Opinion: the Australian election and AV

Fans of the alternative vote system would do well to look at the result of the Australian election. Australia and Fiji are the only two countries in the world to use AV. The two main parties got about 80% of the vote. A record* 2 million+ people voted for minor parties, that’s around 17% – a 50% increase of the number of people not voting for the big two.

And the result? Well the two main parties got 145 seats and the minor parties 5.

Now at this point defenders of AV will be saying “yes we know AV isn’t that good (ie it is utterly appalling) but straightforward First Past The Post would have been even worse”. Well it is possible that AV helped the Greens win a seat in Melbourne, but that is debatable. The Greens were only 2320 votes behind Labour at the first preference stage, and then won because of transfers from the 15,000+ Nat/Lib voters voting tactically. Well never know for sure but it is likely that in a FPTP election enough voters would have voted tactically to ensure the Greens won anyway (it would only have taken less than one Nat voter in seven to do this). Even under the very strict interpretation that AV did help the Greens here, according to this analysis this is highly unusual.

Indeed AV would have produced exactly the same election last time. And the time before that. And the time before that. And the time before that. Indeed in the last 26 elections in Australia, going right back to 1948, the AV system has only given minor parties 4 more seats than straightforward FPTP would have – or one extra MP every 15 years.

You could make the argument that minor parties could have done better under FPTP. Seats like Batman, Sydney, Grayndler and Denison were in 2007 for the Australian Green Party about where Brighton Pavillion was for the UK Green party in 2005. Yet the Aussie Greens didn’t make a breakthrough in any of these seats – because whilst in Brighton Pavilion Caroline Lucas needed 29% of the vote in her seat to win (and got 31%) in Australia the Greens in these seats needed 50% of the vote in their seats to win.

This is why AV is so unfair on minor parties. Straightforward First Past the Post is unfair because it requires a minor party to win 30% in a certain area before it can have any seats at all. AV is unfair because it applies the same test but with a threshold of 50% – yes it introduces preferential voting, but at what cost?

The Australian Green Party is by some distance the third largest party in Australia with 11.4% of the national vote. Yet they only have 1 seat in Parliament, the same result as the UK Greens – Britain’s 7th largest party – have achieved on 1% of the national vote. This is the reality for third parties and other minor parties under AV.

The First Past the Post system in both its preferential or its non preferential form is deeply iniquitous. We are only going to have proper democracy when if minor parties get 20% of the votes they get 20% of the seats.

* in 1998 a slightly higher proportion – 20% of people also voted for minor parties, but a larger population and higher turnout means this was a record in terms of the sheer number of voters. In 1998 those 20% of votes resulted in …. 0 seats.

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50 Comments

  • Here here, AV is a bit rubbish – and could actually harm rather than help the LDs, its results are often much more random than FPTP. Although to be completely fair Australians also have compulsory voting which tends to favour major parties.

  • Lee is right. It’s a strange argument to say that FPTP is better because then candidates can win with 29 per cent of the vote. Why is that good? Why should 71 per cent have an MP imposed on them that they may despise?

    If instead of 29 per cent voting Green they voted BNP would we be celebrating? I doubt it. AV is a brick wall against extremism because it demands consensus.

  • Fred Carver 1st Sep '10 - 2:23pm

    @Letterman good point. @ Duncan Scott thank you this is precisely my point.

    @Lee Griffin with the greatest respect this is precisely not my point. I cant help but feel you are putting the cart before the horse. We do not treat single member constituencies as an unshiftable paradigm and try and find the fairest system within it. We start from the position of appraising for fairness and then look for the best system. Start from the position that if someone receives 29% of the vote they should have 29% of the seats and then try and establish what is fair against this benchmark.

    I would also hope not to hear a liberal describe the process of better informing the electorate by providing facts, opinion and analysis as “muddying the waters” of the referendum.

    As far as I can tell BERRRR stands for the Department of Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform – Regional Railways. I don’t think they care.

  • Fred Carver 1st Sep '10 - 2:39pm

    Don’t worry I’m not going to respond to every post but since I’m here:

    @Stuart. True that wouldn’t be fair but to be fair to me that wasn’t what I was saying. My point was that if a party get’s 29% of the vote nationally then they deserve 29% of seats and FPTP and AV are not fair systems because they don’t provide this and the Australian (and incidentally Fijian) experiences suggest that, counter intuitively, AV may even be worse. I then posited as a possible explanation for this the fact that there is a much higher threshold for support needed under AV than there is under straightforward FPTP.

    Let’s take your example: if a party has 29% of the vote then under both FPTP and AV it is likely that they will have far fewer than 29% of the seats. My argument is that they are even worse served by AV as under FPTP there will inevitably be areas where they have the 30-40% support you need to win a seat under FPTP, and so whilst under-represented they would pick up a fair few seats. There will be many fewer areas however where this third party has the 50% support needed to win under AV and so it would be even more under-represented.

    Now your point about “hy should 71 per cent have an MP imposed on them that they may despise?” is a good one. However I do acknowledge that AV introduces preferential voting and that this is a good thing. I just question the cost in terms of fairness – as defined by equal representation in Parliament for votes cast.

