Having just penned an exhaustively long analysis of the arguments for and against the alternative vote, it is only fair that I show my hand and say which way I voted in the referendum today, along with my main reasons for doing so.
I voted No to AV and while there are many reasons and arguments that led to that decision, I detail the main 3 below:
- Firstly, on the issue of fairness. At one level it simply annoys me that the Yes campaign called themselves ‘Yes to Fairer Votes’. It assumed the fairness argument as won before it started. The No campaign might as well have called themselves ‘No to Complicated Voting Preferences’. Why they couldn’t just be ‘Yes to AV’ and ‘No to AV’? But that’s not really my point here. The question of fairness is not as simple as the Yes camp make it out to be.
For me, it boils down to this. Is it fairer for the candidate who gains the most votes to be elected (under FPTP) or for the candidate who secures 50% of voters preferences (under AV)? A decent case can be made for and against each side. It is true that candidates under FPTP can be elected with a fairly small percentage of the vote, but there is never any confusion about who the winner is (unless it’s extremely tight and goes to recounts etc). The candidates in 2nd and 3rd place can’t complain that they should have won instead, as they had an even lower share of the vote.
However, with AV it’s all potentially more complicated. My friend Colin Thomas has blogged a worked example (see April 6th entry) of the potential unfairness (in his, and my, view) that could occur under AV. In his example, a candidate receives over 40% of 1st preference votes, yet still loses his seat to the candidate who had the 3rd highest % of 1st preferences after the first round. I appreciate that under AV all preferences, once they are in play, are equal, so that the candidate who finally squeaks over the 50% line does have a majority of support in the constituency (however lukewarm that support may be from lower order preferences), however this won’t strike the 45% of voters who voted for the candidate with the most 1st preferences as particularly fair.
As Gavin Shuker MP put it at the Theos debate on Tuesday, Ed Miliband (whom Shuker backed for leader) may have been elected fairly as Labour leader under AV, but the manner in which it played out didn’t exactly boost his legitimacy, did it? I’m not sure that David Miliband would have seen it as entirely fair at the time.
While the winner in such circumstances could be described by some as the ‘optimal candidate’, it strikes me that the possibility that a candidate who received less than half of the 1st preference votes of the leading candidate (however unlikely that may be) could still get elected is too great a risk to the legitimacy of the outcome. This is part of the issue really – under FPTP we can only estimate who would win under AV, whereas under AV, it would be clear who the winner would most likely have been under FPTP (bearing in mind that voting patterns will change somewhat). So that’s one reason why I don’t think AV would necessarily be ‘fairer’ than the system we have now, where the candidate with the most votes ones, even if they don’t get a majority of votes in that seat.
- Secondly, the issue of ‘broad appeal’. Much is made by the ‘Yes to AV’ campaign about how AV will force candidates to seek broad support from voters as they need to get 50% to get elected. This is trumpeted as a good thing, however I’m not so sure. Part of the problem with politics today is that there is a general race to the centre ground, with rival parties vying to appeal to voters who don’t naturally lean towards any particular political persuasion, the equivalent to ‘Independents’ in the American political system. You can hardly blame them for doing this, but it does lead to a politics based more on opinion polls and focus groups than on ideological convictions about what the right policies should be.
In an age when membership of political parties has been in decline for several decades (an analysis of that here), it is not enough to just ‘get out the core vote’, other than in the safest of seats. It comes down to what kind of MP we want. Do we want MPs who ‘believe’ simply what they think will make them most popular? Or do we want politicians who have strong convictions about what is right, even if it may make them unpopular to some of those they seek to represent? (Cranmer makes this point strongly here) I would rather have a House of Commons with the occasional maverick who refuses to toe the party line than one full of identikit MPs, who will tell you whatever they need to to get your vote.
On that last point I would briefly raise (with some caution) the spectre of the BNP. It is true that the BNP would find it harder to gain a seat under AV than under FPTP (whereas they would be sure to gain a few seats under PR) and in many parts of the country candidates who make BNP-friendly noises would be unlikely to pick up a majority of votes in the constituency. However, in areas where the BNP has had some measure of electoral success, such as parts of the north of England and areas in East London, it may serve a candidate from a larger party to seek to curry favour with likely BNP voters in order to pick up their 2nd preference votes, if they calculated that more votes were in that than in condemning the BNP. (For example, the BNP picked up 6620 votes in the Barking constituency in the 2010 election, only 1,400 votes short of the 2nd placed Tory candidate. While Margaret Hodge won by a landslide, in a tighter seat the leading candidate might find it to their advantage to pitch for some of these 2nd preferences.) Obviously, you hope that this wouldn’t happen, but it would be a risky incentive to allow into the system.
To conclude this point, I would argue that it is right for politicians to fight to persuade voters to give them their one preference on their own merits as a candidate under FPTP, rather than being a people-pleaser who simply aims to be the least-disliked candidate.
- My final reason is on the issue of whether this is the right move for the UK at this point in time. What I mean by this is encapsulated by a phrase used by Gavin Shuker MP at the Theos debate – ‘change is not necessarily progress’. I get frustrated by the way the words ‘progress’ and ‘progressive’ are used in public discourse as weapons to belittle opponents rather than arguing that the position propsed is a genuine improvement on what it is replacing. Similarly, when Nick Clegg describes FPTP as ‘out-dated’ or ‘old-fashioned’, I find myself asking, ‘Why is it?’ We have a cultural obsession with all things new and novel, where things are opposed simply for having been around a long time. Now it is true that some things that are old do need replacing, however we must beware of the ‘chronological snobbery‘ described by CS Lewis that always sees the things of our present time to be superior to what we inherited from our forefather. Similarly Chesterton has an excellent argument on the idea of ‘progress’ in his ‘Orthodoxy’. But that’s a matter for another post. My point here is simply that much weight has been placed on AV by the Yes campaign, saying that it will help clean up politics, avoid new expenses scandals, make MPs work harder and generally bring about a ‘new politics’. I’m sceptical about these claims, especially as AV alone would be insufficient to even start to tackle these problems. As mentioned in my previous post, there are other measures that can be taken to address the genuine problem of public disillusionment with the political system, such as giving the right of recall over MPs, which we should give greater thought to. My concern however is that if we were to introduce AV and these problems persisted, then this could do even greater damage to trust in the political system, as well as bringing the problems I described earlier. Indeed, the fact that the prospect of AV has largely failed to capture the imagination of many of those disillusioned with politics shows that it isn’t necessarily the right remedy to this problem.
I think that Chris Buttenshaw makes an important point too, that the way this referendum has come about, through the negotiations with the Lib Dems, and the way it has come to be about individuals, particularly the unpopular Deputy Prime Minister, is not a good way to go about constitutional reform. This is partly a result of the lack of a public outcry for this particular kind of reform, that the only way to get people’s attention has been to make it personal and, sadly, make it nasty.
First Past the Post isn’t perfect and there are other electoral systems out there for which an intellectually coherent case can be made, such as one which brings greater proportionality without removing the MP-constituency link (as recommended in the Jenkins Report). Nonetheless, after studying the arguments, it is my conviction that while change of some kind may be needed, AV is not the change we need now.