A NO vote perspective on AV


On 5th May the nation will be asked to choose between keeping our current voting system of first past the post (FPTP) or change to the alternative vote (AV) system.

The question we need to ask ourselves is whether or not AV is a better system than FPTP. Whilst many of us would agree that or current system is not perfect and that some form of electoral reform is necessary, the question on 5th May is not how much we like or dislike FPTP, but quite simply "is AV actually better?"
So what are the issues?
Firstly, does AV tackle the issue of safe seats or so-called jobs for life? At the last election over 200 seats were won with 50% or more of the vote. Roughly a third of the seats in Parliament would remain safe under AV; indeed some new safe seats would be created with its introduction. AV does not tackle safe seats.
Would AV bring and end to "wasted votes?" In any competition or election there are winners and losers. Just because the person you voted for didn't win doesn't mean your vote didn't count. It simply means more people in your area preferred someone else. If your candidate or party wants to win there next time they will simply have to convince more people to vote for them. We learn many valuable lessons from losing, it helps us grow and come back stronger. It's no good losing a game of football and thinking the best way to start winning is to have the rules changed in your favour.
Further under AV there is no guarantee that any of the candidates will reach 50% mark. This will only happen if enough of those voting actually pick 2nd, 3rd etc preferences. To guarantee this we would have to make voting compulsory as they have had to in Australia.
In any event following the logic of AV backers, even if someone has 51% of the vote, by the same argument the other 49% of people's votes didn't count.
Is AV more fair? Under FPTP the principle that all men and women are equal is enshrined in the implementation of one person one vote. However under AV those who support the most unpopular or extreme parties with their 1st or "throw away" vote will get the first chance to exercise their 2nd and 3rd preferences. Those who support more mainstream parties are far less likely to have their other preferences taken into account. Therefore the 2nd and 3rd preferences of supporters of parties such as the BNP & UKIP will be far more likely to affect the outcome of the election than the other preferences of more main stream voters. As a result some parties and politicians will feel the need to pander to such extreme groups and may have to give concessions to these groups in order to secure their 2nd or 3rd preference. These parties may never gain seats under AV (as they almost certainly won't under FPTP) but they will gain more influence and legitimacy.
More simply "should my 4th or 5th preference be worth as much as my 1st?" In my own mind it certainly is not, however under AV it could have the same value as your 1st choice. Does that sound fair?
Will AV be more expensive? Even if we accept the argument that no special counting machines will be required, anyone who has been to a count on election night will tell you, the process of counting and recounting and recounting is (quite rightly) a time consuming one. Under AV each round of the counting will no doubt have to be repeated a number of times especially in close fights. With each round the probability of human error creeps ever higher. The whole process will almost certainly take much longer, meaning far more overtime for those already hardworking count staff.
Will AV make politicians more accountable? There is an argument that because candidates will have to appeal to a wider base in order to secure enough 2nd and 3rd preferences they will essentially have to represent the views of a greater population. In reality it is likely to mean that politicians will simply be more inclined to say what people want to hear rather than what they actually believe or will do if elected. I think there is far too much of this already.
In addition because of the increased likelihood of Coalitions being borne of AV elections, politicians will be far more likely to make all sorts of promises in there manifestoes safe in the knowledge that they can ditch those they don't really support and blame it on not having won an out right majority. I think we should be trying to make manifestoes more binding not less so.
Will AV eliminate the need for tactical voting? Simply the answer is no. AV will however make tactical voting far more complex. In many ways it is a system designed for voting against candidates rather than actually voting for candidates. It may result in some Parties issuing instructions to their supporters on how to fill out the ballot paper so that tactical goals can be realised. Frankly I find the idea of voters being instructed on exactly how they should cast their vote quite abhorrent. Surely this sort of activity should have no place in our democracy.
I believe there are improvements we can make to the way we are represented in Parliament. Equal sized constituencies and the right of recall would be a good start. The best thing about the referendum is that it will bring the debate about reform centre stage.
AV will not deal with the issue of safe seats. It will not bring an end to so called wasted votes. It is not more fair. It is almost certainly not as cheap. It will not make politicians more accountable or eliminate the need for tactical voting.
More tellingly even AV's supporters are clearly not that enamoured of it. Nick Clegg called it "a miserable little compromise."
Roy Jenkins (leader of the Lib Dems in the Lords) said of AV “far from doing much to relieve disproportionality, it is capable of substantially adding to it.”
Neal Lawson (Yes to AV Campaign director) said, “I’m sorry but I’m not a big fan of AV. It can lead to even less fair outcomes than FPTP and that to me is the critical point.”
Given their apparent change of tune it is hardly surprising that none of Yes camp have been able to persuade me that AV would provide any real improvement to our representation in Parliament.
For all these reasons I will be going to the polling station on Thursday 5th May to vote NO to AV.