    I have a moral problem with BNP exceptionalism. If 29% of the public vote BNP then I am sorry to say I feel that the BNP are entitled to 29% of seats. I actually think BNP support is a scare tactic used to scare people off PR and that a) the BNP can be and have been defeated on the issues and b) the BNP wouldn’t do very well under PR as the BNP thrive out of a resentment of being ignored and taken for granted which is engendered by FPTP.

    There is of course a perfectly good system which allows for both fairness and preferential voting. it is called the Single Transferable Vote and it is supported by formal Lib Dem policy – AV is not.

  • Paul McKeown 1st Sep '10 - 2:48pm

    Oh, why dont’ we just keep first past the post. The perfect being the enemy of the good, some well meaning fools are determined to preserve our undemocratic electoral system because throwing toys out of the pram is sooooo much more satisfying than having to achieve change through small steps. This article illustrates perfectly one of the weapons of those desperate to prevent proportional representation at all costs: confuse the argument by taking one example and projecting its results as fully representative of an electoral system under all circumstances. That it is being used by a PR zealot is rather ironic. It would amuse me if it didn’t frustrate me more.

    If the AV plebiscite fails, you kiss your a*se, if you think you will get any form of PR for a very long time.

    The UK has a mature system of three party politics which is gradually evolving into a genuine multi-party democracy with many fourth parties beginning to do well at the national level. Australia has a deeply entrenched system of two party politics which is much further behind the curve in terms of the evolution of multipolar politics.

    AV would be liable to enhance the electoral fortunes of the Liberal Democrats. A stronger Liberal Democrat faction in the House of Commons would strengthen the cause for proportional representation enormously.

    Swallow your pride and take the evolutionary steps necessary. Either that or go and stand on a platform alongside Philip Hollobone, Peter Bone, Daniel Kawczynski, Bernard Jenkins, Edward Leigh and the all the other stinking dinosaurs.

  • Paul McKeown – Hear, hear!

  • It’s really difficult to compare the Aus system to the system the UK would have. For starters, voting is mandatory in Australia, which pushes towards two-party politics. Secondly, they have the ‘above the line’ system which most people use where you can just elect to agree with your favourite party’s set of preferences, which doesn’t help minority parties either. Thirdly, it’s impossible to compare Australia’s parties to the UK’s parties simply due to the percentage of votes they get – AV wouldn’t have benefited the Lib/SDP a few decades ago when the majority of the country favoured either Labour or the Tories.

    It’s also worth noting that AV is actually a special case of STV when only one candidate is elected. This makes it an excellent stepping stone to multi-member constituencies elected fairly. (And you really, really don’t want a plurality system for multi-member constituencies — just look at council election results for that.)

  • Paul McKeown 1st Sep '10 - 3:27pm

    As for your statement that “Australia and Fiji are the only two countries in the world to use AV,” well that is manifestly untrue. Just of the top of my head, I can think of

    1. Papua New Guinea – parliamentary general elections
    2. Republic of Ireland – elections for the President
    3. Republic of Ireland – by-elections to the Dáil
    4. Northern Ireland – by-elections to the Assembly

    That’s just off the top of my head, there are undoubtedly many further examples – the US indeed iirc uses AV for many mayoral elections… Historically the UK itself has used AV for by-elections to the House of Commons, as STV was used for the university seats with AV as the method for by-elections. Northern Ireland’s parliament used STV for its first two elections, changing to FPTP as it returned too many nationalists. AV naturally was used for by-elections until the change to FPTP.

  • Paul McKeown 1st Sep '10 - 3:33pm

    Basically, despite promoting STV for decades, the Electoral Reform Society has decided to support AV in the coming plebiscite, as being a considerable improvement on FPTP. The Electoral Reform Society is, to my mind anyway, a reliable guide in these matters.

    I hope you enjoy the platform that you will share with Hollobone and chums on the No2AV platform. They will slap you on your back and tell you what a fine chap you are, “Pass the port, dear fellow, the walnuts are fabulous, eh? Don’t worry about the bill, we’ll pick that up.” Of course they will be sniggering behind their handkerchiefs at you, you will be their prize Lord Haw Haw. If the plebiscite fails they will forgot about the handkerchiefs.

  • Fred, given that this referendum will be a choice between FPTP and AV, I will address AV from this perspective — as an alternative to our existing system. I agree with you that a more proportional system would be preferable, but this option has not been tabled.

    So, looking at Australia, some interesting findings come up. I ran a FPTP model on the *provisional* results from last week, and it gave the Coalition a clear majority of seats, despite most Australian voters preferring the Labor Party (according to the ‘two-party preferred’ count).

    Second, the Green Party would probably not have won their Melbourne seat. You suggest that tactical voting may have counteracted this, and that’s a reasonable argument, but I think it’s more likely that Labor would have taken the seat.

    The bigger issue is the size of the Green Party’s vote. You say that AV has prevented them securing the representation they deserve, but I would suggest that (compared with FPTP), it has helped the Green Party to reach that vote share in the first place.

    Under FPTP, minor parties suffer hugely from tactical voting. Lowered vote shares lead to lost deposits, make it harder to reliably assess candidate performance, and dissuade journalists from covering campaigns. This creates a vicious circle, where small parties have to pick their fights and struggle to sustain a national vote share which reflects actual levels of support for their ideas.

