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AV is not the solution

1 April 2008

This is a response to Sunder Katwala's post on proposals for the AV voting system.

Stuart Weir (Cambridge, Democratic Audit): Electoral reform is another of those democratic issues where the interests of the major political parties (or more correctly, their perception of those interests) and the personal interests of MPs block any realistic chance of delivering a properly representative and modern democracy in Britain. The encomium from Sunder Katwala, of the Fabian Society for the Alternative Vote in the place of first-past-the post (FPTP) elections for the House of Commons is yet another example, first, of a major party's search to consolidate its electoral position, and secondly, of the weakness of campaigning bodies to oblige the parties to open up an honest debate about the alternatives to FPTP.

Sunder's arguments are uncannily like those of Peter Hain who raised the prospect of switching to the Alernative Vote four years ago on a platform obligingly provided by the Make Votes Count umbrella group - rather oddly, because AV does not make votes count equally, which is one of its virtues for the established parties. It has advantages over FPTP, as Sunder sets out, but is this the comparison we should be making? If I am replacing an old banger with dodgy steering, would I buy a car that tends to steer worse just because it suits the sales person?

We know that AV is more disproportionate even than FPTP which is saying something. The "deviation from proportionality" (DV) system measures how disproportional voting system are. The lower the figure, the more proportional a system is. Britain's DV has been among the largest recorded among all liberal democracies for some 35 years. Typically European countries using PR systems achieve scores of 4-8 per cent. In 2005, the figure for Great Britain was 20.6 per cent.

In 1997, Democratic Audit modelled the 1997 general election for alternative election systems: the DV score for the actual election then was 21 per cent; the DV score for AV was 23.5 per cent. So a general election then under AV would probably have meant that more than one in five MPs returned to Westminster were not entitled to their seats. By contrast, the DV scores for the German mixed system (ASMS) was 2 per cent; for list systems 4 - 10 per cent, depending on the formula; and for STV, 13.5 per cent. These figures were produced by a simulation exercise, of course, using the actual votes and additional polling, and the actual politics of an election under AV may well have differed greatly. Also of course, Labour was riding high then. An AV election under current electoral circumstances would more likely over-represent the Conservatives. Either way, the Lib Dems would probably profit, which I assume is why Nick Clegg is playing it cool.

What is not in doubt is that AV is highly disproportional. Australia uses AV for elections to the House of Representatives and it has consistently produced disproportional results. In the 2001 election, the Liberal-National coalition won over 54 per cent of the seats in the chamber on 43 per cent of the vote. Oh and yes, Sunder's nightmare scenario of a party actually winning power with less votes than its rival has actually taken place - in Australia under AV !

Academic research also shows how AV contributes to a high level of party discipline and partisan politics in Australia; strict party cohesion in the House where dissent is rare; and the exclusion of smaller parties from the House.

In brief, if you believe that people's votes should be reflected in an election result, and in a more open and pluralist politics, then AV is not the answer. Of course, there are good pragmatic arguments for it. As Hain pointed out, turkeys wouldn't vote for Christmas - in other words, you have to get MPs to vote for whatever change takes place, and AV would not unsuit many MPs in the way that a PR system would. (Are we happy to be represented by turkeys?). Also, as Sunder points out, real change would necessitate a huge upheaval and take time; and we all know that British politics demands quick fixes. Also, as reformers sadly opine, AV does have some merits (see Sunder's post) and could lead on to more profound change later on; and with (say) a House of Lords with a majority elected by a PR system, there would be some check on a still majoritarian House of Commons. Back to my car analogy: 'yes, this car has dodgy steering, and to be honest, the brakes aren't up to much but . . . . '

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