The Alternative Vote system

In a little under nine months, the British people will be voting on changing our voting system from First Past The Post (FPTP) to the Alternative Vote system (AV).

The Liberal Democrats want to go much further and have the Single Transferable Vote system (STV), while the Tories hate the idea and want to keep things as they are. Labour put AV in their manifesto, but are fighting it now because that’s what Labour do.

So it’s a compromise.

But it’s a compromise that solves one of the two main problems with our voting system, and will make it easier to solve the other one, so I would urge you to vote yes in the referendum.

There are two main areas where our voting system is unfair. The first is proportionality, which AV does little to address. In the last election the Tories got an MP for every 35,000 people who voted for them, Labour got one for every 33,000, the Lib Dems one for every 120,000 and the Greens one for every million or so. That’s not fair, and should be changed, but unfortunately while the Lib Dems and Greens want to change that, Labour and the Tories don’t. I wonder why?

But there is another aspect which is equally unfair, and that is preferentiality. First Past The Post, our current system, is a winner-takes-all system. But it may well be the case that the majority don’t support the winner. Imagine a case where you have three parties – the Evil Bastard Party, the Quite Nice Party and the Very Nice Party. In a constituency, 34% of people vote for the Evil Bastard candidate, 33% for the Quite Nice candidate and 33% for the Very Nice candidate. The Evil Bastard candidate then wins – even though the Quite Nice supporters would rather have the Very Nice candidate than the Evil Bastard, while the Very Nice people would rather the Quite Nice candidate. The vast majority of people are then unhappy with ‘their’ MP, who represents ‘them’.

This kind of thing does happen – my friend Dave often uses the example of Hazel Blears, the Labour MP for Salford and Eccles, who is horribly unpopular. It’s probably fair to say that in that constituency most Lib Dems would have preferred the Tory candidate to her, and most Tories would have preferred the Lib Dem (and the Socialist Worker candidate stood as TUSC/Hazel Must Go!). So that constituency has an MP who 60% of the voters wanted out.

The Alternative Vote fixes that.

How It Works
Everyone is given a ballot on which is listed all the candidates who are standing, The voter then ranks them in order. If one candidate gets more than 50% of the first-preference votes, that candidate is the winner. Otherwise, the lowest-scoring candidate is knocked out, and the second-preference votes from them go to the other candidates. This carries on until one candidate has more than 50% of the votes. This means that whoever wins, more than half the voters think they’re not the worst alternative.

An example – imagine we have four parties (Red, Blue, Yellow and Green) and nine voters who vote as follows:

Voter 1 Yellow Green Blue Red
Voter 2 Yellow Blue Red Green
Voter 3 Red Blue Yellow Green
Voter 4 Red Blue Green Yellow
Voter 5 Yellow Green Blue Red
Voter 6 Red Green Blue Yellow
Voter 7 Blue Green Yellow Red
Voter 8 Blue Red Green Yellow
Voter 9 Green Red Yellow Blue

Round 1 – We have 3 Yellow, 3 Red, 2 Blue and 1 Green first preferences. Green is eliminated as it has the fewest first preference votes, and the votes redistributed:

Voter 1 Yellow Blue Red
Voter 2 Yellow Blue Red
Voter 3 Red Blue Yellow
Voter 4 Red Blue Yellow
Voter 5 Yellow Blue Red
Voter 6 Red Blue Yellow
Voter 7 Blue Yellow Red
Voter 8 Blue Red Yellow
Voter 9 Red Yellow Blue

Round 2 – We have 4 Red, 3 Yellow and 2 Blue , so Blue are eliminated

Voter 1 Yellow Red
Voter 2 Yellow Red
Voter 3 Red Yellow
Voter 4 Red Yellow
Voter 5 Yellow Red
Voter 6 Red Yellow
Voter 7 Yellow Red
Voter 8 Red Yellow
Voter 9 Red Yellow

We now have 5 Red votes, which is more than 50%, so Red wins

Advantages Of The System
The principal advantage of this system is that there is no longer any such thing as a ‘wasted vote’, and allows people to vote *honestly*. The VAST majority of people in this country, in my experience, don’t vote so much out of support for one party but to keep the other lot out. This is one reason, for example, why so many people are screaming ‘betrayal!’ at the formation of the coalition. Many people supported Labour, but because Labour couldn’t win in their seat, they voted Lib Dem to ‘keep the Tories out’, rather than because they actually supported us.

But of course this works every way – there are Tories who vote Lib Dem to keep Labour out and Lib Dems who vote Labour or Tory to keep the other party out. (There don’t seem to be many Labour or Tory supporters who vote for the other big party to keep the Lib Dems out, at the moment, but there probably will be in any future FPTP elections). And there are many, many supporters of smaller parties who know their party hasn’t a chance, so vote for the least-worst option.

