The Alternative Vote system will prevent radical free-market reforms

I have no constitutional objection to the Alternative Vote system (AV). Fears over constantly hung Parliaments or permanent coalitions are largely unfounded. In Australia, where AV was introduced in 1919, it has, with the exception of the election last week and the 1940 General Election, delivered strong governments despite the presence of popular “third parties” such as “State Labour” in New South Wales during the 1930s and 40s, the Australian Democrats in the 70s, 80s and 90s and the Greens from 1993.

But AV is not a good way to elect Members of Parliament who will support radical free-market economic reforms. Why is this? In the United Kingdom today almost 50% of the population rely on the government for a sizeable portion of their income, and even more receive some money in the form of tax credits or old-age support.

In the most recent General Election, the British Conservatives (not exactly running on the most radical free-market platform) polled 36% of the vote. Just over a third of British voters were willing to give their “primary vote” for a party willing to cut the deficit quickly and enact the beginnings of free-market school reform.

Any party that wishes to become government under AV will be elected on the second, third or fourth preferences of those parties who finish lower down the ballot paper. If a large proportion of the population receive money from the system, then it is difficult to imagine them placing their second preferences for a party that will withdraw social benefits, ahead of one that pledges to retain them. To put it another way, a lot of those on the left would give their preference to a social democrat candidate, but few on the right would give theirs to a free marketeer.

Market liberals need to remember that Thatcher won 42% of the vote in 1983 – and it is highly unlikely she would have gained a lot of second preferences. Changing the voting system may be good for other reasons, but it makes a government that will be willing to enact radical free-market reform less likely.

19 thoughts on “The Alternative Vote system will prevent radical free-market reforms”

  1. Posted 31/08/2010 at 10:48 | Permalink

    This is possibly the worst argument against AV I have ever read. It starts from the proposition that a certain ideologically-inclined government is desirable and then asks what electoral system will or will not deliver that outcome. This is not a satisfactory way to analyse such questions. Rather, we have to begin by asking what is the purpose of the electoral system in terms of representation and constraining government power and then judge the peformance of different electoral systems against those criteria. It is probably true that the Thatcher revolution would not have happened with AV, but then neither would have the socialist policies she undid, nor the socialist policies that followed.

  2. Posted 31/08/2010 at 11:10 | Permalink

    FPTP hasn’t delivered a ‘radical free market-platform’ so that line of argument is irrelevant to a FPTP vs AV argument. So the title could as easily be “FPTP has prevented a radical free market-platform”.

    In 1983, thatcher didn’t ‘win the election’ hundreds of conservative MPs won their constituency elections. It is against all probability that none would have had second or third preference votes under AV. Citing an individual to support an argument on 2nd/3rd preference votes is disingenuous.

    36% voting for ‘radical free markets’ may justify them if less than 36% is against them (the rest not caring) but not if over 36% oppose them…

  3. Posted 31/08/2010 at 11:10 | Permalink

    This old chestnut again! See previous discussion at

    Thank you John for some sanity.

  4. Posted 31/08/2010 at 12:06 | Permalink

    The comments here thus far, while appreciated, appear to misunderstand the premise of my argument.

    This blog post is to deal specifically with the question of whether free market reforms are able to be delivered better by AV or FPP. To say that we shouldn’t even be concerned about the likely policy outcomes from a change to the voting system is misguided. That way lies disaster…

    As I clearly stated, there may be other, perfectly good, reasons for changing the voting system. But we (free marketeers) should go into it with both eyes open. If a majority of the voting public get money from the government, it is difficult for a party to win under AV pledging to cut spending.

  5. Posted 31/08/2010 at 12:33 | Permalink

    And Paul, with due respect, to say that because free market reforms have not happened under FPP is not the same as saying that FPP is responsible. I have put a hypothesis forward of why I think AV will prevent free market reforms. I would be fascinated to hear how you think FPP has actively prevented their happening.

    And yes, of course, individual MP’s win constituencies. But in the modern age many voters cast their vote for the party as a whole as much as individual candidates. Many excellent local MP’s have been swept out because the party as a whole has been unpopular. Large numbers of bad MP’s have retained their seats because of their party affiliation.

  6. Posted 31/08/2010 at 12:37 | Permalink

    John: your argument that ’socialist’ policies would not have come about with AV is not one I find persuasive. The elections which preceded the vast expansion of the welfare state (for example) were won with ‘primary votes’ that would have been difficult to overturn on preferences (the Liberals won 48.9% – 43.4% in 1906, and Labour won 49.7% – 36.2% in 1945). Also, in both those elections there was no ‘opposition’ group of parties – in both elections there was sufficient support for parties to their left to push them over 50% support.

