av-yes-banner1 To a debate on the Alternative Vote, organised by Cambridge Labour party. I talked about AV a bit before when I was unenthusiastic. I'm still unenthusiastic (which is part of the Tories cunning trick I think) but certainly in favour.

The two debaters were John Denham MP (in favour) and Gavin Shuker MP (against). Both Labour. Neither presented a particularly strong logical argument for their view - in the case of the anti, presumably because there is no such argument. They tossed a coin for who went first (GS), had their 10 mins each, then 2 mins replies, then questions from the floor. I had to leave to go shopping after an hour, which was a shame, because I was interested (I can listen with my eyes shut you know). I haven't been to a political meeting for ages, so that aspect was fun too.

I won't rehearse the arguments in favour in detail here (you can find them at Yes! To fairer votes if you want). My own are (a) it will be good for the Green Party (b) and the Lib-Dems (c) and bad for the two-party system (d) and if we vote this down, we won't get a chance of anything better for ages. None of those were particularly strong arguments in a Labour environment, the main argument used "for" was that it is a Progressive system for Progressive times and a Progressive party, and would lead to politicians having to broaden their appeal and be less identikit.

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"bad for the two-party system "??
Australia is the home of AV (I like it), and the two-party system here is stronger than in Britain.

[Ah, that brings up two other things: the first, that how a voting system works will depend on the country and how politics is there. *Here* and *now* I think it would be bad for the two-party system.

Secondly, someone stood up and said that in Oz, since it is obligatory to vote, and fill in the whole list, the various parties give out "suggestions on how to vote lists" and people use these. That seemed implausible: do you really have so many candidates at general elections? -W]

In tomorrow's state election for the lower house we've got 498 candidates for 93 electorates so that averages to just over 5/lower house ballot. Unlike our federal elections it is optional preferential so you don't even have to number all the squares if you don't want to. How-to-vote cards are handed out outside voting booths by party volunteers, and many people follow them.

The state-wide upper house paper will have 311 candidates in 18 groups (mostly parties) but most people vote "above the line" for groups (parties) and this is also optional preferential so you can just vote for one party. If you do this your preferences follow a ticket lodged by the party before the election.

Our federal upper house voting is more annoying. You can vote for a single group (party) and have your preferences follow the ticket they lodge before the election. The only alternative is to indicate your preference ("below the line") for *all* candidates which meant last year numbering 84 squares - which I did to the horror of my son who came along to watch me vote. Someone set up a website (belowtheline.cc) for stubborn people like me so you could print an individual "how-to-vote" card beforehand to help avoid misnumbering squares.

andrewt. I just looove that belowtheline site. We've used it for 2 elections now, 1 state, 1 federal, and it was huge fun watching it print out at home. Even then I had to fine-tune mine, can't remember why now, probably to ensure that someone truly repulsive came definitively last.

One of the best featues is that, even though you might have reservations about the major contenders for your vote, there is something uniquely satisfying about that very last number - voting =against= someone unworthy to breathe the same air.

Another Australian here. The Alternative Vote system is just an optional preferential voting system as practiced in Queensland, and apparently New South Wales. It is not the best voting system in the world, and it won't make MP's work harder, give you more say, or weaken the two party system, contrary to the claims at "Yes! to fairer votes".

It is, however, a much preferable system to First Past the Post. This is because it ensures that the person the majority of people do not want elected does not get elected, whilst also assuring that the person elected comes from amongst those with the majority primary support. In Australia, it often happens that the person with the 2nd highest or even third highest primary support gets elected. Those with less support than that rarely, if ever, get a look in.

What it will mean politically in the UK is that the Lib-Dems and Greens will have more seats in the Commons. This will probably resolve itself by forcing Labour or the Tories to form coalition governments which make minor concessions to the minor party. The Lib-Dems will gain larger concessions then the Greens because they can plausibly form a coalition with either Labour or the Tories which increases their negotiating power. If, however, they always plunk for just one side (as the National Party has done in Australia) they will find the only concessions they can effectively negotiate are ministerial seats (as has happened with the NP in Australia).

"Secondly, someone stood up and said that in Oz, since it is obligatory to vote, and fill in the whole list, the various parties give out "suggestions on how to vote lists" and people use these. That seemed implausible: do you really have so many candidates at general elections?"

There are a lot of candidates for the senate elections, as the senate seats are allocated for the state as a whole. You may, if you wish, choose to vote for a political *party* for the senate, which has the effect of using that party's preference list instead of writing in your own.

[Ah, so were we mislead, then? The questionner was asked if these were multi-seat elections and said "no". Do you have single-seat elections, and if so how many candidates (on rough average) do you get? -W]

(The requirement to fill in the whole ballot properly is a stealth way to disenfranchise the stupid and illiterate. Being able to do it properly myself, I'm not convinced that that's a bad thing.)

