Why Are You Endorsing AV, Mr Kellner?

This article is not personal - it is written in the spirit of open and intelligent debate concerning an extremely important matter: our democracy. We have focused on Peter Kellner only because he has a high media profile and his views appear common to the pro-AV camp. Of course, if Peter responds we will publish his reply in full.

In his article for the Fabian Society ("We should endorse AV"), Peter Kellner, the influential pollster, briefly outlined his reasons why he is endorsing AV in the forthcoming referendum. He pointed out that a rational choice of voting system will be relative to the overall objectives i.e. to choose an executive, or to appoint a legislature, or to secure local representation.

In evaluating a voting system, Peter listed his five criteria in order:

  1. Will it bring about decisive election results?
  2. Will it engender stable government?
  3. Will MPs command the support of a majority of local voters?
  4. Will significant minorities have representation but without disproportionate influence?
  5. Will extremist parties be kept out of Parliament?

Surprisingly, four out of the five criteria are already delivered by our first-past-the-post system. Criteria (1) and (2) are strengths of our current system while (4) and (5) have also been fulfilled to date. As the first two points are well known benefits of our current system, we'll examine (4) and (5) before moving on to (3).

Let's start with (5). Parties like the BNP have never won a seat at Westminster under our current system. So there appears to be no problem to fix. Peter notes that "AV is the best system for keeping the BNP at bay. The party would seldom, if ever, win any contest under AV." So, even though we've had no extremist problem for Parliamentary elections, AV is said to be better because it raises the barrier even higher against extremism.

Such a claim, common among AV advocates, overlooks the fact that minority parties would have greater electoral power under AV. For example, had the 2010 General Election been conducted with AV then it is likely BNP voters would have held the balance of power in the constituency of Dagenham & Rainham. Yes, the 2nd preferences of BNP voters would have decided the seat. This is AV working as designed - giving smaller parties more bargaining power to deliver their second preferences to major parties in return for policy concessions (see Q4).

Let's be clear: with our current system the BNP have not won a Parliamentary seat and are irrelevant; with AV they are even less likely to win a Parliamentary seat but will wield more electoral power, at least in some constituencies. Where once the BNP were irrelevant they will now be emboldened by their importance. Doesn't seem a good deal to us, Peter. However, our main point is that (5) has been fulfilled by our current system and AV has unpleasant side-effects for people worried about extremism.

What of (4)? Again this is delivered by our current system, which gives some minorities seats but suppresses the number of seats they win. Nationalists, Greens and Liberal Democrats, if we call them a minority party for the moment, have all won representation at Westminster but with a low number of seats.

It is true that the Lib Dems polled 23% of the national vote but only won 8.8% of the seats in 2010, something we wish to see changed with proportional representation. However, Peter would have absolutely no grounds for saying that this number of seats is too few or too many without acknowledging, either implicitly or explicitly, the criterion of proportionality. He is correct not to do so: AV is no more proportional than first-past-the-post (see Q3 and Q5) and therefore cannot be used to differentiate between the two systems. By most models the Lib Dems would do better under AV but in almost every case this would be at a disproportionate cost to one of the other two main parties.