AV won't help left

Submitted by Matthew on 16 February, 2011 - 10:39

David Kirk’s main argument (Solidarity 3/191) is that AV will help left-wing “propaganda candidates”. But with Australia’s AV left and not-so-left minority party candidates have generally done worse than with Britain’s FPTP setup. This seems odd, but it is a fact. Knowing that fact, left and pseudo-left groups focused on electoral activity — Socialist Party, Respect, Green Left — oppose AV.

With AV people know that their vote will count towards the result only when it transfers to the bigger party they’ve chosen as second preference, so they often cut out the middleman and vote for the bigger party direct.

In Australia the main bias of AV is to polarise electoral politics into two blocs, organised around the two big parties (Labor and Liberals) to which the smaller parties in each bloc transfer.

Argue for the British Labour Party not to do preference swaps? You could, I suppose, but the chance of anyone listening is zero. Under AV a party eschews preference swaps only if it has no interest in winning (and usually not even then).

The evidence from Australia is that parties’ recommendations on preference swaps have surprisingly great effect.

AV is no more democratic than FPTP, maybe less so. The detailed balance will depend on how the Lib Dems choose to work the system, and whether British voters react to AV differently from Australians, neither of which we know.

AV would however be more stable than FPTP (there is no outcry to change it in Australia), so voting in AV would gazump any other electoral change for, probably, decades.

The fact that AV will ensure that the Lib Dems “win” the next election however we vote (even though longer-term it may hurt them), and the fact that the referendum will be at least partly a referendum on the government, indicate no to AV.


Submitted by Matthew on Wed, 16/02/2011 - 17:34

I think a case can be made for either a critical Yes vote or an abstention in the upcoming referendum on AV.

A Yes vote would break the logjam on electoral reform, getting past the idea that FPTP is the eternal, natural 'British way' of electing politicians (as opposed to supposedly 'over-complcated' - even if slightly more democratic - AV), and it is debateable whether it would then act as a brake on or stepping stone towards the introduction of a more proportional voting system like STV.

I can see the logic in saying AV is such a minor improvement on FPTP and a neglible reform compared to more important democratic demands such as annual Parliaments that we should call for abstention. However, the only principled basis for calling for a No vote it seems to me is if you believe the status quo is positively better, that FPTP is clearly more democratic than AV. I don't see that that case has been made (as opposed to saying AV is anadequate) and some of the arguments marshalled in support of the idea - e.g. that our position should be determined by seeing it as a referendum on the Coalition rather than assessing AV's democratic merits - seem very thin from the perspective of consistent socialist politics.

Submitted by martin on Thu, 17/02/2011 - 22:33

1. Given the variety of systems for electing the Welsh Assembly, Scottish Parliament, London Assembly, local councils, etc., the argument that almost-anything-but-FPTP must be a step forward because it "breaks the logjam" is thin.

2. The overwhelming probability is that the introduction of AV would block any further change for at least a few general elections, i.e. until AV produces a result widely seen to be anomalous. Twenty years, say, seems to me a long time in politics.

3. I don't accept that AV is a minor improvement on FPTP. As far as I can see, the two are much of a muchness in general democratic terms. Probably it's impossible to tell whether AV is a bit more undemocratic than FPTP, a bit less undemocratic, or about the same, without first seeing whether British voters respond to it (as regards "tactical voting" and so on) differently from Australian voters. I don't know.

4. If AV gives no definite democratic advantage compared to FPTP (might be a bit less bad, might be a bit worse - can't tell); would block any clearly democratic improvement for a long time; would "give" the Lib Dems the next election however we vote; and the referendum will be in part in a referendum on the government - that seems to me fair enough reason for voting no.

Submitted by PaulHampton on Fri, 18/02/2011 - 07:54

David Kirk (Solidarity 3/190, 26 January 2011) is quite right to argue that socialists are consistent democrats, but quite wrong to conclude we should support Alternative Vote (AV).

