A voter’s guide to AV

Respected BBC journalist John Humphrys appeared to stumble over key characteristics of the Alternative Vote when interviewing Prime Minister David Cameron on Radio 4's Today programme this week.

If a seasoned political interviewer such as Mr Humphrys is having trouble with the niceties of AV, what chance do the less motivated among us have of making an informed decision when voting in Thursday's (5 May 2011) electoral reform referendum?  

Here, politics academic Professor Tim Bale outlines the purpose of AV: what it means, who supports it, who doesn't, and why Hollywood is in on the act.

What is AV?

AV (Alternative Vote) is not a form of proportional representation, but nor is it first-past-the-post election.  Instead of a voter simply putting a cross against the name of one candidate as at present, that voter is invited (but not obliged) to rank the candidates on offer.  If, when the votes are counted, no one candidate has over half of the votes and is declared elected, then the bottom-placed candidate is eliminated and his or her votes are redistributed to the other candidates by looking at who his or her voters placed second.  The votes are then counted again and if one candidate now has over half the votes he or she is declared elected.  If not, another candidate is eliminated, and so on and so on until someone gets over half the votes.

It's a way of ensuring that every MP elected to the House of Commons can claim - even if he or she isn't necessarily the first-choice of more than half of those voting in his or her constituency - to have broad support.

Who is for it, and why?

In party terms, the Liberal Democrats are campaigning for a yes vote and so are some Labour politicians, including the Leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband.  Most campaigners for electoral reform are supporting the change, as are some celebrities - among them Stephen Fry, Eddie Izzard and Colin Firth.

Who is against it, and why?

In party terms, the Conservatives are campaigning for a no vote, and so are some Labour politicians - particularly old warhorses such as John Prescott and Margaret Beckett.  The no-campaign has lined up support from a bunch of sports stars who (perhaps not surprisingly) see the logic of first past the post!

Who stands to gain, who to lose?

Research - which mainly consists of opinion polling and simulations - suggests, broadly speaking, that the Conservatives will lose least; that the Lib Dems will gain most, and that Labour will come off worst.  But these are all just educated guesses.  Changing the rules of the game will almost certainly change the calculations people make when they vote, but so too will how the parties are thought to be doing by the time of the next election.

It is important to stress that AV won't necessarily mean we always have coalitions: indeed, landslide wins for one party might mean even bigger majorities under AV than under first past the post.  However, if elections result in hung parliaments, our best guess is that AV will mean that the Lib Dems will emerge with rather more seats than at present.  This may mean that they might be able to help either Labour or the Conservatives to form a majority government, meaning they would be in an even more powerful position than they were in May 2010.  Some argue that this helps explain the Party's enthusiasm for a system their leader, Nick Clegg, once described as 'a miserable little compromise'.

AV has been described as a "halfway house" for electoral reform - why is that?

The Lib Dems still favour a more (but not fully) proportional system called the Single Transferrable Vote (STV) which operates in Ireland.  They hope that if the electorate can be persuaded to shift away from first past the post once, they can be persuaded to shift even further away from it further down the line.

Would AV really make MPs work harder?

MPs already work terrifically hard, although few of us seem prepared to accept that that's the case!  It won't mean they put any more hours in.  It may mean that, come election time, they try to reach out to voters who at present vote for other parties in the hope of getting their second preferences.

Why is a referendum necessary - doesn't the coalition have a mandate to push policy through without the need for plebiscite?

After the referendum on membership of the EEC it seems to have been generally accepted that such votes are needed for big constitutional changes - there were referendums to establish the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, for instance.  Interestingly, though, they are elected on more proportional systems, as are the UK's MEPs.

Has anyone measured public opinion - is there interest in this subject?

All the polling companies have conducted extensive research on attitudes to AV.  The number of those who don't know or don't understand (or at least claim not to understand) seems to have shrunk as the referendum approaches, which may be a measure of interest.  Equally, the question is not seen to be anything like as important as issues like the economy, public services or immigration, for example.  Those who argue that it's one for the chattering classes might be exaggerating - but not that much.  Surveys suggest a close race but also that the No campaign has gained momentum over time.  Often, when people don't know, they plump for the status quo.  We also know that people use referendums as an indirect way of protesting against governments and parties that they don't like.  The Lib Dems aren't very popular right now so that may help the No campaign - especially when it comes to Labour voters, many of whom are in two minds or don't see the issue as important in and of itself.

What other countries have AV, and what particular benefit/challenges has this system brought?

The system is apparently used to pick the best picture at the Oscars.  But the only country of any size that uses AV for national elections is Australia.  It doesn't seem to have brought with it any particular problems or any noticeable benefits compared to other systems.  Australia is one of the best performing economies in the world - and somewhere a lot of people think about going to live and work in.  But that probably has got more to do with its natural resources, its can-do culture, and its climate, than its electoral system.

Notes for Editors


Professor Tim Bale is Professor of Politics in the department of Politics and Contemporary European Studies, part of the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex. He specialises in comparative British and European politics, Green politics and centre-right politics and  is author of The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron Cambridge: Polity Press.

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Last updated: Tuesday, 3 May 2011