Have you heard the myth? AV helps the Liberal Democrats, hurts the Tories and leaves Labour unscathed.
Like most myths there is some truth to it: While they remain the third party, the Liberal Democrats can expect AV to deliver more seats for them. However, if you believe that AV is indifferent to the fortunes of the Labour Party, you should read on.
Electoral systems are colour blind. They do not systematically help one party over another. Political circumstances in conjunction with an electoral system may favour a party but political circumstances can change. So anyone claiming AV is benign to Labour, even if it were true, actually means AV would be benign to Labour at the moment.
Short-term thinking like this is the mother of misfortune. Even from a purely partisan viewpoint, it should be obvious that AV needs to be evaluated across a range of possible political circumstances. And there is one possibility that could seriously harm the Labour movement – the AV earthquake.
The AV earthquake has two effects. First, AV can inflate a landslide majority that would have occurred with FPTP. Results elsewhere demonstrate how AV can yield colossal majorities. In 1948, for example, the Social Credit party in Alberta (which used AV for about 30 years) hit the jackpot, scooping 97% of the seats by winning 53% of first preference votes.
Second, AV can distort the number of seats gained by each party in relation to the first preference shares. For example, a party that finishes a clear second on first preferences can finish third in terms of numbers of seats. An unpopular government could not only be kicked out of office but also kicked into the political wilderness, not even the official opposition despite being the clear second choice of the people.
The compound effect of inflating a majority and changing the finishing order of the parties is worse than an electoral landslide – that’s why I call it an AV earthquake. It would be triggered when an unpopular party slides down the preferences with voters who are shifting their allegiance; where a voter had previously ranked the party “1” it may now be “2” or even lower; where it was a “2”, the party may now not be ranked at all. This across-the-board movement of preferences is the cause of the AV earthquake.
An AV earthquake is likely to come about when (i) an unpopular government faces the electorate and (ii) there exists a significant third party like the Liberal Democrats in England or nationalist parties in devolved regions whose voters would have the potential to magnify the preference slide – there are more constituencies in which the third party can affect the result. As Labour and the Conservatives are currently the parties of power in British politics, they would both be at risk from this pernicious effect of AV.
For an example of what an AV earthquake would look like, how it would come about, and its likely political effects, see my article The 2029 General Election, which graphically shows how Labour could be affected. For a more detailed analysis on AV earthquakes see my article Could an AV earthquake shake British democracy?
Have you heard the truth? AV helps the Liberal Democrats.
Antony Brown is founder of AV2011.co.uk, a non-party-political website that is against AV for Parliamentary elections and urging the immediate implementation of PR for local elections as a first step towards PR for Parliamentary elections.