Wednesday, April 06, 2011

AV and minor parties

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.


Chris said...

'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.'

Muh? Moral authority? Is that the same thing as political capital? And since the Yes to AV campaign (which would probably do better at this point by shutting the hell up) is claiming that an MP has little moral authority unless he or she represents 50%+ of voters* why should we listen more to someone who goes from 5% of votes cast in FPTP to 10% of 1st preference votes. In fact, shouldn't votes cast for a party where they have no hope in hell of winning under FPTP not be weighted as more valuable?

In addition, that does sound awfully like giving people more than one vote, or rather to allow them to use their vote in more than one way, to elect an MP and also spread around some moral authority. Person A may want a UKIP MP, but will settle for a Tory, Lib Dem, Green, MRLP, Labour in that order. Fine. But Person B, who doesn't ever want a UKIP MP but does want a more anti-European Tory party, can game the system, put UKIP first even though he knows they won't win so they can get some moral authority. What's the response there to C, who just wants a Tory MP? 'Well, you should find some minor party that you would like your chosen party to be a little bit more like but which you don't want to actually see in power so that you can give them some authority. That's what people fought and died for.'

What is more, how do first preference votes keep their moral authority when it's also transferred to the eventual winner? Both the first preference vote and the eventual winner are both claiming to speak with greater moral authority. And do second preference votes give any moral authority? If I vote Green, Socialist, Labour, does my Socialist candidate get +1 or +0.5 when Labour wins the seat?

*But not really.

Tom Freeman said...

"Moral authority" in this case translates as "ability to command media attention" (which is obviously the very definition of morality).

Like when the Greens got 15% of the vote in the 1989 Euro-elections (but no seats), and people's ears perked up. I'm just saying that even if a higher vote share doesn't translate into more seats for them, it's bound to increase their profile.

And you have a very fair point that some people might use their first preference to big up a no-hoper party that they'd like their own to move a bit towards. Though if enough people do that...

john b said...

Two interesting points from Oz, where this happens (and, as a result, the sky hasn't fallen in): one is that, brought in many years after AV, we have government funding of political parties, which is based on their share of the primary vote. This is a strong incentive for someone who's left-green-ish and pissed off with Labor to vote for the Greens first and Labor second, since that way you get a Labor-not-Tory MP but the Greens get your election money.

The other is that we have a Senate elected by PR (state-by-state, but let's not complicate things). Again, this happened after the election of MPs by AV happened, based on the knowledge that the Greens get 10-15% of the primary vote, the Christian Loonies get 5%, etc.

Given that the UK is debating how political parties should be funded and how the second chamber should be constituted, fans of non-Labour non-Tory parties should support AV on these instrumental grounds, in that it means they'll have the voter legitimacy to encourage an Australian solution in both contexts.