Peter Boland is Chairman of Suffolk Conservative Future and a 2010 OBV MP Shadow Scheme Graduate.

Archived Comments

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Well done for the balance

Well done OBV for publishing a 'no' point of view having come out in support of av ages ago. For what it is worth, since I challenged OBV's 'yes' position, I have changed my mind and will be voting 'yes' : )

I agree

We both know a thing or two about long counts in a Ipswich, for example.

No2AV either don't or won't get the arguments for AV

Tactical voting (TV):
There's a misunderstanding about what TV is - it isn't about voting against/for someone, that's not the issue. The issue is when you vote for someone you don't want to. If you dislike all 6 candidates then under FPTP you are still voting AGAINST someone, however that isn't TV. TV would be if you hated someone the least and yet voted for another person because the other group stood more chance of winning. AV removes this temptation (except for in very extreme cases in seats with 3 or 4 candidates (which is very rare)).

Wasted votes:
This isn't about whether you win or lose, it's to do do with tactical voting again. Under AV, whether you vote for party 1 or party 2 has no effect on whether party 3 is elected. However, under FPTP it could make a massive difference, because there is no 'post' (i.e. 50%) for the winner to get past (hence the ridiculousness of the horse race/Olympics metaphor). So when, under FPTP, your vote for 1 or 2 effects party 3, then if 1 stand no chance of getting elected but could let party 3 in, to vote for them would be wasted vote. So this isn't as much to do with whether you vote for the winning candidate, it is more to do with whether you vote impacts the electability of irrelevant parties (i.e. those you're not considering for your vote).

Safe seats:
The reason seats are safe are not to do with whether you have more than 50% of the seats, nor 25%, 33% or even 100%. It is, again, to do with tactical voting. If someone always gets in, even if it with 35/40% of the vote, and with a margin of about 10%, then that seat can be seen as safe, as it would require a massive swing to one other party to achieve a displacement of that candidate. However, even if 20% of people wanted to change allegiance, if the party they wanted to change to only had 5%, then if the party in 2nd was hated by the 'swingers' then they would consider sticking with the current guy rather than 'wasting' their vote on someone who won;t get in and risk letting in someone they dislike. So the incumbent is safe because people vote tactically and assume that no one else will back the guy with 5%.

Conversely, under AV, even if someone had 100% they wouldn't be safe, as if there were two parties, one left wing and one centrist, and 65% of the voters were right wing and the rest left-wing, then the centrist guy would get 65%. IF at the next election a right wing candidate emerged he would get 65%, and the centrist guy in the 'safe seat' would end up with 0%. Under FPTP, the swing would be nothing like this as, again due to tactical voting, people might be worried that the left-wing candidate would get in, some on the whole would stick with the centrist guy rather than risking voting for the right wing guy as they fear he is 'unelectable' if no-one else backs him.

Value of preferences:
It is unlikely your first choice candidate for your MP will even be an option. So under FPTP you could be voting for someone who is your 10,000th favourite. That doesn't mean that your vote is worth less than that of someone who is fortunate enough to have their best mate running in the election.

This leads to another question; if we are saying that 2nd preferences shouldn't count as much as 1st preferences because they are not as strongly held, do we start saying that the politically engaged voter's vote should count more than an apathetic person's? Of course not, strength of opinion is irrelevant. What is relevant is who the individual wants to vote for given the candidates that are standing, and so if, after a few rounds of no-one getting 50% and a few people being eliminated, someone ends up voting for someone who isn't their favourite, then we should have no qualms - to deny them that would be to deny them their chance to vote, just because they prefer someone who isn't eligible to be elected in this round of voting.

These are just four of the points raised by the writer, but I'm sure there others that have been articulated by him and by the backers of No2AV which demonstrate that they either have a poor understanding of what the Alternative Vote is (and indeed First Past the Post), or maybe understand it but are intentionally not letting this on. Who knows?

You're wrong - sorry.