    With AV, while minor parties still struggle to win seats (no more than under FPTP, though), there are incentives to stand more candidates and thus push up their vote share. For example, if the Greens stand a candidate in a Labor-Coalition marginal, they know the Labor and Coalition candidates will want to attract Green transfers. This allows parties to influence policy without winning seats. UKIP tried to do something similar at the last British general election, by giving Eurosceptic Tories a free ride, but it didn’t have the same effect.

    So I think the lessons from Australia are quite positive. In terms of the two major parties, AV produced a fairly proportional outcome, where FPTP would have given the ‘wrong winner’ a governing majority (N.B. The Australian Electoral Commission is currently reporting a slight lead for the coalition in the two-party preferred, but this looks set to swing back to Labor after all votes are counted). It gave each MP a clear majority mandate in their constituency. And it allowed the Greens to fight a robust campaign without accusations of ‘vote-splitting’ and without tactical voting undermining their rightful share of the vote.

  • paul barker 1st Sep '10 - 3:40pm

    AV as a system is highly dependent on the local political landscape so trying to read across from one country to another is not just pointless but misleading. The only way to see the likely effect of AV in the UK is to pick abunch of typical seats & apply a reasonable range of assumptions about how voters might behave. Do it yourselves, all you need is pen & paper.
    The result, for those who cant be arsed is that Libdem seat numbers rise by between 30 & 100% with the mid point around 60%, if that isnt worth fighting for…..

  • Wot Paul McKeown said.

    If I hear one more person say “AV isnt as good as proportional voting” I will smack them. We are voting for AV so that proportional voting comes a step closer!

  • > Under FPTP, minor parties suffer hugely from tactical voting.

    How do you know? How do you measure it?

  • The main – possibly sole – advantage of introducing AV is that it will train the electorate in using multiple preferences, therefore when STV is introduced it’s less of a huge step. Have a look at the STV results in Scotland for Councils from 2007 – there are a huge number of papers with only one candidate marked, either as a 1 or an X.

    AV can distort results, yes. But if you are wedded to single member constituencies – as the Tories and Labour are – then it’s still better to have an MP elected with 50% support, isn’t it?

  • It doesn't add up... 1st Sep '10 - 4:27pm

    “Fairer” system = more seats for my party. “Fairest system” = the one that maximises my party’s seats.

    I think that AV could turn out to be a gamble that didn’t pay off so far as Lib Dems are concerned. If you change the rules, you change the dynamics of elections. It’s by no means certain that second preferences will split with advantage, especially given the great uncertainty created by the NOTA party, which has been gaining steadily. AV just might persuade NOTAs to vote, with a high probability of giving first preference to a protest vote: would Lib Dems get second preference there? May not AV lead to a radicalisation of politics, leaving Lib Dems suspended in mid air?

    The best strategy for Lib Dems is to aim to become one of the two largest parties. The easier one to supplant is Labour, although it isn’t completely impossible to consider trying to supplant the Tories. An essential component of that strategy is demonstrating competence in government. Surely that’s the lesson of local government successes?

  • Before this descends in to much arguing and unfounded ‘truth saying’ about the AV system I’d like to point people to the Voting Reform Society’s excellent publication (available for download from their site) on AV which goes in to a lot of detail, covers the fact that in Australia the AV system gives a result very biased towards the two main parties and then goes in to a lengthy discussion on the relevence and irrellevence of this to elections in the UK.

    Mainly it points out that the size and distribution of support for the smaller parties is not comparable to that of parties in the UK and therefore the results of introducing AV would be very different.

    But please don’t just take my above simplification for your arguments… take time to read their document, it’s very well put together and covers a lot of very important ground (and by the way, their conclusion is in favour of AV, and I’d put more faith in their views than other peoples because of the experience and length of time they have been actively involved in this kind of discussion and research).

  • Paul McKeown 1st Sep '10 - 4:51pm

    @Tory Poster

    Your statement that a fairer system equals one that delivers more votes for your party is certainly true for the Conservative and Labour parliamentarians, activists and media, who are determined to hang on to an electoral system which currently helps preserve their comfortable little parliamentary cartel.

    That you appear to think that it is unfair of the Liberal Democrats to demand a system that rewards them better than first past the post is typical of all good monopolists, when you think that the Liberal Democrats received 23% of the ballots but only 8.8% of the parliamentary seats.

    You appear to believe that the Liberal Democrats are concerned only for themselves, but that is simply not true. The current electoral system rewards the party with the most geographically concentrated electorate disproportionately. The poor deluded Tories haven’t the foggiest idea, otherwise they would have realised that the main reason that Labour do so well is not old boundaries, which do help Labour, but only marginally, but the distribution of its electors and how the electoral system reacts to that. Labour has a built in structural advantage of 50 – 80 seats over the Conservatives, which nothing short of a change to the electoral system would alter. But, of course, the cozy duopolists have a built in advantage of 200 seats each above the third party, which is why they view preserving the current electoral system as having an infinitely higher priority than achieving a fair balance between the two of them.

