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Alternative Voting

Alternative VotingWe rarely publish the work of other authors on counterbalance. For the most part we unashamedly and openly provide a very personal perspective.

But from time to time we come across something exceptional, and recently we had a missive from a reader about the Alternative Voting system.

We've reproduced it below because we know it will be of interest to many of our readers.

AV is not something we support as a principle. We dislike the idea of what is, in effect, voting for a party. We much prefer to pick out the person we would trust to do what's closest to what we want, and to vote for them.

We also have an instinctive dislike of the sort of 'horse trading' we have seen in recent weeks where you vote in the belief of getting one thing and actually get something quite different. Any of the none-first-past-the-post systems we have seen produce this sort of swapme-swapyou game after the election.

But that said, it's interesting to understand more about how AV works.

What our reader has done is to recalculate the whole of the recent General Election as though AV had been in force, and produced what might have been the result.

He freely admits it's all hypothetical of course, but he has done it in such an open and transparent way, that you can not only see how it works, but you can see the effect of some of the less well understood aspects of it.

So, without further ado, here it is......

It seems that in the not-so-distant future we may be having a referendum on whether we should do away with the 'First Past the Post' system of voting and adopt the 'Alternative Vote (AV)' system instead

Candidate 1      3   
Candidate 2   5
Candidate 3   4
Candidate 4   1
Candidate 5   2
Candidate 6   6

In AV, voters list the candidates in order of preference - see ballot paper above.

The votes are first sorted as though the first choice were an 'X' in the present system.

If no candidate has at least 50% of the votes, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and his papers are redistributed to the voters' second choice.

This procedure is repeated until one candidate has 50%

Obviously, I have no way of knowing who might be the second or third choice, so I have to guess.

And I know nothing about the politics in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, so I have ignored those elections and looked only at the results in the 533 English constituencies.

Using the 'First Past the Post' system, the results were:

  Conservative Labour Liberal Democrat Green
Total votes 9,910,173 7,034,219 6,066,893 244,849
Total seats  297 191 43 1
% of votes 39.60 28.11 24.34 0.98
% of seats 55.83 35.90 8.08 0.19

And, yes, the above table includes only 532 seats - one has yet to vote.

The conservative candidate received more than 50% in 125 constituencies, the labour candidate more than 50% in 50, and the liberal democrat candidate in 9.

That leaves 349 other constituencies of which I have ignored the following six:

Constituency Reason
Thirsk and Malton Not yet voted
Brighton Pavilion Won by the Green candidate
Wyre Forest  Second was 'Ind CHC' 
Castle Point Second was 'Green Belt'
Birmingham Hall Green Second was 'Respect'
Buckingham Speaker's seat

I had no way of guessing how the Green voters or the voters for Independent candidates or the many other lower candidates may have chosen to have their votes transferred, so I have assumed that they did not indicate any second choice. Removing these means the conservatives have another 18 seats where they have more than 50% of the remaining votes, labour another 11 and the liberal democrats another 2.

The next candidates to be eliminated are those of UKIP and the British National Party (BNP). Of the three main parties the conservatives had the strongest anti-immigration and anti-EU policies, so I am assuming that all UKIP and BNP voters will have their votes transferred to the conservatives. This moves 75 conservative candidates above the 50% level.

Of the remaining 237 constituencies, 67 have either conservative or labour in third place. I have assumed that the voters for both these parties would have asked for their votes to be transferred to the liberal democrats in the hope of keeping the other party from winning; at the same time I have assumed that the UKIP and BNP supporters (whose votes are currently with the conservative candidates) would not want their votes going to the liberal democrats. This puts 64 liberal democrat candidates and 3 labour candidates above the 50% level.

This leaves 170 seats with the liberal democrats in third place, and I have assumed that 3 out of 5 liberal democrat voters will transfer to the labour candidate, with 2 out of 5 transferring to the conservative; this gives 75 seats to the conservatives and 95 seats to labour, making the final totals:

  Conservative Labour Liberal Democrat Green
No. of seats 296 160 75 1
% of seats 55.64 29.32 14.85 0.19

So, compared with the actual results, conservatives lose 1 seat, labour loses 31 seats and the liberal democrats gain 32.

I cannot, of course, make any allowance for those voters in marginal constituencies who voted tactically, voting not for their first choice but for their second in order to try to stop their third choice winning.

If my assumptions are valid, it appears that the worry of conservatives that the introduction of AV will cost them a lot of seats are unfounded.

The Pros and Cons of the Alternative Vote.
Firstly, it does not produce proportional representation (none of the proposed systems does so).

It removes the need for tactical voting, when (particularly in a marginal constituency) an elector may vote not for what he wants but for his second choice in order to try to keep his last choice from winning. With the AV system, he can vote '1' for his first choice, knowing that if that candidate is eliminated his vote will be automatically transferred to his second.

It allows a party to put up more than one candidate without thereby splitting its support and possibly giving the seat to another party. This means, for instance, that when an M.P. retires or blots his copy book the party could put up two or three candidates and allow the electorate to choose who goes forward - in effect, combining a primary election with the main election, votes for the less popular candidate being transferred to another candidate from the party. It also means that where there is a particularly controversial item in a party's policies, it could put up candidates from both sides, for instance it would be possible to see one candidate described as 'Liberal Democrat - for nuclear power stations' and another as 'Liberal Democrat - against nuclear power stations', in effect holding a local referendum amongst its supporters on this topic as part of the election.

The introduction of the Alternative Vote could remove some power from the party machines and give it to the electorate.

There are, of course, other voting systems. I will look at these in a later paper.  (Michael Gilbert) .

Dated:   24 May 2010


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