A referendum on AV?

If there is a referendum on the Alternative Vote, I will be campaigning hard for a No vote.  The Alternative Vote is arguably the worst of both worlds.  It doesn’t satisfy advocates of proportional representation.  It is not a proportional system and, indeed, can be far more disproportional than our existing first-past-the-post system.  At the same time, it is likely to deliver the undesirable consequences of a PR system – that is, post-election bargaining, deals done without reference to the electors, and no clear lines of accountability at the next election.  What we are witnessing at the moment is a consequence of a situation that I would not wish to be the norm.


About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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24 Responses to A referendum on AV?

  1. Croft says:

    I take it that’s a no to any offer of ministerial office then 😀

    • Lord Norton says:

      Croft: Conservatives will be free to campaign on either side in a referendum. If you look at the list of concessions made, you will see there is another that is the real sticking point.

      • Croft says:

        Free to campaign but whipped to vote for the referendum when – as I suspect you might agree – on a free vote in the commons the proposal would fail with tacit back bench labour MPs making a majority with the Tories.

        I can see a few objectionable proposals – personally fixed term 5 years parliaments is at the top (though I haven’t been though the details to see if ‘charter’ schools will be subject to a local authority veto) Funny ‘new politics’ to extend the time between voters having a say on the government by (effectively) 25%

      • Lord Norton says:

        Croft: Indeed. The document listing what has been agreed makes explicit that MPs will be whipped to support it. In respect of fixed-term Parliaments, I take your point about the additional 25%. I am likely to be pursuing it when the Bill is brought forward.

  2. Senex says:

    LN: I understand the C of E Synod has been using STV since the 1920’s. How come you never mentioned this? I look forward to your robust defence of FPtP.

    • Croft says:

      ‘C of E Synod has been using STV since the 1920’s.’

      ‘I look forward to your robust defence of FPtP.’

      I would have thought the ‘success’ of the former was a pretty good defence of the latter!

  3. Senex says:

    Lord Lucas has posted today on LotB. Are you open for business?

    • The Duke of Waltham says:

      Well, purdah ought to be over by now, with a new Prime Minister in place…

    • Lord Norton says:

      Senex: LotB is indeed back in business. Purdah was effectively over for Parliament on Monday – bit difficult to say anything that can retrospectively affect how people voted last Thursday! I’ll be maintaining this blog, though, as I want to express my own views on political topics such as electoral reform and reform of the Lords.

      • Jonathan says:

        I’d be interested to hear your views on the proposal for Lords reform contained in the Agreement, as so far you’ve been silent on this issue.

        Apparently, before any possible system of elections to the Lords, they want to appoint new peers to make the House reflect voting in the general election. By my reckoning, that means lots of new Conservative and Lib Dem peers (40 or 50 of each) and no new Labour ones (or very few) – so that’s tough for all the Labour MPs who stood down expecting to go to the Lords.

      • Croft says:


        The trouble, as I’ve indicated before, is the Lab resignation honour list could number 30 or more which obviously has a knock on effect on the numbers you quote. Cameron can’t block the Lab list.

      • Croft says:

        Just as a follow up it does though make the idea of creating a new class of life peers – without a right to sit and vote in the Lords – an even more desirable and necessary move.

      • Jonathan says:

        Croft: why can’t they block the resignation honours? It’s only convention that says such honours are given out. Peerages are given specifically to give someone a seat in the Lords, and it isn’t appropriate for Labour to have more peers now.

        If the new government’s plans go ahead, there won’t be a need for the new class of peers you mention, as that will be all of them. In the meantime, resignation honours, as pure honours not seats, could be in the form of knighthoods, or why not hereditary peerages?

      • Croft says:

        Jonathan: Well LN can correct but I believe that the ex-PMs list is announced after he leaves but is ‘deemed’ to have been agreed before departure making in (capital A) advice. So it can’t be interfered with constitutionally – bar I suppose legislation.

        You had something of the same in 1964 where the incoming PM wanted to abolish the granting of hereditary peerage but was bound by Sir A D-H’s list so we actually had the last ‘political’ hereditary creation in 1965 so long did it take for it all to be agreed.

      • FinnishCowl says:

        Croft: Perhaps instead of creating life peers who can’t sit in the House, they should begin creating hereditary peers. Baronets are hereditary and still created, so I see no reason why hereditary peerages could not be used for this purpose.

      • Croft says:

        Finnish: ‘Baronets are hereditary and still created’

        Well one (Thatcher – 1990) since 1965 -v- 3 political hereditary peerages (Whitelaw & Tonypandy ’83 and Macmillan ’84) I’m not sure that bar perhaps a PM you could probably get away with it now. However my suggestion of a non sitting peer was really a means to get rid of the celeb peers who don’t really work in the chamber and the washed up politicians who its felt ‘deserve’ something.

