Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill - Procedure Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 120-139)


27 JULY 2010

  Q120  Stephen Williams: We come to AV now. Bristol West is still a marginal seat and in previous General Elections it was a three-way marginal seat, so voters have been treated to leaflets from all parties with competing bar charts and claims about: "If you vote for this candidate someone really nasty will win", etc. Does AV eliminate tactical voting considerations from our electoral process?

  Professor Dunleavy: The answer is, in theory no but in practice yes. Essentially, what AV will tend to do, I think, for all MPs, is it will encourage them to reach out beyond their immediate party supporters and to appeal to supporters of other parties, and they will particularly tend to do that, I think, through contacts with interest groups and local associations, and so on. If you look at the London Mayor elections both of the candidates who have been elected in the three elections—Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson—have been very savvy candidates who have actually managed to represent the City in a much better way and get a lot of enhanced legitimacy because of that change. So some of my colleagues will draw you fancy diagrams or construct hypothetical situations in which tactical voting is still possible in AV, but tactical voting can occur under every electoral system. The thing that will tend to swamp all of that and to dominate is: does the candidate read out and project beyond their own party and get second preference votes from other parties?

  Professor Fisher: The limited evidence that we do have of campaigning under different electoral systems, particularly the Scottish local government elections and the European elections, suggests that regardless of the system in place parties tend to campaign in almost exactly the same way. So whereas in Australia you find that there are voting instructions, effectively, issued by parties to encourage tactical behaviour, we have not yet in this country—London perhaps is a slight exception here—seen the widespread behaviour such that parties reach out beyond their own party and, perhaps, encourage people from other parties to back them, and vice versa. This could be a cultural thing and it could take time to bed in, but the argument that parties will suddenly campaign in a different way—perhaps form alliances—is not borne out by the limited evidence that we have to date.

  Q121  Stephen Williams: So there is no evidence that parties chase second preferences as an alternative to tactical voting?

  Professor Dunleavy: If you look at the first London Mayor election, the Labour candidate was Frank Dobson, and he was asked what would he advise people to do with their second preferences. He said, well, he was not giving any advice. If you contrast that with, let us say, Ken Livingstone, he advised people how to cast their second preferences and appealed for second preferences. He said: "I would advise them to vote Green". The reason he said that was because he wanted to get the Greens' second preferences. If you look at Mr Dobson's campaign, it was fairly lamentable; he came a very poor fourth; a large proportion of his voters did not cast any second preferences and quite a large proportion of them voted for him twice. So it is very important that the candidates should actually respond to the change of our election system, and of course subsequent Labour candidates have responded to that. It does take a little bit of time, but most MPs already reach out in hustings, in their leaflets and in their contacts with constituents to people from outside their own party. The personal vote has been increasing as an important element of MPs being elected. It is definitely worth about twice as much as it used to be.

  Q122  Chair: Which is what?

  Professor Dunleavy: It is about 3,500 votes, 4,000 votes now, whereas most people would say it was only about 2,000 votes. That is partly because MPs do a fantastically much more vigorous job as representatives of their constituents then they did two decades ago.

  Q123  Chair: So it is up from 3 or 4 to 8 or 9%?

  Professor Dunleavy: It is up to about 4,000 votes, one would say, which would make a big difference to an MP. I think the sitting MP will always be reaching out anyway, and the serious candidates will be reaching out. I think it will have a very big and transformative effect and it will have a much bigger effect.

  Professor Fisher: It is important to point out that the London Mayoral elections are rather different from constituency elections. While Ken Livingstone was standing under the Labour flag Boris Johnson stood to a slightly lesser extent under Conservative flag. They are not as tied into the party machine as you can see at constituency level.

  Stephen Williams: A final question on ballot papers. As Professor Fisher mentioned there is a risk that people do 1, 2, 3 and this allows me to plead to Professor Dunleavy not to use (a fictional, I presume) Stephen Williams as a Conservative candidate in demonstrations of ballot papers in the future! If you think there is an argument for doing away with the traditional practice that candidates should be listed in alphabetical order, certainly a multi-member—

  Chair: I take exception to that!

