The impact of AV on Oldham East and Saddleworth

by Cory Hazlehurst. This originally appeared on Paperback Rioter.

One of the more interesting predictable aspects of the Oldham East and Saddleworth post-mortems was the discussion of what effect holding the election under the Alternative Vote system would have had. VoteNoToAV, an unofficial but enthusisatic member of the “No” twittersphere, got the ball rolling with this soon after the result was announced:

Anyone like to argue that this by-election held under FPTP wasn’t fair or democratic and that we didn’t get a clear winner? #NO2AV

There’s also this PDF distributed by the No campaign about the effects AV would have had on the by-election. As usual with much of the No campaign literature, it spends most of its time bashing the Lib Dems and never once gives any reason why we should keep First Past the Post. I was, however, intrigued by its first paragraph:

Had the 2010 election been held under AV, Liberal Democrats (sic) would have comfortably won Oldham East and Saddleworth last May…

I don’t know how they know this for certain, as they cannot know the second preference intentions of the Oldham East voters.

However, what the No camp seem to be implying is that, whilst under FPTP Phil Woolas was rewarded for his racist and illegal leaflets by winning the seat in May, under AV he would have lost.

It’s good to see the No camp sticking up for honest, fair campaining in this fashion.

The real lesson to take from Oldham East is that you cannot accurately predict who would win an AV election based on the election results of a FPTP one. It’s the same with the predictions of number-crunchers who say things like “In 1997 New Labour would have had a majority of 7million under AV”: you don’t know because people vote differently under different electoral systems. Also, the whole campaign would have been different, with candidates also campaigning for the second preference votes of voters for other parties, rather than merely relying on their core voters.

Under AV, the whole dynamic would have changed. Thus, you would see more votes for smaller parties (such as the Greens, the Pirates and, maybe, the Monster Raving Looney Party) because people could vote for a smaller party with their first preference whilst still being able to influence the outcome of the vote with their second. You would also have seen an increase in Tory first-preference voting, instead of some voting Lib Dem tactically. That’s because AV virtually ends tactical voting.

It’s true that the result would have been closer under AV, but, as John Rentoul says, “In the dull grey light of the waking world, Labour would probably have still won in Oldham under AV, just.” Not only would the result have been closer, but Labour would also have had to work very hard to ensure it retained the seat in the next election. That’s because AV makes more seats more competitive. It would have meant political parties having to knock on more doors and engage with more members of the public, and not rely on a core vote of 35-40%. And that can only be a good thing.

The upshot of all this is that when someone confidently says what the result of this by-election, or that election, would have been under AV, you should treat it with a serious pinch of salt.

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