AV Referendum: Will safe seats be a thing of the past under the Alternative Vote?

19 April 2011

"No more safe seats, ever, politicians will now have to fight harder to get elected, every vote will count," Lord Ashdown, former Liberal Democrat leader and AV supporter

"AV would make absolutely no difference in over 200 seats where MPs already get over 50% of the vote. In each of these seats, no one would get their second preference counted." No2AV campaign

Campaigners calling for a change in the UK voting system to AV have argued that by changing the rules of the game there would be less MPs elected in so-called 'safe seats'.

These are seats where one party has such a majority that it is highly unlikely to be overturned at the next election. Pro-AV campaigners argue that MPs in such a position can essentially take their voters for granted.

But would the change from First Past the Post remove the certainty of such safe seats?

Those backing the current voting system are sceptical. 

One argument is that the change would make no impact for those MPs who currently gain over 50 per cent of the vote. The data provided on the Guardian's Data Blog allows the election result to be sorted by share of the vote, and this shows that a significant number got over the 50 per cent threshold in the 2010 general election. If we assume that the candidate backed by voters in such a proportion would be given a first preference vote by these same voters, then it is reasonable to suggest that these MPs would be just as safe under AV than they would be under First Past the Post.

But what of the rest of the contest - particularly those where one candidate has a strong majority but did not get 50 per cent of the vote?

A briefing from the Political Studies Association suggests that in cases where one candidate still has a very large majority AV is unlikely to make much difference.

However in some cases, for example the in Conservative held seats where Labour and the Liberal Democrats still command significant vote shares, the alternative preferences of Lib Dem and Labour voters could make life more difficult for the Tory front runner.

Likewise, one study suggested that the "relatively safe" Labour seats of Islington South and Newcastle North could be lost to the Liberal Democrats were the AV system in place.

But, the study argues, AV could serve to make some seats safer than they had been under the First Past the Post.

For example, it could be possible that in a Lib Dem stronghold, their candidate's position is strengthened by the second preferences of significant amounts of Conservative or Labour voters.  Australian election analyst Antony Green gives a further example of how AV can serve to make seats less safe:

"The one type of candidate to benefit from AV has been Independents. Where Independents have challenged parties in safe seats, the preferences of a third-finishing major parties have been enough to deliver victory to Independents. Of the 19 'come from behind' victories in non-triangular contests at New South Wales elections, 12 have been Independent victories in otherwise safe seats."

Yet elsewhere Mr Green also gives the example of the Queensland State Parliament, where had the 1998 contest in Crow's Nest ("previously the National Party's safest seat") been fought under First Past the Post, the 'One Nation' candidate would have won the safe seat, but as it was the National Party candidate prevailed. However coming back to the UK situation, the PSA briefing concludes: "AV's tendency to exaggerate landslides means that, overall, it would somewhat reduce the number of safe seats: for example, Labour would have picked up even more Conservative seats in 1997. But the change should not be exaggerated: the structure of competition in most constituencies is unlikely to change radically."

Likewise Dr Alan Renwick, of Reading University and author of 'A Citizen's Guide to Electoral Reform' has argued "It's probably true that the number of safe seats under AV would be a bit lower than it is now. But the shift would not be dramatic; nor would it change the culture of politics."

Conclusion When assessing claims regarding the impact on AV will depend on how the claim is forumlated. If those arguing the case for AV simply claim that AV could potentially cut the number of safe seats, then there are ground for accepting the claim as valid. However if it is claimed, as Lord Ashdown did that the change would mean "no more" safe seats, then it seems there is much less evidence to back up the claim.

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