    Of course, if AV is won, the Liberal Democrats will press for further, proportional reform to the electoral system, to achieve better representation not only for themselves but all the fourth parties, too. UKIP, infamously received 920,000 ballots without gaining a single seat in the Commons. The Greens, SNP, Plaid, SDLP, all are at the disadvantage of a corrupt parliamentary stitch up, too. The Liberal Democrats do not simply believe in electoral reform to benefit themselves, but because they believe in genuinely multipolar politics with the widest representation of views in parliament as possible.

    You are right, of course, that the Liberal Democrats will be best placed to implement their policies by becoming the first or second party. If, when rather, they do, they will certainly not drop their policy of electoral reform to the Commons, please be assured of that.

    I suspect that that day might be closer than you believe. The two big tent parties are simply losing their internal cohesion. They contain too many views, which are so divergent as to be irreconcilable. And there are clearly plausible alternatives now to both. National politics is undergoing a major realignment, as evinced by the 35% who voted for neither of the big tent parties. It is happening right now and will continue into the future.

    Have you considered why it is that the Liberal Democrat vote has managed to hold up for decades, whilst the vote for the Conservatives and Labour has slowly year by year eroded? What will happen in the end? Hmmm?

  • @Voter

    Tactical voting can be measured using opinion polling. Dr Stephen Fisher at Oxford University has studied the effect in some depth and found that ~10% of all votes are tactical, and that a substantial number of seats are decided by tactical votes. Here is an example of his research: http://malroy.econ.ox.ac.uk/fisher/FisherLSE.pdf

    We can see from the way the Green vote exploded in Brighton Pavilion from 2001 to 2010 that under FPTP there is a ‘tipping point’ which parties must cross to be seen as a worthwhile vote. Once crossed, this can quickly translate into seats (as Caroline Lucas found), but getting beyond the tipping point is extremely difficult.

    With AV, there is no disincentive to vote for smaller parties, and thus no threshold that needs crossing — support can grow naturally. This effect can be observed in the Australian constituency (or ‘division’ as they call it) of Melbourne, where the Greens steadily climbed over several elections, coming second in the ‘two-party preferred’ vote in 2007, and now taking the seat in 2010.

    Andy White
    Electoral Reform Society

  • Fred Fletcher 1st Sep '10 - 5:24pm

    There is a good comparison of various single member seat election systems at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schulze_method#Comparison_with_other_preferential_single-winner_election_methods .

    This makes the argument for AV vs FPTP quite clear – under FPTP it is possible to win even though you would have lost a head to head contest against every other candidate, and possible to lose solely because you have very similar views to one of the other candidates, even though a majority would prefer one of the two of you.

    How this works in the UK context is a matter of speculation. However, it is likely that the Liberal Democrats would pick up a large number of second preference votes from both Conservatives and Labour, which could make a crucial difference in marginal seats.

  • Patrick Smith 1st Sep '10 - 5:28pm

    As a resolute L/D supporter of a `Yes’ vote for AV on May 5th 2011- as a stepping stone to STV- I offer the following questions on how `Fairer Votes’ would be managed:

    1.If the Aussies are the trail blazers in AV how many times in their 38 Elections with it,how many times has there been no outright winning Government on the night? I believe that the answer supports the `Yes’ vote for AV.

    2. Is AV likely to promote more `spoilt votes’ and the propensity for `donkey voting’ then the less democratic FPTP?

    3.What happens,say after the first count, there is a tie for last place, which candidate`s votes are redistributed?

    4.Can a candidate ask for a full recount under AV? If `Yes’ under what circumstances?

    I believe that the national leader of the Liberal Party of Canada is elected with AV.

    Fiji,Ireland,Papua New Guinea and some cities in NZ, including Wellington, the capital are also elected using AV.

    Several Cities in the US use AV including San Fransisco,State of California et al.

  • “This is why AV is so unfair on minor parties. Straightforward First Past the Post is unfair because it requires a minor party to win 30% in a certain area before it can have any seats at all. AV is unfair because it applies the same test but with a threshold of 50%”

    Except that 50% doesn’t have to be first preferences… whereas the 30% in FPTP do. When the two main parties are so diametrically opposed it stands to reason that voters second preference is going to be for one of the smaller parties and not the other ‘main’ party.

    Also you need to take in to account localisation of support, whereas in Australia support for minor parties is relatively widespread (i.e. dispersed amongst the various regions) you often get the opposite here in the UK, where a strong candidate, or a localised small party has strong support in one or a few constituencies, add second preferences in to the mix, where they are very likely to pick up the additional votes needed from one of the other main parties and this all counts towards a very different scenario.

    Also, don’t forget Australia is very much a two party animal, the other parties tend to be smaller in terms of vote share and with a more widely dispersed support base, making it less likely that they will get past the first round of elimination.

    Again though, I’d urge people to read the informed and detailed analysis of the Electoral Reform Society. You can find it here:
    http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/downloads/ABetterAlternative.pdf

  • “When the two main parties are so diametrically opposed it stands to reason that voters second preference is going to be for one of the smaller parties and not the other ‘main’ party.”

    I meant to add that, where a constituency is a three party race, like a lot essentially are this means a minor party only needs to be able to win enough first preference votes to survive the first round of elimination (which essentially is going to be the same number as you’d need to come first OR SECOND under FPTP) to stand a very good chance of achieving the 50%.

