Why Northern Ireland should say Yes to the Alternative Vote

Is it right that only three of Northern Ireland’s 18 MPs had the backing of over 50% of those who voted last May? Or right that another three had only one in three people vote for them? That is the situation that Northern Ireland found itself in last May after the only election that we place an X on our ballots rather than ranking our candidates by order of preference.

On Monday the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) released a report which stated that the Alternative Vote (AV) was superior to First Past the Post (FPTP) as a system for electing our MPs to Westminster. Saying it suited the electoral conditions prevalent today, particulary the shift to multi-party politics. Of course here we’ve had greater variety in our political parties for a lot longer than the rest of the UK. As a result we’ve been elected our councillors and representatives to devolved bodies by ranking them 1,2,3 etc and not with a single X for a long time.

AV will also lead to more competitive elections according to the findings. It means that the contenders will have to reach out to more of the communities in the area that they wish to represent in order to gain the 50% of the valid votes needed to secure their seat.  We’ve seen a little of that here in recent weeks as some of the parties have attempted to reach out beyond the old divides in the run up to the Assembly elections.

On Monday Ed Miliband said:

“There is no motivation under [the First Past the Post] system for parties to go into elections pretending anything other than that they hate each other equally. No reason to find points of common ground; just to disagree. To secure a majority of votes under AV, candidates will need to be more honest about points of agreement. So a Yes vote is a vote for hope for a better politics; more accountable, fairer with a changed political culture.”

This is as true here in Northern Ireland, our politicians talk about a shared future, this way we’ll know what ideas and ideals they share. Of course with AV we’re not going to have everybody agreeing with everything all the other parties put forward, but we’ll hear more of where they agree. Over the past few months I’ve met many people from all across the political spectrum here in Northern Ireland who agree that AV is the next step we need to take for a difference at Westminster and how the people can hold their MPs accountable.

There is also the end of having to vote to keep out what you don’t want and the ability to vote for what you believe and who closest reflects that. Some here also see that will lead to an end of political pacts between parties. A growing number of people are less tied down to one party but are drawn to the party or parties that closest reflect their own position. We’ve become promiscuous in our voting intentions and that is why the alternative vote is more suited to the needs of the voters. People no longer see politics as “them or us” we want our politicians to reflect us and know we have a range to choose from, it’s why some politicians are scared of giving that power to ordinary people, they feel they will lose control of their own destiny.

The reasons for voting Yes on 5th May are because it empowers the voter not the politician or political machine. It puts you, the voter, in control.

Stephen is currently the Northern Ireland Organiser, based in Belfast, for Yes to Fairer Votes the team campaigning for the yes vote on 5th May. He will also be speaking tonight at the Belfast Skeptics debate on the referendum

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  • Eglise en bois

    Why NI shouldn’t vote for AV because it will ensure the continuance of tribal voting with little chance of change.

  • Alias

    It’s hard to fault the logic of AV if the desire in NI is to end the ‘one vote, one party’ means of electing MPs. But the premise of that desire is less valid – which is essentially that dissent is bad and that a bland concensus is good. The more you move to a one party state (which is what the logic of it is), the less relevant politics becomes since there is no party that differs from another and so no real need to bother with elections at all. That’s the future of EU electorates, anyway.

  • Alias

    Just to clarify: the one party state doesn’t mean one party only – it means many parties with the same policies, so whichever party you vote for you get the same policies. A different means to the same end.

  • perhaps I’m wrong but isn’t there a picture of you Stephen with a sign saying words to the effect of “AV isn’t fair”
    Why is it “yes to fair votes” all of a sudden ?
    Has AV suddenly become fair?

  • OneNI

    The phrase ‘flogging a dead horse’ comes to mind

  • iluvni

    Imagine quoting Ed Millitwit who wont allow Labour to stand at all in NI, no matter what voting system is in place.

  • Eglise en bois

    What ever happened to one man/woman one vote?

  • South Down Stoop

    AV should be introduced because it’s more democratic.

