AV: Yes, No or Meh? What are we being asked?

I don’t know about you, but I find the outcome of the AV referendum less interesting than the fact that we’re being asked about voting systems at all.

Like everyone else, I’ve got my own prejudices here – I particularly dislike the fact that it’s a question that is subject to a referendum in the first place – a strong enough reason to resist the change itself, perhaps?

I don’t know whether to vote Yes, No or just say meh and stay indoors. But I think that there are some bigger important questions lurking in a squabble over a minor change, and I’d like to help pull together a catalogue of the various arguments to see if that will help the undecideds to make their mind up.

I’d like your feedback on what these questions are. I’m less interested in the answers to the questions below for now. Please tell me if I’ve got the structure right (and whether my structure is over-weighted towards my own prejudices).

These are the questions that I think we should be asking: have I got them right, have I conflated some or left others out? In your comments, I’d be grateful if you could stick to the shape of the debate rather than its content because I think that there are subsequent posts that would be worth reading about each of these questions.

Proportionality: Is AV a more proportional system of voting and is proportional government necessarily a good thing in itself?

Legitimacy: Will the AV system make governments more legitimate in the eyes of the voters and capable of taking big decisions on our behalf?

Quality of government: Will a parliament elected by AV make for better government or not? Will the policies be better (not just in terms of popularity, but in promoting long-termism)?

Coalition government: Will AV result in more coalition government than First Past the Post (FPTP) and is this a good thing?

The cost of voting: The ‘no’ camp are placing a lot of emphasis on the cost of the referendum and the cost of counting AV results in future – especially at a time of public spending cuts. Is this an important consideration?

Framing and referendums: Is a referendum the right way to decide this issue, and are we being offered two options that we don’t really like when a better one could be on the table? Should supporters of other options hold their noses and vote for AV as it will then legitimise other systems and make a future change easier? Should our attitude to these questions effect the way we vote or should we simply vote for the option on the ballot that we prefer?

Political context: Different parties have different views on how this will effect the outcome of elections. Supporters of AV may be swayed by the possibility that this system will result in governments more to their personal liking. Presumably, opponents will do the same. Is this a debate about the ethics of voting or is it really crude political gamesmanship? Should we simply vote for the option that will return the most MPs for our preferred political party?

There you go. Are these the right questions? Is anything missing? In debates involving trade-offs, the priority of questions matters – so are they in the right order of importance?

Let me know what you think?

  • Irishlassabroad

    Thanks for this Paul I have been waiting for a good discussion on the pros and cons of AV and the issues surrounding it. I have noticed the no campaign seem to be winning the funding war as I have seen many ads for the no side and nothing from the yes.

    I especially like your point on the framing of the question and the fact people are being given a choice between FPTP and AV which is not a proportional system. Would it not be better for there to be a real choice between AV/AV+/STV etc.

    Whether anything will make the present or any future governments more legitimate in the eyes of the public remains doubtful in my mind at least

  • ILA,

    Yep. The fact that there is a funding war chimes in with my previous post about referendums. I suspect that the outcome will be strongly influenced by the scare-stories from wealthy pressure groups and newspaper proprietors in the final week. Not good.

  • Reader

    Q: Will AV benefit small parties as they will be no longer crippled by pressure on voters to vote tactically?
    Q: What feedback will parties take on board from a true picture of First Preference Votes at national level, for the first time ever?
    Q: Will turnout increase as the number of safe seats is slashed?
    Q: Will AV remove the fear and confusion from vote transfers, and pave the way for the electorate to accept a truly proportional system in the future?
    Q: Who will get the BNP transfers – the Toffs or the Lads?

  • Drumlins Rock

    it will vastly reduce the chances of extreme parties getting any seats, but still allow for the odd rogue independent.
    The government will have a popular majority of sorts.
    Tactical voting and acusations of “vote splitting” wil be reduced.
    and dare I say it, cross community transfers MAY increase.

