The AV Referendum: What's it all about?
Release Date 28 April 2011
Dr Alan Renwick from the School of Politics and International Relation is an expert on electoral systems and electoral reform in the UK and around the world. Here he describes how the Alternative Vote works and what the Yes and No campaigns believe.
The UK will be holding its second ever nationwide referendum on 5th May. The question is whether we should replace the longstanding First Past the Post system for electing the House of Commons with the Alternative Vote (AV) system. As the date of the referendum nears, the debate is getting ever more heated. But it is not becoming any clearer. Most people remain confused as to what AV is and what its effects would be.
AV is in many ways very similar to First Past the Post: the change on offer is not very radical. AV keeps the constituencies, each electing one MP. That means it is not a proportional system where seats are distributed in proportion to votes won. Like First Past the Post, it tends to exaggerate the victory of the largest party and produces single-party majorities most of the time.
The difference lies in how we vote and how the votes are counted. AV allows us not just to put an X by one candidate, but to rank as many candidates as we wish. The returning officers begin by counting just the first preferences. If one candidate gets over half of these, she or he is elected. If not, the candidate placed last is eliminated. The ballot papers in their pile are re-examined and added to the remaining piles according to the second preferences marked on them. This process continues until one candidate has more than 50 per cent of the remaining votes.
Would switching to AV be desirable? Many of the claims being made for it are greatly exaggerated. It would only slightly reduce the number of safe seats, so it would give only a few MPs an incentive to work harder. Even if it did make MPs work harder, that would not obviously be desirable: MPs working harder here means working harder on constituency business. But that just takes time away from the important job of scrutinizing the government at the national level. Nor is there any reason to think AV would prevent a repeat of the expenses scandal.
Equally, however, many of the No campaign's arguments are also wildly inaccurate. AV does not violate the principle of one person, one vote: in each round of counting, everyone's vote counts once and once only. AV does not lead to permanent coalitions: simulations suggest that the Conservatives would have won comfortable majorities in the 1980s and Blair would have secured three clear majorities between 1997 and 2005. AV would cost a bit more than First Past the Post, but much less than the No camp claims.
Yet there are important issues at stake in this referendum. AV gives voters a bit more chance to express their preferences. That's probably desirable, though there are questions over how many voters want this ability. AV makes it a bit more likely that the winner in a constituency has backing from the majority of local voters. Again, that is good in itself, though the value of some of the lower preferences included in this majority may be doubted. On the other hand, AV occasionally produces strange anomalies, where a candidate would lose by gaining votes or win by losing them. AV would probably make coalition governments slightly more common - which you might or might not think desirable. AV also tends to exaggerate landslides even more than First Past the Post, which most people think would harm effective, accountable government.
One further issue should be considered. AV in itself is a minor reform: the changes it would bring would be small. But a Yes vote in this referendum would probably make subsequent bigger reforms - such as a move to proportional representation - more likely, while a No vote would push the cause of such reform far down the agenda. If you want proportional elections - meaning fairer representation but probably also weaker accountability - you should vote Yes on 5th May. If you believe the benefits of single-party governments trump those of a more inclusive political system, you should vote No. This isn't a simple choice, but it's one that should matter to us all.