The electoral reform bill has passed a second reading, so we will almost definitely have a referendum on the Alternative Vote system next year. Forget accusations of “gerrymandering”, because the referendum isn’t about the proposed boundary changes, only the way we vote. I will also be attending the Green Party Conference on Saturday, when they will be debating whether they should back a “Yes” or “No” vote at the referendum. Now therefore seems a suitable time to explain why you should all vote Yes. I want to get involved in the Yes campaign, so see this as a statement of intent, if you like.
If you are already in favour of voting Yes to AV, then great, but forgive me if I don’t address this to you. There’s little point in preaching to the converted, after all. If you are not (yet) in favour of voting AV, I assume you are one of two groups:
1) People who don’t think First Past the Post is better than AV.
2) People who would prefer a more proportional voting system and do not think voting Yes offers any benefits to them.
I’ll discuss both those points in turn. First, I’ll just explain how the First Past the Post (FPTP) and Alternative Vote (AV) systems work, courtesy of the Electoral Reform Society. Both of the articles on their site are rather partial, as you’d expect, but provide excellent summaries on the two different methods of electing a government.
FPTP voting takes place in single-member constituencies. To vote under FPTP, the voter simply puts a cross in a box next to one candidate. The candidate with the most votes in the constituency wins.
Simple enough, then. Whereas AV:
The Alternative Vote (AV) is very much like First-Past-the-Post (FPTP). Like FPTP, it is used to elect representatives for single-member constituencies, except that rather than simply marking one solitary ‘X’ on the ballot paper, the voter has the chance to rank the candidates on offer.
The voter thus puts a ‘1’ by their first-preference candidate, and can continue, if they wish, to put a ‘2’ by their second-preference, and so on, until they don’t care anymore or they run out of names. In some AV elections, such as most Australian elections, electors are required to rank all candidates.
If a candidate receives a majority of first-preference votes (more people put them as number one than all the rest combined), then they are elected.
If no candidate gains a majority on first preferences, then the second-preference votes of the candidate who finished last on the first count are redistributed. This process is repeated until someone gets over 50 per cent.
It may look a bit more complicated at first glance. But all a voter has to do his rank the candidates in order from 1 to 5, or 6, or whatever. So it really isn’t that hard, is it? Anyone who complains that AV is overly complicated obviously doesn’t really respect the intelligence of the general public, which seems a bit patronising to me.
Without further ado…
Why AV is better than First Past the Post
1) FPTP is unsuited to modern-day politics
Our present democracy was made for a two party system. Look at the structure of the House of Commons, for instance: it’s adversial, and designed for two parties to sit opposite each other, bickering and throwing rotten fruit across the chamber. Since 1832 the system has served its purpose because generally British Politics has been about two parties. In the nineteenth century these two parties were Liberal and Conservative, then in the first decades of the twentieth century the collapse of the Liberals ushered in Labour to be the second of the two main parties. In 1951, for instance, Labour and the Conservatives got between them 96.8% of the vote.
Over the last three decades we have seen the breakdown of the two party system. This is best illustrated by this wonderful graph made by a user on Wikipedia:
Key (from top to bottom):
- Blue: Tory (1832), Conservative (from 1835), Liberal Conservative (1847-59), Liberal Unionist (1886-1910), National parties (1931-45)
- Grey: other parties and independents
- Orange: Whig (to mid-19th century), Liberal (mid-19th century to 1979), National Liberal (1922), Independent Liberal (1931), SDP-Liberal Alliance (1983-87) and Liberal Democrat (from 1992)
- Red: Labour
As you can clearly see, the proportion of people voting for a party other than Labour or Conservative has been the highest it has been for about a century. Because of the way FPTP does – or doesn’t – work, you end up with anamolies in the system. Which leads on to our next point:
2) FPTP leads to unfair, skewed results
The number of Lib Dem votes increased in May, but ended up with seven less seats than 2005. On three occasions – in 1929, 1951 and 1974- a party has secured most votes in the election, only to finish second in the overall poll. This is a system, remember, that its supporters will say should be kept because of its simplicity!
On the other hand, it can also exaggerate the majorities of parties who receive the most votes. In 1983 Mrs Thatcher’s Tories won 42.4% of the votes, which earned them a whopping 61.1% of seats; the SDP, in contrast, got only 3.5% of seats with over a quarter of the vote. In 2005 Labour received 35.2% of the vote, less than 3% more than the Conservatives (32.4%) but gained 355 seats to the Tory’s 198. With turnout so low, at under 60%, Labour receieved a commanding majority with only 20% of the popular vote. No wonder people like Lord Hailsham have called this system an “elective dictatorship”.
3) Millions of wasted votes
The reason FPTP produces these skewed results is because the election is fought within hundreds of constituencies. A party with a solid base in a geographical region (Labour in the North and Scotland, Tories in the South) will always outperform a party like the Liberal Democrats, which has decent support across the country, but not enough to win seats.
I know so many people who are not interested in politics because they said there was no point in getting involved and learning about the different parties. The result of their election was never in doubt, because their sitting MP (usually Conservative, but occasionally Labour) had a huge majority, so they thought there was no point in voting. These seats are the twenty-first century equivalent of rotten boroughs. That where you live makes such a difference to the weight of your vote is illustrated best in the voter power tool produced at the last election: it estimated that I had 0.25 of a vote (I was one of the lucky ones, friends of mine had half that figure!).