    Even in places where there are many of candidates standing AV still favours a smaller party that can gain a strong enough support to beat one of the two main parties (in first preferences), but would, under FPTP, usually come second to the other main party, simply because the second main party are more likely to find them acceptable as second (or third) preferences than their ‘main party’ rivals.

    So whilst technically a smaller party now requires 50%, which is more than 30% (duh) in reality they are only likely to need as much first preference support as they would need to come first or second under FPTP to stand a very good chance of winning, which is actually a better situation than they were in.

    Again it all comes down to having localised strong support for the smaller parties… something which is a very important issue when discussing AV.

  • Paul McKeown 1st Sep '10 - 9:00pm

    @Wilfred Day

    I will simply reiterate my position: the Electoral Reform Society, a longstanding proponent of Single Transferable Vote, whilst accepting that Alternate Vote is far from ideal, has decided to support the campaign for Alternate Vote as it is vastly superior in many ways than First Past The Post.

    I prefer to leave the analysis to genuine experts in the British electoral system commenting on the British electoral system, rather than foreigners commenting on their own national peculiarities.

    I have to say that I find it profoundly disappointing that there is even a very small minority (was it 3%?) of Liberal Democrats determined to undermine the progress that can be made at this juncture. I suppose that the stereotype of self-indulgent yoghurt weaving, sandal wearing beardies had to have some basis in fact.

    Politics is the art of the possible; those incapable of grasping that fact should enter religious orders, rather than attempt to deal with the compromises of real life.

  • Paul McKeown 1st Sep '10 - 9:13pm

    “why it is that the Liberal Democrat vote has managed to hold up for decades, whilst the vote for the Conservatives and Labour has slowly year by year eroded?” Perhaps because the Lib Dems in opposition were everyone’s second choice? Great under AV — but in power this ceases. AV could easily be the Lib Dems’ death warrant in 2020.

    I wonder whether you read my post more than cursorily?

    My point was that the frustrations caused by big tent parties attempting by giving the nod and wink to all sorts of policies that they never intend to implement was leading to them bleeding voters to genuinely plausible alternatives to the left of Labour and the right of the Conservatives. It is also causing increasing numbers of electors to abstain altogether. The combined vote for the big two has been declining for decades, and not because their former voters have been choosing to vote Liberal Democrat. Whilst the big tents have gradually been bleeding voters, the LD vote has stayed consistently high.

    Of course there has been silly talk of electoral pacts. It would make much more sense to come to an agreement in the future as to an electoral system that suited not only the Liberal Democrats, but also the Greens, UKIP, the SNP, PC, the SDLP, APNI, etc. Such co-ordination would be a genuine boon in any future campaign for electoral reform. I accept that that might mean the Liberal Democrats accepting AV+ or AMS rather than STV. Hardly a big deal in my view. Half a dozen parties all standing on that same platform would have a much stronger voice. They could even ask their voters to transfer to each other if the AV referendum is won, in order to strengthen the campaign for further reform. The Lib Dems should start the talks privately before the AV campaign begins, with that as a proposal for future co-operation.

  • Paul McKeown 1st Sep '10 - 9:35pm

    If you are at all interested you can look at the Conservative and Labour leaning blogs. It is clear that there is enormous discontent in both parties. A great many Labour activists want to take their party into a much less electorally appealing leftist position. Take this on LabourList half an hour ago (http://www.labourlist.org/early-extracts-from-blairs-autobiography#Comment113766):

    Very true. Perhaps this is the point where the Party splits. People on this site throw around terms like `disaffected C1′. I suspect many on this site wouldn’t know a disaffected C1 if he/she fell on them. … …. If you lurch to the left they won’t vote Labour. So if you’re not interested in their aims and aspirations, say so now and kiss goodbye.

    David Milliband will not change tack at all if he is Labour leader. Where will his screeching lefties go? I can’t see them hanging around with Labour beyond the next general election, if is still a party of New Labour. Ed Milliband will cynically promise the lefties everything under the sun. He won’t mean a word of it, though, he would prefer to be elected. Same problem. Labour lurches left? Electoral suicide. Labour continues to plough the New Labour (call it “Next Labour”…) furrough, it will frustrate many on the left beyond endurance.

    As for the Conservatives? Just open the Daily Mail to see what many right-wingers think. And consider that UKIP gained 920,000 votes as no-hope party under FPTP. It could easily increase that with a more competent leadership and campaign and could certainly present a springboard for many a Cornerstone diehards if Cameron were to continue with the Coalition’s current social liberal policies.

    I’m sure electoral reform will come eventually as national politics is becoming increasingly multi-polar, but obstructing AV will only push back the day for a long period.

  • Derek Young 2nd Sep '10 - 9:52am

    Fred, there may be a good deal of truth and reason in your analysis. We could disagree over whether Australia’s political culture would support a third party which can win 25% in elections, even under FPTP, as Britain’s clearly can. I could legitimately point out that in Australia most seats involve the two major parties in first and second places respectively, which obviously limits the scope for minor parties to break through under AV (since a third or worse party would need through redistributions to “jump” over the party in first or second place at an earlier stage), but that in the UK almost a third of seats, and a quarter of marginals, do not involve at least one of the two main parties in the top two places, so the prospects for AV influencing the overall outcome (as well as the outcome in any particular seat) seems likely to be much greater here.

