Some AV Referendum Reflections

After months of campaigning, it all comes down to today’s voting (plus the postal votes cast over the past few weeks) and by tomorrow evening we should hopefully know the result of the first UK-wide referendum in over 35 years.

The question of whether to change the electoral system used in general elections from First Past the Post (FPTP) to the Alternative Vote (AV) has been debated and argued fiercely by the two sides over the past few months, with plenty of mudslinging and personal attacks along the way.  The political reality of the referendum is that it was never going to be just a question of weighing up the merits of one system versus the other.  For a start, the decision to hold the referendum was a concession to the Liberal Democrats made during the negotiations that led to the formation of the Coalition government this time last year.  This, coupled with the plunge in popularity suffered by the Lib Dems generally, and Nick Clegg particularly, has meant that the question of electoral reform is closely tied in to the precarious relationship between the two coalition parties.  Add into this the somewhat shaky start to Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour party and the fact that a majority of Labour MPs disagree with his ‘Yes to AV’ stance, this whole issue is a minefield of party politics, bruised egos and personality clashes.

Undoubtedly, whichever way the vote goes, the next few weeks will be dominated by the political fallout of the vote and the recriminations will be bitter indeed.  However, as it stands now, with just over 2 hours to go until the polls shut, the question that is most relevant right now is the referendum question itself, which (in case you weren’t aware) is:

“Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the ‘alternative vote’ system instead of the current ‘first past the post’ system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?”

All I want to do is provide a brief (well, brief-ish) evaluation of what the ‘Yes to AV’ and ‘No to AV’ camps say are their five best arguments, as taken from this BBC’s article.
Firstly, to the arguments in favour of changing to AV:

1. AV makes MPs work harder

The claim is made that since prospective MPs have to aim to get 50% of the vote in their constituency, they will have to work harder and extend their appeal to a broader audience.
There is certainly some merit to this argument, however the way it has been translated into the Yes’ campaigns advertising is to imply that MPs are inherently lazy and corrupt and need to be constantly kept in check by their electorate.  This conveniently plays into the public’s mistrust of MPs following the expenses scandal, but is it fair?  I hardly think so.  There may of course be MPs who could work harder and do better, but to tar them all with the same brush merely serves, in my view, to further weaken public trust in the political system at a time when it’s already at a very low ebb.
Further, I’m not convinced that the link between needing 50% of voters’ preferences and MPs working harder is strong enough to be a significant factor.  (Giving votes the right of recall on their MPs however would be an effective way of removing MPs who had lost the confidence of their constituents).  Besides, as has been pointed out as well, once the election has happened, MPs represent ALL their constituents in Parliament, not just those who voted for them.  AV is not a panacea to cure the ills of inept and corrupt politicians – there are other more effective ways to do that, the right of recall being one of them.

2. AV cuts safe seats

This is certainly true, that many current ‘safe seats’ where the candidate doesn’t gain 50% of votes would be back in play at election time.  This is undoubtedly a good thing, as it means that voters for other parties in those seats won’t be left feeling disenfranchised merely because they are, for example, Conservatives living in a Labour stronghold.  Gareth Davies of CARE makes this point well here and as someone who grew up in Epsom & Ewell, one of the safest Tory seats in the country, I can imagine who frustrating it would be for Labour or Lib Dem voters in that situation.  However, I would note that ‘safe seats’ are not inherently a bad thing.  Often the impression is given that the system is somehow ‘stacked against’ voters for other parties in those seats.  The reality is that all candidates start at 0 for an election and the reason that a seat is ‘safe’ (and there would still be safe seats under AV, just less of them) is because the majority of voters in that constituency want that party’s candidate to be elected and while you can commiserate with the losers, that’s the nature of democracy – there are winners and losers!

