Preparing for the AV referendum: get asking

With an AV referendum coming (most likely in the spring), there is plenty that local parties can already be doing to help win the referendum. I’ve already talked about the importance of fielding more local election candidates, so today’s post is about starting to ask questions of the public.

It’s never too early to start gathering voting intention data, even if you don’t yet know the exact candidate line-up, and likewise it’s never too early to start gathering referendum voting intentions, even if we don’t yet know the exact question.

When it comes to electoral reform, opinion polls show us that the public’s views can be very variable depending on what aspect of the issue they are asked about. In order to generate useful data for referendum campaigning, a broad question in our literature that picks out the hardcore pros and antis as well as getting a feel for the broader issues of ‘fair votes’ is, at this stage at least, the most useful. For example:

The Government is planning to hold a referendum on changing the voting system used at general elections from first past the post to a fairer system, the Alternative Vote. Do you:

(a) Strongly support changing to the Alternative Vote
(b) Support changing to the Alternative Vote
(c) Not sure
(d) Oppose changing to the Alternative Vote
(e) Strongly oppose changing to the Alternative Vote

You can start putting that question in residents’ surveys, add it to grumble sheets, run an online survey that you email people about and so on. If you then store the data in EARS you can start to match it up with other data (such as age, voting intention and Mosaic) to what groups of people are the strongest supporters or opponents of change.

A further question that is useful to add where you have space is:

… and what is the main reason for your view?

That will help give an idea of what arguments will most persuade people in your area.

A big danger with political messaging is that you use messages which you personally find persuasive – but if you are active in a political party and involved in deciding the content of political material you are a very untypical person! (If you ever have a moment, leaf through Duncan Brack’s Why I Am A Liberal Democrat. It’s striking that the issues which motivate people who end up being life-long party activists are often very different from those which motivate the public at general elections during those lives.)

Getting qualitative feedback from this second question will help make those local discussions much more productive and rooted in what the public thinks of issues.

There will be plenty of good advice coming about what messages to use, and electoral reform is an areas where there is a wealth of research about the public’s attitudes, but there is nothing like the local feedback to both help fine tune the message for your area – and to persuade doubters that the message that appeals to them may not always be the one that appeals to the public.

Meanwhile … The Guardian has news of Conservatives campaigning against AV.

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This entry was posted in News.


  • What is the point of AV or STV for that matter when there won’t be a Liberal Democrat party to speak off come 2015?

  • I would have supported PR but I am not supporting AV.

  • AV has just as many flaws as first past the post, they’re just different flaws!

  • Stuart Mitchell 29th Jun '10 - 7:05pm

    “The Government is planning to hold a referendum on changing the voting system used at general elections from first past the post to a *fairer* system, the Alternative Vote.” [My emphasis.]

    Talk about a leading question!! Hope you don’t have any input on the eventual referendum question.

  • Stuart Mitchell 29th Jun '10 - 7:14pm

    AV stinks, even most pro-PR people seem to agree. Why, at a time when the government is slashing spending on things like libraries, are we wasting money on a referendum for a system that virtually nobody is enthusiastic about?

    I am in favour of PR but despise AV. Under AV, supporters of our two-party government would effectively be able to cast TWO votes for it. Supporters of the single-party opposition would only have one vote. Doesn’t sound like “fairness”, or even “democracy”, to me.

    Before anybody tells me that there are other non-government parties I could vote for, I should mention that in my constituency last month the only other options available were UKIP and the BNP – neither of which are remotely acceptable to any civilised person.

  • Andrea Gill 29th Jun '10 - 8:05pm

    ” Under AV, supporters of our two-party government would effectively be able to cast TWO votes for it.”

    Or on the other hand, many more votes (Labour, TUSC, Green) against it, putting us both bottom?

  • Stuart, no one is able to effectively cast two votes under AV. Each voter only has one vote, but has the *option* of expressing as many additional preferences as they wish. However, any additional preferences only come into play if their first preference fails to attract enough support and is thereby eliminated. Therefore if someone voted 1 Lib Dem 2 Lab 3 Con, their vote would only be transferred to Lab or Con if the Lib Dem candidate were eliminated. And it is important to remember that a voter is free to express only one preference if they wish (in exactly the same way as under the present FPTP system), e.g. by voting simply 1 Lib Dem. So if indeed you “despise” AV (though I find it hard to understand how extending more choice to voters is despicable!), you are free to express only one preference. In fact if you were able to persuade your fellow voters to restrict themselves to only one preference (i.e. not to exercise their option to express additional preferences) the overall result would be exactly the same as under FPTP!

    In conclusion, under AV no one is forced to express more than one preference; and the votes of those who do express one or more additional preferences carry no greater weight (they merely deprive themselves of the opportunity for their vote to be transferred to another candidate).

  • Stuart Mitchell 30th Jun '10 - 11:28am

    Ralph, I know how AV works, that’s why I’m so opposed to it!

