The claim
“BNP say no because they know AV will hurt them.”

Yes to Fairer Votes, 13 April, 2011

The background

The No to AV campaign argues that extremists such as the British National Party, the National Front and the British Union of Fascists would flourish under an Alternative Vote (AV) system.

Baroness Warsi said recently that, under AV, BNP votes would be counted several times – thus “back(ing) a system which rewards extremism and gives oxygen to extremist groups”.

Yet, if AV benefits the BNP so much, the Yes to AV campaign asked today: “Why does Nick Griffin want you to vote no?”

With just four weeks to go until the referendum, both sides are trying to shake off any association with the BNP.

The Yes camp launched a new campaign today arguing that AV won’t help the BNP, it’ll hurt them. Who’s right? FactCheck investigates.

The Yes to Fairer Votes campaign pamphlet
The new Yes to Fairer Votes campaign poster

The analysis

To clarify how AV works: under the current “First Past the Post” voting system, it doesn’t matter how many people vote against you, if you have more votes than any of your rivals you’re elected. But with AV, the winning candidate has to achieve more than 50 per cent of all the votes.

If no one gets 50 per cent of the votes, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated.

Then voters who backed the eliminated candidate have their second choice put forward instead. (But it’s worth pointing out that voters whose candidates are still in the race also have their votes counted again – for that same No1 preference). This process carries on until someone gets 50 per cent.

So a BNP supporter might get another go at voting, as could any voter who backed a loser.

But would their second preference vote help swing the seat to a different party?

The 2010 British Election survey (a mock AV election in which 13,356 people took part) found 25 seats where a second preference vote from a BNP supporter could – in theory – push a winning candidate over the 50 per cent mark.

But the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found that secondary votes from BNP supporters wouldn’t be “decisive”.

“Even if we assume all BNP preferences go to a single candidate (which they wouldn’t) they would still require more than twice the number of BNP supporters to win under AV,” the IPPR said. “BNP voters cannot therefore single-handedly change a result”.

The BNP’s deputy chairman Simon Darby admitted to FactCheck that “it would be very difficult to get that amount of votes”.

So how would AV have affected the outcome of the last election? The IPPR research shows that BNP voters couldn’t have changed the result of any seat.

Take Barking, the constituency in which the BNP has its highest proportion in vote share.

Barking is a safe Labour seat and so is very unlikely to need second preference votes.

In the last election, Labour had a majority with 54 per cent of the vote, the Conservatives took 17.8 per cent of votes, the Lib Dems 8.2 per cent and BNP 14.6 per cent. Labour would have won on the first ballot.

The verdict

AV is highly unlikely to help the BNP win any seats, and the secondary votes of BNP supporters alone wouldn’t swing a seat for any other party – going on last year’s results.

In fact, in a very divided constituency, the BNP arguably has a better chance of winning a seat under First Past the Post than under AV.

The only way they’d do better would be through a move to PR (proportional representation) – which would give them seats in proportion to the share of the vote they achieve – and that’s not on offer.

“AV is a retrograde step – it’s worse than what we’ve got now,” Mr Darby told FactCheck. “We are never going to get our feet under the table under the AV system.”

By Emma Thelwell