  4. FinnishCowl says:

    While I think some very good compromises were worked out, I have some concerns about the political reform covered in the agreement (particularly two issues).

    “We agree to establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation.” –
    Is this a sort of a Humphrey Appleby committee or one that that will pretty much already have its mind made up before it ever meets?

    My other concern is over fixed-term parliaments. I honestly think this would be a disaster for the British political system, and have a range of consequences that have not been fully thought through. Before moving into academia, I worked in the US political lobbying industry. I have seen all that is good and bad with that system, and one of the major problems is fixed-term elections. In fact, I think most people, but Lib-Dems in particular, would find these flaws very unappealing:
    1. Fixed terms lead to complacent MPs who know they only have to please voters one year out of every five (but they need to please donors for 3-5 of those years). The idea that recall elections will prevent this from happening is not based on the facts of the agreement: “allowing voters to force a by-election where an MP was found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing.” Being a below-average MP is not the same thing as committing something that can be considered “serious wrongdoing.” Non-fixed terms keep them on their toes, even if their party is in government. The possibility of losing the confidence of the Commons (now made virtually impossible by raising the threshold to 55%) or being caught in an unpopular position when the PM calls a snap election (which might be good for the party, but not for a specific MP) adds pressure to MPs to keep their constituents happy and to be responsive to their needs. Even in the US House of Representatives, where terms are 2-years and members are basically in continual election mode, the members become extremely complacent very quickly. In fact, they become masters of re-election, building up large “war-chests” of campaign funds that effectively prevent any serious challenge to their seats.

    2. Fixed-terms lead to more lobbyists and more money in politics. The fact is that lobbyist and political fundraisers thrive in stable election environments. I cannot tell you how important it is for lobbyists to plan who and when they should give money to a candidate. It also gives them a stable 4 years to raise money to give to candidates. Even with reforms and restrictions, people find ways around it. When it is uncertain as to when an election will occur, it severely limits lobbying/fund-raising activities. Non-fixed terms require lobbyists to either be constantly on edge (which is not physically sustainable) or to moderate their activities to give them more flexibility. Lobbying in the US is a very precisely built machine that has boomed in an election environment that is simply too stable.

    3. Election campaigns will slowly get longer. This is somewhat connected to #2, as there will be increasing pressure to raise more money to compete. So, parties will start fundraising earlier, which means they will be more concerned about pleasing their donors for longer periods of time. Eventually, it will become somewhat like the US where the presidential election season kicks off two years before the election is to occur. Parties spend more time getting working on re-election (ie. fund-raising) than they do on government.

    4. Fixed-terms do not allow the government or parties to go to the electorate on particular issues where they might not have a mandate. American officials very much have a feeling that they go against their own campaign promises and support unpopular (and usually detrimental) legislation, provided they are still being protected by fixed terms.

    This is not to say all US politicians are bad or worthless (many are not), but simply that fixed terms has contributed to some of the strongest temptations towards poor statesmanship.

    • The Duke of Waltham says:

      A compelling case against fixed-term parliaments, FinnishCowl. I had not realised how wide-ranging the effects would be from this seemingly simple change, aware, as I am, that any alteration to a finely balanced system such as this is likely to have unintended consequences. I have to say that I have always disliked this permanent pre-election period in which the United States appears to be, and that I should find it a great pity to see a similar situation become established in the UK.

  5. ladytizzy says:

    I hear you, Finnish Cowl:
    …an agreement to establish a committee to bring forward proposals…
    Is anyone taken in by this sort of thing, these days? Oh..they are? That explains so much.

    My first reaction to fixed terms revolved around the 55% threshold. We can all see though the arithmetic and it struck me that it would be more entertaining to have an endless parliament until 55% (negotiable) voted for its dissolution and, thus, for a general election. Or, a fixed annual date and time when MPs (but, in an added twist, only those attending) were called to vote to continue/dissolve parliament.

    I can’t help feeling that Kilroy Silk’s game show Shafted was ahead of its time. For the non-doms here, the following may enlighten: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGU5A0nPHsI

  6. Dave Thawley says:

    I just posted the following on another article – I have changed it a little but the sentiment is about the same.

    The no campaign wants to spread apathy along with their mis-information, but I am meeting a lot of people who are very much in favour of AV and are excited by the prospects.

    firstly I am an advocate of PR and it satifies me more than FPTP (why didn’t the arictle state the comparison with FPTP here ?)I am a typical reformer – over 80% of us think AV is worth the fight – see below.

    1) The proportionality information presented is mis-information. AV is on average slightly more proportional than FPTP. It is still very random because it is not very proportional but if you look at the worst that both systems comes out then with FPRP is far worse, and if you look at the best the systems can come up with AV is better (this is from AV a better alternative issued by the ERS), they show the maths behind the statement to support it factually. You have distorted the truth by picking a not like for like sitation which is very misleading.