  Q124  Stephen Williams: Certainly, Mr Allen, in multi-member council elections, just by observation it is fairly obvious that often people will vote for the party candidate who is Allan or Bones or something first and then, perhaps, not find their way down to a Williams or a Young at the bottom.

  Professor Dunleavy: I think there is a very strong rationale for introducing 1, 2, 3, which does sort of tend to suggest an ordering to people, otherwise to randomly rotate the order of candidates, and that is what the Australians in the end—

  Q125  Stephen Williams: The Australians do that?

  Professor Dunleavy: Yes, you still get the people at the top getting more votes but at least it is sort of random.

  Q126  Stephen Williams: Your ballot papers are in alphabetical order.

  Professor Dunleavy: Absolutely. That has been the sort of standard UK practice but I do think if you were going to numerical voting then if you are saying to people 1, 2, 3, it sort of suggests an order to people, and then I think you would need to really compensate by going for random ordering of candidate parties.

  Q127  Simon Hart: Can I just go back to the international comparison discussion earlier on, a number of witnesses in previous sessions have in a sense justified whatever proposal it was we were discussing on the basis that it worked well in another country or indeed another area. Does it automatically follow that a system that works in Papua New Guinea (which was one such example) would also work with just as much ease in Pembroke Dock, for example? It strikes me that we are sometimes a bit flippant in just assuming: "It works there, therefore it will work here". I do not have the answer which is why I am asking the question. The second part of the question is in relation to your model ballot paper. This is a bit of a bugbear of mine, but projecting yourself forward to 2015 and a General Election, which will coincide with a Welsh Assembly election, I would be quite interested seriously to see a ballot paper which accounted for the fact that there would be two languages, two different boundaries, two different systems and two different Parliaments together on the one ballot paper in a way that serves the voters' interests rather than the political parties' interests. If you could do that then I will wind my neck in.

  Professor Dunleavy: On international comparisons, it is very important to not imagine that the way a system like AV works somewhere else will work in the same way. If we look at Australia, for example, we have a very strong dominance of two main parties. There are other parties in Australia but they tend to be quite small and they have not developed in the way that the British party system has developed. The British party system now is becoming increasingly a standard West European liberal democracy with six or seven parties that range all the way through from Greens through to anti-foreigner parties on the right. So we have three parties on the right in the UK—Conservatives, UKIP and the BNP—and we have a couple on the left—Labour and the Greens—and then we have the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales who sit in the middle and create extra dimensions. So I am absolutely completely convinced that if you are thinking about how AV is going to work out and you are trying to project it forward do not assume it is going to work in the same way as the Australian way; in particular, we are much more of a multi-party system than the Australians and we are heading that way much more rapidly than the Australians. So things like: do you get more candidates; do you get more fragmentation of the vote—these are serious issues to think about. I am sorry—

  Q128  Simon Hart: Complicated ballot papers, basically.

  Professor Dunleavy: Yes, complicated ballot papers—2015. It would be particularly interesting—I do not know whether there are any local government elections also due then.

  Q129  Simon Hart: I cannot remember.

  Professor Dunleavy: It is very, very hard to ask people to do X voting and numerical voting on the same day. I would say that wherever possible you should avoid that. The way to do that is that if you are very committed to doing numerical voting then you have got to probably do numerical voting a lot more. The other lesson from Scotland is do not put them all on the same ballot paper; so have separate ballot papers, separately coloured, and so on. If there is a Welsh Assembly election on the same day or a Scottish Parliament election on the same day that would be a real problem.

  Professor Fisher: My view of international comparisons is that they are useful for information but I would completely agree with Patrick that you cannot simply transplant one to another. If we look at it the other way, in the way that Britain exported first-past-the-post to much of what was then the Empire, it was successful in some places and not in others. So wholesale transfer, I think, is ill-advised. In terms of confusion of the voters, I think one can overstate this. There are already examples of people having to cope with this. It was clearly done badly in Scotland last time around, but I remember, in 2000, I voted with three different systems in the same booth with three different ballot papers, in London, voting in the European elections, SV for the London Mayor and AMS for the London Assembly.