But if we have AV, at the next election you don’t have to hold your nose. You put the party you actually support in first place, and then if the Legalise Cannabis And Criminalise Sodomy Party (or whatever tiny fringe party most closely matches your views) doesn’t come first, you haven’t ‘wasted’ your vote, and haven’t failed to keep the party you hate most out.

It also has a number of other advantages:

It brings increased representation for smaller parties, but would still keep out rabid extremists. My guess is that it would lead to more Lib Dem MPs, a couple more Greens, and possibly one or two from some of the hard left parties (especially if the various fringe parties co-ordinate their efforts like in the last election, where RESPECT and the Greens worked together). On the other hand, no party that was *hated* by the majority could get any seats, so AV would actually make it *less* likely that the Bastard Nazi Party would get in. (Other far-right extremists, like Racist UKIP, might get a seat or two, but that’s a small price to pay for greater democracy).

It would also mean that a lot of the negative campaigning – ranging from “X Can’t Win Here!” (because now they can) through to personal abuse against candidates – would have to stop. Currently if you’re a Labour politician in, say, a Labour/Conservative marginal, it doesn’t matter if you alienate every Lib Dem supporter by saying “people who vote Lib Dem worship Satan and think Jo Brand is the funniest one on QI” because you’re trying to persuade people not to vote Lib Dem. Under AV, you want them to give you a high second preference, so you’d be more likely to say “I have the greatest respect for my Lib Dem opponent, and urge my voters to give her their second preference” in the hopes that she’d say the same about you.

It would get rid of many safe seats – at the moment, Hazel Blears and her ilk are immune, because unless everyone who doesn’t want her as MP rallies round a single candidate, she gets in by default. Now, so long as she’s the least popular option, out she goes.

And for those who are unhappy with the coalition, it helps send parties a message. If, at the last election, the majority of Lib Dem supporters had put Labour second, and the majority of Labour supporters had put the Lib Dems second, then both parties would have a very strong incentive to work together, knowing that would be what their supporters wanted. On the other hand if the majority of Lib Dem voters had put the Tories second, then it would mean that the Lib Dems would have a clear answer to the cries of ‘betrayal!’

The only disadvantage I can see – and it’s quite a big one – is that AV is not proportional. But then neither is our current system – and a preferential non-proportional system is better than a proportional non-preferential system like the horrible D’Hondt system we use in the European elections. The system the Lib Dems want – and that I think is the best myself – is called STV (or the British Proportional System), and is both proportional *and* preferential. But the interesting thing is that STV and AV are essentially the same system, except you merge several constituencies together and then have the top few candidates become MPs, rather than just the top one. That means that if AV goes through, it would be pretty trivial to change to STV in the future if enough people want that (and since AV would probably lead to increased representation for parties which want a proportional system, that change might happen in say ten or fifteen years).

So while AV isn’t my favourite system, it *is* my *second-favourite* system, and I’d rather have my second favourite than my most-hated. If you would too, vote “Yes” in May 2011.

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19 Responses to The Alternative Vote system

  1. Dave Page says:

    I tend to think about this from the voter’s perspective. Under non-preferential systems, you have to guess how other people are going to vote, in order to maximise the effectiveness of your own vote.

    Don’t want Hazel Blears? You have to vote for the party that the most non-Labour voters are going to vote for. Don’t want the Bastard Nazis winning the Euros? You have to guess which of the four parties claiming to be the “best way to stop them” is right (UKIP as it happens).

    Think of it the other way round – want a Green but know they’re not going to get in? Tatchell suggested voting Lib Dem tactically, but Lib Dems who get in don’t know how many of “their” votes were tactical. Preferential voting will let you clearly indicate to a candidate that they’re not your first choice.

  2. Mark Pack says:

    Well said. Like you, I would pick STV if we had a free choice, but AV is a big improvement on first past the post and STV for the Commons isn’t an option.

    The point about how it may change political culture, with more need to appeal to supporters across party lines, is a particularly important one in my mind (and one I blogged about in more detail – )

  3. Mike says:

    “Labour put AV in their manifesto, but are fighting it now because that’s what Labour do.”

    Don’t you think misrepresenting the stance of the Labour party will only drive Labour people into the “no” camp?

    Labour aren’t fighting AV. They’re against a bill that includes flotsam that they don’t agree with, but they won’t campaign against AV when it comes to the referendum (which was what they campaigned on.)