    Given that the referendum will be a straight choice between FPTP and AV, I suggest applying a kind of psephological Occam’s razor to it and sticking with FPTP. Both systems are massively and blatantly unfair (and will even produce pretty much the same result according to the ERS), but at least FPTP has the virtue of being much simpler and easier for voters to understand – and maintains the important (to me at least) principle of “one person, one vote”.

    I wonder: will the voting reform referendum encompass the Tory plans to redraw all the boundaries to get rid of dozens of those pesky Labour seats – or is this something the Lib Dems will allow a minority Tory party to do without any sort of mandate?

  • Stuart Mitchell 30th Jun '10 - 12:25pm

    Joe: “you only get 1 vote under AV… it allows the voter to say – if Bob can’t win, I’ll support Sally.”

    You see the problem. Sorry, but whichever way you portray it, two marks on a ballot paper for two different candidates still equates to two votes. Call it “two preferences” if you like but it’s still unfair. It gives an obvious electoral advantage to multi-party coalitions, and those who only wish to vote for one party may find their vote chucked in the bin before the final round of votes is counted.

    “That’s more power for voters”

    Only if they genuinely wish to vote for multiple parties. Other voters would see their power diminished.

  • Stuart, despite your protestation, you clearly do not understand how AV works. Under AV a vote *cannot* count for two different candidates; every vote can only end up counting for *one* candidate, no matter how many preferences the voter has expressed.

    A supporter of one of the coalition parties does not have an unfair advantage over supporters of other parties; every vote will only count for *one* candidate. Just as under FPTP, a voter cannot vote for the coalition; they have to decide which candidate to put as their first preference. Thus a Green voter may put 1 Green 2 Lab, but their vote will only count for one of those two candidates: if the Green candidate gets eliminated (as will typically be the case), the voter can rest assured that their vote will not be wasted but will instead be transferred to Labour.

    If the coalition parties prove unpopular, the effect of AV may be not to weaken Labour (as I suspect you fear) but to strengthen Labour, as the party would be likely to receive higher preferences than the Conservatives or Lib Dems. Nor does AV make coalitions inevitable; it is well known that Blair would probably have won an even larger majority in 1997 under AV (as Labour would have received the second preferences of most non-Lab/Con voters). If Labour’s popularity increases sufficiently, Labour could well win a landslide in 2015 under AV.

  • Stuart Mitchell 1st Jul '10 - 9:29am

    Ralph/Joe: Seriously, I *do* understand AV, but I still don’t like it!

    We’re playing with words here, regarding whether AV equates to multiple votes. It is as if, under the current FPTP system, a voter who supported the third party were allowed to walk into the count after the initial result were announced, tear up his original vote, and then cast a new vote for a different party. I don’t think it’s inaccurate to call this “two votes”. If you’d rather call it “two preferences” then that’s up to you, but what really matters is not what we call it, but whether it is fair, and it is demonstrably not fair. Under AV, a candidate who had, say, 10,000 more first choice votes then anybody else could nevertheless end up losing the election. Fair? Nope.

    AV has nothing whatsoever to do with PR, and nothing whatsoever to do with “fair votes”. It can be LESS proportional than FPTP, and is undeniably more complicated than FPTP. I go back to my earlier point about parsimony; if we are going to make the voting system more complicated, then there simply has to be a tangible pay-off in terms of fairness for doing so, and AV fails dismally to provide that.

    It’s all a big red herring really, and provides Cameron with a convenient smoke screen for the other outrageous things he’s doing with our constitution and electoral system. I actually think that the Tories’ original offer– for an all-party commission considering all options for fair votes – was a much better offer than the one the Lib Dems eventually accepted, but sadly the Lib Dems were seduced by the idea of a referendum – even though the referendum only offers the “opportunity” to replace one stinkingly unfair system with another.

  • Stuart Mitchell 1st Jul '10 - 9:36am

    Joe: “The only reason you would want to put only 1 preference on a ballot paper is if you were truly indifferent to all the other candidates. If, say, you think green=fascist=socialist=libertarian=christian=independent. Do you think this?”

    *I* don’t think that, no. But many voters would be bewildered by such a choice, and “donkey voting” would be the result.

  • @ Staurt Mitchell

    Amen to you brother. AV is unfair and complicated. Why bother with a half-measure that has little virtue over the present system, but adds complexity, plus kicks real electoral reform into the long grass for a generation? I say keep FPTP, so beloved by the people, and change who we vote for. I say, lets enact real constitutional reform and have direct elections for the premiership of the country and separate direct elections for our MPs. The benefits are many and the drawbacks few, plus everyone would get to keep the present system until we can gain enough support for PR, the people could directly elect their Prime Minister, as many seem to want to do, and Parliament would be liberated from the electoral dominance of the executive.

  • I agree that AV maintains some of the flaws of FPTP (e.g. re proportionality), but would make the following points:

    1. AV is a significant step towards STV, as it introduces preferential voting; a subsequent change to STV would involve less of a jump (i.e. creating multi-member constituencies). If the AV referendum is lost, we may be stuck with FPTP for a very long time. So let’s not make the best the enemy of the good.