    Voters aren’t forced to rank candidates, it’s a free choice; if nobody wanted to give their second preference to anyone there would be no change. The NO Campaign is primarily a Tory-inspired puppet, afraid because it knows that many Labour voters would transfer to LibDem and vice versa What AV does is ensure politicians have to reach out beyond their party base to get to 50% + 1, which is essentially unheard of in current WM elections.

    The arguments presented by the NO Campaign are weak and patronising:

    “AV is too complex” – What, are voters too stupid?
    “AV leads to stable government” – Stable almost never = democratic. The Tory-LibDem coalition is the first government in decades to have a 50%+ mandate, and even here both parties have mutilated their manifesto pledges beyond recognition.
    “It woud cost £250m” – Comparatively small figure in terms of the annual Budget. Shameless headline-grabbing. Who can put a price on a real mandate?

  • Eglise en bois

    AV is undemocratic and always best for the parties that just don’t have enough real support! Encourages lazy politics and even lazier politicians

  • Scáth Shéamais

    AV is undemocratic and always best for the parties that just don’t have enough real support!

    Two of the three politicians who got over 50% last year were Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, and their party supports AV.

    The third was Sylvia Hermon, and I’m not sure what her position is.

  • Charminator

    South Down Stoop – AV would certainly gift South Down to Maggie on a permanent basis, if it’s not already sufficiently copperfastened as SDLP already with Unionist strategic voting…. No, there’s no need for the likes in the North. There’s enough poppy-wearing ingratiation going on already trying to hoover up easy Unionist transfers.

  • Cynic2

    “to one man/woman one vote”

    if I have multiple personalities why shouldn’t each of them have a separate vote?

  • Alternatively, Ni should vote against a system which attempts to engineer a forced and false pseudo-majority (and wouldn’t have changed the result of any general election in living memory), and continue the campaign for proper PR.

  • I am voting a resounding NO.
    I had fully intended to vote yes until I asked a leading back room figure in the well financed YES Campaign…….if this was all about keeping the extremes out.
    Pausing for dramatic effect he said just one word “yes”
    and that was good enough for me to change from a Yes Man to a No Man. Too much like cute hoorism for my delicate tastes.
    I need hardly add that the AV “Fairer” Voting is supported by a party which believes 50,000 votes for them is worth more than 100,000 votes for another party.
    Has the YES Campaign a comment?
    No of course not…….thats er different.
    Im voting NO and opposing the liberal dissidents.

  • otto

    “continue the campaign for proper PR”.

    Proper PR can only be advanced by AV Malcolm, whether we move to AV+ as the Jenkins commission recommended or to knocking a few AV constituencies into one to make STV areas. Getting past the 1,2,3 hurdle’s half the battle.

    That might be why the No campaign is as strident as it is.

    The cute hoorism Fitz is the guy who tells you you have to vote for him as he’s the only one who can beat the guy you want to keep out. AV puts paid to that.

  • Reader

    Charminator: There’s enough poppy-wearing ingratiation going on already trying to hoover up easy Unionist transfers.
    Would you be opposed to SF seeking Unionist transfers? And are you opposed to the notion of a party increasing its vote by broadening its appeal?

  • Reader

    fitzjameshorse1745: Pausing for dramatic effect he said just one word “yes”
    He may have been trying to work out if you would (a) swallow it and (b) approve. Clearly he got (a) right and (b) wrong. In fact, AV will just give the other parties fair warning that the extremes are on the move.

  • Otto, there are unlimited forms of cute hoorism.

  • otto @ 4:32 pm:

    Rubbish. The case for FPTP is dubious, unless you want the quickest, dirtiest route to a majoritist system. The case for AV is merely majoritism with a few bits of bunting. Forget the champagne and caviar, Garçon, shad roe. Repeat: AV would not have changed a single General Election result in living memory.

    The only reasons why AV is the subject of a referendum are [a] to offer the LibDems a fig-leaf and [b] to keep the really important change at bay for another three or four parliaments, and until AV’s deficiencies are too patent to ignore.

