What would happen to minor parties under the Alternative Vote?
It’s well known that, under First-Past-The-Post, there are people who vote tactically: for a tolerable party that stands a decent chance of winning rather than for a favourite party that doesn’t. This means we can reasonably expect that parties placed low down the poll would get more first preferences under AV than they do votes under FPTP.
How many more votes would the small parties get under AV? This is impossible to quantify in advance, but one thing worth noting is that this question is the mirror of another: How many votes do minor parties currently lose to tactical voting?
Another fair assumption is that the current tactical switching (from a no-hoper to a serious contender) is likelier when one of the big parties is politically closer to the smaller party in question. Thus Green supporters may vote tactically for the Lib Dems (or, these days, perhaps more likely Labour) and UKIP supporters vote Conservative. The more extreme a smaller party is – in terms of distance from the larger parties – the less likely its supporters will be to find one of those larger parties a tolerable compromise.
And so, conversely, introducing AV would be likelier to boost those smaller parties that are closer to large ones, as the tactical voters instead follow their hearts with their first preferences.
This suggests that BNP supporters are currently less likely to vote tactically, and thus there would be fewer of them to switch to voting BNP under AV. One important caveat, though: this assumes that BNP supporters share the mainstream view of the party as being in a league of its own rather than part of the normal political spectrum. This may not be the case.
But so far this is all about votes. What about how smaller parties would do in terms of seats won?
This is even harder to tell. If there are massed ranks of people who’d like to back these parties but don’t, because they think their ranks aren’t all that massed, then AV could mean quite a big rise in these parties’ votes – in some cases, perhaps enough to put them into contention for winning a seat. In that case, if they can attract the lion’s share of second, third etc. preferences from other eliminated candidates, they can win the seat.
I suspect that in most seats, these two ifs would be too big. And again, parties perceived as more extreme would be less likely to pick up second etc. preferences.
So my reasoning is that minor parties would get more first preferences under AV than they get votes under FPTP (with those that are seen as very different from the bigger parties gaining the least). And my hunch is that this will translate into very few extra seats in parliament for them.
If so, this could actually promote disillusionment with the system. The gap between minor-party representation and actual minor-party support would shrink a bit, but the gap between minor-party representation and visible minor-party support would grow significantly. What’s more, the rise in visible support for minor parties may give their spokespeople greater moral authority given the larger share of the electorate they could claim to speak for.