I think you tried to be balanced but had already made up your mind.
The issue is, as you say, which is better; the current system or change?
If we keep the current system, nothing will change - after all, we've had a few years to make changes.
The point about one person, one vote is misleading because this is not a principle; it's an artifact of the electoral system. As long as people participate, democracy works...a bit. AV will encourage (as you say) more people (votors and politicians) to pay attention to the process and to (re)think the effetc of their votes.
Parties already tell their followers how to vote - especially tactically. However in 'safe' seats voters often don't bother to tell candidates what they want...because they know who will win (see for example Tonbridge & Malling in Kent) and no campaigning is necessary.
This vote is, initially, about voter engagement and shaking up Westminster. It may open the door to further reforms which may, indeed, be even better.

@ Pip

Thank you for your comments, I have tried to be balanced, but seeing as I was asked to write an article from the point of view of the NO to AV campaign in order to provide a counter argument to the stance of OBV, you are quite right to point out that necessarily I have already made up my mind. This article in large part tries to explain how I have come to that conclusion, and why I prefer the arguments of the NO campaign to those of the YES.

The principle of which I talk is that all men and women are equal. It follows therefore that in a democracy their votes should be likewise equal.

It is not my view that AV will encourage more people to pay attention to the process. It is the referendum which will achieve that, regardless of what the alternative on offer is.

Whilst tactical voting does take place under FPTP it is far less sinister than what occurs in Australia where voters are instructed exactly how to fill out their ballot paper.

The current system does produce change. We had a Labour government who were booted out and now we have a Coalition government.

If we want to shake up Westminster we should aim to get more people to actually vote at all, particularly those from the currently under represented minorities.

Your last sentence is telling however. Like most of the Yes campaign you don't actually seem to want AV, you simply see it as a stepping stone to something else.

How to vote

If you find the idea of voters being instructed on exactly how they should cast their vote quite abhorrent. presumably you don't like the present system of parliamentary candidates saying "Vote for me because........"

No guarantee of majority

Interesting point that a 50% majority is not guaranteed if not enough voters use their 2nd and 3rd choices. I don't see that making voting compulsory would resolve this. It could only be resolved by making it compulsory to use one's 2nd and 3rd choices if one did vote.

with AV, they're not asking you, they're telling you...

@Muirchertach the difference is that all candidates ASK for you to "vote for me because..." however what has happened in Australia is that some parties INSTRUCT their supporters on exactly what order to rank candidates to maximize their tactical voting potential. Dodgy back room deals can also be done between less popular parties and more mainstream parties before the election where the promise of second preference support is used to buy influence or concessions.
I strongly believe that democracy needs to be more transparent not less so.

Peter, I suspect you are

Peter, I suspect you are aware that the safe seats / jobs for life matter concerns those MPs who are re-elected with less than 50%, not those who won with 50%+. To suggest AV supporters are referring to the MPs with constituency majorities seems a little disingenuous. Given your premise was false, the more realistic stance is that AV therefore could (but might not) tackle safe seats.

You are absolutely right that it is "no good losing a game of football and thinking the best way to start winning is to have the rules changed in your favour", but football games start out 0-0 (on equal terms). You should be aware though that the electoral landscape is not a level playing field as some parties percentage-to-votes ratio are massively out of kilter under FPFP. Again your premise is a tad misleading.

I also worry that you associate the tendency of parties and politicians pandering to extreme groups with AV. Forgive me, but I believe Michael Howard, Barbara Hodge, David Blunkett, and even Gordon Brown did this under FPTP. Oh, and remember Phil Woollas? This reprehensible conduct is not a symptom of AV or any other electoral system. It is due to politicians (of many different parties) being cynical, desperate, and disgusting in an attempt to cling to / gain power.

The expense of an electoral system again is pandering to fear. It should be judged on its merits alone. If a better system (which admittedly is a subjective choice) is more expensive then so be it.

However, I'm more worried that you again play the fear card with the assertion that an election count under AV would increase the probability of human error. I think this whole point is a side issue, but unless you believe that practice does not make perfect, then counters would probably become less error strewn. I say this as someone who did the count last year.

Where we do agree is that there is far too much politics that is "say what people want to hear rather than what they actually believe". I think AV will not make leopards change their spots. Sophistry is not a product of FPTP or any other system. I also agree that "we should be trying to make manifestoes more binding not less so". Like on the NHS reform for example?