    But none of that debate would resolve a fundamental disagreement between us, which is about realpolitik. STV may be a better system for the House of Commons in my view, and in yours, but I can accept that the prospect of actually achieving it in this Parliament is absolutely zero percent. Zero. Not slim: none. A coalition with the Labour Party would not have achieved it, as it lacked political support from the Labour ranks or even a reliable parliamentary majority, and it would have been hugely unpopular with the public. The Tories would rather have refused a coalition than risk STV, hung on as a minority government for six months and then called another election (under FPTP, by the way), which was likely to produce a clear majority as the forces of the status quo browbeat the public into accepting that a hung parliament was a disaster, and that only by voting for either of the main two parties could it be avoided. And it could have been another thirty or forty years before another opportunity for the only party committed to voting reform could have had influence over the government.

    Perhaps it’s not fair that these things are determined by the respective Parliamentary strengths of two parties which benefit most from the status quo, but it is an unavoidable fact that they are. And so the only realistic question is whether AV – which is now entirely achievable – is superior to FPTP (which seems to me to be a no-brainer), and whether advocating for it signifies dilution of principle, or “settling for less”, rather than marking progress toward a different but ultimate goal.

    My position is clear: AV is only a modest improvement, but it is an improvement nonetheless. It will make balanced Parliaments more likely (though not much more), but it will still offer more opportunities for the public to see the benefits of co-operative rather than confrontational government. It will establish preferential voting as a habit in the public mind. It will change the terms of any further argument for reform, as the status quo will now mean something else entirely (and going back to FPTP would never become a credible political position). It is just going to be so much easier to achieve STV by starting from AV than FPTP, especially if the Upper Chamber is elected by STV. And, although this may seem grubby low-brow politics to some, we should also not ignore that it will be a very visible demonstration that the Government will be legislating for something the Conservatives largely do not want (and, by implication, is only happening because of Liberal Democrat influence). We are locked into this coalition now. Without a “victory” (as the media and the public will see it) of this kind, more and more people will conclude that our involvement in this coalition has been for too little benefit, and the only credible political force in this country arguing for the things I believe in will be severely damaged, as will our capacity to achieve our aims.

    In the face of this situation, to stand on the sidelines or, worse still, to complain about the mechanics or principle of AV versus STV, is reprehensible. Anyone with the slightest sense that the current system is failing should save their quibbles for another day, and get with the programme. Or we will experience the full weight of the injustice which FPTP can wring if the public has vengeance against you on its mind.

  • Fred Carver 2nd Sep '10 - 12:33pm

    Some really good debate here, some less good. Personally I think it’s fantastic that were having a rational and psephological discussion about it, as opposed to the tub thumping and “we’re supporting it because that is what were supposed to do” which I’m afraid to say has characterised the debate thus far.

    I think I’ve said my piece so I’m going to leave it where it is – except to say I agree with Alex and we should certainly all read the ERS’ excellent paper (even though I disagree with its conclusions). I do want to come back on a couple of points of fact:

    I think it’s fairly non-contentious to regard the Nationals, Liberals and Liberal National Party of Queensland as the same party from the point of view of elections as they have an electoral pact. As was pointed out AV was brought in to allow Australian parties of the right to run against each other without splitting the vote. It’s likely that under FPTP there would only be one party of the right in Australia – although of course that is speculation.

    I should have said Australia and Fiji are the only places where AV is used to elect the main legislative chamber – as is being suggested in the UK. I accept there are many places where AV is used to fill a single vacancy – where it is a much better fit – as well as some elections to lower bodies and internal elections. Papua New Guinea doesn’t have AV, it has a truly bizarre electoral system which is a kind of AV+. 89 MPs are elected under a kind-of AV (you only get to make 3 preferences) and then there are 20 top-up MPs – oddly they are also elected under this kind-of AV, but as they are for larger and overlapping constituencies this sort-of works as a top-up mechanism.

    I accept my examples are simplifications but I think they illustrate the point well. Whilst some of the points made about subsequent preferences are valid I specifically talked about “levels of support” as opposed to “numbers of votes” in order to make my point without getting bogged down in the specifics of transfers.

  • Paul McKeown 2nd Sep '10 - 1:26pm

    @Fred Carver

    ‘as opposed to the tub thumping and “we’re supporting it because that is what were supposed to do” which I’m afraid to say has characterised the debate thus far’

    My perception is that you refuse to engage with the simple truth that there is nothing else on offer, nor will there be for the forseeable future. You refuse to engage in the argument as to what is possible in any practical sense. Perfection or nothing. Please explain how on earth you intend to make any progress towards electoral reform. And don’t say well we could have council elections using STV as a for instance. If the AV referendum fails, any progress will blocked by the big two parties for a very long time, as progress is not in their interest.

