Why I’ll probably vote No on AV

Picture of British polling station at the West Hampstead Community Hall, which is not apparently wheelchair accessibleNext month we will be having a referendum in this country on whether to change our method of electing MPs from the traditional “first past the post”, in which the candidate with the single biggest share of the vote gets the seat, even if that share is much less than 50%, to the “alternative vote” system, in which candidates are ranked in order of preference, and if no single candidate wins on the basis of first preferences, then second preferences and then third, and so on, are taken into account until one candidate wins. This does not result in proportional representation; rather, it aims to simply rectify that one problem with our present voting system.

The referendum was a condition of the Liberal Democrats joining the coalition with the Tories, as is the bill to “restore freedoms” that has been going through Parliament recently. The Tories simply were not willing to countenance any other type of electoral reform, such as the Single Transferable Vote, in which the single-member constituency is replaced with larger constituencies with multiple members. The Electoral Reform Society has an explanation of the system, in which it calls it the best system for ensuring a single winner, as in a presidential election, and it is used in most student unions, for Labour and Lib Dem leadership elections, in the Australian House of Representatives, in many American municipal elections, and for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

However, Parliament is not a single-winner election; there are hundreds of seats, whatever system we use. A common argument in favour of both First Past the Post and Alternative Vote is that it maintains the “historic link” between the member and his constituents; Andrew Rawnsley makes this argument in today’s Observer. I regard this as a myth; an MP in a single-member constituency need only listen to those constituents he regards as his clients, or those from groups among his constituents whose votes he hopes to attract, rather than those he knows will not vote for him anyway. Some MPs have openly said they do not run constituency surgeries (such as the late Alan Clark), and if the MP secures a cabinet position, he will not be able to vote or speak in the interests of his constituents if it clashes with government policy without risking losing his job, and taking a pay cut. A multi-member constituency means that a constituent has a choice of MPs to approach in the event that one chooses party loyalty or careerism over the constituents’ interests.

According to the ERS, the House of Commons voted to use STV in most constituencies in the UK in 1917, but this was rejected repeatedly by the House of Lords and abandoned (for whatever reason, the 1911 Parliament Act was not invoked, which would have allowed them only to delay the bill for a year). It is already used in Ireland and in some elections in Australia and New Zealand, and in local elections in Scotland. A common argument against any system which delivers any degree of proportional representation is that it opens up the space for extremist parties, but the fact is that not all small parties are extremist and they are all excluded by our present system. Extremist parties depend on other factors besides PR, including the political sophistication and character of their leaders and a country’s own traditions, which in the UK do not include fascism or the pre-fascist nationalist tradition which exists in France. The BNP, or any party formed out of the English Defence League, would not benefit much as they simply do not appeal to civilised voters; they are a mixture of thugs and conspiracy-obsessed extremists.

I checked on the Yes to Fairer Votes website, the lead campaigner in favour of AV, and their FAQ (PDF) says that you actually do not have to vote for every single candidate, which would put people in the distasteful position of having to assign a preference to the BNP candidate, and it would also cause longer queues as people decide what order to put the BNP, the Natural Law Party, the Buckethead Party and so on. It would also cause a lot more spoiled ballots. I’ve also looked at the No campaign website, and saw the somewhat amusing claim that AV is expensive, and that it would take money away from schools and hospitals. Given that we are in a country that is presently cutting public services yet has a first-past-the-post electoral system, something which is not happening in Europe which mostly uses proportional representation (usually party lists).

But neither of these issues will make me vote for AV in the coming election. It’s a more expensive and complicated system which will take longer to count, yet still leave open the possibility of parliaments dominated by one party which received a minority of the vote — in fact, it can deliver stronger majorities than our present system. It does not deliver multi-member constituencies, so constituents are not effectively unrepresented if their member becomes a cabinet member or the Speaker. I also find it puzzling why the second-preference votes of those who voted for the least or second-least popular candidate should be the deciding factor in who wins a single-member seat. I do not think it worth voting for this; I want to see the Single Transferable Vote introduced, and history does not show that AV is a stepping-stone to PR; in many places, AV has been dumped in favour of First Past the Post. The example of Welsh and Scottish devolution shows that, when an unsatisfactory system is rejected, continued campaigning can lead to a better one coming, if years later. This referendum is just an unhappy compromise to keep the Lib Dems on side in the coalition; it is certainly not what those who voted Lib Dem (like me) were voting for.

Image source: Grievous Angel on Flickr.

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