Influence is often more powerful than power. So said the great Rabbi, Judah Lowe of Prague. The Alternative Vote system helps smaller parties by giving them influence over the policies and actions of the main parties. This influence is exerted in two ways. Main parties in most seats will have to gather 2nd and 3rd preferences from the voters for smaller parties. Smaller parties can point to the level of support they get, not just in 1st preferences but in high ranking preferences as a way of making their case that the issues they support are important to the voter.
Using the Alternative Vote, in order to win a seat in most constituencies in the UK, the winning candidate will require 2nd and probably 3rd preferences. In order to win the seat candidates must demonstrate some common ground with other parties (or with their supporters). Political parties are founded on Principles, a set of guidelines about what is fair and right. These Principles are expressed by the Outcomes that parties seek when they draw up Policy. Policies should be designed to achieve the Outcomes required by a party’s Principles. Parties may differ on points of principle. They may think different policies will better achieve a certain outcome.
In many cases the difference is one of relative priorities. For example the Labour Party would say that Social Justice was one its most important principles but it would rank Environmental Stewardship pretty highly too. For the Greens Environmental Stewardship might top the list of principles with Social Justice an important consideration. It is very rare that voters are entirely tribal about casting their vote. Politics is more nuanced than just Red Team, Blue Team. Parties are just a common expression of shared principle made flesh with policies and canvassers. Most people cast their vote for the party they believe best reflects their own principles. The importance of these principles will vary from person to person but there are large overlaps. In order for a candidate from one of the main 4 parties to win they will need to demonstrate to the supporters of smaller parties that they share their principles. They will need to show that they too are in favour of low carbon energy, or reduced powers for the EU or Christian Values or any of a myriad principles and policies that their voters think are important.
This demonstration will need to be credible. As a candidate, voters will need to believe you when you talk about environmental policy before they give you their second preference. The smaller parties will need to believe you before they endorse you. To be believed you will need to be credible. How can you demonstrate your credibilty?
Firstly, you can establish your credentials by campaigning on single issues that demonstrate that you share the principles of other, smaller parties.
Secondly, you can adopt policies that support the outcomes that smaller parties think are important.
Thirdly, you stop writing off your smaller opponents as “the lunatic fringe.”
Fourthly, you can actively seek the endorsment of smaller parties.
Finally, if elected, your voting record is the main way voters can tell if you are sympathetic to their principles or if you are more interested in voting how party whips tell you to vote.
It would be very brave of the Labour Party to field a former coal miner in Brighton Pavilions.
If I were ever to stand for office no one could doubt that I was in favour of electoral reform or that I favoured direct democracy and a multi-hued Parliament. If I was ever seen to vote against a referendum on voting reform the cries of Judas would ring loudly in my ears and rightly so.
This might not matter if I held my seat based only on the voters for one ideology but it would make a difference if I had built a local co-alition of voters including electoral reform supporters.
So in order to be elected the Big 4 need to reach out to voters from other parties, either nationally or locally. They do this by taking seriously the issues that voters for smaller parties take seriously.
Weighing the Vote
The second way that the Alternative Vote helps smaller parties gain influence is by demonstrating the level of support for a particular raft of policies. Under First Past the Post if I vote for Party X there is no way to tell if I nearly voted for Party Y but changed my mind on the way to polling station or if I am a dyed in the wool supporter of Party X who would never vote for Party Y under any circumstances. Under AV your vote is not an all or nothing vote. By looking at high ranking preferences everyone can see whether a party has a large body of support or really is just a fringe.
UKIP are a good example. UKIP polled nearly 920,000 votes. The LSE study on second preferences shows that 29% of the 10.1 million Conservative voters would have given UKIP their second preference. The 1st and 2nd preference tally for UK would be 3.8m. UKIP matter, they have strong support from more than 10% of voters.
How does this large bundle of votes translate into influence?
With many 2nd and 3rd preferences a “smaller” party can still show that it has wide spread popular support. It is a voice that matters and which should be influential.
Firstly, because other parties will want to attract their second preferences. The Conservatives know that if they put a pro-Europe candidate in a seat that has a lot of UKIP 2nd preferences those 2nd preferences could turn into 1st preferences and the Conservatives lose the seat.
Secondly, Nigel Farage can legitimately phone up BBC Question Time and ask why he isn’t on the programme more often. The party he leads attracts a lot of support. UKIP is not a fringe position. His voice should be heard. Caroline Lucas could make the same argument for the Greens.
Thirdly, knowing that the smaller party that you support has a lot of buried support helps you make your case on the doorstep and provides you with a much needed morale boost.
Using the Alternative Vote smaller parties may not pick up many more seats but they will begin to have their candidates respected, their principles expressed and their policies written into law.
The Alternative Vote helps smaller parties by increasing their influence in line with support they can demonstrate at the ballot box. If the voters want your policies you should see them turned into law.