[Interesting point that :-) -W]

One point that your debaters probably missed is the use of preference allocations by the minor parties to get items in their platforms implemented by the major parties. If the coalition to outlaw fuchsia really does have enough votes to swing the election with their preferences, then fair enough that they get the anti-fuchsia legislation in.

Another point is that first preferences send a clear, impossible-to-ignore signal to politicians. Sure, either Liberal or Labour will win government this time. But a 20% green first preference is the light on an oncoming train: if the major parties don't get greener, a green party government is a real possibility.

Why would anyone vote against giving themselves a more powerful and precise vote.

[Because they fear the more precise votes of other people? -W]

If you currently have to vote for a party you don't particularly like to 'keep out the other lot' or if you have a preference beyond your first choice then AV lets you express that view.

Funny thing is, at the moment my feelings towards the Lib Dems are not particularly charitable, and I have problems with Green politics.. but even so the current system is madness.

Where I live, the infamous Jacob Rees-Mogg now claims to represent us based on 3 out of 10 registered voters voting for him. This is apparently democratic. Likewise in 2005, Labour managed an elective dictatorship based on 36% of the vote, just over 20% of registered voters.

By Andrew Dodds (not verified) on 25 Mar 2011 #permalink

I thought I'd throw in my reasons for voting against AV. Although there is a deceptive attraction with AV, I'm against it.

1. It gives political parties total cover (both to the electorate and their own awkward MPs) to throw out anything they promised in the election but is a bit troublesome. They get "negotiated" away in coalition talks. EG Labours fox hunting bill would never have made it before parliment (The quality of the bill was dreadful, but the Labour party had to stand by their pledge and the resulting mess). If you wish to suggest that political parties don't follow their manifestos, please explain the point of moving from FPtP to AV in the first place.

[That isn't an argument against AV, but against coalitions and PR in general. To Which the short reply is: nothing is perfect, but at least you wouldn't have got Blur.

2. Having the least unpopular MP is worse than having the most popular MP. Under AV after the first preference, all selections are for people you wouldn't otherwise have voted for. So rather than having an MP who was positively selected, you get an MP who was voted against least.

[Seems good to me. Not sure why you think it is bad -W]

3. If a more proportional system is better, why is a fully proportional system not better still? AV is being suggested to give power to the LibDems without giving power to smaller parties like the greens, in effect a sophisticated form of gerrymandering.

[A fully PR system would be better. But it isn't on offer. That is what I meant by the Tories cunning trick: the idea is to persuade people who would prefer PR to vote against AV, because whilst better that FPTP it isn't perfect. And I don't know who is making the suggestion you're putting forward: sounds like a strawman from the Noes -W]

[That isn't an argument against AV, but against coalitions and PR in general. To Which the short reply is: nothing is perfect, but at least you wouldn't have got Blur.]

Well, we would have got Blur even with AV or PR. But possibly released from manifesto commitments.

[Seems good to me. Not sure why you think it is bad -W]
At present, an MP is elected on a party manifesto, as that Manifesto would effectively no longer exist (particularly for the smaller parties) what is that MP supporting? What would I be voting for?

If you like fully PR systems try living in Italy or Germany, where the far right get a disproportionate say in policy. (NB my wife is German so I get to here a lot of German politics)

"If you like fully PR systems try living in Italy or Germany, where the far right get a disproportionate say in policy".

I don't know about Italy, but in Germany the Greens get a significant say in policy as well, which is why they have much more investment in renewables than us.

The inevitable price of empowering minorities is that it empowers the far right. If you want the Greens to have a bigger say, you have to put up with the BNP having a bigger say. I still think that minorities should get a say in creating policy - proportional to how big they are of course. Under first past the post they have practically no voice at all.

[Agreed. Also, I think (in a certain sense) that having PR allow the far right to get a voice proportional to their vote is good, because it forces you to confront them. If you just rely on the electoral weight of FPTP to crush them without needing to talk to them, they don't go away, you just end up with an unrepresented anger that will come out eventually. Pretending those views don't exist isn't good -W]

There seems to be an assumption that AV will make coalitions more likely. I don't think there's any evidence to support that: AV isn't a proportional system, and isn't necessarily any more proportional than first past the post. There's no way to find out whether it will be more proportional, based on previous elections, because AV changes voting behaviour. It will surely increase the number of first-preference votes for small parties, but they'll still be very hard pressed to win seats.

By Andrew Haley (not verified) on 28 Mar 2011 #permalink

Germany and the Scandinavian countries have both a proportional system and a minimum treshold of percentage of votes required to get into parliament -this is to prevent a logjam of tiny political groups, like in the Weimar republic and -ironically- Israel.

While this does not guarantee keeping the nutters out, it is at least possible for voters to find a viable alternative to the dominant parties, which is not possible in USA and othwer countries with a de facto two-party system. In the latter system, cynicism and voter disinterest will allow the two major players to continue regardless of corruption and ethical meltdown (yes, America, I am looking at you!).

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 30 Mar 2011 #permalink