Creative uses of AV

Tomorrow is the first day of the National Union of Students’ annual Conference. It’s also five years since I last attended an NUS Conference myself, either as a voting delegate or as a balcony-based observer.

I went to my first NUS Conference in 2003. I was elected by the narrowest of margins in an STV election and joined eight of my fellow Bristol-university students on the trip to Blackpool.

NUS conferences are unusual because elections for NUS’s full-time officers happen at the Conference. This is an archaism; Trade Unions and Student Unions used to elect their officers in the same way, but labour laws and the Education Act 1994 respectively, meant that these Unions now have to legally hold a ballot of all members. NUS is not legally a Student Union and its members are other Unions not individuals, so didn’t have to change away from the old-fashioned system.

NUS has political groupings of varying formality, often disparagingly called ‘factions’: Labour Students is the formal student wing of the Labour party and organises openly. Various groups of ‘Independent’ students run slates of candidates, sometimes openly and sometimes less so. Groups on the Far Left are active, sometimes running joint slates as allies and sometimes opposing each other. Conservative Future sometimes organises for NUS and sometimes decides not to bother. Other groups like the Union of Jewish Students also attend the Conference but don’t usually run candidates for the full-time officer roles.

That particular Conference, held only days after the formal start of the Iraq War in 2003, was the year that Labour’s Mandy Telford would win re-election as President by three votes, beating Kat Fletcher, then the candidate for a unified far-Left slate . Fletcher would go on to win by only one vote a year later.

But the relevance to this blogpost and to the AV debate is that running in a few of the officer elections was a new faction that called itself Students Against the War on Terror (SAWOT). SAWOT were standing in three officer elections.

At each election, the SAWOT candidate took the podium and made a three-minute speech: two and a half minutes about the evils of the War on Terror and the West, and then 30 seconds in which to announce their withdrawal from the election in favour of one the far-Left slate’s candidate who was definitely the best person to do all the things they mentioned in their speech: overthrow the Government, free the oppressed etc.

Actually, one of them, Sukant Chandan, didn’t even turn up to the Conference so technically couldn’t withdraw from the election. He got twelve votes out of 930 cast. But if he’d been there, I’ve no doubt that he would have withdrawn too. The SAWOT slate existed solely to get their manifestos included in the official documents and time at the podium in order to endorse other candidates in the election.

Of course, General Elections don’t happen in a big hall with speeches. Any candidate who withdraws at the last minute stays on the ballot paper, potentially pulling votes away from the person they’re trying to help. Also, it’s not that easy for a candidate in a General Election to tell all their supporters to vote for someone else. There aren’t the same opportunities as at an NUS Conference.

AV, though, at least opens up some interesting possibilities. This is because votes under AV aren’t necessarily rival – a vote for one candidate doesn’t always mean a vote against another candidate. That vote might only be with your first choice for one round, but could stick with your second choice all the rest of the rounds until the end.

Imagine that at the next election there was a ‘no to cuts’ party which opposed Government spending cuts. All the party would do is talk about how bad the cuts were and how much better it would have been if they didn’t happen or were slower. They’d also call for a second-preference vote for the Labour party. It would get Election Broadcasts. Its candidates would appear at hustings and be interviewed on the TV where they’d put their messages across and call for people to vote Labour (second).

A new party like this probably wouldn’t win any seats, but that’s not what it’s trying to do. If people voted through all their preferences then a new party like this could help the Labour party get its message across and pick up more votes. Equally, I could have given examples that would benefit the two governing parties instead, e.g. a Taxpayers Alliance Party.

I haven’t seen any guidance yet on party finance rules when it comes to campaigning for second preferences. Candidates and parties and third-party campaigns have to stick to electoral spending limits during the Short Campaign. How will these rules apply to second-preference campaigns?

It’s not hard to imagine a real-life scenario where one party openly campaigns for second-prefs to go to another to keep out a third – some parties, like the Greens and Respect, already have an electoral pact under the current system. Respect didn’t field a Mayoral candidate in 2008 and campaigned for Ken Livingstone instead. Ken himself campaigned for Tower Hamlets mayoral candidate Luftur Rahman instead of the Labour candidate Helal Abbas, but escaped punishment by the Labour Party by claiming that he was only calling for people to vote Rahman as their second preference.

A candidate from a minor special-interest party calling for second preferences to a major party could be a valuable endorsement, even to voters who weren’t going to vote for the first party at all. Who are UKIP asking me to transfer to? Who’s the Greens’ next-best option? What about that Independent who wants to save the local hospital, what’s his second choice?

It could also work the other way round. If the BNP call for a transfer to a candidate, it could actually harm that candidate’s chances to get the “racists’ choice” tag.

And there is another possibility.

Instead of the major parties creating supportive proxy parties, they could just run more than one candidate of their own in elections. Imagine a ballot paper as follows:

  • A. Ames (Liberal Democrat)
  • B. Baines (Conservative)
  • C. Cohen (Labour)
  • D. Diwani (Liberal Democrat)
  • E. Etherington (UKIP)

Under the current system, it would be unmitigatedly stupid to run two candidates from the same party in the same seat.

NB: one of the reasons that Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections was that Fatah did exactly this, mainly because they couldn’t decide which candidates to run.

But under AV, there are some positive reasons to do it. Your party gets more space on the ballot paper, more exposure at local hustings, more mentions in the newspapers. Your candidates can be more balanced to appeal more broadly: a woman and a man, a white candidate and an ethnic minority, and old one and a young one. The party won’t be able to decide which of the two candidates gets eliminated first and which, therefore, might actually win. But this could also be a positive thing, acting as both a primary and general election at the same time.

The only drawback I can see to this approach – apart from cost – is that votes for one party candidate might not reliably transfer to the other one. So in the ballot above, Diwani might not get all of Ames’ second-preference votes or vice versa.

According to John Curtice, figures from Scottish local by-elections suggest that between a half and a third of people don’t transfer their vote at all and more than three-fifths don’t list a third-preference. At first glance this might suggest that people aren’t very reliable at transferring in AV.

But it could also be that voters are being sensible and rational. The incumbent in an election almost never comes third, so a vote for the incumbent will almost never transfer. Many seats are two-horse races, so a vote for the second-placed party also won’t transfer. Listing a second-preference in these cases is sheer vanity. At the 2008 London Mayoral election, there was really no point in Boris or Ken voters casting a second-preference vote because neither was ever going to be eliminated.

This effect becomes even stronger at the third-preference stage. A third-preference will only matter if both the first and second preference aren’t for one of the top two parties in a constituency. Relatively few votes will ever have their third-preference counted

So perhaps most voters do transfer efficiently. If they do, then sometimes the benefits of running two candidates for the same constituency might outweigh the drawbacks. This really would be a big change in the way we do politics in the UK.

I don’t know if any of the major parties are considering this if AV is adopted at the referendum. Someone should probably ask them.