    Can confuse some ( but we are used to 1, 2 ,3 now)
    Weaker minority governments, more backroom deals.
    Less “safe” seats for ministers, meaning they have to keep an eye on things back home much more and distracted from government.
    May encourage more crackpot candidates!

    As for the referendum, your prob right Paul, it wasn’t needed, parliment could have decided, saying that, having one on something trivial means future ones are less likely I think.

    BTW I will prob vote yes at the end of it all, purely to see the centre parties squeeze the DUP & Sinn Fein.

  • Heh. Fair enough DR. I suspect a lot of people will vote one way or the other to make a slightly unrelated point! 😉

    Referendums – doncha lovem?

  • Here are a few things I think the debate would benefit from covering:

    What do the two systems mean for how well voters’ views are translated into (a) who becomes their MP, (b) the make-up of the Commons, (c) the formation of the government, (d) the policies that are enacted? If different systems would be better on different counts, which are more important?

    How valid is the evidence we have for what would be more or less likely to happen under AV?

    What broader characteristics of our political culture (why voters pick one party over another; how parties campaign and position themselves; the whole two-big-one-medium-several-small party structure) may be changed by AV?

  • Proportionality: AV is not proportional – it can’t help it. You would need multi-member constituencies and STV to achieve this.

    Fair representation implies that proportionality is a “good” thing. It doesn’t make for majority governments, but it does reflect more accurately the true preferences of the electorate – smaller parties don’t get squeezed, because across a bigger constituency they are more likely to garner enough votes for a quota, and we have seen this in councils and the assembly.

    What AV does do is identify the candidate most acceptable to the electorate in the constituency as a whole.

    Coalition, legitimacy and quality of government:
    The statisticians have shown that not only would using AV not have changed the ultimate outcome of any UK election in the last 100 years (including 2010), but only the number of seats each party had. In fact, Australia has had fewer coalitions with AV than the UK has had with FPTP.

    The elected candidates will have greater legitimacy because they will have had to have the (perhaps begrudging) support of 50% of the electorate over their last defeated rival – their legitimacy will in turn reflect onto the government. That said, we will probably continue to see smaller parties squeezed – the third of three candidates loses.

    It could make for better government, because candidates will realise they have to earn their seats. If coalition was more likely as a result of AV, I would argue it was a good thing because parliament would more accurately reflect the voting preferences of its electorate, but it’s not PR.

    The cost of voting: is a scare story by the No camp. In seats where a candidate has 50% of 1st preferences, it will cost the same. Not wasting money on voting machines means that it will cost no more than is necessary to pay counters for recounts.

    Framing and referendums: Yes, we are being offered two options noone really wants (because the original demand was for STV, which is proportional). However, neither of the two biggest parties will go near voting reform without a referendum, and STV is a bridge too far – for now.

    Political context: the Tories are scared of political reform in case it results in their (mainly English) electorate being overruled by the rest of the UK.

    Most of the No to AV arguments are laughable. Unnecessary voting machines, confusion caused by the system (in NI, any mark that shows a clear first preference is treated as a valid ballot), lies about votes only being counted once (they are included in every count, but don’t get looked at again unless the candidate is eliminated, because we already know whom they chose as first preference), etc.

    On readers qus:
    Q: Will AV benefit small parties as they will be no longer crippled by pressure on voters to vote tactically? Yes – they may still get eliminated quickly, but there will be a true picture of their support and transfers will go where they would have done if they had voted tactically.

    Q: What feedback will parties take on board from a true picture of First Preference Votes at national level, for the first time ever? I look forward to this!

    Q: Will turnout increase as the number of safe seats is slashed? Depends entirely on how carefully people understand the system and spoiled votes

    Q: Will AV remove the fear and confusion from vote transfers, and pave the way for the electorate to accept a truly proportional system in the future? Hope so!

    Q: Who will get the BNP transfers – the Toffs or the Lads? I would say the toffs, because Labour and the Lib Dems are too soft for the BNP voters. In saying that, I would be surprised if BNP garnered enough votes for its supporters in any constituency to decide who takes a seat!