    The real problem we have as a movement is getting the information out there. AV is better than FPTP – this is a fact. The problem is the No campaign is not going to use all the facts. It can’t because if it did it would show AV is the best. Instead they are either willfully misunderstanding (sorry I almost said lying then) or using mis-inofrmation (not lying but just giving a little bit of fact to grossly distort the truth. A bit like the misinformation used in supermarkets – i.e. something has the word ‘contains no sugar; on the box but inside the box is 40% saturated fat and enough e numbers to keep a kid up for a week). This type of tripe is what the lovely, impartial (winner of a Tory best mates award 3 years ago) Mr Elliot is going to have to do. Disgusting, yes. Unfair, yes. Supported but the millions of £ donated from the rich boys who don’t want the system to change so they can keep milking it – yes.

    All as the yes camp has to do is get all of the truth out there. I say all, this is a hard battle but one we must win. We are doing this person to person and it feels like pushing a snowball around – but the snowball is getting bigger and bigger

    • Lord Norton says:

      Dave Thawley: It’s difficult to stir up apathy. That AV is better than FPTP is not a ‘fact’ because it depends on what criteria one employs to determine what is best. Also we cannot know for certain what would happen under AV because we cannot prove how people would vote under such a system (we cannot prove how they say they would vote would actually be how they would vote). It is worth reminding ourselves of why the Jenkins Commission came up with the ‘+’ in AV+. To quote from the Report: ‘On its own AV would be unacceptable because of the danger that in anything like present circumstances it might increase rather than reduce proportionality…’. As it notes, simulations of the 1997 election result suggest AV would have significantly increased the size of the already swollen Labour majority.

      I’m afraid you have to come to terms with the uncertainty of electoral behaviour and that it is not a case of there being some immutable truth.

      • dave thawley says:

        hi again

        going from bottom up – I don’t have to come to terms with the uncertainty – I love and relish it. Not really being able to predict what people are going to do means that the democracy is working better – great stuff 🙂

        The choice on the table isn’t about AV+. I would prefer this but the conservatives have blocked the lib-dem attempts to table this for their own purposes. I think it is personally disgusting that they have the right to stop the population being able to decide properly and it just shows that vested interests are at play – otherwise they think we are incompetent and not able to understand the situation which it very very wrong. I may be wrong though so if you think that they have a legitimate right to stop those they should be representing choosing how we select them I would be very happy to read what you say.
        Anyway talk of anything other than FPTP and AV in a referendum about FPTP and AV would distract me so I’m just going to concentrate on that.

        your comment on the 1997 election is correct. But you are missing out the facts that on average AV is more proportional. Even in 1997 what difference would if have made anyway. Nothing at all. The majority was still large enough for labour to do what they wanted anyway. This is the big big problem – its easy to pull out anomalies because either system is proportional so if we are going to be honest we need to look at what they do on average, and over many elections AV will produce a slightly more proportional result than FPTP.
        Regarding Apathy, perhaps stirring up apathy is a bit of an oxymoron but I believe the no campaign will deliberately attempt to instil apathy by trying to inject a particular social construction into the population – again this will be disgusting and if I am wrong I apologies now to those on the no campaign I am slandering.

        regarding AV is better than FPTP as a fact. I agree, it totally agree. My criteria is that it gives more say to the general population and makes us be able to chose MPs in a way which is better for us. We can get rid of those that are out of touch more easily and we will now all have an influence in who elects us. Instead of having an MP which 65% of the constituency did not want, under AV the majority of us will have agreed that the MP should be there – this is great for us but not great for MPs who really on having a large minority of support and soding everyone else.
        really, as a voter, there is no way FPTP is better. That is why I say it is a fact – it really is

        In list form …

        The case for AV

        * All MPs would have the support of a majority of their constituents. Following the 2010 election 2/3 of MPs lacked majority support, the highest figure in British political history.
        * It retains the same constituencies, meaning no need to redraw boundaries, and no overt erosion of the constituency-MP link.
        * It more accurately reflects public opinion of extremist parties, who are unlikely to gain many second-preference votes.
        * Coalition governments are no more likely to arise under AV than under First-Past-the-Post.
        * It eliminates the need for tactical voting. Electors can vote for their first-choice candidate without fear of wasting their vote.
        * It encourages candidates to chase second- and third-preferences, which lessens the need for negative campaigning (one doesn’t want to alienate the supporters of another candidate whose second preferences one wants) and rewards broad-church policies. It means they have to sell their own goods instead of slagging off everyone elses
        * it is slightly more proportional

