The question of whether the Alternative Vote helps small parties is one that excites both the Yes camp and the No camp. For the Yes camp the answer is a qualified Yes, for the No Camp the answer appears to differ depending on whether the smaller party is the socially acceptably Greens (No help whatsoever) or the socially unacceptable BNP (Almost certainly bound to give the BNP a Cabinet seat). This article attempts to explain how and why the answer is a qualified Yes.
The answer turns on the notion of vote splitting. Under First Past the Post if two similar candidates stand in a constituency it is likely that some electors will vote for one, some for the other and both candidates will lose to a very different candidate. You can look for examples to the Labour Party and SDP in the past or to the Conservatives and UKIP today. Voters would rather have most of what they want rather than all of what they explicitly don’t want and this “helps” existing larger parties who have built up voter support.
Reducing the effect of vote splitting reduces barriers to entry for small parties and it reduces switching costs for voters. Barriers to entry are things that stop an organisation even getting to market. Before you can sell one product or win one vote you have to overcome these barriers to entry. Switching costs are costs which customers incur when they change their supplier.
An example of barriers to entry are those faced by a new supermarket chain. A new supermarket needs expensive land and buildings, willing staff, good suppliers and some money before anyone can shop there. For a new national political party you need hundreds of candidates, dozens of volunteers in each constituency, a Party HQ and some money. Getting these together is hard. Really hard. In order to win a seat in an election as a new party you also need to persuade between 1/3 and ½ of the voters in a consituency of two things. Firstly, you need to persuade them to vote for you. Secondly, you need to persuade them that thousands of other people will also vote for you, so that you will win and they won’t have split the vote for another candidate they also like and allowed a candidate they actively dislike to win.
In supermarket terms this is the equivalent of the new supermarket not being able to sell you any groceries unless 1/3 of the people in your town had promised to shop there too.
The Alternative Vote removes this particular barrier to entry. This is one of its great advantages. It is a preference system so if you really want candidate X from a small party and would accept candidate Y from a large party you can give Candidate X your first preference secure in the knowledge that in later rounds your second preference for candidate Y will influence the result if your best top favorite candidate, X doesn’t go on to win.
The Alternative Vote also reduces voter switching costs using the same mechanism. If I want to change my bank I face the switching cost of the hassle and time of closing one account and opening another, moving all my standing orders and the inevitable inconvenience when something goes wrong and my salary gets paid into a different account from the one my bills are being paid out of.
For voters the switching costs are a wasted vote. If you decide to vote for a candidate who isn’t close to winning the seat your vote has no influence on the outcome. You may as well have stayed at home. The second switching cost is linked to barriers to entry. If you switch your vote and not everyone one else does you might let X party win (For X read whichever bunch of lunatics, criminals and idiots you personally least like). Disaster, not only has your preferred candidate not won, but you’ve really just helped your enemy to a seat. Again, preference voting reduces this switching cost. If you decide that you prefer one of two similar candidates you can give your support to the one you most favour with little risk that this will help the candidate you most dislike.
Does this help smaller parties? That depends on what you mean by help. The Alternative Vote on its own doesn’t usher in a new era of a the Rainbow Parliament. The Alterative Vote does remove a big disadvantage that new parties have, that they aren’t established parties. For the first time voters all over the country will be free to vote for the party they really want, not just a party they think is okay but who has a track record in that constituency. It creates a level playing field. Parties can complete based on the quality of their policies, the integrity of their principles and the effort of their candidates and campaigners.
I personally don’t think you should design an electoral system to advantage one particular party or another, or to explicitly help or hinder a class of parties. I do believe in voter choice and allowing any political party a fair chance to win my vote. In this way the Alternative Vote is fairer than First Past the Post. It is fairer to small or new parties and fairer to voters who can exercise a free choice of candidate when voting.
The fact remains, in order to win a seat under the Alternative Vote you need good candidates, good policies, a good campaign and a good link to the constituency you hope to represent. What you no longer need to win a particular seat is already having won it once before.