AV — Labour’s death rattle and a gigantic fraud

Gordon Brown


First-past-the-post has served this country well …  We should be mad to adopt a system less fair than the one we have


So says Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, in an article in The Daily Telegraph to-day (February 28, 2011).

He draws a comparison between Colonel Mu‘ammar al-Gadaffi and unlamented former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown — pointing out a certain similarity of appearance and their common love of long, rambling speeches on socialist theory (in which he gives the edge, in logic and coherence, to the Colonel).

He goes on to describe the what, more than anything, the government to-day in Tripoli and Britain’s last Labour one in its dying months have in common :  a régime that has held power for too long, exhausted the patience of its people and stares oblivion in the face can be reliably expected to act not in the interest of its electorate but for its self-preservation.

Col Gaddafi

It was for this reason that Labour continued to bribe the electorate right up to the eve of the election — hoping to hang on to power no matter what the cost to the country — running up the public debt to such an extent that the then Minister of State at the Treasury, Liam Byrne, was moved to leave a gloating note to his successor saying there was “no more money left”.

And for the same reason, he continues, Mr. Brown, having consistently opposed it, made a cynical U-turn and announced just three months before the election his conversion to the Alternative-Vote system (AV) for parliamentary elections.

He asks what had lain behind “this mad last roll of the dice”, pointing out that the forthcoming plebiscite on AV was not a proposal of the parties that together won the 2010 general election but “a last gasp from the bunker” of the man that lost.

Boris does not expect to see an uprising in the United Kingdom akin to events recently sweeping North Africa and the Near East ;  to see the B.B.C.’s World-Affairs Editor John Simpson amongst “hordes of AV supporters as they prepare to face the reactionary camel-charges of those who believe in first-past-the-post.”

A typical AV ballot paper
(click on it to enlarge)

That the whole thing is likely to prove a wash-out is something he regrets because, the more closely voters examine what is being put to them on May 5 the more clearly, he feels, they should see that AV is a gigantic fraud. 

For those unfamiliar with the system :  instead of just selecting the candidate you want to win the seat, you would be asked under AV to rank the candidates in order of preference – 1, 2, 3 &c. – so that the candidate you ranked second, for example, would benefit from your vote, should your preferred one be knocked out.

Although AV is the system used in London mayoral elections, he asks why on Earth we are considering its use for elections to Parliament.

Whilst admitting that the system would boost the representation of minor parties not normally blessed with seats in Parliament, he asks whether that is such a great thing anyway.

More pointedly he questions the often heard assertion that it will somehow make Members of Parliament more accountable and diligent because obliged to get the combined first- and second-preference support of half the voters.  In fact, he points out, in U.K. elections many seats are already won with at least half the vote ;  moreover, he says, they tend to be urban seats with relatively few constituents :  Labour seats that have shrunk as people “sensibly flee areas represented by Labour M.P.s”.

Where, he asks, is the evidence that AV will make them more diligent, conscientious and “in touch with their electorates” ?  “Complete tripe,” he says, adding that it applies as much to safe Conservative as to safe Labour seats.


He wonders how many have become confused, thinking that AV has something to do with proportional representation — in which, to as great an extent as reasonably practicable, the proportion of seats each party had in Parliament would reflect its proportion of the popular vote.  In fact, he argues, AV is no such thing and would do nothing to address chronic Labour under-representation in the South-East or Conservative under-representation in the North and the Celtic lands.  Roy Jenkins reported to Tony Blair that AV ought to be ruled out because less proportional and less fair.

He points to Mr. Blair’s landslide victory of 1997, in which he wound up with 419 seats (63%) with just 43% of the popular vote.  AV, he points out, would have conferred upon Mr. Blair 445 seats (67%) and the Conservatives, despite their having 30% of the vote, just 70 (10%).

If the 2010 election had been held under AV, the Conservatives, with 36% of the vote, would, he says, have won 281 (43%) — as against the 306 (47%) they did win — and Labour, with 29% of the vote, 262 (40%) — compared with the 258 they won.*

Nick Clegg opposed AV before the election and Boris says he should stick to his guns.  “First-past-the-post has served this country well, and served dozens of other countries well.  We would be mad to go to a great deal of trouble and expense to adopt a system that is less fair than the one we have.”

By all means let there be a plebiscite, he says, but let it be the one promised :  on the Lisbon E.U. Treaty.  Where’s the E.U. policy on North Africa ?  What has Lady Ashton to say about it ?  Should we not have a vote on all that ?


* Editor’s note

It ought to be said that the inferences Boris draws, whilst they might be correct, are not psephologically sound.  Voters were not, in fact, invited to rank the candidates.  Although some sampling was done by way of exit polls, there is actually no way of knowing the outcome of the election had AV applied.


Partial election results 1997 and 2010

Proportion of
Seats Seats Votes
1997 659 31.3-Mo.
Labour 419 63.6% 43.2%
Conservative 165 25.0% 30.7%
Lib-Dem 46 7.0% 16.8%
2010 650 29.7-Mo.
Labour 258 39.7% 29.0%
Conservative 306 47.1% 36.1%
Lib-Dem 57 8.8% 23.0%


Boris writes for The Daily Telegraph on Mondays.


4 thoughts on “AV — Labour’s death rattle and a gigantic fraud”

  1. Since this referendum promises to be stupefyingly boring, and since David Cameron has broken his cast-iron promise to hold a referendum on the EU Lisbon treaty, wouldn’t it be good if someone cleverer and richer than I were to hijack the AV referendum?

    A situation could be created in which a vote against AV was understood to be a vote against the EU and the Lisbon treaty.

    Since ordinary Tory voters can no longer trust David Cameron, I think this would demonstrate popular fear and loathing of the EU and the Lisbon treaty. And it would combine the zeitgeist of rebellion, which we see in Arabia, with British reserve. It might even be fun!

    I guess it could be called the ‘No No No’ campaign.

  2. I am fascinated by the confident statement that “Under the AV system he would have got 445 seats”. Given only a tiny minority were asked how they would have ranked, and that we know people often lie to exit pollsters, I think you are giving undue prominence to a very shaky claim.

    A well run democracy should not see tactical voting. AV allows people to vote for what they want, instead of what they think they might stand a chance of getting.

    For that reason alone, AV should be adopted.

  3. Isnt it funny how we are allowed to hold a referendum on something new that isn’t currently affecting us such as AV.

    However, when it comes to something that most people are enraged about such as the EU which is currently driving the UK into the ground….

    We are not allowed to have our say.

    Could this be because the EU was paying Cleggs wages for so long?

    The coalition government may as well be a liberal democrat government. As it seems they keep on getting their way. Where as the Tory ideals are being smothered never seeing the light of day.

    I feel that the conservative party are no longer Tory. We should get Boris onside perhaps he could sort this government out! He is a true Tory. True Tory’s seem to be a dying breed.

  4. It is obviously impossible to say what the results of past elections would have been under AV, since voters were not then asked to give their second preferences. These have to be guessed (by people surmising what they might have done in 1997!). In any case, people would vote differently under AV. One would expect the larger parties to obtain fewer first-choice votes than they do at present. In those circumstances, no rewriting of past elections is valid.

    I have yet to see an argument against AV that doesn’t boil down to “it wouldn’t give the result that I want” Or “ooh – it’s going to cost lots – think of a number and double it”.

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