    Wise the fuck up.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Two of the leadership contenders have said they would campaign against AV in the referendum, and the party as a whole is planning to vote against the public even being given a choice. Particularly galling since Labour elect their own leaders by AV…

      • Mike says:

        Labour said they would back a referendum, which they stand by as long as it didn’t mean backing other measures that they oppose.

        They are clear that they support a referendum, they are clear that they oppose changing the boundaries and specifically the way it would be carried out. Your lot have chosen to compose the bill so that whatever Labour does it has to go against one of its positions.

        I won’t be surprised if Labour people just stay home come the referendum. It would be too galling to vote in support of a Lib Dem campaign or a Tax Payer’s Alliance led one.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          “They are clear that they support a referendum”
          Yeah, right. Just like they were ‘clear that they supported fixed-term parliaments’ in their manifesto and then screamed blue murder when *that* was brought in.

          “It would be too galling to vote in support of a Lib Dem campaign”
          And *that* is the real reasoning. Putting personal dislike ahead of democratic principles.

          Thankfully once the leadership campaign is over this pure contrarianism is likely to stop, and both the Milibands have said they’ll support AV in the referendum, but for now it’s just a determination to make life difficult for the sake of it.

          And if you think the quibbles Labour are making are any kind of point of principle, read .

  4. EW says:

    Well, speaking as one of the people who voted LD for the first time this year only to be betrayed by them deciding to prop up the most right-wing government of my lifetime … I will be voting against AV simply because I will see it as a referendum on the Lib Dem’s role in government.

    I don’t care about AV / STV / FPTP … I care about our schools and hospitals being sold off to the highest bidder!

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Well, thanks for that comment from a parallel universe. Even if you were born in May 1992, you still had five years of the Major government (including among other things the Criminal Justice Act, quite possibly the single most evil piece of legislation ever enacted, as well as privatising huge chunks of infrastructure) and thirteen years of Blair and Brown, with their piecemeal mortgaging of the country’s future to private industry, their being “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”, their introduction of tuition fees stopping poor people going to university, the decimation of great chunks of the NHS…

      This government *is* a right-wing government – and I don’t like that. Nonetheless, it’s *at worst* the third most right-wing government of your lifetime, and that’s if you only became eligible to vote this year.

      And you weren’t ‘betrayed’ either. The Liberal Democrats said, throughout the election campaign, that whichever party got the most votes and most seats should have first chance to form a government, and that we would work with any party that would fulfil four commitments in our manifesto. The Tories got the most votes and the most seats, and agreed to those conditions – plus many more. It would have been a betrayal for the party to do anything else. The fact that you voted either without having listened to anything the Lib Dems were saying, or after listening but not believing they were telling the truth, says more about you than about them.

      “I will be voting against AV simply because I will see it as a referendum on the Lib Dem’s role in government.”
      I’m not really interested in your delusions – see it as a referendum on the Lib Dems’ role in government, or as a small sponge cake, or as a treatise on medieval church Latin. It’s none of those things, it’s a referendum on a voting system.

      “I don’t care about AV / STV / FPTP”
      Then why on earth go around commenting on blog posts about them? I don’t care about the X Factor, or knitting patterns. I don’t go around looking out for blog posts on those subjects just to inform the authors that I don’t care. Perhaps you should get a more fulfilling hobby?

      “I care about our schools and hospitals being sold off to the highest bidder!”
      Then why haven’t you complained – as I have – for the last 16 years, as that’s what’s been happening since the introduction of the Private Finance Initiative. Notably, the Liberal Democrats were the only party in Parliament to oppose this right-wing nonsense.

      And finally, there is a *reason* for the email field in my comments – to prevent spam. By letting your comment through, I have opened up my comments to anyone using that ‘’ email address. I will now, therefore, have to specifically spam-block it. If you wish to comment again, from your odd parallel universe where doing exactly what you say you’re going to is ‘betrayal’ and moderate centrism is more right-wing than near-fascism, do so with a real email address, or it’ll be marked as spam without me ever reading it.

  5. Thoapsl says:

    Good luck, Britain! FPTP seems like a completely ridiculous and unfair system, I can’t believe you’ve had it for so long. Though I say this as an Australian, for whom Saturday’s election saw our own preferential voting system deliver us our first hung parliament in 70 (!!) years…

  6. pillock says:

    I think AV would work in my province — I mean really work, it would suit us more than it suits you, as I think STV suits you a bit more than us, and more importantly I believe it could be popular enough to be instituted without too much trouble, controversy, inflamed tempers, or what-have-you. I think it would work beautifully on the federal level too, although on the federal level I think we’ll eventually need STV, since without it we’ll have to reduce the number of seats in Parliament according to no particularly identifiable principle. STV is potentially a great answer to accusations of gerrymandering, isn’t it? But whatever: AV could fly in Canada, fly relatively easily, and as you say it’s a much better stepping-stone than no stepping-stone at all. I think I’m excited.

