Friday, 18 February 2011

The Case Against AV

I should start by making it clear that I am in favour of retaining First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) for use at Westminster elections. It not only makes strong majority governments much more likely, the cyclical nature of politics itself allies well with FPTP to force parties to reach out to as much of the population as possible to regain power. This is as good for political discourse itself as it is for democracy…
In recent years under David Cameron the Conservatives have been forced to recognise that shouting, however passionately, at our core supporters wasn’t going to influence and enthuse Mr Undecided; never mind the downright sceptic. The same process of modernisation was undertaken by Labour in the late 1980s when they finally realised that the unemployed of the era were more interested in jobs than in the campaign for nuclear disarmament. If a system of PR had existed in that period then it is highly unlikely that this process of intellectual regeneration would have been necessary at all; more likely, a pre-election telephone call to the Liberals and the offer of a couple of choice Ministerial positions. That’s not the kind of democracy I’m after.
Whatever the merits of Alternative Vote, it is certainly not more ‘fair’ than the current system:
It breaks the fundamental principle of one person, one vote and accords undue significance to the preference votes of less popular candidates. This is because if you vote for a mainstream candidate who comes top of the ballot after the first round of counting, your other preferences will never be taken into consideration. However, for people who vote for a fringe party that gets eliminated, their preferences will be counted; effectively giving them two, sometimes three, bites at the cherry…
A perfect example of this is the recent Labour leadership contest. Here David Milliband led the early rounds of voting, before being defeated due to the transference of votes from the least popular candidates as they were eliminated. Eventually, after leading comfortably for three rounds, he was defeated his younger sibling (who limped home by virtue of being the least unpopular candidate in the race). Inspirational!
The introduction of AV would make tactical voting more likely, with parties issuing instructions on how best to prevent candidate X from winning. This grubby phenomenon is commonplace in elections run using AV and leads to exceptionally negative campaigning.
Under AV, those voters whose first choice is Labour or Lib Dem might well be expected, broadly speaking, to give their preference votes to each other; in this way it becomes eminently possible that tactical voting could lead to a situation where one party gets the most first choice votes, and yet gain a vastly inferior number of seats at Westminster. Surely it is not desirable to move to a system that encourages an emphasis on electing the ‘least-disliked’ candidate, and not the most popular?
Neither is AV necessarily more proportional than the current system:
It is capable of unpredictable results, occasionally exaggerating the popular mood, although it usually makes a hung parliament more likely. Having said that, AV is by no means proportional. At the Australian General Election last year the leading parties won far more seats in the House of Representatives under AV than justified by their share of the vote; Labor taking 48% of the seats with 37.9% of the vote, and the Greens 0.7% of the seats with 11.5% of the vote.
In any case, ‘proportionality’ in this context is a rather narrowly defined concept. Of course, under FPTP 10% of the vote doesn’t necessarily equate to 10% of the seats. It does, though, make it less likely that marginal parties can hold disproportionate power and influence in choosing our government during the negotiations that follow. With any move towards a system in the UK that makes coalitions probable, comes the likelihood that the leader of the Liberal Democrats becomes de-facto Kingmaker. That might not be so appealing to those who opted for the Liberals last year because of their pledge not to increase tuition fees. Unfortunately, the politics of coalition blur the lines of accountability somewhat; manifesto pledges are bound to be lost amidst the backroom compromises that constitutes negotiation.
Alternative Vote is not just unpopular, it is complicated and expensive:
It is often misleadingly argued that the introduction of AV would inevitably lead to increased turnout at General Elections; as if merely changing the way in which we vote for our politicians would undo the damage done by the expenses scandal and bridge the disconnection that has emerged between the electorate and a political class that they increasingly see as ‘out of touch’.
Of course we need to consider ways to improve public engagement with politics, particularly amongst the young, but this isn’t going to be achieved with the introduction of AV. In fact, voter turnout in Australia decreased so significantly following the introduction of AV that they had to make it illegal not to vote! This is an unloved system that is used by just three countries in the world.
AV is also exceptionally complicated, and the Australian experience has shown that the likelihood of a spoiled ballot 5 times more likely where it has been introduced following FPTP. If we think back to the fury of voters in Sheffield who were left unable to vote at last year’s general election, are we really sure that increasing the number of disenfranchised voters is the way to restore faith in the political system?
It will also lead to councils being required to spend more educating the electorate and introducing the equipment required to count the vote. Is spending £90 million and five months debating a system that no one actually wants the best way to engage public interest in politics- when councils are being forced to make bold savings due to the financial crisis.

It is vital that the debate on electoral reform rises above party politics, otherwise it not only undermines the arguments of all sides; it becomes a popularity contest. There is a case to be made to look at alternative voting systems and, while I don’t personally share the view, there are passionate and logical arguments put forward for genuinely proportional systems. AV is not one of them. This will be the last chance for a decade to make the case for electoral reform and anyone serious about changing would be unwise to waste it on this politicians’ fix.
Fundamentally, my main objection to the proposed new system is that, prior to the General Election in May of last year, not even the most passionate advocates of electoral reform had ever made the case for AV. It is an obscure, hugely complicated and largely unloved compromise – deemed fit for purpose in just three countries across the world. It is not the panacea, and it will not address the disconnection that currently exists between the public and the politicians.
Instead, at great cost, increased complication and with very little enthusiasm you are being asked to vote for what Nick Clegg called “a miserable little compromise”; a system that even Roy Jenkins declared to be “even more unfair and disproportionate” than the one currently in use.
For these reasons, and more, I would urge you (no, implore you) to vote NO!


  1. I don't think you understand what tactical voting means.

    Tactical voting is where you expess a dishonest preference to prevent someone you dislike getting elected. If you were a supporter of the very nice party you might be inclined to vote for the nice party tactically to prevent the nasty party getting elected.

    Of course in AV you do not have to be an amatuer psephologist you can vote for your genuine prefernces without fear of wasting your vote.

    Yes you do get a second bite but why should you lose your chance to have a say in the election just because you choose your first preference unwisely.

    Is it so complicated and expensive?

    It is complicated if you can't count, if you cannot list candidates in order of preference then it probably is a bit too complicated for you. Most people are nnot flustered by this idea, and I think that as we are only asked to vote every 5 years making that choice a little more sophisticated than the illiterate X voting is not much of an ask!

    It is not more expensive you can actually use the same ballot papers we use now and count by hand (like they do in Ireland and Australia,

  2. I suggest you study the history of elections in Papua New Guinea . They started off using AV changed to FPTP for some of the reasons you advocate but went back to AV after a GE where half the MP's were elected with less than 20% of the vote and some with as little as 5% of the vote .

  3. "Yes you do get a second bite but why should you lose your chance to have a say in the election just because you choose your first preference unwisely"...

    Because that's how life works. This is a very strange argument to make. One person, one vote... It's a basic principle that has served our democracy pretty well i feel.

    Naturally i accept that this is a debate and as such i don't expect you to agree with my viewpoint.

    The central point that i am trying to make in the post is that this is not the system that proponents of electoral reform have been campaigning for... at all.

    It doesn't even address the fundamental criticisms (which i call strenghts)of FPTP.

    So, to respond to your other point...

    Why spend £90,000,000 educating the electorate ahead of a referendum, for a system noone really wants? That seems pretty expensive to me.

    Counting the vote may well be possible manually, but given the re-allocation of preferences after each elimination the length of time required to count and verify results is going to be hugely increased. That will result in vastly increased costs for local authorities- especially in cases such as Cardiff North at the last general election where multiple recounts were necessary!