The great Alexander dissent

When the Jenkins Commission reported on electoral reform in 1998 there was a dissenting voice from one of the five commission members. Lord Alexander, considered by some to be the best legal advocate of his generation, agreed with the commission's main finding for a more proportional top-up system but disagreed that constituency elections should use AV, which he saw as inferior to first-past-the-post (FPP). His dissenting opinion provides a relevant insight into the merits of FPP versus AV. We present some of his points with our comments.

#1

"My colleagues support AV because they think it important to ensure that every member gains some measure of majority support from the voters in their constituency. Yet most votes in constituencies are cast for a party, not an individual." This point refers to the market research conducted for the commission, which found that "for general elections, voters consider which party they wish to govern the country, and see the election of their local representative MP only as a means to this end. Candidates are generally expected to support policies equivalent to those of the party, so are not regarded as separate entities."

If the choice of party is the primary voter consideration and the constituency is only a means in which to register this support, then why is it important that a party gets a measure of support from the majority in a constituency? If voters want to have a say in electing a government then the most important factor is that everyone's first choice counts in determining the composition of Parliament. This requires a proportional system in which each vote counts equally. Both AV and FPP perform equally abysmally in achieving this; there is no reason to prefer AV in this respect. When we focus on the bigger and more important picture of what voters want, the requirement for majority support is neutralized; a mangey mut isn't turned into a pedigree by insisting its tail reaches a certain length.

#2

"But in elections where one main party is particularly unpopular it would punish that party disproportionately. It would have hurt Labour when they were clobbered by the voters in 1983 and similarly hurt the Conservatives in 1997... All of us take the view that parties in adversity should not be treated unfairly."

We call this the "AV earthquake", in which vicious disproportionality adds to a winning party's landslide majority while unfairly eviscerating the number of seats of an unpopular one. Lord Alexander's point is consistent with a major commission finding: "So far from doing much to relieve disproportionality, AV is capable of substantially adding to it."

#3

"My colleagues also think that AV will contribute to a less confrontational style of politics because candidates will be inhibited from attacking rivals too strongly as they wish to gain their second votes. I do not see it as particularly desirable that candidates from different parties, who are different precisely because they do not agree on all issues, should be pulling their punches in order to seek approval from voters who support other parties." The supposed consensual and inclusive approach, which was not part of commission's criteria, was a factor in the commission favouring AV for the constituencies, although little evidence was adduced to support the claim.

#4

"It has also been suggested that AV gives more power to voters and less to politicians. Under AV parties can advise their supporters how to cast their second preference votes [which could] lead to attempts by two parties to marshal their supporters so as to gang up on a third." We highlight that AV could prove problematic where there are three large parties, as in the UK - see last paragraph in Will AV abolish the safe seat?

Not only did the Jenkins Commission reject AV there was dissent even with respect to using AV within a top-up system. Lord Alexander also highlighted that even the top-up systems for both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly do not use AV. But today it is suggested we use AV for our general elections, shamefully ignoring the findings of an independent commission on voting reform which, when weighing up the advantages and disadvantages, rejected pure AV for Parliamentary elections.