What was AV+ the electoral system recommended by the Jenkins Report?

Thea Ridley-Castle, Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 27th March 2023

In their 1997 election manifesto, Labour set out a commitment to hold a referendum on the current First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system. This referendum was never called, however the Labour Party, with support from the Liberal Democrats, set up the Jenkins Commission which was tasked with investigating alternatives to First Past the Post for Westminster.

In 1998, the commission published their report and recommended a system called Alternative Vote + (AV+); a mix of the Alternative Vote (AV) and party list proportion representation.

So what is AV+?

A mix of AV and party lists, AV+ has not been put into practise anywhere in the world. Voters would have a local MP elected with AV and a small group of county or city-wide MPs. As AV isn’t a system of proportional representation, the county or city-wide MPs ‘top-up’ the overall result to be more proportional.

On polling day, voters would have two ballots. They would vote once to elect a candidate in each constituency with the Alternative Vote, by numbering the candidates with their favourite at number one. Then they would vote on a second ballot for their county or city-wide MPs, either by selecting their favourite party or candidate.

As recommended by the Jenkins Commission, the Alternative Vote would be used for 80-85% of seats in the House of Commons, and the other 20-15% of seats would be filled via the second ballot.

The Jenkins Commission recommended that the top-up members should be allocated correctively, e.g. with the goal of trying to make the total mix of constituency and regional MPs elected as closely resemble the result of the second vote.

But the Alternative Vote+ is not a very proportional system in the format the Jenkins commission suggested, as there aren’t enough top-up seats to make up for the disproportional results of the AV vote.

What would an election result look like under AV+?

AV+ is a system designed to permit single-party majority government in circumstances where one party has a high share of the vote, a decisive margin over its opponent or a high level of general consent as implied through preference transfers.

The ERS modelled the outcome of the 2005 general election using AV+ and found the following:

AV+ would have produced Conservative majorities in 1979, 1983 and 1987 and Labour majorities in 1997 and 2001. In the less decisive elections of 1992 and 2005, it would have produced no overall majority. The outcome of the below election result would presumably have been a Labour minority government in 2005.

Party AV+ Change
Labour 307 -48
Conservative 199* +1*
Lib Dem 110 +48
UKIP 0 0
SNP 5 -1
Green 0 0
DUP 8 -1
BNP 0 0
Plaid Cymru 3 0
Sinn Fein 4 -1
UUP 3 +2
SDLP 3 0
Respect 1 0
KHHC 1 0
Ind Peter Law 1 0
Speaker 1 0
*Counting South Staffordshire as Conservative under AV+ and FPTP.

Why did the Jenkins Commission suggest AV+?

The Jenkins Commission was asked to take into the account the following when coming up with their recommendations for a voting system:

  • broad proportionality,
  • the extension of voter choice,
  • need for stable government, and;
  • the maintenance of a constituency link.

The ERS argued at the time the Single Transferable Vote (STV) would have been a better recommendation for the Jenkins Commission. STV fulfils all the parameters of the commissions remit:

Broad proportionality

With STV constituencies are larger, but each one elects more than one MP to reflect the political make-up of the area. The more seats a constituency has, the less votes a party needs to win a seat, therefore smaller parties are more likely to win representation. This means that the system can be set up to the level of proportionality needed.

Extension of voter choice

Under STV larger areas elect a number of representatives to reflect the diversity and breadth of views in the community. Voters can vote for a many or as few candidates as they would like on election day, either from the same party or from different parties.

Government stability

Recent history clearly shows that first past the post doesn’t automatically deliver stability. Coalition governments can foster cooperation and cross-part working, which can lead to more sustainable, longer-term policy planning.

A constituency link

The majority of voters would have an MP in their local area they voted for under STV. In Scotland, the move to STV in local councils saw the number of people with a councillor they had voted for increase from half to 75%. Constituencies themselves are more natural, covering a whole town or a county rather than a regularly shifting section of town. This creates a recognisable local link and gives voters a choice of representatives to talk to.

AV+ would have been an improvement on Westminster’s current first past the post system, but had it been implemented, wouldn’t have been the major change our country still needs. Recent events have shown that the need for reform is as strong today as it was in the 1990s.

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