How should we vote in the AV referendum?



How should the left vote in the referendum on May 5th on an Alternative Vote (AV) system of election for Westminster?

Alan Thornett argues for a yes vote in support of AV as the best option available on the day – and since the referendum will in effect be a choice between AV and the present system of first past the post (FPTP).

Labour is divided over AV with Miliband and the shadow cabinet in favour but with many prominent individuals such as Prescott and Straw against.

Labour strongly opposed the bill itself through Parliament mainly because it was linked it to a reduction of MPs and the redefining of constituencies. The referendum, however, will deal only with AV.

There are widely differing views on the left over AV as well. The Green Party and Plaid call for a yes vote whilst Socialist Party, Respect, the Green Left and the CPB call for a no vote. The AWL appear to be divided on it. The Labour Representation Committee is balloting its members with a recommendation for a no vote.

The CPB argue for a no vote on the basis that it is not PR and that it would favour the Lib Dems. The issue involved, however, is not whether the change to AV would swing the advantage towards any particular party but whether it is a gain for democracy, although a small one, over the scandalous FPTP system we have at the present time.

Under this system, in the 2005 general election, Labour only polled 35.2% of the votes cast but for this they got 55.1% of the seats in Parliament – way above their proportional entitlement. The Tories polled 30.7% of the vote and got 32.3% of the seats – just above their proportional entitlement. The Lib Dems polled 22.1% of the vote and all they got for this was just 9.6% of seats – less than half of their proportional entitlement.

This meant that it took 26,000 votes to elect a Labour MP, 44,000 to elect a Tory MP, and a huge 96,000 to elect a Liberal Democrat MP – nearly four times as many votes as those needed by a Labour MP. Such a system is indefensible.

It also meant that around 70% of voters cast votes which make no difference whatsoever to the outcome since they were in safe seats of one kind or another, while the election is won or lost in a minority of marginal seats. It is also a major contributing factor to falling turnout. Why bother if your vote will make no difference?

AV is not a proportional system, of course – the CPB are right about that – it would not produce a proportional Parliament in which the number of MPs would correspond to the number of votes each party obtained in the ballot box. That would still have to be fought for.

It would, however, bring about a number of improvements, at least at constituency level:

* It would allow voters to express their genuine preferences without the pressure to vote tactically and non-mainstream candidates could stand without fear of splitting the vote. This is because the votes of the lower placed candidates are redistributed until a candidate emerges with over 50% of the vote. It therefore benefits small parties more than FPTP does.

* It would undermine, at least to some extent, the ‘safe seat’ situation which disenfranchises large swathes of voters at every election.

* It would ensure that all MPs are elected on the basis of majority support (at present only a third of them achieve this).

Some people argue for a no vote on the basis that a yes vote would set real electoral reform of Westminster back for a long time. I would argue the opposite: that a no vote would be seen as an endorsement of FPTP and thus entrench it as a voting system.

The Tories along with the Labour dinosaurs in the no campaign defend FPTP because it gives the two parties Buggins’ turn in running the country to the exclusion of anyone else including the Lib Dems, outside of a hung Parliament and the possibility of a coalition.

This is no doubt the reason for the dire situation in the unions over this issue with most union leaderships calling for a no vote. The no campaign is claiming that the vast majority of the major unions are lining up against AV.

The Financial Times has reported that at least five trade unions – including the GMB, Aslef and the Prison Officers’ Association – will send out anti-AV leaflets to their members and that they had joined the official No2AV campaign dominated by the Tories. Unite is also campaigning against AV.

GMB General Secretary Paul Kenny said his union had ‘long held the policy that the tried and tested first-past-the-post is the system that should be used for general elections for the UK Parliament.’ He said first-past-the-post delivered strong, single-party government, was easy to understand and had a ‘strong constituency link’.

The only two unions which have declared for AV at the present time appear to be the CWU and the PCS, which is advising its members to support AV.

None of this, of course, whatever the outcome of the referendum, negates the need for PR in order to establish a democratic system of election. A yes vote should be seen as a small step in the direction of further reform and the campaign for a democratic electoral system based on PR should be stepped up.

This is not workers’ democracy, of course, it is bourgeois democracy, but while we live under a capitalist system we are entitled at least to a system of election in which the number of MPs correspond to the number of votes a party receives in an election.


  1. I do agree with this Alan Thornett’s arguments but I have one minor quibble. On the picture is the slogan “No Tactical Voting”. AV does NOT completely eliminate tactical voting (no system does). Pro-AV campaigners sometimes make this error which is picked up by the NO side. In fact tactical voting under AV would be much less of a problem and would need a fairly accurate knowledge of the preferences of other voters.
    Under FPTP it is much more obvious – you want to vote for a small party (e.g. Socialist Resistance!), they have no chance so vote labour instead!

  2. I just ask why the lefts should support a voting system which’s secured power in the hand of two capitalist parties (one holds the name of working class-Labour) for decades!? Any reform which has benefit for working class and lefts to get some power is welcome, while we should fight to end up this vicious circle of parliament system.

  3. “This is because the votes of the lower placed candidates are redistributed until a candidate emerges with over 50% of the vote.”

    It might just be a niggle, but that’s not the case. ‘Exhausted’ papers are removed in the redistribution stage, and the 50% threshold only applies to that next round. It is possible to return an MP who only got 32% of the votes of people who turned in valid ballot papers, yet they could claim to have a mandate of 56%, which is their majority in the last round. At least in FPTP the election summary is quite clear just how poor an MP’s mandate can be. I could only support AV if the summary was quite clear on this point. The ERS campaign literature is muddled over what constitutes ‘electorate’.

    I’m all for reforming the electoral system, I’m basically a Green supporter who votes LibDem in the interests of getting PR so my voice has no chance at all under either system! Maybe a yes for AV would set the pendulum swinging so my grandchildren might be voting in a PR election, but I would still want my vote reported even if it was as part of the unelected majority.

  4. In reply to TRT1968 (above): it makes sense to only count votes where preferences have actually been made. Otherwise, it would be possible (in theory) for the election to be rendered null and void. If enough voters only gave a first preference and that preference was for a 3rd, 4th, 5th… and the 2nd candidate had a sizeable chunk of the votes, the top candidate may never get 50% of the votes cast! I don’t know how many people don’t give second preferences, but the Australian experience may give some indication.

  5. could TRT explain an exhausted vote please, I am just about to go and spoil my ballot paper as I can see little change happening with a No vote.
    how many past elections would have given a different result? I think we need AV plus or PR. and once this AV gets in if it does no-one will have the stomach to go through all this again!

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