A long, rambling post about the Alternative Vote system…

At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead?”

On May 5th the UK goes to the polls again. There are elections for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Island regional governments, and to many (but not all) of the local councils. And there is a nation-wide referendum on the voting system used for national parliament elections. This post is going to be all about that, so non-UK readers may want to look away now…

Despite being one of the oldest established functional democracies in the world (the “mother of all parliaments”), the British are very rarely asked their opinion on the mechanisms of our democracy. The last referenda were for the establishment of the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly, over a decade ago. We have never voted on our voting system before. Where other systems are used (as in elections to the other regional parliaments/assemblies) they were imposed with the new body – there was never a separate question as to by which means said body should be elected. So now, for the first time, we are being asked the question above: should we choose ‘yes’ or ‘no’?

I’m always a little loth to tell people how to vote, but I’m not going to pretend I don’t have a strong opinion here. I do. So I might as well spit it out.

I intend to vote ‘yes’. I think everyone should vote ‘yes’. People should only vote ‘no’ if they honestly believe ‘first past the post’ (FPTP) is the preferred electoral system.

Yes, I know that there are a lot of questions not being asked here. We are not being asked if we would like an alternative voting system – we are being given a specific choice between two systems. We aren’t being asked if we think the current system is unfair, or if we would prefer a more proportional system. AV, for all its benefits and faults, is not Proportional Representation. We are not being asked if we would like more coalitions, more consensus politics, reform of the House or reform of the Lords.

Just if we prefer AV to FPTP.

Lets be honest, very few people think AV is the best electoral system. It is Labour’s preferred system, and the only reason Miliband is campaigning against it is because he thinks it will give him advantage in the council elections. A move to AV has been Labour policy for years, mainly because it increases the possibility of them winning Tory marginals in London and the South East. AV means that those who naturally vote for smaller parties might benefit the larger party with 2nd preference votes. It reduces (but does not eliminate) the need for tactical voting among 3rd and 4th party supporters.

Here’s a video explaining the two systems in question (in case you’re confused).

The Problem

In this country, we have an effective two-party system. Although there are many, many political parties governments, regionally and nationally, tend to swing between the Big Two. The current coalition government is the first such government in my lifetime. It is only the second such government in my parents’ lifetime. They don’t happen very often. Why? Because FPTP benefits the two party system.

Under FPTP the candidate with the majority of votes wins. Seems fair, right? Well, it is. Except that, in a multi-party system, the majority of votes might not be a majority.

If you have only two parties, A and B, then FPTP makes perfect sense, as whoever has the most votes wins. It even works reasonably well when you have three parties. But in most UK constituencies at a national election you have 4, 5 or more parties standing, often with independents as well. Suddenly it is conceivable, even likely, that more people will vote for all the other parties than for the guy wins. And this is even more likely to be true at the national level, on average votes across the country.

In all the UK national elections from 1950-2010, no single party has everwon a majority of votes. The highest proportion of votes was 49.7%, by the Conservative party in 1955. Yet, thanks to FPTP, majority governments have been formed in all but two of the elections in that 60-year period.
[sources from here and here]

That’s good, right?

Well, one of the best arguments for FPTP is that it tends to return ‘strong governments’ ie, majorities in parliament. The whole British political system is built on an adversarial, two party system, where the government is formed by the party of the majority, and the minority votes against majority (in almost all cases). Except that it isn’t. Not any more.

While the UK national parliament is still shaped like this, none of the regional bodies are. All of the others use either AV or PR to elect their representatives, and as a result have coalition- or minority- governments as the norm. So it’s not as if the Brits are unused to more representative forms of government…

And that’s the problem with FPTP; it’s not representative. In 1997, when Labour was elected with a majority of 179 MPs (a massive landslide), only 43.2% of voters actually voted for them. In 2005 they still had a majority of 66, despite their vote-share sinking to 35.2%. This is because FPTP means voters of smaller parties (or even the opposition, in safer seats) are essentially disenfranchised. Only the guy with the most votes wins, so everybody else’s vote doesn’t really count.

My vote has never counted. I’ve never voted for the ‘big two’ in a national election, but no-one other than the big two has ever stood a chance of winning in any of the constituencies I have voted in. So my vote has, essentially, never counted. The reality may even have been worse, as my voting for C may have enabled A to win, even though I would never, ever want them to be in power (because voting for C took possible votes away from B).

So does AV solve the problem?

Yes and no. AV gives voters the opportunity to rank our preferences, meaning that people can put smaller parties as their 1st choice without fear of being disenfranchised. I could vote for C (or even D) and, by putting B as my second choice, know that my vote could still prevent A from winning. Hopefully.