This system has led to a number of safe seats: 31 haven’t changed hands since the reign of Queen Victoria, for goodness sake. This breeds complacency, which can be best exemplified by the expenses scandal last year. To take a differnet point: Burnley, for instance, was a safe Labour seat, and because it was a safe seat its sitting MP would not listen to the concerns of local residents. The BNP vote grew in Burnley because voters did not feel their MP was listening to them on issues such as housing and education. Their vote grew from zero in 1992 to over 4000 in 2001 and 2005: a reflection of how much voters felt their MP was ignoring them. It’s not as if 4000 people in Burnley suddenly became racist in nine years. However, an active Liberal Democrat party in Burnley began to campaign against the BNP and for the needs of local residents. This year the Liberal Democrats won almost 15000 votes in Burnley, tripling their vote from 1997, to take what had been a Labour seat since 1945, whilst the BNP vote dropped by a quarter. AV would make more seats more competitive, meaning that MPs would have to take more notice of their constituents. We’d have representative democracy, in other words.
That’s enough about how bad FPTP is. Its disadvantages are plain to see.
Here are some positive reasons why AV is better than FPTP:
1) All MPs must get at least 50% of the vote
Presently, two-thirds of MPs are elected with less than half of the vote in their constiuencies. What sort of mandate does this give them in Parliament? With AV, all MPs will go to Parliament with the backing of at least half of their constituents, making them representative and giving them a proper mandate.
2) There will be less negative campaigning
My home constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth saw some really vile leaflets published by Phil Woolas. Some are the subject of an ongoing court case. In one leaflet he “sang from the BNP hymn sheet”, whilst in another he appears to have photoshopped armed police behind the Lib Dem candidate. These are divisive and put people off politics. Under an election held under the Alternative Vote, there would be much less of this sort of divisive attack, because all candidates would be attempting to get other participants’ 2nd and 3rd preferences. This can only be good for politics.
3) Virtually eradicates tactical voting
“If you vote X, you let Y in”. How often did you see that on the campaign trail this year? Those bar charts on Lib Dem election leaflets – “Only we can win here” – can be a thing of the past (it’s worth voting Yes for this reason alone). Too often under FPTP voters need to choose between the “lesser of two evils” – do you vote with your heart, for a party you believe in, or with your head, for the anti Tory/Labour/whatever candidate? With AV, you can do both: vote for a positive programme whilst knowing you can still stop the election of a party you hate. This doesn’t mean an end to tactical voting, but under AV there is far less than under FPTP. We’d have more debate over which party’s policies were best for the country, rather than which candidate is best to tactically vote for “to keep the others out”.
4) It retains the constituency link whilst being more proportional than FPTP
A key element of British democracy is the constituency link that MPs have. It’s inconceivable that this link could be abolished at present by the introduction of a “list system”. Bearing this in mind, it’s true that AV, on average, over a wide range of scenarios, is more proportionate than First Past the Post. It would mean that the Lib Dems, for instance, who at the moment are under-represented under FPTP, would get fairer representation.
A footnote to rally those who begrudge the price: or a message to those who want a more proportional system than AV
Nick Clegg – AV is a “miserable little compromise”
We can expect to see that phrase repeated quite a lot over the next few months, so we might as well confront the elephant in the room straightaway. Let’s see what Clegg actually said:
Mr Clegg said: “AV is a baby step in the right direction – only because nothing can be worse than the status quo. If we want to change British politics once and for all, we have got to have a quite simple system in which everyone’s votes count. We think AV-plus is a feasible way to proceed. At least it is proportional – and it retains a constituency link.
“The Labour Party assumes that changes to the electoral system are like crumbs for the Liberal Democrats from the Labour table. I am not going to settle for a miserable little compromise thrashed out by the Labour Party.”
Most Lib Dems would probably prefer a more proportional system, like straight PR, or even AV-plus, as Clegg says above. There are quite a few people on comments boards who are basically saying, “I am in favour of PR, not AV. So I will vote no in the referendum because I don’t want AV”. This point of view was put most eloquently by Jane Watkinson.
There are a couple of points to make against this argument:
1) Half a loaf of bread is not the same as no bread
Whenever I read someone argue that they won’t vote for AV to replace FPTP because they prefer PR, I am reminded of this passage from Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn:
An illusion can become a half-truth, a mask can alter the expression of a face. The familiar arguments to the effect that democracy is ‘just the same as’ or ‘just as bad as’ totalitarianism never take account of this fact. All such arguments boil down to saying that half a loaf is the same as no bread.
As Nick Clegg said in the passage I quoted above, AV would still be an improvement on FPTP. I hope I have demonstrated above that AV is a better system than FPTP. It isn’t perfect, but it is a start. Jane argues that a Yes vote to AV “would hamper any future reform”. I’m afraid I would have to respectfully disagree with this. How would a No vote further the cause of electoral reform? Surely a Yes vote would do infinitely more to further the cause of electoral reform. How many times have we heard from FPTP supporters that “Nobody really cares about electoral reform” and that “it isn’t a doorstep issue”? A high turnout and resounding Yes vote next year could put those arguments to bed. To vote No, or abstain, because AV isn’t the reform system you want would really throw the baby out with the bathwater.
2) AV isn’t the only proposed consitutional reform
As Jane Watkinson rightly points out, AV does not help smaller parties such as the Greens. This is AV’s main failing (I’m willing to admit it’s not perfect). However, remember that AV is not the only constitutional change being proposed. Amongst other initatives, plans will be announced earlier next year to introduce an elected House of Lords, perhaps under the STV system. In that case, smaller parties like the Greens could end up in a situation like Australia, where nine Green members in their upper house held the balance of power.
Parties like the Greens, and like Labour, need to look beyond their own self-interest. AV is a once in a generation opportunity for electoral reform. We must grasp it or face more decades of a shoddy system and millions of wasted votes.