3. AV is a simple upgrade

This isn’t really an argument in itself, other than to say that it’s not a huge change from FPTP.  Calling it an upgrade is to already assume it is better than the previous version, which is a question that is in fact the very issue at hand here.
To be fair, there is a bit more to this point in that the argument is made that FPTP works better in 2-party systems, whereas the UK political map is now significantly more varied, with a 3rd party in the Lib Dems, strong nationalist parties in the SNP in Scotland, Plaid Cymru in Wales and a range of different parties in Northern Ireland.  Throw in the Greens and UKIP as well and it’s all very diverse.  However, while AV would undoubtedly help the Lib Dems, it doesn’t actually make it any easier for smaller parties to get represented in Westminster, in fact it may even make it harder.  If you want a system that is fair to the share of the vote of smaller parties, than you want a system of proportional representation, not AV.

4. AV makes votes count

The argument here is that, under the current system, elections are decided by only a tiny proportion of voters in key marginal seats and this leaves the vast majority of voters robbed of the power to have a say in deciding who forms the government.  Again, there is definitely merit to this argument, in that with so many safe seats, too much weight is given to voters in marginal seats so voters in ‘safe seats’ who don’t support the candidate of the dominant party there can feel like their vote is useless, which leads to tactical voting where voters don’t vote for their favourite candidate, but for one whom they think has a better chance of winning and whom they like better than the one most likely to win.  However, does AV help change this situation?  Certainly there will be fewer safe seats, but I can see new problems that could be created instead, for example what about voters for a candidate who gets the most first preference votes (but less than 50%), but who is overtaken in the final round of preference redistribution? Isn’t their vote then wasted?  Worse still, they don’t even get to have their second preferences count, so all the other voters in the constituency had multiple preferences count, but those who voted for the most popular candidate (in terms of 1st preferences) are left in the lurch.  Finally, I would imagine that rather than eliminate tactical voting, it will just create a different and more complicated form of tactical voting.

5. AV is our one chance for change

Maybe so, but that is hardly a compelling reason to change.  Not all change is for the better and if AV is not an improvement on the current system, then change could actually do more harm than good.

Now to move onto arguments against the Alternative Vote:

1. AV is unfair

The main argument here is that AV gives too much weight to voters for smaller parties, in that while their first preference is eliminated, they are still able to influence the result through their second, third or even fourth preferences. I do agree with this point to an extent, however it isn’t fair to say that voters for the main party/parties don’t have ‘as many’ votes, as their first preference vote is still counted in every round until it is eliminated. Thus, all the voters in a constituency get a say at each round of ‘voting’, provided that they have allocated enough preferences. The point at which I think the unfairness rises is that these lower order preferences are given equal weight as first preferences. It seems somewhat unfair that a candidate could be elected, despite having received half as many 1st preference votes as the leading candidate in the first round, being carried along by the 2nd and 3rd preferences of voters whose favoured candidate has already been eliminated. I’m not sure if there is such a system, as my wife has suggested, whereby these lower order preferences are given less weight (i.e. a seat with 4 candidates gives 1st preferences 4 points, 2nd preferences 3 points etc), but this would at least seem a fairer way of redistributing preferences, even if the 50% goal wouldn’t be as relevant.

2. AV is not widely used

While this may be a good argument to show that AV isn’t exactly taking the world by storm, it doesn’t actually say anything about the merits of AV itself.  The contrast is made with FPTP, which is used much more widely around the world, although as Channel 4 FactCheck has noted, most of these places are former British colonies.  Also, if we look at our nearest neighbours, almost the whole of Europe uses some form of PR.  So while FPTP is the most popular electoral system by population (largely due to the 1.2bn population of India), some form of List PR is the most popular by the number of countries that use it.  Either way, however, AV is not exactly a world leader in the electoral system charts.

3. AV is expensive

This is undoubtedly the most controversial claim made by the No to AV campaign and one that I don’t believe has that much merit.  Firstly, the actual figures quoted are highly disputed and include the cost of the referendum itself which seems a bit unfair!  Secondly, if AV would be a real change for the better in our democracy, if it would restore people’s trust in politics and lead to a better political climate in this country, then it would probably be worth the cost.  The argument as to whether it is indeed worth the cost is to be decided on other grounds than the supposed cost.

