Brown’s stitch-up: why AV is not the answer

9:05 am - June 10th 2009

by Stuart Weir    

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Brown has put his great clunking feet in it again. If reports on theBBC are to be believed, Brown's new National Council on Democratic Renewal – a body that may very well meet mostly in private – is to propose that the UK adopt the alternative vote (AV) for elections to Parliament. There is apparently to be a referendum.

Quite what Brown and his wretched party – I am a former member – hope to achieve is beyond me. There is a very strong group in the party – Mandelson, Hain, Martin Linton, etc, etc – who have long argued the dubious case for AV since they think it is the "electoral reform" option that will best preserve their place in national politics; and since it will block the move towards proportional representation that will alone free Parliament from bondage to the executive. So there is a simple self-serving motive at work. But this is such a stupid gesture that I suspect that they would be happy to put the proposition to a referendum and lose, having falsely demonstrated their commitment to democratic renewal.

So why is this so outlandish?

First, because AV is even more disproportionate than first-past-the-post (FPTP). In 1997, we at Democratic Audit – Patrick Dunleavy, Helen Margetts and me – carried out an expert simulation of the actual general election result that year and calculated that AV would have produced a more disproportionate outcome than FPTP – the deviation from proportionality was 23.5 per cent under AV, 21 per cent under FPTP. Labour's bloated seat count would have risen to 436 seats. The Lib Dems would also have benefited disproportionately.

Okay, you may say, this was just a calculation. Well it was impeccably done in the first place. But the actual experience of AV voting for the House of Representatives in Australia has demonstrated time and time again that it produces disproportional results. (In Australia, the deviation is to some degree mitigated by STV elections to the upper house. For more detail, see Democratic Audit's report)

Second, Blair commissioned a report from Lord Jenkins that recommended a combination of AV with a limited numbers of top-up seats, known as AV Plus that would have made it more proportional. Reformers have recently been combining around this option as a compromise. Brown, Mandelson and co have rejected this course.

Third, the public deserve a wider and more deliberative choice than this cynical gesture offers. New Zealand had two referendums around an expert appraisal of all the alternatives, which gave people time to decide in principle to consider change, and then offered them an informed choice between FPTP and a proportional system. (Again, for more detail, see the Democratic Audit's report)

Fourth, the whole proposal smacks of the old discredited politics that disgusts the public. The New Zealand appraisal was carried out by an appointed commission. Here a citizens assembly could do it.

Fifth, it is bad politics. It looks like the desperate self-serving gamble that it is. It gives the Conservatives, who are very anxious about demands for electoral reform, a sitting duck to shoot dead. They have already taken the predictable line – Brown is scared that he will lose under the current system. Amazingly, a Lib Dem MP floundered on BBC News, failing to state that AV is more disproportional than FPTP, even when prompted several times to do so by the interviewer. It is not often that I shout at the telly. But I did out so of sheer frustration. Surely the Lib Dems could have found someone who could make the case for real reform robustly – it is after all the key Lib Dem issue – rather than this vapid ignoramus?

A final point. There are other reports – one that Brown may go for an elected second chamber. Go for it, but with a more sensitive form of PR than the rigid system used for the Euro elections!

Next Left: What is the Alternative Vote? Essential reading
Antony Hook: Lib Dem should support AV (and Tories should stop lying)
Jon Worth: Gordon Brown and AV – no, not now Gordon
Mark Reckons: AV is not proportional!

cross-posted from ourKingdom
(the last paragraph was changed at 15:53pm)

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About the author
This is a guest article. Stuart Weir is founder of the organisation Democratic Audit - a non-governmental organisation attached to the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Labour party ,Our democracy ,Westminster

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Reader comments

For me it comes down to three factors, and a varying level of “success” for brown on each.

Political capital: Brown’s failed here, pitching STV as the likely option on the referendum ballot would have driven a wedge in to westminster. The Tories would have had to jump on board or be clearly accused of not backing reform. Stating AV is the option allows those that don’t want reform to use the same arguments you say above and appear to not be simply backing FPTP.

Expediency: We know there is no timetable to be set, but what is the dream in Brown’s mind? STV couldn’t possibly be implemented within a year, AV could. AV is a simple case of changing the method of voting within the constitutional constraints already present. Coupling this with a fully elected house of Lords on a more proportional level would be perfectly possible if politicians got their act together.