  Professor Dunleavy: The reason for that, with respect, is that these systems are all very carefully designed to be consistent with each other.

  Professor Fisher: Crosses and numbers.

  Q130  Simon Hart: The point of my question was that in the Welsh Assembly election, in our area, 7% of postal ballots were incorrectly completed as a result of confusion, and in a result which only had 100 votes between first and third that definitely affected the outcome.

  Professor Fisher: Therein lies the folly of postal voting.

  Q131  Chair: Can I just clarify London and the three ballot papers, Professor Fisher? You are saying that they were confusing, Professor?

  Professor Fisher: No, no, they were not confusing.

  Professor Dunleavy: I think you are thinking of 2004 when there was a London election and a European Parliament election on the same day. The Mayoral ballot paper for London has two Xs; the Assembly election has two different X components and the European Parliament is a single X. So actually, five election votes were cast on the same day, and there were some extra problems there, but nothing like what you might expect if you are mixing them with numerical.

  Professor Fisher: My point was that the problem can be overstated.

  Q132  Mrs Laing: I would like to come back to the perceived fairness or otherwise of the AV system. Would it be fair to say that some people's votes count twice or even three times? You said just a short while ago that one of the expected changes that would occur if we have AV instead of first-past-the-post is more votes for minority parties. Is that likely to occur because people feel that instead of saying: "I have only one vote and actually I cannot stand the Conservative candidate—I hate Margaret Thatcher—therefore I have got to vote Labour", they might say: "Oh no, actually I really want to vote BNP but my vote will not be wasted because of AV so I will vote BNP and then I will vote Labour second", in which case that person has two votes whereas someone who is just voting for the Liberal Democrats has only one vote?

  Professor Dunleavy: It is quite complicated to think about how AV operates. Basically, the first thing you have got to think about is a disjuncture between if somebody has majority support; in this case we are just going to count up the first preferences and as soon as somebody reaches 50%+1 we are going to say they are elected, so we are not going to look at any second preferences in that set up. However, if nobody has 50%+1 we then look at the second preferences. There is a difference really between the Australian AV, where you carry on looking at preferences however many you have expressed, and the London AV, where you will only look at second preferences for the candidates who are still in the race—the top two candidates. So, basically, you only have first or second preferences expressed in a London AV, whereas in the Australian AV you go 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. It is perfectly likely that one of the reasons why vote fragmentation will increase is, supposing I am a BNP supporter but I do not want Labour to win, I might be voting Conservative, but now I can vote BNP 1, UKIP 2, Conservative 3, and I can still be confident that I am going to influence the result. So there will be some voters, particularly voters who express a lot of preferences, particularly voters who express a lot of preferences for small parties that then get eliminated, where we will be counting down past their first preference, past their second preference and to their third, fourth and fifth preferences, and you might object on equity grounds that it is not fair to be counting third, fourth and fifth preferences of some voters only. However, the system is designed so that your preference only makes a difference to the outcome, allegedly, once, but in fact with small parties, if you have got a lot of preferences, you will have more influence.

  Q133  Mrs Laing: That is very helpful. If somebody has expressed a fourth preference then that would suggest to me that they do not really want that person to represent them, if they have put them fourth. Yet that fourth preference could actually change the outcome of the election.

  Professor Dunleavy: I think we can certainly tell that British voters would like to have multiple preferences, because wherever they have been given the opportunity to cast two votes, in Scotland, Wales and London, they have taken it up with great enthusiasm.

  Q134  Mrs Laing: That is quite a sweeping statement.

  Professor Dunleavy: In the sense that a lot of people split their votes in these elections when they do not need to, and they have also done that quite regularly when they have local and general elections on the same day. We can expect that the number of preferences people express will decay quite quickly. So maybe three-quarters of people will give a second preference; 60% a third preference, less than 50%, maybe, a fourth preference. This is a political theory argument that I cannot resolve. You certainly could make the argument that fourth preferences should not be weighted as much as first on second preferences.

