I am surprised that there is the whole spectrum of strong views about the Alternative Vote among my friends and colleagues. UK voters are being promised a referendum on whether or not to adopt AV for electing the House of Commons, and the party lines seem to be shaping up as Labour and Lib Dems for, and Tories against (with sizeable groups within parties campaigning against the leadership). I am for it, but am shocked that those I consider the most progressive and/or radical are set against it. I am a member of the Labour Representation Committee, but was knocked back when I found out that the National Committee had decided to support the No campaign.
To be honest — and, if you are of the No persuasion, I shall grant you this as a starter — AV is not a very attractive option. If we were being truly progressive, we would want a referendum on adopting a system of proportional representation. Neither AV nor our current system are designed to return seats in Parliament in proportion to votes cast. However, just because AV is not the best ever option, it is does not automatically follow that we should keep our current arrangement. When given a straight choice between AV and the current FPTP system, AV is far better as it allows voters to express their true preference and return their preferred candidate, without wasted votes or vote splitting, and reducing the need for tactical voting.
This referendum is a distraction from the real politics of the dismantling of the post-war consensus on the welfare state and public services, which are far more important. However, if we have to do this, let us do it right.
There are three lies that are being spread by the No Campaign about AV
- That we no longer have ‘one person, one vote’
- That it will mean that a ‘loser’ will win and a ‘winner’ will lose
- That it will cost a huge amount of money
Under AV everyone still has one and only one vote. The difference is that an FPTP vote can be wasted by voting for a candidate who does not stand a chance. With AV, instead of the vote being wasted, it is transferred to the next preference as ranked on the ballot paper. This does not mean you get two or more votes. It is still one vote, but it can now be recycled if the first preference polls badly. With FPTP the problem of wasted votes encourages voters to vote tactically rather than expressing their true preference. For example, many more people would probably vote for the Green Party, but they do not vote for them because they reckon that to do so would be a wasted vote. Thus, the Green Party’s electoral support is probably far lower than the true preference of voters.
A good example of FPTP producing an undemocratic result can be seen in the South Korean presidential election of 1987. It had been 16 years since the last democratic election and South Korea had been ruled by a right-wing military dictatorship. The dictatorship was unpopular but still had support of about a third of the population. In the 1987 election, the former general and right-winger Roh Tae-woo was the dictatorship’s continuity candidate. The liberal and democratic opposition to the dictatorship found itself with two popular leaders: Kim Young-sam had spent decades as opposition leader and Kim Dae-jung had been arrested and even sentenced to death by the military regime. When it came to the election, General Roh won the expected 36% of the vote and these two liberal opponents garnered 54% of the vote (10% went to two minor candidates). Just over half the populace voted for a liberal president, but, as there were two separate liberal candidates, the vote was split between them — Kim Young-sam polled at 27.5% and Kim Dae-jung at 26.5%. This meant that FPTP returned General Roh as president with only the support of a little more than a third of the South Korean people. If AV had been used, the majority of voters, supporting liberal candidates, would likely have placed the other liberal as their second preference, meaning that the most popular liberal candidate would have won, Kim Young-sam.
The election of the Korean president of 1987 might seem a little off-point, but exactly this very thing happens in constituencies up and down the UK come general election — an MP is elected where most people voted for someone else. AV ensures that the winning candidate has to secure the support of at least half the votes, a true majority. This does not mean that the winner under FPTP will not win under AV. If the FPTP winner has more than 50% of the vote, they will still win under AV. If the FPTP winner does not have 50% of the votes, but then gets that 50% through second and subsequent preferences, they will still win under AV. The FPTP winner will only lose under AV if they cannot get 50% of the voters to support them. In Parliament, legislation needs to get 50% of the MPs‘ votes to pass, so our MPs should have to obtain 50% of their constituents’ votes to be elected.
AV is not complicated — we already rank candidates in European elections, and the system is used within all three major parties to elect their leader. The system of progressively eliminating the lowest polling candidate and reallocating their votes to the next preference until one candidate gets 50% of the votes is quite easy to grasp. Yes, it is more complicated than FPTP. However, computers are more complicated than typewriters, and e-mail is more complicated than faxes, but they are computers and e-mail are preferred because they generally give improved results that outweigh the increase in complexity. So too, AV is a little more complicated, but a lot more democratic.
If you don’t believe me, ask Reform Cat!
- Lessons from the past: why Tories oppose AV (independent.co.uk)
- Cameron’s limp opposition to AV is no surprise (newstatesman.com)
- Leading article: A dishonest campaign that deserves to lose (independent.co.uk)
- Public hostility to politics will deliver a yes to AV | Martin Kettle (guardian.co.uk)
- A liberal case against the Alternative Vote (newstatesman.com)
- PR Against AV (averypublicsociologist.blogspot.com)
- The politics of the AV referendum: Pandora’s ballot box (economist.com)
- AV is a paltry alternative for reformers | Vernon Bogdanor (guardian.co.uk)
- 12-point lead opens up for AV (newstatesman.com)