I’m currently planning on voting Yes in the referendum on the Alternative Vote system to be held on 5 May. That’s not to say that my mind can’t or won’t be changed – I don’t think it’s helpful to say you could never be swayed by the force of an argument – but at the moment my view is that it would be a change for the better.
I think it is a better system that First Past The Post (FPTP)
The FPTP system is not one you would particularly choose if you were designing a voting system. It favours two-party rule, and if you don’t happen to support either of the two main parties then it can leave you feeling unrepresented and without a strong connection to your own MP. You vote every few years, the party you support stands no chance, and even if your views are shared by a fair number of people in the country, they are under-represented in the parliament that is formed.
This is an argument more for Proportional Representation than AV, and PR is something I would favour more. But PR isn’t on offer, and I think getting rid of FPTP is a good first step towards improving the way our democracy works.
Under AV, you get to rank the candidates in the order you would prefer them. You don’t have to rank ALL the candidates – if you only like one, you can still just put an X next to that name and not express any support at all for any of the others. But under AV, if your preferred candidate doesn’t win in the first round and is eliminated, you have the chance to express a preference from among the other candidates, and potentially influence which one of them wins.
I find it particularly galling that in safe seats under FPTP candidates barely have to campaign, because they know they will win simply on the strength of support for their party – the people who vote for them may not even know their name, they just tick the box next to the right logo. And if that candidate then wins the seat with say 40% of the vote, with the remaining 60% spread impotently around among other parties, I don’t think that is fair. More people didn’t want that candidate than did. AV would allow those people to express that, and band together behind a compromise candidate that they all partially support, albeit for possibly different reasons.
I also think it would be good to shake up the way our democracy works, to generate more interest in voting, and to get people more involved in it. Turnout at our elections is shameful, and while AV in itself isn’t a solution for that, I think changing from an antiquated voting system to an alternative could revitalise politics for many people.
The No To AV arguments are simply incorrect
I have tried to read as much as possible about this, including the arguments against changing our voting system. Often they are plain wrong, and are designed to scare or confuse people into sticking with the current system (without actually proving that the current system is better). So let’s look at some of them. These are the top reasons to vote No from the official No Campaign website, so presumably they believe they are the strongest.
Changing to AV will cost £250 million
This is simply untrue. Completely untrue in fact, and I am surprised the No Campaign leads with it so frequently. They are obviously hoping that at a time of national stringency people will simply see the headline figure they quote and think “God no, we can’t afford that”. But the £250 million is based on the cost of the AV referendum, the cost of educating voters on how to use the new system, and a huge bill for electronic vote-counting machines. It just doesn’t make any sense. The referendum is happening anyway – voting no won’t change that. And the cost of the referendum has been minimised by holding it on the same day as other votes. Many voters will know about how the AV system works by the time we have the referendum thanks to all the publicity this is generating, so I don’t know how much more education will be needed. And there is no evidence that we would actually need or would choose to buy vote-counting machines, particularly given that Australia manages its AV elections perfectly well without them. So I dismiss this argument completely.
They even have stupid posters like this:
As the Economist columnist Bagehot points out, “since when did we in Britain suggest that the cost of holding elections should be traded off against funding for the military?”
It’s just absurd and slightly bizarre scaremongering that seeks to muddy the debate with other unrelated issues.
AV is complex and unfair
I don’t think it’s that complex – it only takes two or three lines to explain. As for it being unfair, they make the point that it can result in ‘second choice’ candidates winning – second choice by FPTP standards maybe, but possibly with the backing of more of their constituents. Is it fairer that someone can win a parliamentary seat for four years with 30% of the vote? I don’t believe AV is unfair, it’s just different, and given that we’re not being offered the fairest form of voting, proportional representation, I still think AV is better than the status quo.
AV leads to more hung parliaments, backroom deals and broken promises
No it doesn’t. Australia has had fewer hung parliaments that we have had during their years of using AV. FPTP produced the hung parliament that we have now. Canada uses FPTP and has permanently hung parliaments. Both systems can and do produce hung parliaments, and this argument against AV is predicated on the notion that hung parliaments are a bad thing. Many other countries survive perfectly well under regular coalition government, and I personally would be quite happy to see more compromise and centrist policy in government. People say it leads to ‘nothing getting done’, but I don’t buy that. Nothing gets done if parties won’t compromise – that choice is made by the politicians, not the electorate.
They talk about backroom deals and broken promises, but again I don’t agree that FPTP produces less of this. Do we choose our prime minister or cabinet? No, the parties do. Cabinet members don’t even have to be elected – you can make them a peer and bung in whoever you like, like Labour did with Peter Mandelson and the Tories have done with Sayeeda Warsi. Can we control what policies parties enact once in power and which ones they ditch? No, once elected they often change their policies, conveniently forget about past policies, and even break manifesto promises simply due to the fact that the exigencies of actual government are different to the wishful thinking of a manifesto. We’re not used to coalition government in the UK and so there has been an outcry over the parts of the Lib Dem (particularly) and Conservative manifestos that got dropped after the election, but there are lots of manifesto promises that haven’t been met by previous single-party governments.
In countries where coalitions are the norm, election manifestos are like battle plans: they signal a party’s hopes and intentions, but are not expected to survive the first moments of coalition combat. Especially in countries with proportional representation, voters cast their ballots with a view to maximising the dose of their favoured ideology or special interest in whatever government takes shape.
Once we are more used to this idea, these howls of skulduggery and betrayal will become less relevant.
And that’s it. Those are the top three arguments highlighted on the No2AV website, and they’re rubbish. They make far too little effort to say why FPTP is a better system (although they do make a few spurious claims about that as well), but in general they’re leading their campaign with the above three points.
In fairness, the Yes campaign website makes a few exaggerated claims of its own. But on balance I think their case is far more convincing.
I shall be voting yes on 5 May.