  • Zig70

    I believe in a certain way the country should be governed and that’s what I’ll vote for. I don’t want a convoluted system that favours other political view points. To me AV is just to give hope of political careers for the politically power hungry in less popular parties. A trait I mistrust above all else. It always seems to be the liberals who want this. It’s like crap footballers demanding everyone wears ankle chains to even it up.

  • john

    In my view tactical voting and vote splitting all helps to make the election more interesting so will miss these under an AV system but agree that obviously the AV is a fairer system

  • Valenciano

    On the question of BNP transfers we don’t need to speculate as we already have evidence from local elections in Scotland as to how they go. In Glasgow they seem to roughly break

    35% non transferable
    25% Conservative
    20% SNP
    10% Labour
    5% LibDem
    5% Other

    This is in situations where the tories often aren’t polling too well overall so it’s likely that more would go their way when they’re in contention.

  • Reader

    Valenciano: 20% SNP
    Amazing. I am sure some BNP voters can be brought back from the brink with a bit of re-education and reassurance. But someone who transfers from BNP to SNP has stepped over the edge and is in a very nasty place indeed.

  • abucs

    I like the Australian system – a single transferrable vote for the lower house where the business is done and an AV type proportionality vote for the upper house for review.

  • Dewi

    abucs – it’s AV for the lower house as well – indeed it’s “compulsory” AV where you have to rank all candidates or your vote gets disqualified…(you can just vote once (what they call “above the line”) in which case your preferences are determined by the party you vote for)

  • Thanks everyone – I’m going to work down the comments over the next couple of days to make sure I capture everything. But on @readers’s points for now….

    Thinking it through, I’d put your question “Will AV benefit small parties as they will be no longer crippled by pressure on voters to vote tactically?” in the ‘Pro’ camp as an assertion (i.e. say that it will) and look for counterarguments from others).

    I’ll also say that “Parties could be smarter because feedback from a true picture of First Preference Votes at national level, for the first time ever will allow them to hone their approach”

    I’ll also say that “turnout may increase as the number of safe seats is slashed” and see if anyone has evidence one way or the other (though it looks like a reasonable argument to me)

    I’ll say “AV may remove the fear and confusion from vote transfers” as a ‘pro’ argument and separate the line that it could “pave the way for the electorate to accept a truly proportional system in the future” as a separate one.

    On the BNP transfers, there’s the question of ‘extremist parties’ – on the pro-side, we could say that seeking their transfers will encourage moderate parties to address the concerns that drive voters into the hands of anti-democratic extremists. On the ‘anti’ side, I’ll suggest that AV could increase the influence of extremist parties by making it possible for people to cast 1st preference ‘protest’ votes and that this could get out of hand as it did in the French Presidential elections.

    I’m not going to try to suppress my anti-fascist personal bias on this one! 😉

  • We’re being asked to decide on a voting system that is used in only one country. It is untested in a European polity. But this doesn’t stop people enthusing about it and confidently predicting what will happen when it’s introduced here? It’s a bit like STV in that respect – a system that is also seldom used. Where on earth do people get their confidence from, is what I’d like to know? We’re getting, by definition, a lot of evidence-free arguments about this.

  • @Shuggy & @TomFreeman

    Tom’s point illustrates Shuggy’s – Tom’s asking what seem to me to be the most important questions but there’s almost nothing by way of evidence (though I thought that this article that Peter Ryley sent me was as good a guide as any I’ve seen) to give us an answer either way.


    None of Tom’s questions fit neatly into my pro/con formula because we don’t know much about what the answers to them are.

    For this reason, this referendum doesn’t seem to be about a choice between two things that are quantifiably better/worse than each other depending upon your values, but more a question “do we want to do something random that will probably not have much impact either way”?

    My weakness is that I tend to say ‘yes’ to questions like that more than most people do (a change is as good as a rest & it’s reversible anyway, etc).