The power of preferences

The UK and the Alternative Vote: A missed opportunity…


© C. G. P. Grey


Last year the United Kingdom missed an opportunity to significantly reform its electoral system. On offer was the alternative vote (AV), the same system used for the election of the House of Representatives in Australia.  The UK voting-public voted against the proposed reform. What might the alternative vote have brought to politics in the UK? At the very least the major UK parties would have been compelled to take minority voices more seriously. Instead, status quo politics reigned supreme.

Prior to last year’s referendum, when alighting from a train in the northwest of England, I was confronted by a billboard with an earnest and somewhat chiselled soldier staring down at me. The sepia-styled image of the soldier, imploring a sense of honour, bravery and all things masculine, was accompanied by a fluorescent backdrop and large-type declaring:

He needs bulletproof vests NOT an alternative voting system

The ‘No to AV’  campaigners, who were responsible for the advertisement, scraped the bottom of the barrel when they suggested that the well-being of soldiers is dependent on how an individual might vote in an unrelated national referendum. It was nothing less than a well-versed appeal to a not-so-underlying sense of nationalism in the hope that it would thwart any level of change to the UK electoral system.  Arguably, it worked. The referendum returned a resounding no vote of nearly 68%.

Of course, the real sentiment here is the concept of change in and of itself. The grumblings came from factions within both the Conservatives and Labour, you could sense them smarting: ‘Things are fine as they are. Just leave it be, thank you very much’. Status quo politics is always about favouring those with power.

Yet the UK electorate consistently feeds back, whether through polls, surveys or vox pops, that politicians and their parties are not sufficiently held to account. It is a recurring theme that parliamentarians are untrustworthy, that they do not listen, or once elected they do as they please. Similarly, there is a sentiment that votes are wasted in the current first-past-the-post system or, to make an impact, one must resort to tactical voting.

AV would not have solved all of these problems. Any claim that it will result in a properly representative parliament is false (in respect to all votes cast across the national electorate as a whole). It would have, however, gone some way to alleviating the deficit. What was on offer was a more representative and accountable system. Not just in terms of the distribution of parliamentarians, but the manner in which minority voices would be taken more seriously by the major parties.

As it stands major parties can push aside the concerns of minor parties – only needing to respond to them if they happen to chance upon a particular zeitgeist. However, for the most part, they can be ignored allowing the big players to argue about who manages the economy better or who is tougher on immigration. They set the agenda, they frame the debate. How, then, would AV have challenged this?

Well, first, a change in system would not have resulted in a cavalcade of new MPs from fringe parties descending upon Westminster. Far from it. AV would have resulted in changes to the make-up of the parliament, primarily in the form of a more equal distribution of parliamentarians according to what is called the ‘two-party preferred’ vote. Further, at its core AV remains a majoritarian system and (the current Australian government excepted) nearly always returns a majority government; a cherished notion in the electoral systems of the Anglo-sphere.

AV, instead, calls the major parties to account; not only by their members, trade unions or business groups, but by the platforms of smaller parties. Why? Well, because of the how-to-vote card. A party-political leaflet distributed to voters, usually just prior to entering a polling station, indicating to them how they might vote.

Understandably the wider UK electorate is unfamiliar with how election day unfolds in Australia. Usually at each polling station, whether it be a primary school or a community hall, a small army of volunteers from each of the political parties will descend. Over the course of the day the party helpers will good-naturedly attempt to hand out their small slips of paper. These how-to-vote cards simply rank each candidate within a given constituency in an order determined by their respective parties.

More than half of Australian electors, by conservative estimates, follow how-to-vote-cards (it’s even higher in the upper house). Why? The reasons vary from ease of voting, to not wanting to vote incorrectly, the absence of party affiliations on ballot papers or, importantly, because of an appreciation as to why parties have preferenced in a particular way.

Currently in the UK if you vote for a minor party your vote will generally not count. Under AV this would have changed. If a voter wished to vote for the Greens, but had previously felt that it would be a wasted vote, they would have had, under AV, the opportunity to rank one of the major parties second (or at least above the other major party). This would have allowed the vote to ‘flow on’ should the Greens be eliminated from the count.  Had the UK switched to AV, how-to-vote cards would have emerged, not least to assist voters with a new system. More importantly, within a relatively short-time, the cards would have come to represent the dynamic between parties that are looking to maximise their electoral base.

This comes down to preference deals. Party A, a minor party, will tell Party B, a major party, that they will preference them second if they take on board their concerns over a particular issue. So an environmental party may well tell a workers party to take their nuclear concerns seriously, while a fox-hunting party might tell a centrist party that they would need some concessions if they wished to secure their second preferences. A consensus politics of sorts emerges. It is not a proportional system that is so feared in the Anglo-world, but it is a ‘stable’ majoritarian system that incorporates a level of co-operation.

Had AV been adopted in the UK, then the major parties could not continue to ignore the smaller parties – especially in an era of fracturing voting patterns. To do so would risk the preferences going elsewhere. Of course, major political parties consider the cost and benefits of potential preference deals. AV, however, changes the equation. If an idea has value or importance to a significant number of people, as opposed to an overwhelming number, as is currently the case, the major parties will be forced to listen. This dynamic can play out within a single constituency or across the whole national electorate. What it adds is a proportional-like element to election campaigns. How the major parties listen takes a variety of forms and it can include excluding particular groups.

In the Australian election of 1998, far right candidate Pauline Hanson and her One Nation party sought re-election on an anti-immigration and ostensibly racist ticket. In response to considerable community protests both the major parties listed her last on their how-to-vote cards. This effectively excluded her from the election as the likelihood of winning more than 50% of the votes on first preference was unlikely. As it was she secured the most first preference votes at 36% – but she lost her seat “on preferences”. Some have suggested that this process is undemocratic, but I would argue that it is quite the opposite.

The two major parties were forced to listen to concerned communities, including some minor parties, and form a consensus position on the involvement of certain far right groups. Indeed, the moment one of the major parties conceded, the other had to quickly follow or risk losing the moral argument (and the preference deals of the other minor parties across constituencies). Although Hanson’s first preference vote was considerable – she would have been elected under first-past-the-post – the national voice, one of tolerance, impacted the result. Anyone fearing the rise of far right groups in the UK can look at this participatory approach as an effective means to engage the wider community in a debate on the appropriateness of particular political platforms.

Of course, AV is not without its flaws, but it is a system that encourages a greater diversity of debate without abandoning the perceived stability of a two (and a half) party system. It allows individuals to vote upon principled lines without wasting their vote. Also, given the difficulty for a minor party to win a single member constituency, it gives the smaller parties some teeth – little ones, but nonetheless teeth. Even if they do not win a seat, so long as they have a history of securing enough votes to make them a relevant force, they will be listened to.

What AV doesn’t do is endanger the lives of soldiers sent to Afghanistan and, earlier, Iraq by and with the continued support of both of the major UK parties. An issue on which many of the concerns of minor parties fell on deaf ears.


Jonathon Louth is a Lecturer of Politics at the University of Chester. Previously he was a Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Adelaide. His research interests include international relations theory and its relationship with scientific thought. His interests also include the contested notion of security and its intersection with political economy (with a focus on Southeast Asia). Finally, he has published on electoral politics, with an emphasis on the practice of compulsory voting. You can find him on Twitter @JonathonLouth
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