    As for those who suggest FPTP for the Commons, STV for the Senate is ideal, I would suggest that it is in fact backwards. Surely the ideal in a bicameral parliamentary system of government would be that a system which provides party proportionality should be used for the more powerful chamber from which the government will be chosen, whilst a system (probably AV rather than FPTP) for selecting the best individual as a representative for a geographical constituency would be best for a revising chamber?

    At the moment though, we might get STV for election to the Lords, so lets certainly push for that. But whilst the belief in constituency representatives is one of the excuses for a non-proportional electoral system for the Commons, can we at least try to get a better system to select individuals for the 650 (or 600…) individual elections that take place? And has been stated, AV is a better system for selecting an individual.

  • Paul McKeown 2nd Sep '10 - 1:28pm

    “rational and psephological discussion”

    I think you miss the whole point. It’s not about fine theory, it’s about practical politics.

  • >> The Australian Green Party is by some distance the third largest party in Australia with 11.4% of the national vote. Yet they only have 1 seat in Parliament, the same result as the UK Greens – Britain’s 7th largest party – have achieved on 1% of the national vote.

    You’ve kind of proved your argument to be nonsense there. They’d have no chance of 11% in FPTP (and therefore, denied the influence that the electorate things they should have). Fair enough, they’ve been short changed in their eventual number of seats, but the will of the electorate has been made clear.

  • I agree with Paul McKeown. It’s not the case, unfortunately, that you can get what you want by wishing hard.

    If the campaign against FPTP stalls because of in-fighting from supporters of electoral reform, the result will be that the discredited FPTP system will have new credibility: it will be the people’s choice.

    AV has obvious disadvantages in terms of delivering proportional share of seats. But what it does do is put a stop to all those lazy MPs in safe seats who never need to bother knocking on doors, knowing they will cruise back into office come what may. For that reason alone, the 50% ceiling is something worth fighting for.

    It will also provide an opening for smaller parties able to reach out to others that normally vote for somebody else. This includes the Lib Dems, who will have a chance in Labour seats to convince tribal Tories unswayed by the ‘can’t win here’ argument under FPTP to give them their second choice vote.

  • Paul McKeown 2nd Sep '10 - 11:39pm

    Putting aside Fred Carver’s objections, I carried out a swift bit of Google research.

    The official policy of the main parties is:
    Con FPTP
    Lab – AV
    LD – STV
    UKIP – AV+
    Greens – AMS (or STV)
    SNP – STV
    PC – STV
    SDLP – STV
    APNI – STV
    DUP, UUP, TUV, BNP, SF, ED and other parties not researched

    Obviously the Lib Dems have a lot of common ground there, with many parties supporting STV, whilst UKIP and the Greens differ in that they prefer AV+ and AMS respectively.

    However, interestingly, two of the parties have already come out of the blocks.

    First, Caroline Lucas MP of the Greens (http://www.greenparty.org.uk/conference/gpex-candidates/leadership-hustings-caroline-lucas.html):

    Caroline Lucas: The AV referendum is a very small step away from the straightjacket of First Past the Post, but it isn’t the progressive and representative choice we all deserve. I wish it was something much better, much fairer, which would transform British politics, but it isn’t.

    Clearly it is for Conference to agree the position we take. In the meantime, I am putting forward an amendment to the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill to try to include more options in the referendum question, so that people can genuinely choose what system they want, rather than being forced to choose between two flavours of vanilla, FPTP and AV.

    My own personal view is that we should be part of the Yes campaign, but that we take a position of critical support. Yes to AV, but let us communicate loudly and clearly that this isn’t going to be enough. I do believe that once English voters (because Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish voters already have proportional elections) are freed from the straightjacket of First Past the Post thinking, we’ll have a better opportunity to bring in further reforms.

    And then Margaret Ritchie of the SDLP (http://www.sdlp.ie/en/index.php/newsroom_media/newsArticle/ritchie_alternative_vote_system_a_step_forward):

    SDLP Leader and South Down MP Margaret Ritchie MLA has welcomed the proposed referendum on the introduction of the alternative vote system for Westminster elections.

    Tue 6th July

    She said: “The British Government is right to give people the opportunity to choose a fairer system for electing their MPs. The current system is completely unfair as it favours the larger parties and discriminates against smaller parties who can get hundreds of thousands of votes but no seats in Parliament.

    “My preference would be to extend the STV system of Proportional Representation to Westminster. This system is much fairer and we are already well used to it in Northern Ireland in our Assembly and Council elections.

    “The ‘alternative vote’ is, nonetheless, a clear step forward and I hope that people will support it in the referendum next year. In Northern Ireland this would have the effect of rebalancing politics towards candidates of the centre and away from the extremes.

    “Given the kinds of stalemates and brinkmanship we have endured in our politics in recent years, anything that supports parties in the centre is to be warmly welcomed as it is in the best interests of our people.

    “The SDLP will campaign vigorously in favour of progressive electoral reform.”

    So some support already from beyond the confines of the Liberal Democrats. That Caroline Lucas is in favour, I think says a lot about Fred Carver’s objections, that it doesn’t help smaller parties. She simply wouldn’t favour it if she thought the Greens would do worse under this system.

  • “I accept my examples are simplifications but I think they illustrate the point well. Whilst some of the points made about subsequent preferences are valid I specifically talked about “levels of support” as opposed to “numbers of votes” in order to make my point without getting bogged down in the specifics of transfers.”

