Friday, 31 December 2010

AV and the magic of geographic dispersion

"AV will cause more coalitions in this country!", "FPTP is the only way to ensure strong government!"


It's time to put this myth to bed once and for all. No voting system that purely asks people to vote for an MP to represent them in their constituency is able to cause or limit the amount of coalition governments that form over the years. It may slightly enhance or hide the realities of support in each constituency, but in itself neither FPTP nor AV can cause coalitions.

Take, for example, our last general election result. The Tories had 36% of the vote, Labour 29% and Lib Dems 23% (in popular terms). Let's think about the realities of what forms coalitions. They are caused when the number of MPs elected for each party is in significant enough number that there is no majority to be had.

To form coalition governments in single member constituency voting systems (or to at least see Hung Parliaments) you need three parties with at least a modest popularity each, depending on how many smaller parties have strong localised support. The reality is that the cause of our latest coalition, under FPTP no less, is the increased support for the Lib Dems over several elections mixed with a redress of the geographical dispersion of the vote for each of the main parties.

Let me just be clear about that. It is how spread out or concentrated differing political opinions are across the UK that determines the likelihood of coalitions being formed.

Take a highly unlikely example. If the population was perfectly dispersed based on political opinion, to the degree that every constituency reflected the national picture of C 36%, L 29%, LD 23% then there would be only one result possible under FPTP....a parliament made up 100% of the Tories. Under AV it would be different, again assuming opinion is the same we would have either a 100% Labour parliament or 100% Tory parliament depending on where Lib Dem's would tend to put their second preferences.

But what if we switch it around? Let's say that the 36% of Tory support are localised entirely in 234 constituencies but in 0 others, that Labour similarly have 100% support in 189 constituencies, and Lib Dems the rest (not counting the constituencies that would be filled with the independent, national and Irish MPs). In this situation, still with the same voting system we'd have a proportional representation in parliament.

The same number of people voting for the same party they did in 2010, but depending on where they live you can have anything from an elected dictatorship to a fully proportional parliament forming a coalition.

Our current situation with a hung parliament is based mainly on the divide of class in this country, where more rural and higher earning areas tend to vote Tory, middle class and student (though we'll see how long that lasts) areas vote Lib Dem, and Working class to middle class areas vote Labour.

Without mixing these classes in to the same constituencies we have concentrated blobs of party support throughout the UK, and it is this segregation, combined with a greater than two dimensional political opinion, that led us to the coalition government we have today.

How will AV change this? I will come back to this issue in a future piece; However, it may well be that AV increases the hyper-concentration of support, making it less dispersed, and causing a greater hung parliament. Yet it is also the case that the fine balance of the geographic dispersal of political opinion could result in a bloating of the vote for (most likely) Labour, giving them a disproportionate (based on 1st preferences, though not in terms of absolute support) majority that helps to avoid a coalition while more accurately reflecting the political leaning of the population.

If you're against coalition politics then I'm afraid your only recourse to achieve this will be to try and return this county to a system of two party politics and to try and stop people from believing in political ideals they believe in.

Voting against AV won't stop coalitions from forming while three party politics takes hold, it's time for the "No" camp to accept this reality.