AV does not cause hung parliaments

While I have resisted blogging about them, I have been regularly reading a variety of columns and articles on the May referendum on the Alternative Vote. One thing in particular continues to baffle me: I simply do not understand why so many AV opponents believe that AV will lead to more hung parliaments and thus make coalition government the norm in the UK.

This “fact” is repeated almost every single time anyone posts anything against AV, and I’m including reader comments on articles in this. A recent example would be this column by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian in which he writes:

The case against AV is that it would increase the likelihood of a hung parliament and uncertain government. Voters must sit for days (or in Belgium months) and await the smoke from the party conclaves. This in itself weakens any electoral mandate and devolves power from voters to the political establishment. It is elitist. It also usually leads to unstable administrations as minority coalition partners wax and wane in support and, usually, decide to cut and run when the going gets tough. Every country is different, especially those that are complex confederacies, but many people in Germany, Italy, Belgium and Denmark scream for the clarity of a two-party system, with governments in or out.

As opponents of AV are fond of pointing out, AV is used in only 3 jurisdictions, and the only one anyone ever discusses in any detail is Australia. Yet, if one is going to use Australia as the main example of how AV works, then the argument that it leads to more hung parliaments falls apart immediately. The UK, and also Canada, have had more hung parliaments using FPTP than has Australia using AV. It’s not AV that leads to hung parliaments, but the growing breakdown of two-party politics in countries like the UK and Canada that still use FPTP.

There have been five hung parliaments in the UK since the beginning of the 20th century. There have been 12* hung parliaments at the federal level in Canada since Confederation. Australia, which introduced AV in 1919, has had two hung parliaments under AV.

The overwhelming reason why Australia has had far fewer hung parliaments is because unlike Canada and the UK, Australia really does have a strong two-party system. From 1901 to 1910, when it used FPTP, no party had a majority in the House of Representatives, as there were two competing non-Labor parties. As a result, there were frequent changes of government, several of which took place during parliamentary terms. The 1910 federal election was the first contested by the Commonwealth Liberal Party, the result of a merger between the Protectionist Party and the Free Trade Party. The new party lost to Labor, but this marked the first majority government in Australia since the inaugural federal election in 1901. If anything, AV in Australia has reinforced the two-party system, making it far more difficult for smaller parties to win seats.

Proponents of FPTP assert that its main advantage is that it returns strong, decisive election results, and Jenkins is no exception:

Because yielding a clearcut and stable administration is the dominant requirement of democratic election, I opt for the electoral system that most delivers it, which has long been first-past-the-post. In crude historical terms, it has served Britain well. It clearly leaves Liberal Democrats on the sidelines, but we are talking about choosing a government, and the Liberals have never come first or even second in popular votes since they handed the torch of leftwing representation to Labour a century ago. Votes for Liberal Democrat candidates are not “wasted”, as some claim, but failed.

However, in Canada and the UK, what has been happening, despite both countries’ use of FPTP, is the breakdown of the two-party system in favour of multi-party politics. In Canada, this is further complicated by the increasingly regional support of the main parties. This is what is causing hung parliaments to happen, despite the fact that FPTP is used. The trend away from the two traditional parties, Labour and Conservative, is expertly explained in this post by Patrick Dunleavy.

Whether AV, if adopted in the UK, will slow this trend remains to be seen. However, if hung parliaments continue to occur even with the adoption of AV, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the same results would have been returned under FPTP. It is not the voting system that is responsible for these outcomes, but the fact that multiple parties contest each election, and that increasingly, more and more voters are giving their support to these other parties.
____________________
*The 2nd Canadian Parliament was a minority for 56 days under prime minister Alexander Mackenzie after he took power from Sir John A. Macdonald following the Pacific Scandal. However, this event is generally not counted because Parliament was not in session when Mackenzie took over and he immediately called an election in which he then won a majority.

On a related note, ABC’s Antony Green addresses claims that AV leads to lower voter turnout.

Related Posts:

Radical Centrist

  • SticksStones

    AV could lead to more hung parliaments because they’re a chance more independents and fridge parties will gain more seats. Although this is down to opinion on how you see things working out.
    FPTP in the UK only really allows room for 2 or 3 main parties, all the others struggle to survive, so perhaps the argument is any change will likely make it possible for more fridge parties.

    • AV will not favour any fringe parties. It will make it more difficult for them to gain seats. For example, the Greens won their first seat in the UK in the last election with only 31% of the vote in that riding. They’d have an extremely difficult time getting 50% of the vote on ballot transferences. Same for UKIP, the BNP, etc.

      • Anonymous

        ‘AV will not favour any fringe parties.’

        I think you have this wrong when talking about Greens and others. The very smallest parties would be eliminated first in AV, but then it would be no different than under FPTP – they were not going to get a seat anyway. However for fairly small parties who are not considered ‘extremist’, when they have more first preference votes they are also more likely to win as they will pick up second, third preference votes as well. I believe Greens are fairly popular but this gets hidden by vote geographics and tactical voting (keep out Lab/Cons); the same with UKIP.

        I think, therefore, that AV creates a slightly more dispersed vote, but ultimately a slightly more centrist outcome overall (radical parties get penalised).
        Please correct me if I am wrong though, I think I have got to the bottom of this issue but would like confirmation.