    The trouble with doing this, and then also using percentages of ‘support’ required and comparing these percentages is that ‘support’ isn’t directly attributable to the percentages you are using to judge if a system is fair.

    Support is not something which is singular, i.e. people don’t have to wholly and singly support one party… however under FPTP votes are singular and relate to one party only.

    It is entirely possible for a party to have a lot of people who notionally and generally support a party and its principals, but who when looking at their very first choice of party have a wide and diverse range of partys in this top position. The most supported party in this case is not any one of the peoples ‘favourites’ but one which is more of a common denominator, one whose ideals are actually are supported by a majority of people.

    FPTP makes absolutely no allowance for this… AV does, and STV just deals with it in a completely different (and more democratic) way.

  • Paul McKeown 3rd Sep '10 - 1:01pm

    “Papua New Guinea doesn’t have AV, it has a truly bizarre electoral system which is a kind of AV+. 89 MPs are elected under a kind-of AV (you only get to make 3 preferences) and then there are 20 top-up MPs – oddly they are also elected under this kind-of AV, but as they are for larger and overlapping constituencies this sort-of works as a top-up mechanism.”

    From the Papua New Guinean Electoral Commission website (http://www.pngec.gov.pg/home/voting/limited_preferential_voting.php):

    Limited Preferencial Voting

    Elections for the National Parliament of Papua New Guinea will now use the Limited Preferential Voting system. This system requires the voter to make three (3) choices of candidates. The candidates’ numbers and names will appear on a Candidate Poster and a voter will then write either the names or candidate numbers of his/her three preferred candidates on the ballot paper.

    The ballot paper is a separate piece of paper and will contain the listed numbers or preferences 1, 2, and 3, with brackets beside each box. This is to show that a voter has three choices to make, beside each number. The boxed number 1 is used to indicate the voter’s most preferred candidate (1st choice). The boxed number 2 is used for the second preferred candidate (2nd choice) and boxed number 3 for the third preferred candidate (3rd choice). (see sample Candidate Poster & sample Ballot Paper)

    For a candidate to be elected under the LPV system, they must receive more than 50% + 1 of the total formal votes cast in the election. This is called an Absolute Majority. Once a candidate has reached an Absolute Majority, they can be declared elected, because no other candidate can obtain a greater number of votes.

    From wikipedia (Papua New Guinea doesn’t have AV, it has a truly bizarre electoral system which is a kind of AV+. 89 MPs are elected under a kind-of AV (you only get to make 3 preferences) and then there are 20 top-up MPs – oddly they are also elected under this kind-of AV, but as they are for larger and overlapping constituencies this sort-of works as a top-up mechanism.):

    The 109 members of the parliament all serve five-year terms. 89 members are elected from single-member “Open” electorates, which are sometimes referred to as “seats” but are officially known as constituencies. The remaining 20 are elected from single-member “Provincial” electorates, each covering a province-level division

    So the structure is this: there are 89 MPs representing constituencies and 20 MPs representing provinces. All are elected by AV. This is not a system of AV+ at all, it is a system of AV, with two sorts of MP elected by AV.

    Prior to independence Papua New Guinea used AV, like Australia, then it moved to FPTP in 1975, then in 2007, it returned to preferential voting. The following commentary (http://aceproject.org/main/english/es/esy_pg.htm) is interesting:

    Thinking that First Past the Post would be simpler system which would have similar effects to AV, Papua New Guinea changed to a FPTP electoral system at independence in 1975. However, the different incentives provided by the new FPTP system led to quite different results than were expected. Because candidates no longer needed an absolute majority of votes cast in order to be successful, but just more than any other group, the candidate from the largest clan would often win the seat outright. There was no incentive to co-operate with anyone else. Electoral violence increased, because it was in some candidates’ interests to stop opponents’ supporters from voting, rather than to campaign for their second preferences as they had under AV. Also, because there are so many clans all trying to win the seat, candidates learned that they could be successful with very limited support. At the 1992 elections, almost half the PNG parliament was elected with less than 20% of the vote – one successful candidate gained only 6.3%. It is now common for candidates to be encouraged to stand in order to ‘split’ a dominant clan’s voter base. This has led to a number of observers and politicians to call for the reintroduction of AV.

    Amazing 6.3% was enough to achieve a parliamentary seat under FPTP on instance due to the fragmentary nature of politics there.

  • Paul McKeown 3rd Sep '10 - 1:02pm

    sorry cut n paste problem there. the wikipedia reference was http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Parliament_of_Papua_New_Guinea

  • Paul McKeown 3rd Sep '10 - 1:03pm

    Furthermore it strikes me that Sri Lanka uses SV, which is another form of AV, too. Appears preferential voting is used in rather more places than Oz and Fiji….

  • James Whitehead 18th Apr '11 - 9:03pm

    Your argument about Australian Greens Party seats is disingenuous. The party currently holds 1/150 seats in the House of Representatives, and 5/76 in the Senate; ie. 6 of the 226 elected seats.

    At just under 3% of the seats available, it’s far from proportional representation – but is not a comparable situation to the UK Green Party, which has 1/650 seats.

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