4. AV hands more power to politicians

This is a point that I thought was well put by Labour MP Gavin Shuker at the Theos-sponsored ‘AV – The Great Debate’ event this Tuesday.  He argued that since AV would likely lead to more coalitions in the future (not a given, but since the Lib Dems would likely gain from AV, it seems likely), it would break the link between MPs being elected and the formation of the government.  Under First Past The Post, the elections usually delivers a majority for one party, which then proceeds to form the government, with that party’s leader becoming Prime Minister.  However, as we saw at last year’s election, when it comes to forming a coalition, things can get considerably murkier and the government is forged in backroom deals between parties.  One of the consequences of this is that parties can no longer be as committed to their manifesto pledges, as these must be sacrificed at the negotiating table, as the Lib Dems with their pledge to abolish tuition fees and the Conservatives appear to have done on their pledge to recognise marriage in the tax system (even though this did make it into the Coalition Agreement).  While I personally feel that the Coalition has been a broad success in terms of policy, hopefully getting the best of both worlds, with some definite exceptions, neither Coalition party’s members are particularly happy at the compromises that have been made.  That link is one I hadn’t thought much of before, but I fear that if we were to lose it our democratic process would be the less for it.

5. AV supporters are sceptical

A striking reality is that many of the key supporters of the Yes to AV campaign wouldn’t say that AV was their preferred system.  Many of them would much rather have a system of proportional representation, but will take what they can get for now and what they can get is AV, so that will do.  You can’t fault them for that, as in reality the chances of getting a referendum on PR are pretty remote to say the least (unlike in New Zealand where they will get a proper referendum on what voting system they would like later this year, with PR on the table as well), but it does say something about the nature of AV that it doesn’t really match up to the aspirations of fairness held by it’s supporters.  Many of the arguments about fairness made by the Yes to AV campaign would be better suited to an argument for PR.

Well, that’s my assessment of the two sides’ main arguments.  There are many other arguments I could examine as well, but the word counter is telling my I’ve way overshot 2000 words, so I shall leave you in suspense as to which way I’ve voted and why until my next post…

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2 thoughts on “Some AV Referendum Reflections

  1. Thank you, very informative. Though I still feel that those who don’t want AV don’t understand that if the person chooses, they can in fact only vote for one or candidates. Most of the people against AV that I have spoken to were oblivious of this fact even though most guides to AV make this clear. Obviously most of the people against AV have either not read how it really works, instead choosing to believe a PM who has not delivered on much of what he promised; or are scared of change.

    I think the whole AV debate could have been handled a lot better by both sides of the fence. People want facts and diagrams, they want it spelt out to them not political party broadcasts that try and scaremonger us into voting one way or another. But hey, I guess that’s just politics.

  2. Definitely agree with you there that the whole thing has had a very unsavoury air about it all. Both sides have put forward some really weak arguments and resorted to mudslinging of varying sorts. Even though I voted No, I definitely find the tone of much of the No2AV campaign to be right out of the ‘nasty’ playbook that the right has become known for. The Yes campaign hasn’t been quite so unpleasant, but I find a lot of their stuff quite sanctimonious and arrogant, e.g. if anyone votes know they must be an ‘evil Tory’ or in league with the BNP.
    On your first point, I imagine that the decision was taken at some point not to require exhaustive voting (as they apparently do in Australia – I didn’t know that until the debate I was at on Tuesday!), which means you have to list all candidates as preferences. The reasoning is presumably that it would mean people having to vote for parties like the BNP, which is both unpalatable for the vast majority of voters and would be politically problematic for those implementing it. The flip side of not having exhaustive voting is that candidates might still not get 50%, but that’s just the way of it really! I’ve just posted my reasons for voting ‘no’, so do take a look if you have time. 🙂

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