Ease of argument: Brown obviously wants, as all leaders do, to be champion of reform. The first to actually get their suggestion implemented wins. James Graham has said on here that any argument at a referendum for a system less than STV is one that is hard to win. I disagree, because while you’re right that AV is not proportional on a national level it is “proportional” in the sense that constituency MPs have the implicit endorsement of more than 50% of their voters, one way or another. To me it’s not a hard argument at all to tell people that this system would allow you to break that safe Labour/Tory seat up because of 2nd and 3rd preferences and for everyone to get a candidate that they’re at least OK with (even if it would possibly only realign who that seat is safe for).

In the wake of the expenses scandal people are looking for a way to elect their constituency MPs better, not necessarily the House of Commons, and this argument comes down to a fundemental “Which would you rather?” Do the people want a parliament that reflects the political allegiance of the country, or one that has very immediate constituency links with legitimate winners in each area?

At the end of the day there is no excuse for not having consultation on this issue, the idea of a self appointed committee simply coming to the conclusion of AV on our behalf actually runs completely against the idea of reforming the system to give people more power. But I can be optimistic about AV, as long as it is a stepping stone and not displayed as the ultimate end-goal, and questions about the Lords and its composition will play a lot in to how it is perceived, if the Lords were to become the proportional house of vetting policy.

The opposite side of things is this, if AV (or anything) isn’t in a referendum and successfully voted for before the next general election we will get ZERO meaningful reform for at least 8-10 years. If the choice is between slightly improving the system in terms of legitimacy or remaining with the status quo with weasel “reforms” then I know which I would pick.

3. Mike Killingworth

Bogdanor is on record as saying that “a reform package that does not include proportional representation is like Hamlet without the prince” (Guardian, 26 May 2009)

As for Francesca Klug, well, you wrote a book with her on the constitution, Stuart, which some of us might think would give you some insight into where she stands on the question!

More generally, though, of course you’re right. The intention surely is that AV (which will be sold as “PR”) will be trashed in a referendum (probably by about 4 to 1, I’d guess) and then both Labour and Tory can say the question is settled for a generation. In particular Cameron will say that “if you want Labour out, you need to both vote Tory and vote “no” in the referendum. And not one single paper will support AV (all right, maybe the Mirror but when did it last influence anything?).

Brown is a clot, isn’t he? Having said that he can’t find time for X, Y and Z because he’s “focussed on the economy” he can suddenly find time for this tripe? And to think the Blairites’ coups keep collapsing because they can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t actually be worse

Is it clear that there is any real demand for voting reform?

Is there any polling evidence on that?

Failure of MP’s to *do their job* (ie failure hold the executive to account / allow themselves to be neutered at every turn) is the source of the real fury around the expenses stuff.

Voting reform – while obviously a longstanding LD issue – is a clumsy Brown smokescreen, and is already being revealed as such.
This from the man who has created jsut created two new peers (Kinnock, Sugar) and has made a third (Mandy) the second most (de facto right now the most) powerful man in government.

Now this will be very easy for the Tories to oppose, as you say. And if people are in the mood to punish Labour even if a “debate” (ha!) could be had in time for a referendum *before* the next GE, there is a risk that voters will vote against for that reason alone. The Tories would rightly fight such a partisan proposal, and would probably win.

A discredited party, a discredited government, a discredited PM suddenly championing the reform they have resisted tooth and nail up to now? It stinks.

If i understand right, Brown isn’t even offering AV, but SV – the supplementary vote. This is terrible, Brown is determined to mess everything up. Johnson, Denham and Cruddas should threaten to resign unless he offers a proportional stystem. Brown and Straw and the other right-wing clowns in the government are trying to destroy the chance of real reform.

Brown isn’t even offering AV, but SV – the supplementary vote. This is terrible,

If true, it is indeed terrible.

Brown is determined to mess everything up.

To be fair to him, it’s the only thing he has a talent for.

The issues here are quite complex. Interestingly Stuart Weir himself wrote an OpenDemocracy piece saying “I am a convert to the idea that the ice-breaker has to be the Alternative Vote” in June 2008 after a seminar with MPs and campaigners on this issue at which I spoke
having written a post which was hostile to considering AV before that

While he has changed his mind back, in fairness, his first preference is and has always been full PR through STV, but the change of mind was in response to a discussion about engaging with the politics of making reform happen.

