Friday, February 12, 2010

Gordon Brown Goes Alternative

No, the stuffy former finance guru who is now prime minister of Britain, is not turning himself into the second coming of Kurt Cobain, and entering the alternative rock world. (Although he might be out of job by summer, so perhaps he should consider it.) Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, who was part of a rock band called Ugly Rumours, as a student at Oxford during the 1970s, might have been more likely to take such a turn.

My much more prosaic meaning is that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has proposed the adoption of an alternative vote (AV) system for elections to the House of Commons. The House voted, earlier this week, to put the question to the electorate in a referendum to be held by October of 2011.

Currently, the procedure for those elections is similar to the way in which most U.S. states hold general elections for representatives and senators in Congress. Each voter votes for one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins, whether or not the winner's total exceeds 50%. (Some southern states hold a runoff election if no candidate has an overall majority.) The British, who, from Her Majesty on down, are fans of horse racing, call that the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system.

The AV system (also known as instant runoff voting) allows a voter to rank all of the candidates in order of preference. For example, if Jeeves, Wooster and Thatcher are running (or, as they would say, standing) for Parliament in a given constituency, a voter might say Jeeves is his first choice, and might rank Wooster second and Thatcher third.

If, on the basis of first-choice votes, Jeeves leads (but with less than 50%), and Wooster and Thatcher trail in that order, Thatcher drops out of the race. The second-place votes of those who voted for Thatcher are awarded to Jeeves or Wooster. One of the remaining candidates will end up with more than 50% and will be declared the winner. If there are more than three candidates, the procedure is repeated, if necessary, until someone gets a majority.

Those with the most at stake are the Liberal Democrats, the third largest party in Britain. At the most-recent British general election, in 2005, the Liberal Democrats received 22.1% of the overall vote, but won only 9.6% of the seats in the House of Commons.

The bulk of the Lib Dem vote is scattered among many constituencies, in most of which they fall behind the two largest parties, Labor and the Conservatives. The other minor parties in the House of Commons don't have that problem. They're regional parties, based in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Their vote in concentrated is a few constituencies, so their percentage of seats is roughly equal to their percentage of the vote.

What would probably help the Lib Dems most would be proportional representation (PR). I described a very pure form of PR, the Israeli electoral system, in this post. Under that system, the British Liberal Democrats would have won 142 of the 646 seats in the House of Commons, rather than the 62 they were actually awarded under FPTP.

But the AV system, if it's adopted, might also help the Lib Dems. It would address the "wasted vote" issue. Voters for whom the Lib Dems are their first choice might be reluctant to vote for a Lib Dem candidate under FPTP. If such a voter has a strong second-place preference for, say, the Conservative candidate over the Labor candidate, she might consider a Lib Dem vote to be wasted, in that it has no effect on the outcome of the Labor v. Conservative contest.

If that person, and other like-minded voters, put a Lib Dem candidate in first place, with Conservative as the second choice, they could register both their Lib Dem preference, and their preference between the two major parties. That might induce more voters to support the Lib Dems, thereby increasing their number of seats, although perhaps still not to a totally proportional level.


Wayneon said...

We don't have to guess how the Alternative Vote would work. We can see it in practice in Australia, where it is used to elect the lower house.

Australia has three parties in their lower house, and two of them are a defacto coalition. In the Australian Senate, elected by proportional representation, there are typically eight or nine parties represented.

AV stifles diversity even more than first-past-the-post. It is a trap for the Lib Dems. They know it, and support it only because it is "a step in the right direction", in the sense that it is a change to the voting system.

As long as we elect only one MP in a district, there will always be more losers than winners.

schiller1979 said...

Wayneon, thanks very much for your comment.

Has AV been introduced into the lower house only recently, or has it been used for a long time? I'm curious as to whether it has done anything at all for party diversity in the lower house.

How powerful is the upper house? Is it comparable to the British House of Lords, essentially able only to delay, and not to block, legislation? Or is it similar to the U.S. Senate, which has equal (and in some respect greater) power with the lower house?

Are the multiple parties in the Australian Senate able to frustrate the legislative program of the governing party(ies)?

Peter said...

Wayne is incorrect. In 2007, Australia had a median average of 7 candidates running in each of its districts, and none of its districts had fewer than 4.

Of course proportional representation is better for representing diversity, and Australia at least has its senate. But AV is certainly better than FPTP for voter options and vigorous contests across a country.

Wayne Smith said...

I hasten to point out that I am not an expert on Australian politics.

A quick search reveals that the current standings in the Australian House of Commons are Labour 83, Liberal 55, National 9. This is typical. There have been a few Independents, and something called the Country Liberal Party has won the occasional seat, but other than that, no other party has won a seat in the lower house since 1946. They run candidates, sure, but they don't get elected.

The only reason there is a third party is that National has a regional presence, and they have a pact with the Liberals not to seriously contest seats in each other's territory. They have formed actual coalition governments in the past.

This has been pretty much the situation since AV was introduced in Australia in 1918.

Proportional voting in the Senate was introduced in the Senate in 1948. Since then it has been normal for the balance of power in the Senate to be held by parties that would not have any representation at all if not for proportional voting.

The Australians have what we in Canada would call a triple-E Senate. Each state has an Equal number of representatives, the Senate is fully Elected, and because they have full elected legitimacy, they are able to be Effective.

I don't know the details about what the Australian Senate can do , but my understanding is that they have, on occasion, been a brake on unfettered majority power in the House of Commons. Some regard this as a saving grace of Australian politics, although the government, of course, tends to regard it as a pain in the arse.

schiller1979 said...

Perhaps some third-party activity is a good thing, to allow alternative ideas to be introduced, which might not fit in with the interests of two dominant parties. But I question whether any of us would want our countries to experience the chaos that results from proportional representation as it's practiced in Israel.

Wayne Smith said...

Anecdotes are not evidence. Bad cases make bad law. Israel has lots of very real problems that are not caused by its voting system.

For real information on comparative voting systems: