From the TUC

Crunch day for AV referendum vote

09 Feb 2010, by in Politics

MPs will be voting later today on whether there should be a referendum on changing our current first-past-the-post electoral system to one based on AV.

This is not an area where there is any TUC policy – other than the motion at our Congress last year calling for us to stimulate a debate. This we have tried to kick off by publishing the Touchstone extra on electoral reform.

But in this spirit, here are some thoughts on what AV might mean.

AV is the easiest change to make to our current system – and therefore the least disruptive to our electoral law and arrangements. There would still be single member constituencies on the same boundaries, but instead of just getting a single cross, voters would be able to put candidates in preference. After counting first preferences, if no candidate gets more than half the votes the candidate at the bottom is eliminated and their second preferences are allocated to the remaining candidates. This repeats until someone gets more than half the vote.

AV has two big advantages:

  • Every MP would be able to say that they had the support of at least half of those who voted. Arguably this would increase engagement as a bigger proportion of the electorate would identify their MP as someone who is in parliament with their support.
  • Voters would no longer have to vote tactically. If your overwhelming aim is to ensure that the Conservatives do not get to form a government, then at the moment you should guess which candidate has the best chance of beating the Conservative candidate in your constituency and give them your support, even if you prefer another party. With AV you can vote for your favoured party first, and as long as you put all the non-Conservative parties with any chance of winning in your preferences you are also tactically voting as efficiently as possible. (My guess would be that there will both anti-Tory and anti-Labour tactical votes at the next election as it’s likely to be close – AV would mean that people would be able to vote positively before they vote negatively.)

But AV has its critics too:

  • It is not proportional.  In some years it might produce results that are more proportional, but it can easily go the other way. While it depends on how the votes pan out, it has an inbuilt tendency to favour parties of the centre as they will tend to be everybody’s second choice. It can also give the winning party even more seats as centre party voters may well split their second preferences in line with voters as a whole. While it is hard to know how second and other preferences would affect the result, one consequence might be to give the winning party a bigger majority over all other parties – and also a bigger majority over the main opposition as they are likely to lose seats to a third centre party. But in other years it might deprive the winning party of its overall majority by boosting third party seats.

AV may also change voting behaviour. At the moment there are few constituencies where it is not possible to work out which two parties are most likely to win, and if you do not want to “waste your vote” then you opt for the one of these two you least dislike.

With AV you can vote for other parties first. It would almost certainly benefit the Lib Dems as they are the biggest third party. But while AV won’t help parties like the Greens and UKIP who are not centre parties, they could still gain substantial votes. Conservatives who don’t like David Cameron’s modernity can vote UKIP first. People really worried about climate change can send a message by voting Green first, and then for a party in contention for the seat.

This would probably increase the pressure for a more proportional system as it would reveal more “wasted votes”. This is not doubt why first-past-post supporters are so wary of a system that is not really that far from what we have today.

Some are saying that even if MPs vote today for a referendum it will not become law as the election will intervene. But I suspect that the genie is now out of the bottle and that at some stage a referendum is inevitable.

My personal view is that this would be more legitimate if there was some kind of citizens’ convention to look at what new system would best suit the UK. It is generally agreed that MPs have too big a vested interest to decide whether we should change. It is consistent to argue that they should not choose the alternative system either.  Unions were involved in the Scottish Constitutional Convention which helped pave the way for devolution and gave the new arrangements legitimacy. UK level change could well learn from this. While the Conservatives and some Labour MPs back the status quo, Labour go for AV and Lib Dems support STV, the answer – in good proportional fashion – might be something that is none of their first choices but is high in all their preferences.

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