the candidates so voting for two would be doubly awful). It is also not obvious to me that AV will decrease the number of safe seats, although it might in some cases shuffle which party wins a given seat. I also do not think AV will make my MP more responsive. He still has to toe the party line on most substantive issues.

  8. StevenL
    September 8, 2010

    Yes, I can see it now, StevenL's 'Inquisition Party' standing for medieval solutions to modern day problems!

  9. Trev
    September 8, 2010

    Any sort of PR might well impact in the LD vote. So AV is no different.

    I presume the LDs want PR because as a minor party they would want to form a coalition as a means of getting some power and influence. Well they have that now and all we read about is unhappiness about those bits of policy that are not partial to the LDs.

    Well that is the problem with coalitions, something the LDs will have to learn.

    I suspect these 'problem' stories are overblown and that Clegg will actually get a good conference.
    AV would allow the Tories and the LDs to fight their corner in the election separately but still come together after it. Today's PMQs showed that a link with current Labour is unlikely. Indeed the Libdems may soon be able to drop the (Social)Dem(Party) bit of their name.

  10. Alan Wheatley
    September 8, 2010

    A discussion on the merits of AV on the basis of party advantage is not the way the issue should be decided. Surely a debate on the voting system in a democracy should rise above mere party issues and be about what is best for the UK.

  11. Paul from MK UK
    September 8, 2010

    "This week Westminster has been preoccupied by possible changes in the voting system."

    Just as well eh John? It seems that while Westminster is so preoccupied, Mr Osborne has been busy kow-towing to the EU, giving it control over the financial institutions of London.

    Quoting George:
    "We welcome the creation of architecture at the European level that can coordinate national supervision".

    The sad fact is that whether we use AV voting to elect members of Westminster really don't matter as nearly all Westminster's powers have now been handed over to the politburo in Brussels.

  12. jedibeeftrix
    September 9, 2010

    Regardless of the platform the lib-dem's will campaign upon I am yet to be convinced that Clegg has any expectation of winning, or whether this is merely a vehicle to enable proportional reform he can win; a reformed House of Lords elected by PR.

  13. Rose
    September 9, 2010

    You have shown why it is that the socialists have wisely turned against AV: what you describe in Brighton would operate in their areas in exactly the same way, but with the BNP, "the old Labour party your parents knew and loved", getting in.

  14. Adam Collyer
    September 10, 2010

    Somebody really does have to think up a better way to handle the role of Speaker than having him stand traditionally unopposed in his constituency. That effectively prevents the voters in that constituency having any say in which party governs the country.

    In the case of Buckingham, I'm quite convinced the "pro EU integration independent", who was really a Tory, picked up many normally Tory votes. Meanwhile, the local Conservative Association was effectively asking local Tories to vote for a candidate who, if he won, would not have a vote in any Commons division. Quite bizarre,

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