  Professor Fisher: I concur with Patrick there. It does not seem to me to be an immense problem and something that you could design out. To go back to your initial point—do some voters effectively get more say than others—we cannot force people (well, you can force people) to do all the preferences but it strikes me as undesirable, but it strikes me as being no different, really, from offering people the opportunity to vote or not to vote. As things stand, if people choose to take advantage of that they have more say than people who do not. So I do not think there is an insurmountable problem. Patrick raises an interesting way of looking at that. In practice, it is very unlikely that preferences below three will make any material difference to the outcome.

  Q135  Mrs Laing: That is very helpful, thank you. Can I go back to that issue about voters, as Professor Dunleavy, I think, said, that voters show enthusiasm for (I cannot remember the exact word you used—forgive me) for multiple preferences. Do you mean by that that when they get to the ballot box and they discover that in front of them they have to place not just an X but they can do 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and in those circumstances they do, at least, 1, 2 and 3 rather than just 1? Is that what you mean by that rather than that they are more enthusiastic and actually go to vote? That actually there is a greater turnout because there is a preferential system?

  Professor Dunleavy: We have not got experience of numerical preference ordering in voting except in Northern Ireland and in Scottish local government. So I could not comment on turnout in relation to those. In Northern Ireland I think there are particular reasons why you might not go too far down your preference order. So I think really, outside of Scottish local government, we do not really know how people have responded to numerical. In the Additional Member Systems we have you have two votes; you have a vote for a local MSP or Assembly member and you have a top-up vote. People have split the top-up vote; they quite commonly will give one vote to the Conservatives and one vote to somebody else or one vote to Labour and one vote to somebody else. In the sense that even when people are quite committed they tend to want to express preferences, multiple preferences.

  Professor Fisher: The point you made about voters turning up at ballot boxes is an important one. When Scotland introduced the Additional Member System for elections in the Scottish Parliament the use of both votes was widespread. When it was done in London there was no public education programme as there had been in Scotland, and there were a large number of people who either did not use the second part of the SV ballot or the second part of AMS. So if a different system is going to be introduced there has to be something done as successfully as it was in Scotland rather than as unsuccessfully as it was in London.

  Q136  Sheila Gilmore: There has been some discussion of tactical voting and the suggestion that there is less of it with AV, but it seems to me from what you have said that there is actually just as much potential for people to campaign for the least worst. Would you agree with that? In terms of the electoral systems, it is slightly disappointing that the turnout in Scottish Parliament elections has actually been less good than for Westminster. I do not think that is what we anticipated, and I do not think that is necessarily to do with electoral systems. Would you agree that the main problem with the 2007 Scottish system was not so much that people had several different things to vote for but that they had three different things they were supposed to be doing?

  Professor Dunleavy: I agree; there were three different things that voters had to do on the same ballot paper as well.

  Q137  Sheila Gilmore: There were two ballot papers.

  Professor Dunleavy: There was one with two—

  Q138  Sheila Gilmore: There was indeed. That was a very badly designed ballot paper, which shows how important design can be.

  Professor Dunleavy: Design is very important. I think the Scottish Parliament elections have been very successful. It is incredibly hard to set up a new institution and get to a high level of voting; it very rarely happens. The new institutions often take a long time to sort play themselves in and Scotland has had very high turnouts, I think, considering its role. Although Justin is right that turnout is a little low in London, it has tended to grow over time as familiarity with the systems grows.

  Professor Fisher: At the risk of making international comparisons, where you have systems other than first-past-the-post, turnouts in general tend to be higher, but they are falling everywhere so we should not see an electoral system as a quick fix to arresting declining turnout.

  Q139  Chair: If we were in this country to elect our own chief executive or prime minister, as most Western democracies do, which system do you think would be best to do that to complement other changes?

  Professor Dunleavy: If you are electing a chief executive, you might want to go for the London AV system because you might want to make sure only someone who is in the top two on the first preference count would be elected, so I would strongly recommend the London AV system.

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