Lewis Baston’s report on AV for the Electoral Reform Society is the best piece of analysis of AV from a pro-PR perspective.

On 1 – there is no prospect of a refom before the next election. (Peter Hain has argued that this could be done, but it can not and the government know that). the barrier is not technical (AV can be introduced overnight; it just involves printning different text on ballot papers in the same constituencies) but political and educational.
– AV would Not in fact help Labour in current circumstances, but it wouls still not look right.

I think there are some finely balanced issues here. It would help to address electoral reform in the context of a broader constitutional settlement: very few on either side try to do this.

I have suggested that a reform package could involve
– AV for the Commons
– A PR-elected Senate to replace the Lords
– STV for local government
The two chamber solution achieves the hybridity which the Jenkins report aimed at (a tendency to a choice of majority governments, with less dispropotional outcomes, and checks on majoritarian excess) in a less complex way, and avoiding the “two classes of MP” problem of AV+ or the Scottish/Welsh/German system.

I don’t have any particular problem with STV: many would think the non-urban constituencies for Westminster elections rather too large at around 300,000 voters (though it would work very well in cities and in local government).

There is no intrinsic technical reason for AV to be more/less disproportional than AV. It depends on party systems and patterns of voting preferences.”More disproportional” is certainly to much overstate the case. There are good reasons to anticipate it would be more proportional in the UK in most elections – particularly being much fairer to LibDems in all post-war elections. (Australian comparisons are of little use here, given that the party system is much less plural and there is no comparably significant third party).

“Mostly more proportional” is probably fairer, but can also be challenged. “More pluralist” is undoubtedly correct: the case for AV is rather more its greater pluralism than its greater proportionality. (What proportionality means in a preferential system is complex, as Lewis Baston explores in his pamphlet for the ERS)

Peter Kellner sets out what I think is a robust argument that AV would have elected a government with broad majority support in all post-war elections, and which deals with the 1997 point.

The key issue here between FPTP and AV

– FPTP can pick the wrong winner, and is much more likely to do so than AV, in seeking to offer a clear choice of governments

– AV can extend majorities only in unusual circumstances (like 1997) against a “pariah party” in favour of one which is generally popular with everybody else’s voters. It can not boost a party with intense minority support which is feared by a majority (FPTP can).

– FPTP can give large majorities to a party which gets the geography right, whether that is a party with strong support and opposition (eg that could be true of a Nazi party running in FPTP elections in conditions like those of germany December 1932: the preference voting of AV would mitigate against extreme right and left parties while FPTP does nothing to disadvantge them; the PR system the Germans had denied them majority power, but other parties cooperated to let them in)

@7: there is no prospect of a refom before the next election. (Peter Hain has argued that this could be done, but it can not and the government know that). the barrier is not technical (AV can be introduced overnight; it just involves printning different text on ballot papers in the same constituencies) but political and educational.

I disagree. Opinion polls show a majority favour PR. Most of the people who voted for minor parties in the Euro eletion would do so for westminster too if we had PR, and these people would all benefit from PR.

If I was Brown I’d have a quick referendum on whether to change the voting system to AV+; this would take place within the next month or two. At the same time, there would be simultaneous referenda on other constitutional issues such as fixed term parliaments and recall elections.

Brown would have to be careful to frame it right, otherwise he would be accused of wanting to change the system purely for Labour’s benefit. To get round this, he could say something like “Cameron wants to keep FPTP, because it helps the Tories, Clegg wants PR, becausxe it helps the Lib Dems. This demonstrates that politicians will always favour the voting system that benefits them, and that’s why politicians shouldn’t choose the voting system. Instead, you the people should choose the voting system, which is why I’m giving you a referendum.”

This might not work, but so what if it doesn’t — Labour have nothing to lose, because if they do nothing they are going down for their worse defeat ever (it’ll be worse than 1983).

10. By “no prospect” I simply meant there is in my view absolutely no chance of the government doing something like what Hain advocates (or indeed something like what you advocate), which is not to say that it could not be argued that they could/should.

The Tories are trying to avoid engaging with the substantive issue by accusing Brown of doing something like this – when it is clear that there would be a referendum, and no change for this election. On framing it, I think the government’s view is that this has to be clear to get a hearing for the arguments. “You are going to lose so are trying to change the system’ is obviously a silly argument, so the question is why the Tories (committed to the massive redistribution of power as they are) are unable to discuss the issues in a serious way.