Under FPTP tactical voting has been commonplace. I know you have responded saying that under AV in Oz it has been far more dictatorial than here. The problem is that your original point argued that AV will not "eliminate the need for tactical voting". Indeed, and keeping FPTP will not either. Again, FPTP (scratch that, any system) "is a system designed for voting against candidates rather than actually voting for candidates". Especially when you live in a constituency where you abhor your MPs party / policies and your party of choice hasn't a hope in hell of coming first or second. Ed Balls calling for Labourites to vote LibDem in LD/Con marginals is evidence from last year.

With regard to your quotes about AV supporters not being that enamoured of AV, how could you quote Roy Jenkins (never mind suggest he is "leader of the Lib Dems in the Lords"? 1. Tom McNally holds that portfolio, Jenkins last held it in 1997; 2. Roy Jenkins died in 2003; and 3. You have completely misrepresented his stance. I don't think this was malicious or disingenuous, I believe you copied an pasted it in as it fitted with the narrative but didn't fact-check.

So as I have fact-checked - or rather I am familiar with Jenkins' 1998 Electoral Report - I can reveal that he made pro and con arguments for Single Transferrable Vote, AV and FPTP. Whilst the quote used is consistent with his argument about the down-side of AV, it is more salient to note that he argued both sides for his review, and his final recommendations were an AV hybrid, pretty far from being a FPTP endorsement, quite the opposite in fact. Here's a summary: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jenkins_Commission_%28UK%29

Therefore I would argue that you are unlikely to have been persuaded "that AV would provide any real improvement to our representation in Parliament" given that you have been happy to undermine the ability of AV to cure or alleviate specific problems, even though you should be aware (and I doubt you are unaware) that these problems are just as much a symptom of FPTP.

I respect your decision to go for NO, but much of your grounds have been shown to be flawed, misleading, and with regard to Jenkins, misrepresentative.

Finally, on a wider point (not aimed at you Peter) regarding misrepresentation in the NO camp. Please can it stop with the BNP bogeyman. The BNP are advoctaing a NO vote. Furthermore, when politicans keep arguing that AV is a helping hand for the BNP, they are actually saying something more sinister and worrying.

They are subconciously admitting that they are not capable of persuading the electorate that the BNP are not worth voting for. In fact they are inferring that they have neither the confidence nor the will to try.

Peter you rightly state that if a "candidate or party wants to win there next time they will simply have to convince more people to vote for them". The inference from people in the NO camp is that they are diffident with regards to defeating the BNP. Why else would they be so convinced that they will even be a serious consideration? That would only be the case if their arguments are not seriously tackled by their counterparts.

I know we agree that this should not be case.


A vote against AV will mean 'more of the same' and the retention of the present unsatisfactory system.

The British electorate system is desperately overdue for a change, in order to assist in rebuilding confidence in politics. Sadly far too many people in this country are not engaged in deciding the governance of their local area as well as the nation itself.

AV is not perfect, but it is a start and better than FPTP. If the Yes vote is successful it will mean that future change is possible, but if we maintain the current system, for man decades it's supporters will in my opinion use this defeat to negate any further moves to change the system.


@Ruwan I think you and I will agree that no electoral system is perfect. Indeed the only way for our parliament to truly represent the electorate is if it truly reflects the make demographic of the electorate.

The only sure way to do this is to make more people from all backgrounds actually use their right and privilege to vote.

I don’t believe that a change to AV will achieve this, I don’t believe even the Yes campaign are claiming this.

This referendum is asking the nation to say Yes or No to AV, not to say yes or no to FPTP. If something else were on offer I would consider it on its merits. You may be interested in looking at www.no2av-yes2pr.org

@ David

Thank you for your considered response. Unless I am mistaken the understood meaning of a Safe Seat is any seat that wins with a comfortable majority, ie always stays in the same hands. Therefore in trying to call only those below 50% Safe Seats it is in fact the Yes campaign that has been disingenuous.

The playing field is fair. We have a constituency based democracy. If you want to represent your constituency in Parliament then you have to get more votes than anyone else standing in that constituency. It is the same for everyone, it is simple and fair. If you are referring to proportionality perhaps this quote from the Electoral Reform Society (principle financial backer of Yes campaign) will be of interest

“AV is not a proportional system, the Society do not regard it as suitable for the election of a representative body, e.g. a parliament.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

With respect to the non-mainstream parties who will be illuminates in the first/second rounds you will appreciate that I used the BNP and UKIP as these are the National parties which lie at the fringes of politics.

Regarding expense I agree that if a system is clearly better cost should not be a barrier on its own accord. However the case for AV actually being better than FPTP is not strong, at best it appears to be an expensive and deeply flawed stepping stone to something. This is not something this country can afford right now.