    2. At the very least, AV (and STV) eliminates tactical voting and the “wasted vote” argument (Vote A to stop B because C can’t win here), which is often cited as the main cause of disengagement under FPTP. This is a crucial change for the majority of the voting public whose votes had no effect on the composition of the current parliament.

    3. I still think it’s highly misleading to describe AV as giving voters two votes, as this implies the effect is the same as giving them two separate ballot papers (i.e. resulting in two votes for their favourite candidate!), but in any case the key point is this: AV (and STV) gives more power to *all* voters by enabling them to express additional preferences, but any voter is free to give up their power to do so by expressing only one preference (as under FPTP).

    4. There is no reason why AV (or STV) should increase “donkey voting” (which already exists under FPTP); even if more candidates decided to stand, any voter who found the choice bewildering could stick to just one preference. In any event, donkey voting could be reduced by ordering candidates on the ballot paper in decreasing order of their (party’s) support at the last election.

    5. There is little evidence that voters struggle with preferential voting. The first Northern Ireland Assembly election under STV in 1973 produced a 70% turnout. Similarly, STV was used in Scotland for the last local elections, without any significant increase in wasted ballots. In fact I would argue preferential voting is more intuitive than FPTP, as most people have opinions about more than one party (e.g. I strongly support A, I don’t mind B and I dislike C).

  • Andrea Gill 1st Jul '10 - 1:28pm

    Some posters seem incapable of grasping that failing to win a referendum on AV will more than likely bury all hopes of further reform attempts for a very long time and objecting to this on the basis of “It isn’t what *I* want” reaffirms the view some hold that Liberal Democrats are only interested in furthering our own party interesests.

  • Paul McKeown 2nd Jul '10 - 1:33am

    @Stuart Mitchell

    Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.

    AV is what is on the table.

    Take it or leave it.

    And if you leave it now, you perhaps leave any change for 30 years or more.

    Whereas, if you get AV, you will help the Liberal Democrats a little, and you probably help other smaller parties such the Greens, UKIP, SDLP, Alliance, UUP, PC and SNP. And each extra seat that you can deliver to the Liberal Democrats and each extra seat you can deliver to these other under-represented democratic parties, increases the likelihood that they will be able to stalemate parliament again and again in the future. And the Liberal Democrats and these other smaller parties will push for STV as the price for co-operation in future stalemated parliaments. From a position of strength.

    Currently we don’t have the strength to push for STV (or AV+), but we do have the strength to push for this intermediate step.

    And lets be honest, when we do eventually get STV, are we going to apply STV to force the rural highland and islands constituencies of Scotland into enormous multi-member constituencies, where that might increase the geographical distance to one’s MPs by 50 or more miles? Or will we allow those constituencies to use single member AV if the people there think it most practicable?

    And further still, when we do eventually get STV, what system do you think we use for the inevitable occasional by-elections? It will be AV.

    So, come on, get real, please.

    Get behind it.

    If you don’t, then you have to be honest about the reasons that you oppose AV. It might seem in the final analysis that you don’t actually want success for any parties outside the majoritarian duopoly (or the DUP or Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland).

  • If you get AV, it will mean that no voter will ever again stare at the ballot paper thinking “Oh, I’d really love to vote for the Lib Dems, but they just don’t have a chance in this constituency. I guess I’ll have to vote for (Labour / the Conservatives).” And that would be a huge accomplishment.

  • We must tap in to the discontent with politicians that burst out over their expenses. These greedy self-interested MPs, first they fought to protect their moats and duck houses, now they fight to protect their safe seats. The referendum must become be a classic people versus the politicians contest…

  • Ray Cobbett 2nd Jul '10 - 8:29am

    Work by the Electoral Reform Society shows that had AV being in place for the May election the result would have been more or less the same. Their estimate of 22 more seats would have been handy for the coalition negotiations but with STV we would have got over 120. AV is the bare minimum and there is further uncertainty over the impact of boundary changes that benefit the Tories. They will openly campaign against a change and any thoughts of support from Labour can now be binned along with winning many council seats from them in May.

  • AV is not as good as STV but it is better than this illusion of democracy we have now. The only way forward is for us all to do what we can to get it. That will mean all free thinking people joining in the pust to convince the general population that murdoch’s view is of no benifit to them (the truth). We have one chance to make this better so come on gals and guys lets go and do this. There is so many half truths being put about but people who haven’t thought it through and by the original self interested people prying on peoples fears it is untrue. We need to get the truth out to these people and I am sure with the hundreds of thousands of people already part of pressure groups interested in AV we have a very good chance Has Nick said though we need to do this from now until the ballot. Democracy’s enemies have the money and don’t want to give up their power but we have the numbers and which include a load of dedicated people who will keep going.

  • All that AV will provide is that the Liberals will be the group will always give us the PM.
    Also manifestos will be of no point.

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