It’s really not perfect. In many constituencies, the traditional ‘safe seat’, the incumbent MP wins with more than 50% of votes anyway, so AV is unlikely to have an effect. And you could argue the AV actually increases the likelihood of ‘least worst’ candidates getting elected. We’d end up with a parliament full of unobjectionable mediocre-ness. A whole parliament of Milibands. Scary.

And, of course, there is the fact that, under AV, hung parliaments and coalition governments are more likely to occur. And people aren’t very happy with the current lot…

Why you should vote ‘yes’

So, there are lots of imperfections about this referendum. It’s not the question we’d like to be asked, and the Alternative Vote is not the alternative system we would like to be given. But, it is the question we have before us, and it is an opportunity to change our democracy, if only a little bit. I think you should vote ‘yes’ on May 5th, because:

  • The current system isn’t representative – around 30% of voters don’t vote for the ‘big two’ parties. Their votes and opinions are largely unrepresented at a national level
  • It’s better than a poke in the eye… – AV may not be our preferred alternative voting system, but it is an alternative. It is a change to something that is slightly fairer, and that change is better than no change at all
  • We might not get a second chance – the only reason we have this vote, is because the last election did not return a majority. Electoral reform has been ‘on the agenda’ for a generation (or more), but this is the first time we’ve had a vote. That’s because it’s not in the interest of incumbents to change the system which brought them into power. There is a real danger that a ‘no’ vote will take electoral reform off the table until there is another uncertain election result which, on past performance, might not be for another 20, 30, or 40 years.
  • This might lead to further reform – yes, it’s a bit of a reach, but for those that desire a form of proportional representation, voting ‘yes’ is your best chance. AV increases the likelihood of smaller parties having a voice in parliament (or at least at election time), making it more likely that the question of electoral reform could return in the near future. Also, a successful implementation of AV would make it harder for naysayers to argue that the public can’t handle further change.

But isn’t Coalition politics a bad thing?

A lot of people seem to dislike the current coalition government. They are especially pissed off at a certain Mr Clegg for going into government with the Big Blue Toff Mr David Cameron. They think that was a bad idea, and are feeling a little hurt and disenchanted.

Fair enough. If you vote oranges and get apples, you have a right to feel a little peeved, especially if the leader of oranges has helped the apples form a government. But voting against AV in the referendum because you’re feeling narked? Grow up!

Voting against all coalitions because you dislike this one is a little daft, don’t you think? Especially as, if this coalition hadn’t happened, all you would have had was a minority apple government, which isn’t much better (and could have been worse).

Coalition government actually works very well all over the world. It works in Scotland, and Wales and incredibly, unprecedentedly successfully in Northern Ireland, where it is ensuring peace and stability after generations of conflict. It is the norm in most European nations. Coalitions mean that the full desires of any one party are unlikely to occur, but a moderate mix of policies from all coalition parties are likely instead. Which doesn’t seem so bad, does it? We’re just not that used to it, yet.

As peeved as you are with Mr Clegg, remember that next time it could be Lib-Lab, or Lab-Green (or even Lab-Tory). And that at the next general election, it is very likely that the Very Annoyed Students of Sheffield will see him lose his seat anyway. Be careful, when choosing how to vote, that you don’t end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

But won’t AV be very expensive?

No. No-one who knows about these things expects AV to cost any appreciable amount more than FPTP. Only idiots and scaremongers think otherwise.

Isn’t AV more confusing?

Really? You really think that putting a 1, 2 or 3 beside a candidates name is more confusing than putting an X? You already do it in regional elections, European elections, mayoral elections… All the confusion is with the counters, and I think they are paid well enough to know what they are doing.

Isn’t AV a championing of mediocrity?

So one friend has argued. Um, maybe. But I for one don’t think that’s a bad thing. I would rather have a moderate, cautious middle in power than a pendulum swinging between radical reformers. I think a lot of damage has been done to our health and education systems, in particular, by that pendulum’s swing.

Couldn’t you have said all of this in a shorter, punchier fashion?

Um, yes. Sorry. But I’m on holiday…

Here’s a summary:

  • AV or FPTP is the vote on the table. Of the two, I think most of us would say AV, and should.
  • It isn’t more expensive, it isn’t confusing
  • AV is fairer and more representative than FPTP
  • A ‘yes’ vote opens the door for further electoral reform in the future
  • A ‘no’ vote will likely close it for a generation
  • If you want to ‘punish’ Nick Clegg, wait for the general election or, if you must, use the council elections. This vote isn’t about him.
  • Coalition politics actually works really well around the world. We should have more of it, not less.

5 thoughts on “A long, rambling post about the Alternative Vote system…

  1. Jude says:

    Great piece: you had me at actually do we prefer AV to FPTP: which I do.. Not sure I’m going to vote yes but well argued my friend.. how you doing?

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