On technical as opposed to political barriers …. As AV+ involves redrawing all constituencies, I doubt it could technically be done for an election after a referendum within 6 months or so. (Parties must then select candidates, etc after boundaries are published; and boundaries would be open to consultation/appeal, etc. No doubt it could be sped up somewhat, but perhaps not enough, and in any event not without what would appear unseemly haste, which takes us back to the political/framing issue.

What a load of bloody waffle from Lee Griffin and Sunder Katwala.

AV is not PR, and so leaves vasts swathes of opinion unrepresented in parliament.

The value of single member seats (on arbitrary boundaries which are often absurd in places, remember) is not worth the price paid in terms of failure to represent constituencies of opinion properly.

AV+ is the only possible compromise from full STV, and that’s because Jenkins has already reported.

It may be a silly argument, but then starting the “debate” – ah yes, Brown’s forte, debating – less than 12 months before a general election, having just been smashed in EU and council elections and having avoided the issue for 12 years….?

The Tories can’t gain much credibility on this subject, not if Labour are smart. If Labour *are* smart (and we know they tend not to be) they will hold their hands up and say:

“We are extremely sorry that it has taken this long to discuss electoral reform seriously. As you may know it was an integral part of our 1997 election manifesto that swept us to such great popularity and yet we lost focus on its implementation. As such, and especially because of the public concern over expenses and the credibility of MPs, now is the right time to finish the debate that has been ongoing since we made that first pledge 12 years ago. This is not opportunism, it is delivering on the promises we made as the public expect us to do, involving them in the process of decision making through the power of a referendum; handing the public the opportunity to reform our political system if they wish to, and gain back some trust in their representatives.”

It’s slightly masochistic, but then I guess they should be happy that the opposition parties aren’t drumming them for the fact that this is another example of a “broken promise”

14. Stuart White

This is an excellent post, Stuart. AV is a system that gives an in-built advantage to centre parties. It would, for example, almost certainly put the Greens at a disadvantage compared to PR and in this way prevent Labour having to improve its environmentalist credentials. It would block the emergence of the Red-Green politics that is so crucial to the future of progressive politics.

Sunder’s proposal to combine AV for the Commons with PR for the second chamber makes little sense to me. This would create a situation in which many people, quite reasonably, would regard the second chamber as having more democratic legitimacy than the Commons. What would happen then? Either the second chamber would retain its current subordinate status, and people would ask why what they saw as the less democratic Commons gets to overrule the second chamber. Or else the second chamber would gain equal status, and we would have a situation in which the majority in one chamber would not necessarily match the majority in the other. In a system where the executive is chosen from the legislature, this would create a constitutional crisis of the first order.

Sunder is certainly right, though, that the issues are complex. All the proposals have pluses and minuses and reform needs careful deliberation. This is why it would be quite inappropriate for the Brown government to go into a huddle and rush out a set of proposals. Instead the government should step back from offering immediate proposals and should instead initiate a nation-wide, popular consultative process, culminating in a citizens’ convention which would be able to offer a set of recommendations for reform. The danger otherwise is that we get rushed proposals – and proposals which, like AV, have more to do with serving a narrow party interest than genuine democratic renewal.

“AV is not PR, and so leaves vasts swathes of opinion unrepresented in parliament. ”

It isn’t PR, no, but does it leave opinion unrepresented? It really depends on your perspective. If more than 50% of people in each constituency are happy to put any number beside the winning MP then that MP has to be representative of that area. It’s not ideal but then as myself and Sunder have said, it would have to be coupled with reform of the Lords to be something that would approach workable and fair.

I don’t think either the Tories or Labour are going to put STV on the table, I think we have to be realistic. That means, realistically, accepting reform that at least gives the opportunity of a party or coallition of parties to push the reforms a step further in the future.

If we get stuck with FPTP we will not get meaningful reform for a long time. At least if we get AV in the short term it means that STV is more than a pipe dream.

“It would, for example, almost certainly put the Greens at a disadvantage compared to PR and in this way prevent Labour having to improve its environmentalist credentials.”

