5 minute tute: The AV referendum


What is the Alternative Vote (AV)?

The current system, first-past-the-post, is winner-takes-all: the candidate with the most votes wins (even if he or she gets much less than 50% of the votes cast). With AV a voter marks the ballot paper 1, 2, 3 etc. against candidates in order of preference in a single-member seat. Winning candidates must get more than 50% of the votes, with second and third preferences also being counted. There are different types of AV (Alternative Vote): ranking all the candidates on offer, or indicating as many choices as a voter wishes. The Supplementary Vote variant of AV (first and second preferences only) is used for the London Mayor. The Bill proposes a system which does not require a ranking of every candidate.

Would we see more coalitions under AV?

It is difficult to say. Supporters of more consensual politics say it would, and a good thing too; and many people who want to keep first-past-the-post also say that it would, and that’s the problem: voters need the certainty and simplicity of first-past-the-post. Opponents of AV also say that Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the present Coalition Government are now pursuing a compromise programme which no-one actually voted for as a whole. Issues like tuition fees– and, of course, the AV Bill itself– make compromises like this especially contentious.

Why reduce the total number of MPs?

The proposed reduction specified in the AV Bill is from 650 to 600 – a cut of 7.6%. The Government ‘s line is that a House of 600 is the right size to have roughly equal-sized constituencies of a manageable size and at the same time to be able to hold the Executive to account. In the last edition of How Parliament Works we considered the case for a much larger cut – to 400. Parliamentary opportunities for questions, debating time, select committee places and so on are much greater per Member in a smaller House. But a key question is whether the number of Ministers is reduced by the same proportion, otherwise the Executive has a comparatively greater presence in a smaller House.

What will happen now?

The current electoral quota for England is 69,935 electors (about the same in Scotland, less in Scotland and Wales). The Bill’s proposals would mean a UK-wide average of 76,000. Small constituencies mean greater connection between MPs and constituents, and the Bill would make little difference to this. Opposition centres on the fact that Boundary Commissions setting constituency boundaries would have less discretion to take local circumstances into account, and on the fear that this would ignore patterns of local communities and geography for the sake of the numbers. Having half of the Isle of Wight and part of Hampshire form a single constituency is an example. This adds to the controversy of AV: it has not been tried for the Commons, but the devolved assembly, GLA and European Parliament elections all use forms of PR to some extent.


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