    The Speaker’s Conference of 1918 declared for AV+. The Commons voted for AV+. FPTP survived only because the Tory Lords (the Lords!) forced it on the Commons, and a definitive Act was required in time for the Khaki Election. Until 2010, and a rush of blood to a head, AV+ was, by default, “official” Labour policy. It’s almost good enough for me, still.

    If anyone wants a clean STV system, they should vote No! for a real deal. Anything else is moonshine and eyewash.

  • Of course, there is a low-down dirty reason for NI, Scotland and Wales to vote Yes. England will vote resoundingly No!. A split vote is a further argument for increased devolution.

    Why should the three other assemblies not determine how they elect their representatives to the “imperial” parliament?

  • otto


    You made me have to try to explain D’Hondt to a seven year old tonight when he asked why I was laughing out loud at my iPhone.


    “If anyone wants a clean STV system, they should vote No! for a real deal.”

    By what magic does a No to a referendum on AV lead to even the offer of a referendum on STV? John Cleese was making excellent arguments for STV in the ’80s. No sign of that bus coming if we miss this one.

  • IJP


    I really think you miss the two best pro-AV arguments.

    Firstly, one-in-three people did not vote for any NI MP, not even Lady Hermon as she swept away all-comers…

    Secondly, people already preference-vote in Westminster elections, by voting for their second or even later choice; the point is, very often they don’t get the chance to vote for the person they actually want.

    On that first point, turnout in Westminster elections is declining more rapidly than at other elections, meaning that even in North Down fewer than 1 in 3 of the adult population voted for the winner. In most cases, this was more like 1 in 5, and some even lower. That is part of the real scandal.

    On that second, FST offers a good example. Did SDLP voters really want Gildernew, or did they just prefer her to Connor? Of course, Connor wouldn’t have been needed in the first place…

    I really do despair at those who are cunningly voting “No” in the hope of a “real” referendum. “No” means forget about any change for a couple of generations. Remember, the vast bulk of the population really doesn’t care to start with.

  • South Down Stoop


    Where in my post did I bring the electoral fortunes of Margaret Ritchie into my argument?

    My post was based on beliefs I hold regardless of party politics; if anything a YES vote would hurt the SDLP within the nationalist bloc in future South Down Westminster elections, as it would illustrate the extent of Unionist transfers. And I, as a South Down SDLP member, will be voting YES regardless, because it is the more democratic system.

    This referendum has to be kept free of local interest or partisan jibes. Keep yourself on thread man.

  • FuturePhysicist

    With 16 seats now, there may not even be a South Down there to defend.

    I will be voting yes …

    1. This mitigates against the farces we saw in FST, SB and EA

    2. This turns a vote into something more than a bland singular choice to something diverse and vectorial. (see moniker). It’s still one person, one vote but a vote becomes something more.

  • FuturePhysicist


    Is it right that only three of Northern Ireland’s 18 MPs had the backing of over 50% of those who voted last May

    I’m not a Tory, I’m not a Deputy and I’m not a Lord, well one of those left

  • orly

    Reader 21 April 2011 at 5:41 pm.
    Would you be opposed to SF seeking Unionist transfers?



  • AV is the magic bullet that neuters the unique NI tradition of voting by denomination? Really?

    What that daft notion further points is the insanity in all AV and FPTP propaganda: property votes, not people.

    Anyone who has worked an urban constituency knows, painfully, that electors are ephemeral. On the register today, and gone tomorrow. In some inner-city constituencies the “churn” is 10% 15%, even 20% a year. Those seats with a high student population, a LibDem speciality, the turn-over in a five-year parliament (another of the ConDem “blessings”) may even approach a plurality. Yet, the Rt Hon Nick Clegg remains the Member for Hallam with his 12% student vote.

    The argument against STV in multi-member constituencies (as in the RoI) is explicitly that it breaks this notional, and nonsensical, property tie.