The greens are not placed to even make any significant gains under FPTP. At least under AV they would have the chance of picking up other minority votes and, if they’re strong enough, beat a party in to third place and cross their fingers. AV is at least a step up for them, and certainly the alternative for them of sulking and saying no isn’t going to fare them any better.

Sorry for being dense, but what’s the difference between AV and STV?

AV is STV but on a single member constituency level, basically. The lack of multi-member constituencies, however, means that under AV you can possibly have up to 50% of the constituencies views not specifically represented by a politician in parliament. With multi-member you can somewhat guarantee that everyone’s view will be represented with the stronger views being rewarded with more MPs.

Neither guarantees that every single person has their view catered for, but STV is obviously better at doing it by far.

So AV is the system we use in London to elect the Mayor. What’s the system we use for the Assembly vote?

Av isn’t what is used in London, London is SV which allows you to state first and second. That system is fairly pointless as it essentially keeps the field to two candidates. If you vote for a smaller party you’re almost guaranteed to waste your vote unless your second choice is for a mainstream candidate.

AV would let you filter your results better…i.e your first choice could be an independent, but if they didn’t get through the Greens, and if not them the Lib Dems and then if not them Labour, for example. You can still say you’d prefer Labour over the Tories, but only if three of your other higher preferences don’t get enough votes.

I watched some of the Brown announcement, and any optimism I had is gone. He very much is not in it for reform, otherwise he’d be giving people the power to change the system and to have a say. Unfortunately it is truly reform for the sake of reform. I’ll still support AV if it is put up against FPTP, but this is a sham of a reform agenda.

How does the system we use for the assembly, where you have both constituency and London-wide members, compare?

23. Richard Gadsden

Having been involved in PR for a long time, I tend to forget that most people don’t have a clue about the systems.

I’d like to draw a little flow chart, but that isn’t an option so you’re going to get a “choose your own adventure” answer.

A * means you’re finished; + means you’ve found a PR system.

1. How big are the constituencies?
a. single member. Go to 2
b. multi-member. Go to 4
c. regional lists. Go to 5
d. national list. Go to 6

2. When you vote in your constituency, how many choices do you have?
a. Just an X. Your constituency is First Past the Post (FPTP), go to 3
b. first choice and second choice. Your system is Supplementary Vote; you’re done. *
c. As many as I like. Your constituency is Additional Vote (AV), go to 3

3. Is there a top-up?
a. yes. You have an additional member system; if your constituency is FPTP, then you have AMS, if it’s AV, you have AV+. *+
b. no. You have a single-member constituency system, per your answer in 2 *

4. When you vote, how many choices do you have?
a. As many Xs as there are representatives. You have multi-X FPTP, also know as multi-member plurality. *
b. 1,2,3,4,5, etc. You have STV. Lucky you. *+

5. When you vote on the lists, do you just pick the list you want, or can you pick a candidate within the list?
a. Just choose the list. You have closed regional lists. *+
b. I can pick a candidate or order the list. You have open regional lists. *+

6. When you vote on the lists, do you just pick the list you want, or can you pick a candidate within the list?
a. Just choose the list. You have a closed national list. *+
b. I can pick a candidate or order the list. You have an open national list. *+

Top-up systems (AMS and AV+) can have regional lists (e.g. Scotland and Wales) a single “national list” (e.g. the London assembly) or both (e.g. Germany).

How do we decide how to answer question 1??

25. Richard Gadsden

Comparing the London system (AMS) with this proposed system (plain AV).

AV gives you a preferential vote and (almost) completely removes tactical voting.

AMS is more proportional and helps smaller parties more.

26. Richard Gadsden

cjcjc – pick how you’d like the system to work (from the voter’s perspective) and you’ll see what system you want.

Yay – I chose STV!


There’s no point in AV, SV, or STV. All three use primitive methods of counting. The gold standard is the Schulze-Condorcet method, whether with single- or multi-member constituencies.

JamesD @29

Yep, ticks most of the boxes for fairness. Requires a computer to churn through the results so this would have to be accredited, safe open source. This won’t happen for some time, if ever.

Using that flow chart, I ended up with FPTP. I did it again and ended up with SV. Then I did it again and ended up with AV.

31. Mike Killingworth

[31] Very possible. As Peter Kellner points out (link at [9] above), when we elect an MP we’re doing three things at once: choosing an executive to govern us, a legislature to represent us and an individual to serve us. No single electoral system can meet all three of those goals fully.

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