    On the other hand, there was no party to the right of Thatcher who we could be sure would have delivered preferences to Tory candidates.

  7. Posted 31/08/2010 at 13:58 | Permalink

    I disagree. John Howard won 4 elections under AV and he was as staunch a free marketeer as any. Indeed, AV would see an expanded libertarian UKIP giving second preferences to the Tories when they cost the Tories seats in 2010!

  8. Posted 31/08/2010 at 14:28 | Permalink

    There’s only one really, truly “free market” reform we really need, and no government is ever going to deliver that voluntarily, since it means abolishing themselves and their corrupting influence on the market!

  9. Posted 31/08/2010 at 15:28 | Permalink


    A link to your article was tweeted as part of the ‘NoToAV’ campaign – maybe explaining the angle of some of the responses you’ve had.

    As it happens, I beleive that tactical voting under FPTP if done ‘perfectly’ would deliver almost exactly the same result as AV would… So pretty much anything that can be said about the election result under one can be said about the other. The only difference being where peoples tactical voting has been imperfect and not given them the most beneficial outcome.

    If Labour have successfully tainted the electorate to the extent that thieves outnumber taxpayers, democracy alone can’t be part of the solution.

  10. Posted 31/08/2010 at 15:38 | Permalink

    Why assume that it is a particular voting system that has prevented free market reforms? Would it not make more sense to actively convince people of the merit of one’s arguments rather than trying to gerrymander a system that most benefits one particular perspective.

    One should also guard against the trap of assuming that it would be natural for one’s views to prevail were they not held back by some unfair or unreasonable means.

  11. Posted 31/08/2010 at 15:40 | Permalink

    […]     August 31, 2010 at 4:40 pm Right-wing think tank Institute of Economic Affairs warns its readers that voting reform will make it harder for “radical free-market economic reforms”, such […]

  12. Posted 31/08/2010 at 16:28 | Permalink

    Why would it prevent radical free market reforms? That would assume that the majority of people in a given constituency are opposed to such measures. Surely you can’t be claiming that the free market right have no democratic mandate?

  13. Posted 31/08/2010 at 16:30 | Permalink

    Paul: Fair cop. Tactial voting can lead to some of the same results as AV. But tactical voting only works when two parties are either in a coalition or are trying to keep or get someone out rather than maximise their own share of the vote or seats. FPP also does not require a party to try to get 2nd or 3rd preferences from another.

    HYUFD: Yes John Howard was a free marketeer – and was booted out of office for the beginnings of free market labour reform! One could also argue (although I am at pains NOT to simply blame AV for this) that the need to pick up One Nation preferences in 1998 (and later) led to the restrictive asylum and immigration policies during his premiership.

  14. Posted 31/08/2010 at 16:44 | Permalink

    Maybe people who do not pay taxes shouldn’t be able to vote?

  15. Posted 31/08/2010 at 17:03 | Permalink

    Sam – the incentives for later pref votes are the same under FPTP and AV.

    AV directly – FPTP indirectly so ‘tactical voters’ can tolerate bypassin gtheir genuine preference for you. i.e. Cameron’s Conservatives pretended to be EU sceptic so UKIP supporters voting ‘tactically’ could tolerate voting for them to keep Labour out…

  16. Posted 31/08/2010 at 17:04 | Permalink

    @Dan Osborne – does this include indirect taxes such as VAT and tobacco duty?

  17. Posted 31/08/2010 at 17:05 | Permalink

    James: As you would see, my argument is that if a majority of people are net receivers of government money then it is difficult to imagine them voting for a party of small government, lower spending and low taxes (despite the benefits they and the community will receive from such reforms). If the current situation was reversed and most people benefited from low taxes, small government and low spending, the left would be in the same position.

    Dan: This goes to what I said earlier about the dangers of not looking at the policy outcomes when deciding an electoral system…

  18. Posted 31/08/2010 at 17:14 | Permalink

    You’re not actually correct about Thatcher in 1983. The data we have about 2nd preferences suggests that a plurality of Alliance/Lib Dem voters would have put the Conservatives as their 2nd preferences right up to and including 1992.

    It’s only since then that Lib Dem voters have leaned Labour’s way. And there’s no way to know how that would work now the coalition is on. Also, as of 2010, in England there are about 1 million voters who supported right-wing minor parties, UKIP/ED who could be expected to prefer the Conservatives, whereas there are only about 0.3 million left-wing voters who might support Labour in the marginal-rich English regions.

  19. Posted 01/09/2010 at 16:13 | Permalink

    It’s all the fault of putting party allegiances on ballot papers.

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