    To be really radical (perish the thought say the AV-boosters) NI could be just three or four multi-member constituencies; Wales a couple more; Scotland perhaps a dozen; England perhaps a hundred. A regional, even near-local, tie would be maintained. Everyone could be guaranteed of an MP approximating his/her own stripe. If the weak argument for AV is to “make MPs work harder”, true STV is the way to do it. Or something nearly as good could be achieved by “top-up” regional lists.

    AV, as proposed, will reinforce the notion that property, not people, votes. It will not in any way change the “safest” of safe seats: will Surrey have a Labour MP? Liverpool Tories suddenly find a soul-mate at Westminster?

    AV is, in short, a fraud, “a miserable little compromise” [© Nick Clegg], £250,000,000 of facial embrocation. Fortunately, it seems as if a majority of voters have seen just that: the rest (perhaps 60-70% of the electoral roll) may not even bother.

  • Reader

    Malcolm Redfellow: In some inner-city constituencies the “churn” is 10% 15%, even 20% a year.
    But as you have indicated in the past, the churn doesn’t vote anyway. Except maybe for students. When I was a student I voted in my university constituency, knowing that in three years we would be replaced by a demographically equivalent cohort, with its own stake in the constituency.
    Malcolm Redfellow: AV is, in short, a fraud, “a miserable little compromise” [© Nick Clegg]
    And you agree with Nick. Understood. So do I. But so what? There are two choices on the Referendum. I will choose the better of the two – AV. And in your own case, it isn’t as though a British Socialist can have any *fundamental* objection to a “miserable little compromise”. After all, such people have been voting Labour for 100 years.

  • Reader @ 9:52 am:

    You vote the way you wish: orthodoxy is your doxy, heterodoxy is … someone else’s (yes: and I do know the original).

    But “British Socialist”? You exceed my ration of tolerance, sir. I’d accept “Anglo-Irish and socialist” (because I know my origins and my grammar); but would prefer “socialist” (I’m not one those Stalinist “socialism in one country” fellas, y’know).

    As for “voting Labour for 100 years”, [a] that gives me a fair bit to go; and [b] the mantra, as always, is “vote as left as you can get”.

    Incidentally, the “churn” who bother to register, may vote (and thanks to the reforms of the last government do so in vast numbers, even if by post — to the great distress of the Daily Mail). It’s the non-registered of whom you speak — unless, of course, you wish to import the other element of Australian AV, compulsory voting. My point there was that by “churning” the constituency link is less relevant.

    “The better of the two”? Why are we being offered two variants of stale shad roe when real fresh caviar is available (see above for attribution)?

  • Reader

    Malcolm Redfellow: Why are we being offered two variants of stale shad roe when real fresh caviar is available (see above for attribution)?
    Real fresh caviar is *not* available, as you will see on 5th May. However, it may become available once the electorate has become used to voting 1,2,3. That initial fear is what you really should have observed when you said “Fortunately, it seems as if a majority of voters have seen just that”. Do you honestly think they are holding out for STV? Really? Truly?

  • I have read the comments above. There are some very good comments here both for and against AV.

    It is argued that AV is more democratic. It is if your definition of democracy means giving the most amount of voter-decision-making power to the highest number of people. It is fashionable to believe that pure democracy is what evolution of political systems should be striving to achieve but does that really make it the best?

    We need a certain amount of democracy to prevent Autocratic Government and to engender a system of competition which brings out the best political ideas and policies.

    Unfortunately, the more people that are necessary to secure the victory of a candidate, the more watered down and compromised his/her politics become and the less likely you will get the best policies. Tough decisions and robust policies, which are necessary but not always popular are more likely to be disused, avoided or fudged.

    I believe there will be a time in the future when more democracy could be a better thing. That will only happen when the electorate is more sophisticated. In other words, we need an electorate that is more likely to give weight to a range of policies across the boad and vote for what they consider to be in the national interest rather than for the policies that are most likely to affect them personally. I would suggest that we are at least a generation away from that.