    So now you guys all do it, would you? Because that’ll make it that much easier to sell over here.

  7. tbpbham says:

    Good article :)

  8. Eamon Walsh says:

    Andrew, your insistence on getting in partisan digs against the Labour Party are under-miming an otherwise excellent piece. ‘Labour put AV in their manifesto but are fighting it now because that’s what Labour do’.

    Not quite true; Labour are fighting the Bill because it redraws constituency boundaries; reducing the size of MPs to 600 and allows only 2 years to build an accurate electoral register (when the last one took 6 years) and removes the right of appeal; it is estimated that there are 3.5 million eligible voters missing from the register. The coalition should uncouple the boundary changes from the Referendum on AV, which would allow a progressive coalition to build support for a Yes vote.

    As someone who voted Labour and is passionate about electoral reform you need to take account of the battle within the Labour Party between pluralists and tribalists. Those of us that are campaigning for a Yes vote in next year’s referenda need to build cross party support not take pot shots at each other.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      It’s not “insistence on getting in partisan digs against the Labour Party”, it’s stating the truth. Labour’s arguments make no sense whatsoever, and are being made out of pure obstructionism.

      “you need to take account of the battle within the Labour Party between pluralists and tribalists”
      No I don’t. Your party, your fight. I’ve seen little to no pluralism from anyone from Labour since the election, and I don’t believe there to be a significant number of Labour supporters who are interested in anything other than attacking non-Labour people. When there are enough pluralists in your party that your leading leadership contender doesn’t speak of ‘making Lib Dems an endangered species’, that your online supporters don’t think speaking of a “ConDemNation” is the highest form of wit, and when Labour people start to say “maybe we shouldn’t be making jokes, constantly, about Cameron anally raping Clegg, maybe that’s making us look bad”, then I’ll start to think there are Labour pluralists in any significant numbers.

      As for a ‘progressive coalition’ – not interested. There’s nothing ‘progressive’ about the Labour party, and there hasn’t been since at least John Smith’s death, if not a long time before.

      • Eamon Walsh says:

        Dissapointing response Andrew, but that’s fair enough. As somebody that is campaigning for a Yes Vote that means speaking to people from different parties and campaigning with people that we do n’t normally like. Just this week I was speaking to somebody from the Conservative Action on Electoral Reform about joint meetings at the Conservative Party Conference. If you’d haver told me that a year ago I would not have believed you.

        Fair enough if you want to continue attacking the Labour Party, that is your right. My point is that to win this referendum we will need to co-operate with people accross the political spectrum (with the exception of the BNP of course). As for the Labour Party, many will start to move very quickly to support AV in the referendum if Ed Milliband becomes leader.

        On your last point, people can be pathetic and childish on the net; the point is not to stoop to their level. Best wishes, Eamon.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          “to win this referendum we will need to co-operate with people accross the political spectrum ”
          And I’m fine with doing that. It’s precisely because the Labour Party *aren’t* co-operating that I made the comment I did.

          You told me that I “need” to take account of Labour’s internal battles.No, I don’t, and I am absolutely sick to the back teeth of the Labour party, and Labour members, telling me what I have to do. You’re not in charge any more.

          If Labour actively start campaigning for AV – or at least stop attempting to block the efforts of those of us who are – then I will be more than happy to work with them. But I’m not going to go round pretending that a party which for thirteen years claimed to support reform while blocking it at every turn isn’t doing the same again.

          And it’s not just ‘people on the net’ making homophobic jokes about Clegg and Cameron – Harriet Harman made very similar remarks from the Dispatch Box in Parliament. If Labour’s front bench spokespeople *and* their grassroots activists are behaving in this manner, I don’t think it unreasonable to characterise the Labour Party as a whole as behaving in that manner.

  9. Pingback: #no2AV myths busted 1 #yes2av « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

  10. I’m very much in favour of the Alternative Vote.

    I think it has many advantages over the existing First Past the Post system. I like the fact that MP’s will have to be pluralist, will have to attend to the broad needs of their constituency. I also like the fact that more votes will count towards the final determination of the winner. This is important because MP’s should be a representative of their constituency, not a delegate of the largest minorty.

    For more on why I’m in favour please see

  11. Pingback: Review 1 – Alternative Vote Referendum « alternativevotereview

  12. I’m pleased to say that the this article has been included in the first edition of the Alternative Vote Review.

    If you have any more articles on the Alternative Vote Referendum that you’d like us to include in future reviews please nominate them.

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