The AV referendum on 5 May will not tackle the accountability of MPs, their inflated incomes or the other flaws of Britain’s undoubtedly flawed bourgeois democracy.

Instead the choice is between the current first past the post (FPTP) system or an AV system that arbitrarily manufactures an apparent majority for every MP, as a paltry means of shoring up their legitimacy.

AV is not proportional representation, because it retains the constituency link. AV might be more proportional in some elections, but it could be perversely disproportional in others. In 2005, New Labour had a 66-seat majority with 35% of the vote; under AV it would have had a 108-seat majority.

AV engineers a notional 50%+ for every MP. But it does this where MPs don’t get more than half the first preferences by recycling the votes of the least popular candidates and transferring them to others in subsequent rounds.

AV conflates the distinction between support and acquiescence. Democracy is scarcely improved by an MP getting 50.1% after third preferences than one elected on 49% under FPTP. Supporters of AV reduce democracy to a mangled form of aggregation.

AV does not help standing independent working class candidates very much. It assumes candidates are proximate substitutes, whereas from a class perspective, we vote for either socialist/labour movement candidates or not at all.

Concretely today, AV is likely to boost the number of seats won by the Lib-Dems, allowing them to arbitrate on who forms the government. Given their role in constructing the current austerity administration, it is entirely right that many workers will see the referendum as an opportunity to chastise Clegg.

We should advocate a vote “No” in the AV referendum and fight for authentically democratic mechanisms to hold the rascals to account.

Submitted by martin on Fri, 18/02/2011 - 17:53

For a well-informed overview of AV - which doesn't cover its effect for minority-left candidates, but does cover many other issues - see:


Another thing that overview doesn't cover, though it refers to it cryptically, is the impact the Democratic Labor Party, a right-wing (mostly Catholic) split-off from the Labor Party in the 1950s, had under AV.

The DLP, like minority parties generally under AV, didn't do well. It never won a seat in the lower house of Parliament. But it did have a big effect. It gave its second preferences to the Liberals, and thus kept the Libs in power for a long period.

The interesting point about this, as regards assessing the impact of AV generally, is that the DLP recommendation "held" with its mostly ex-Labor electorate. Parties' recommendations on second preferences seem to "hold" more than you would expect.

Martin Thomas

Submitted by Matthew on Sat, 19/02/2011 - 13:05

Thinking about Martin's comments and reading some academic studies, I've shifted my position on whether we should call for a critical Yes in the AV referendum.

The Australian example which is discussed in detail here throws up both parallels and differences I think. While Martin may be right that "Parties' recommendations on second preferences seem to "hold" more than you would expect", the reasoning behind AV's introduction differs.

According to the above study, AV was introduced in Australia by the two right-wing parties (Liberals and Nationals) so that a split vote between them doesn't lead to Labour winning seats on less than 50% of the vote. Conversely, the AV referendum here was the minimum/maximum price to seal the coalition deal between the Tories and Lib Dems. Neither of them positively want it - preferring FPTP and PR respectively - and for the Lib Dems it is just their best chance of avoiding being wiped out at the next election by picking up enough Tory and Labour second preferences and hanging on in seats were they would otherwise lose.

In fact, the same result could probably be achieved by the simpler method of the Lib Dems agreeing an electoral pact with the Tories. (The above study says this is what has happened under AV in Australia with the Liberals and Nationals rarely if ever standing candidates against each other - not sure if that is true, but if it is it seems to cancel out the original motivation for introducing it).

I think Martin is probably right that "it's impossible to tell whether AV is a bit more undemocratic than FPTP, a bit less undemocratic, or about the same". I would add that it's equally impossible to tell whether voting No and sticking to FPTP or voting Yes and switching to AV is more likely to lead to PR as the flaws in whichever system is chosen become more apparent. On that basis, and because neither FPTP or AV are proportional, we should call for an abstention.

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