The myth of the ‘miserable little compromise’

Before the election last May Nick Clegg famously described the Alternative Vote as a miserable little compromise. Those who have a vested interest in keeping Britain’s political system broken are making much of that statement, as though compromise were in some way a bad thing.

Before you can have democracy you need to decide on two things: firstly the make up of the parliament (i.e. who will sit in it and who they will represent) and, secondly, how the vote will be conducted. In re-shaping the way democracy has been carried out in Britain for nearly a century, it’s only right that the public should have a say on both those things.

Alternative Vote, as the name suggests, is only a voting system. It only seeks to improve the process of electing single representatives to single constituencies. There will be no change to the makeup of the House of Commons.1 It’s sometimes known as instant runoff voting, because the process is similar to holding several rounds of runoff votes, excluding the lowest ranked candidate each time. Each person still only has a single vote in the final deciding round, but that vote can be transferred, as the rounds progress to the voter’s next choice of candidate, ensuring that everyone gets a say in the outcome of the election. There are no wasted votes in AV, and no need to vote tactically for the candidate you dislike least to stop the one you hate getting in.

STV, or more correctly PR-STV, is a combination of proportional representation (an elected chamber that represents the share of the vote gained by parties nationwide) and the single transferable vote (a voting system for multi-member constituencies). For an elected chamber to be fully proportional, it needs to be voted in as a single constituency. imagine a system where all local representatives are done away with, and the electorate simply vote by party, with the seats distributed by share of the vote and the parties deciding who sits in them. Clearly that’s not very democratic, as the people have no say in who actually represents them. PR-STV aims to find a balance, by using large constituencies represented by multiple MPs, but still having representatives directly elected by the people. For example, in my city of Bradford, the three city constituencies could be merged into one and represented by three MPs for the whole city. If I were a hard Labour supporter I could vote for three Labour MPs. If I were a disillusioned LibDem, I could vote for one LibDem, one Labour and one Green. The diversity of votes across the city and the country will mean that the parliament at the end will be much more representative of actual votes cast. The more vacancies per constituency, the less votes are wasted, and the more proportional the result.

AV, and this is where it gets really geeky, is an application of STV to single member constituencies. In the multi-member constituencies required for PR, the quota, or number of votes a candidate needs to be elected, is calculated by dividing the number of valid votes cast by one more than the number of available vacancies. Apply that formula to a single vacancy election and you get a quota of 50%+12 , or a simple majority. The fact that there are no more candidates to be elected also means there’s no surplus to transfer. By-elections in STV systems are by necessity single vacancy so, applying the STV rules, they are carried out using AV.

A change to AV may not be the full change that some electoral reformers working for PR-STV had hoped for, but it is still the most significant improvement to British democracy since 18-20 year olds got the vote 42 years ago. AV takes us to within a single reform of full proportionality, leaving only the change to multi-member constituencies to produce STV. To quote Nan Sloane’s brilliant blog from last week: “Democracy in the UK has not developed from the bottom up – it has been conceded, inch by grudging inch, by an establishment which has seen each slow and painful extension of the franchise as threatening.” The example of the greatest electoral reform in British history shows change here has always come in stages, with women over the age of 30 getting the vote in 1918, but full equality with men taking a further ten years to arrive. Once AV is passed, it will be up to the Electoral Reform Society and others to lead the campaign for the constituency change in the next parliament. The public deserve a say in whether or not we radically overhaul the make up of parliament, and I will be looking forward to seeing that debate taken to the people, but it’s not the same issue as how we vote.

For those who want PR-STV; AV is a step in the right direction, and not just in a mealy-mouthed, cop-out, sense. In the sense of actually introducing the the voting system you want to see. For those that want to keep the current direct link between a single member and his or her constituency, AV is the best method yet devised for conducting such an election. There is no reason not to vote yes.

  1. Actually, there will, but that’s as a result of governmental meddling, and it’s not part of the referendum. There’ll be less MPs at the next election, irrespective of whether or not we adopt AV.
  2. Number of valid votes divided by two (the number of vacancies plus one), plus one vote for a majority.

11 thoughts on “The myth of the ‘miserable little compromise’

  1. I am sure I left this comment before…

    Clegg did not call AV a miserable little compromise, he called labours cobbled together offer of concessions a ‘miserable little compromise’.

    He actually said that AV was a step in the right directon.

  2. Paul, you’re right, Clegg’s comments can certainly be interpreted that way. To be honest though, I think that’s for Clegg himself to clear up. Defending statements from the most hated man in British politics doesn’t seem an expedient move for our campaign.

    And yes, AV is a step in the right direction. Far more so than AV+, which is what he was promoting in that interview. Anything party list based is a perversion of democracy.

  3. Hi James, thanks for this informative article.

    I’m trying to get the truth about the ‘MLC’ straight in my head.

    Paul Perrin says that the MLC phrase referred to something other than AV. In your response, you said:

    And yes, AV is a step in the right direction. Far more so than AV+, which is what he was promoting in that interview.

    If I’m reading this correctly you’re saying that Nick Clegg was referring to ‘AV+’, and that ‘AV+’ is a different system from AV, which is what is on offer in the forthcoming referendum.

    If that’s the case, then it would be entirely true to say that Nick Clegg did not call AV a MLC, and there’s no need for him to clear anything up.

    Note that I have no idea what ‘AV+’ is.

    I just want to be able to refute a no2av campaign lie without having to bluster.

  4. It sounds like you figured it out, but yes, AV+ is a proportional system, similar to that used for the Scottish parliament, only with the constituency MPs elected under AV instead of FPTP. Fundamentally though, it uses party lists for the top up seats, which is inherently anti-democratic.

  5. Why are party lists fundamentally undemocratic? closed ones possibly but open ones are definitely not.

    Also when you say “Before you can have democracy you need to decide on two things: firstly the make up of the parliament (i.e. who will sit in it and who they will represent) and, secondly, how the vote will be conducted.”
    That’s not true. Its true for a parliamentary representative democracy but you can decide to have a presidential democracy or a semi-presidential one. You then have to decide how the vote will be conducted.

  6. Political parties are concentrations of power. Anything that concentrates power into the hands of particular groups takes power away from the people at large. People will move in groups. There’s nothing we can do about that. But we don’t have to institutionalise it.

    I don’t really understand your second point. We’re discussing parliamentary systems. My point was that there is nothing miserable about AV. It’s a significant upgrade to what we have, fixing many of the problems with FPTP, without getting us stuck in the rut of a more proportional, but ultimately unsatisfactory, system.

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