You say practice makes perfect, I say democracy is not a game. It is not acceptable to view the next few elections as practice runs to get the hang of AV. One thing is clear however fatigue (ie longer counts) adds to human error.

Your comments on tactical voting I think get to the crux of the issue. FPTP has served our democracy for many generations and is used by over half the electorate of the world. The onus would be on any alternative to show that it was distictc;y better than FPTP. Therefore the Yes campaign must persuade us that AV is better than FPTP. My analysis was to see if AV really lived up to the claims of the Yes campaign. Simply it does not.
With respect to Roy Jenkins, as far as I am aware this is a quote he made whilst Leader of the Lib Dems in the Lords. It makes no difference. He believed that AV was capable of substantially adding to the disproportionality of our electoral system. I do not claim that he supported FPTP. You will no doubt be aware that his conclusion in his review was that he preferred something else (ie not AV, like much of the Yes campaign).

I note you do not contest the other quotes. The best arguments against AV in many cases have come from the mouths of Yes supporters. Why should we now believe them when they have so dramatically changed their tune?

I agree that many of this issues in my article are issues or perceived issues with FPTP. The purpose of my article was to evaluate the claims of the Yes campaign to see if in these areas AV was actually better than FPTP or would achieve what the Yes supporters claimed it would. However you cut it I am afraid the answer is NO.

RE no garuantee of majority

@Pogle. My understanding is that in Australia you are obliged to fill out your preferences, in order for AV to work. Failing to properly complete your preferences makes your ballot paper invalid. So you are correct compulsory voting under AV does require compulsory preference designation.

The thanks reciprocated.

Thank you too for responding Peter. I think you are half-right. I take safe seats to mean that the MP is unlikely to lose (as opposed to marginals). So having say between 38 and 42 % over 3 elections is safe if your nearest opponents only ever polled 25-30 percent and the 3rd and 4th got between 10 and 15 etc.

If those seats that have been returned consecutively with 10-15% leads but with less than 50% are not safe, what are they?

The playing field is not fair clearly. Last year, Labour got 6% more of the share of the vote than the Lib Dems but got almost five times more seats. Run that by me again in the context of fairness? I'm not even a LibDem supporter but I did pass GCSE maths!

Regarding expense, if you prefer FPTP, you would not mind if it was more expensive would you? I know in this instance it is cheaper, and as I stated the belief is subjective, so of course Yes voters won't mind.

With regard to "This is not something this country can afford right now", sorry, but the decision to employ Lockheed Martin for the Census (when the ONS has done fine in the past), and allowing for the expense of last weekends festivities, I don't buy this cant afford it malarkey. Not because I don't agree that the country is skint, just that the government is happy to spend money when it suits them and claim we can't afford it when it does not.

"You say practice makes perfect, I say democracy is not a game". I do not believe practice is about games. Read Gladwell's Outliers. Practice is one of the key aspects of getting a job done correctly. It cheapens my point to suggest I think was a game. I am stating that you were fear-mongering to suggest human error could creep in, when it is equally probable that they would improve.

Correct, fatigue can add to human error, equally so can lack of experience or being 'ring-rusty' (i.e. when they first start counting).

I hear you on the point about things should only be replaced when they are super-ceded by a better replacement. The trouble is that there will never be consensus on what is better. It is subjective. I don't doubt your claims about FPTP, I just think it is a skewed system. But we are entitled to disagree, and that is great.

I do not claim that you said he supported FPTP, I said his report recommendatiuon was an AV hybrid pretty far from FPTP. Therefore to portray him as anti-AV (when he, or rather his report was much more anti-FPTP) seems a bit snide.

Indeed, I did not contest the other quotes. Having been familiar with Jenkins and his report, I just wanted to highlight how the NO campaign is relying on people being ignorant of Jenkins true stance (AV hybrid).

"Why should we now believe them when they have so dramatically changed their tune?" Because people change and so do their views. Your party was once very disreputable on issues of race, it changed, it got better, agreed? Plenty of partisan people still claim your party is racist - should that be countered by quoting your party's past, or it current standpoint?

I agree that Yes supporters have been a bit OTT, but then so have the NO campaign (politicking in political debate shock!). I am not bothered what the Yes campaign say. I am capable of making up my own mind. FPTP is past it sell by date in my eyes.

If the No's win, I won't be devastated. However you cut it, we love a status quo in this country, even when it is to our detriment!