        • I don’t normally consider the Greens (at least here in Canada) a fringe party, even though they’ve yet to win a seat federally or provincially – their platform is quite mainstream. I think on the whole you are right. Certainly the Greens here in Canada suffer because their vote is quite dispersed nationally, not sufficiently concentrated to win a seat. In the last election however, they ran a close second in a couple of ridings, and so under AV might will have garnered enough 2nd preferences to move ahead and win (esp. since the first place candidate was a Conservative). When I refer to fringe parties, I refer to the handful of parties here in Canada which together barely manage 1-2% of the overall vote. AV wouldn’t help them at all (I don’t think any voting system would help them except a pure proportional with no minimum vote % such as what Israel has).

          • Anonymous

            Thanks for the reply. I agree with what you said.

            Also, I think data shows the third and fourth parties gain from AV, which doesn’t mean the Greens, for example, would win a second seat straight away and may lose the one they already have to start off with. Predicting anything is always going to be complicated, I suppose.

            Israel sounds like it has a pretty strange system!

    • Also, Aussie elections expert Antony Green has a new post that might be of interest to you.

  • John Cross Superstar

    l would not vote av if you paid me. its the worst idea for any democratic country,as over 60 countries use this tried and trusted system,britain must be doing something right? vote av in
    order of preference,1 2 3 4 5 ect candicate must get 50%.if not
    least votes are given to those with the most votes,and on and on, till somebody gets 50%. my vote has ended up with any tom,dick or harry, thats why l want a fair and democratic system
    1st past the post,win or loose its fair.

    • Quantity does not equate quality. More people eat at McDonalds – doesn’t mean they serve the best food. You are certainly free to vote the way you want in the referendum. However, if you really think FPTP is fair, you should read this article.

    • Your vote wouldn’t end up with any Tom, Dick or Harry unless you ranked them. If you don’t want them to get your vote, simply leave the box next to their name empty. Simple really.

      • Anonymous

        That does rather defeat the point of AV in the first place.

        • Perhaps, but a lot of people opposed to AV think they’ll be forced to rank everyone on the ballot, and for many (esp. Conservative Party supporters), they don’t have any second choices, or see any second, third, etc., choice as something completely artificial. It’s important that people understand that the option being offered in the UK does not require a voter rank all candidates. If they want to vote for only one, they can do so.

        • Perhaps, but a lot of people opposed to AV think they’ll be forced to rank everyone on the ballot, and for many (esp. Conservative Party supporters), they don’t have any second choices, or see any second, third, etc., choice as something completely artificial. It’s important that people understand that the option being offered in the UK does not require a voter rank all candidates. If they want to vote for only one, they can do so.

        • Perhaps, but a lot of people opposed to AV think they’ll be forced to rank everyone on the ballot, and for many (esp. Conservative Party supporters), they don’t have any second choices, or see any second, third, etc., choice as something completely artificial. It’s important that people understand that the option being offered in the UK does not require a voter rank all candidates. If they want to vote for only one, they can do so.

    • Alan_m_armstrong

      You do not appear to understand how Ave works. The least votes are not transferred to the one with the most votes. Think of it this way; 5 candidates 1000 voters. Everyone votes, no one gets more than half, the candidate with the least votes is eliminated. Everyone votes again, the same thing happens. So the voting goes on till a candidate gets more than half the votes. It is up to the voters whether they carry on voting to the end. So, everyone who wants to vote is given equal opportunity and the winner has more than half the voters votes.

    • leegeorg07

      This reminds me of something I read about design. Where the French government were balloting for something but their forms were so poorly designed everybody voted for the wrong thing. After reading this, I think that’s more likely to be the problem in the end.

  • Pingback: simonvarwell.co.uk » Blog Archive » The lies of the anti-AV leaflet()

  • Pingback: The Unfounded Criticisms of AV & The ‘Miserable Compromise’ Argument « The Logical Conclusion()

  • Pingback: AV vs FPTP — the short(er) version « Gowers's Weblog()

  • Drewsberry

    This cites the UK as having 5 hung parliaments since the beginning of the 20th Century, and 2 in Australia since 1919. This is very misleading as 2 of the UK elections were pre-1919, and another in 1929, soon after. So really there have only been 3 if we’re taking the same time period, and only 2 of these have been recent (1974 and 2010, and the 1974 hung parliament lasted only from February till December). The differences between the UK and Aus. hung parliamentary history is indistinguishable.

    IMHO I think that AV would cause more people to vote fringe because AV removes the need for tactical voting. Although removing this need in itself is a good thing it has the consequence of more people saying “well, I want to put down Lib Dem, but I don’t want the Tories to get in… so I’ll put Lib Dem as 1 and Labour as 2”. Hey presto, more people vote fringe. I know for a fair proportion of the time this choice of fringe as first perference will not matter but in many areas this would make a significant difference.

    Australia may have a more stable two-party system, but I don’t see how this applies to the UK, as we ARE moving towards a multi-party system as you said so the situation in Australia has little application (anyway a sample of one country is never a solid grounding for examples of a voting system like this one).

    OK, rant over.

  • Pingback: AV Debate | Blighty Andy()