This is it, team. This is the big one. The vote we’ve all been waiting for. Should the UK move from a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system to an alternative vote (AV) system?
Wake up there at the back! This is important! And imminent. On 5 May, the country goes to the polls to decide whether to reform the electoral system the UK has used for two centuries.
Last week, both camps ramped up their campaigns. And now it’s getting nasty. In the red corner, ‘Steady’ Eddie Miliband, a thin but wiry competitor and an unknown quantity supported by many Labour supporters and most Lib Dems; in the blue corner, David ‘Dave’ Cameron, a man whose face looks like it was pushed through pastry, supported by the Tories and some Labourites.
Many discussions over AV revolve around party loyalties and politics. Would Labour do better out of AV? Will AV destroy Labour/Tory safe seats? Instead of voting on AV, can we not just erect a papier-maché doll of Nick Clegg in each polling booth and let students use it as a piñata?
We at the DLR disagree with these rationales for deciding on the electoral system. Tribalism has no place in a debate that should be focused on justice, efficiency of governance and political stability. Instead, we would like to take a closer look at the arguments for and against a change to AV.
Those in favour of AV, and the cheap celebrity endorsements of the yes campaign tell us that includes political heavyweight, wide-mouthed former athlete and according to his website ‘Firestarter and Ambassador of Now’ Kriss Akabusi, highlight the principles of fairness, accountability and changes to the political culture.
Theoretically, AV, which allows voters to register their top three preferences rather than just ticking one box, would both encourage a more pluralist electoral system and ensure there are fewer ‘wasted votes’. Currently, under FPTP, there is little reason to vote for other parties in many constituencies as there is no chance they will win. Under AV, voters can select parties outside of the main two, safe in the knowledge that even if they don’t win, their second preference vote will still count.
This aspect has come in for particular criticism from the naysayers, who suggest that a supposedly second- or third-choice candidate could win. True enough, but this would also lessen the possibility of, but not do away, with safe seats, where a party’s backing is so strong that there is no chance they will lose, as second and third-choice preferences could swing behind a second-placed candidate to push him or her out in front.
It should also lessen but not do away with tactical voting. It becomes less important to vote tactically if you know your vote will be counted even if your preferred candidate loses. A Lib Dem supporter would no longer need to vote Labour just to try and keep the Tories out. They could vote Lib Dem first, and Labour second.
By encouraging a more pluralist voting system, say AV’s supporters, candidates will need to work harder for votes, engage more with voters and find compromises on policies with rivals. It is a significant change for the way politics works in the country, and could lead to a re-emergence of political engagement in the electorate as there is no longer a need to abstain just because you don’t support the top two parties. It could do, that is, as long as the current trend towards political apathy isn’t largely owing to, well, apathy and the dislikable nature of most professional politicians, rather than the lack of a slightly more representative voting system.
The no camp has been, frankly, appalling in its campaign. Its adverts have used the basest of scare tactics (look! It’s a sick baby! And a handsome soldier! The yes camp wants both to die!).
Even in public discourse, the Blue Meanies have not always been entirely rational. PM Dave took to the mic at No. 10 to drop a few no-bombs and ended by saying ‘And I just feel it, in my gut, that AV is wrong.’ Well, that’s fine then. There’s no reason we wouldn’t trust your sizeable gut.
But what about the meat of the discussion? Essentially, the no camp argument boils down to this Cameron phrase: ‘It is obscure, unfair and expensive.’ The expense argument is not as significant as the no camp has made out, partly because the figure of GBP250 million provided by them is a falsification (and the source of much of the current acrinomy), and partly because the actual figure of less than GBP100 million seems a relatively small sum for an electoral system the public wants. Particularly given that elections already cost GBP80-90 million to run.
We’re not sure about the obscurity argument either. The DLR puts trust in the people, and even with declining education standards, we find it difficult to believe that voters won’t be able to list their top three candidates.
And the concept that AV is an untested, ‘obscure’ system because it is only used in legislative elections in Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea is both misleading and irrelevant. Misleading because it’s also used in, for instance, the Irish presidential elections and US county elections. Irrelevant, because the lack of other legislative elections using the system doesn’t mean it’s not better in theory and in practice for the UK.
As for unfairness? Well,the no camp claims that AV undermines the principle of ‘one person, one vote’, but this is sheer bunkum. Each person still only has one vote, even if they have more than one preference, and in fact AV ensures that their vote is counted rather than being ‘wasted’.
It is true that candidates that did not gain the largest proportion of first-preference votes could eventually win, but that could be viewed as more just given that it is more representative of all the voters’ desires.
The no camp also maks much of its fears that AV will provide extremist parties more support and publicity. We’re not sure this is true; the BNP does better in European elections because it’s proportional and no-one really votes. It seems strange to claim that passionate extremists are not voting for their preferred party because they can’t win their seat. And even if they are, it would take a hell of a swing for them to gain a seat in parliament given AV still works on a single-member district plurality voting system (ie one MP per constituency). In fact, it’s easier for the BNP to win a seat under the FPTP system, which may be why the BNP are opposing AV.
Finally (phew! finally!), Cameron also believes that ‘AV would damage the chain of accountability’ between parties and their electoral manifestoes, because they would have to compromise if they found themselves in coalition. A bit like university tuition fees, then. But yes, it is possible that AV would lead to more coalitions if the election were to be close. This could theoretically mean weaker governments, although it probably won’t be as unstable as Italy and Israel, where proportional representation creates unstable coalition governments.
Ultimately, though, the DLR believes this is a risk worth taking for a system that will deliver more representative government, greater pluralism and could reinvigorate the political culture and engagement.