        Arguments used against FPTP

        * Representatives can get elected on tiny amounts of public support. In 2005, for example, George Galloway polled the votes of only 18.4 per cent of his constituents, yet ended up in the House of Commons. Only three MPs elected in 2005 secured the votes of more than 40 per cent of their constituents.
        * It encourages tactical voting, as voters vote not for the candidate they most prefer, but against the candidate they most dislike.
        * FPTP in effect wastes huge numbers of votes, as votes cast in a constituency for losing candidates, or for the winning candidate above the level they need to win that seat, count for nothing. In 2005, 70 per cent of votes were wasted in this way – that’s over 19 million ballots.
        * FPTP severely restricts voter choice. Parties are coalitions of many different viewpoints. If the preferred-party candidate in your constituency has views with which you don’t agree, you don’t have a means of saying so at the ballot box.
        * Rather than allocating seats in line with actual support, FPTP rewards parties with ‘lumpy’ support, i.e. with just enough votes to win in each particular area. Thus, losing 4,000 votes in one area can be a good idea if it means you pick up 400 votes in another. With smaller parties, this works in favour of those with centralised support. For example, at the 2005 general election, the DUP won nine seats on 0.9 per cent of the vote, yet the Greens won no seats, despite polling almost 16,000 more votes than the DUP.
        * With relatively small constituency sizes, the way boundaries are drawn can have important effects on the election result, which encourages attempts at gerrymandering.
        * Small constituencies also lead to a proliferation of safe seats, where the same party is all but guaranteed re-election at each election. This not only in effect disenfranchises a region’s voters, but it leads to these areas being ignored when it comes to framing policy.
        * If large areas of the country are electoral deserts for a particular party, not only is the area ignored by that party, but also ambitious politicians from the area have to move away from their homeland if they want to have influence within their party.
        * FPTP rewards organised minorities, deals ineffectively with the most disliked parties, ignores (and thus fails to deal with) views that don’t look like challenging at the polls and can make certain areas feel neglected by the big political parties. Until 2009 Euro Elections it was the only electoral system in the UK to have elected representatives from extremist parties. A party can be despised by 49 per cent of an electorate and still win.
        * Encouraging two-party politics can be an advantage, but in a multi-party culture, third parties with significant support can be greatly disadvantaged. In the 1983 general election, the Liberal SDP alliance won 25 of the vote, but gained only 3 per cent of the seats.
        * Because FPTP restricts a constituency’s choice of candidates, representation of minorities and women suffers from ‘most broadly acceptable candidate syndrome’, where the ‘safest’ looking candidate is the most likely to be offered a chance to stand for election.

        Please do get back. Its good to discuss this topic because it is so important that the population managed to get this change.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Dave Thawley: You haven’t quite grasped the points I was making. I wasn’ t talking about AV+ being on the table but identifying the reason why Jenkins felt compelled to recommend the ‘+’.

        What is your evidence to prove that what could be the exception does not become the norm?

        Even if AV proves somewhat more proportional than FPTP – and no one can prove that it will – that solves very little, since it is not a proportional system and will therefore not end debate on the electoral system, and I see little benefit if it increases (as on your argument it will) the likelihood of hung Parliaments and the prospect of post-election bargaining producing a government for which no one has defitinively voted.

        AV only produces a manufactured majority by allocating equal weight to an elector’s second and subsequent preferences as to first preferences. If no one gets an absolute majority of first preferences, you still end up with an MP who is not preferred choice of the majority.

        If the Labour Party had employed FPTP in the election of the leader, David Miliband would be leader of the Labour Party. Under AV, the leader has become Ed Miliband, thanks to second and third (possibly fourth) peferences. I’m not sure the case for such a system is that compelling.

  7. dave thawley says:


    Re AV+. I did understand. I would prefer STV although I can see why people like AV+ and would love to have this on the referendum – could you please suggest it to someone.
    My point which I’m not sure I expressed well enough is that while AV+ is better we don’t have that as a choice. The only logical conversation we can have is on FPTP and AV since these are what are on offer. Of couse AV doesn’t go far enough – but it does move away from the dreadful state of afairs we are in now – as per all of the points on my last post.

    Regarding the proportionally of AV. – I agree mainly with what you are saying. It isn’t proportional (unfortunately) and therefore such an analysis is only truly valid after the event. However there are a lot of indicators (See AV , a better alternate ?) for a small analysis on this. It does appear through what analysis has been done (and for what its worth appears to be intuitively) slightly more proportionality than FPTP when applied to the type of politics the UK has moved to over the last few decades. For me though the proportionality aspect is not high up on the list of significant benefits. The overall fairness of AV is better. Elections are not a race in which the first is the winner, they should be about how best to represent the population. FPTP says the largest minority should be represented and the overall majority should be ignored. AV says that the voting should be averaged so that the majority have not perhaps their first choice, but at least someone they can tolerate – this is far far better. If you have an argument against my last point please do share it with me.

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