X marks the spot …. or does it? – an alternative view on the Alternative Vote

July 7, 2010

The ConDems setting the date for a referendum on AV for next May – has raised the issue for many of how the electorate’s votes would translate into parliamentary representation under a new and different system.

Most of the estimates that I’ve seen of the impact of AV, had it applied in May 2010, suggest that the LibDems would have gained significantly, the Tories would have lost some seats and Labour may have been marginally better off with a handful more.

There are dangers in letting likely outcomes colour attitudes to the Alternative Vote and how we should vote in the referendum. Here are three:-

-estimates of outcome based on 2010 voting patterns are misleading and based on assumptions about second preference voting that may prove incorrect.

– the next election may be for fewer seats, many having new boundaries, so further, possibly mistaken, assumptions about both first and second preference voting will inevitably qualify any estimates of results.

-tactical voting will become altogether more complex.

This last point is least obvious but perhaps the most interesting.

Tactical voting under ‘first past the post’ has often comprised voters switching their votes to support candidates most likely, in their estimation, to beat an incumbent MP or keeping their vote switched in subsequent elections. Voters’ estimations, based on previous election results and current polling, have often proved accurate.

This will remain possible and will no doubt be practised, but AV adds the further ingredient of a second preference, with scope for this vote to be used tactically. This second vote has the potential to either reinforce or undermine prospects of the electors’ first choice candidate succeeding.

Further, unless failure to exercise a second preference is considered to produce a spoiled ballot, the option for voters of expressing a single preference only will remain.

Indeed, it seems highly likely that not only so-called ‘tribalists’ will adopt this tactic but also many others in constituencies where the distribution of second preference voting, or indeed, the likely best placed candidate to displace an incumbent MP, is uncertain. With a reduced number of seats and many of the remaining ones having new boundaries that could be a lot of constituencies.

None of this is to argue against supporting a move to AV in next year’s referendum, but I do suggest that taking a position for or against AV because you anticipate a particular party will gain or lose could prove foolish.

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